I know I've written here before about my loathing for the music industry (try here, here, here, and here for starters). Many of my views about the modern music industry and the media establishment crystallized over the weekend when I saw the Andrew Shapter documentary Before The Music Dies on TV. Featuring interviews with several prominent music critics, industry insiders, and artists like Erykah Badu, Eric Clapton, Branford Marsalis, Les Paul, Michael Penn, and Bonnie Raitt, the film says an awful lot that I agree with.
Rather than attempt to summarize what the film said, I thought I would just a few key quotes that informed me about how the business of making music has changed over the last 50 years:
"Companies were going public. They were beholden to the bottom line of this [fiscal] quarter... That's completely different than the record company that I signed with. Warner's was a little family label and their big sellers, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, would pay for Ry Cooder and Randy Newman and me and Little Feat."
- Bonnie Raitt on how corporate purchase and consolidation has affected the record industry.
"I got my foot in the door in 1971 when I made my first album... The times were different; you could be a modest-selling artist without aspirations of being a star and still get a record deal."
- Bonnie Raitt on how fiscal needs have affected career development in the record industry.
"The twenty million people that buy a Britney Spears record are not music fans. They are popular culture fans. If your vision is more about reaching people that really respond to music, that's a completely different business than the "majors" are in now. The majors used to be in that business, but they weren't majors then -- they were just record companies. And there were hundreds of them. But now there are four of them."
- Michael Penn, on how radio ownership and record company consolidation have changed the marketing targets of the music industry.
"Today, Ray Charles would not get a shot. Today, Stevie Wonder would not get a shot. They're blind."
- Branford Marsalis, on how the popularity of MTV and music videos have changed the expectations for appearance and level of performance (e.g. dance) for new music artists.
I particularly like that the film ends with a cautiously optimistic message. New systems of production and distribution are evolving, the film seems to say. You have to be careful about navigating these uncharted waters, but it is still possible (with hard work) to have a successful and rewarding career as a musician. It just doesn't work the way it used to.
(I also took a lot of comfort in the fact that I either own music by or had heard of a majority of the music artists who appeared in the movie -- including many of the relatively obscure ones.)
As the perfect complement to all this talk of music marketing and focus groups and play lists, I happened to catch Austin City Limits presents: Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. This was the absolute antithesis of the modern, packaged, pop music event. No one danced or lip sync-ed. No cleavage, sex organs, or bare midriffs were shown. No single target market segments were exclusively represented. It was just some damn fine "pickin' and a singin'" with the likes of Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Charlie Louvin, Dave Grisman, Bela Fleck, and Jorma Koukonen. When I heard Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder with Bruce Hornsby break into "Dreaded Spoon", or the Del McCoury Band break into Bluegrass Breakdown, my foot could not help but start tapping. That, to me, is what real music is all about.
on 2008-02-06 at 3:27 p.m.
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