Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Music Machine

There was a time when I would hear a new song on the radio by my favorite band, and run down to Harry's Music Store to buy either the single or the album.  A single cost about 50 cents, and an album was $2.99 - I used money from my summer jobs to get these records.  This was the case with most kids - we would hear something on the radio, and fly to the music store to buy it.  We would run into the house, peel of the plastic wrapper, smell the wonderful smell of a new record, carefully pull out the record, and play it for weeks, months, and even years.  We would read every word on the jackets, stare at the pictures - it was heaven.  Well, times have changed, music has changed, attitudes have changed, and sales tactics have changed.  It's funny to hear the promotional side of the music industry exclaiming about the newest CD, or the newest "Hot" (DAMN, I hate that word) artist, that they are the newest "Hot Selling" item.  But, I've also seen quite a few documentaries regarding the parts of the business that mostly take place behind the scenes - behind all the shiny B.S. that the promotional teams put up in front of our faces.  They are all screaming about the same thing - the dismal "unit" sales.  For this sitting, I'll mostly be talking about country music, because that's what I'm familiar with.  In all the documentaries, the music biz people blame "piracy" for the sagging sales.  Well, here's what I've observed.  Not all genres are suffering from non selling "units".  When Britney Spears was the flavor du jour, she sold "units" like there was no tomorrow, not so much because she was any kind of talented artist, but because the little girls related to her, and the little boys (and probably a lot of dirty old men) liked looking at her.  There is also all of that horrible, hate filled, vulgar, computer generated noise they call "Rap", "Hip Hop", and I guess there are a few other names and sub genres that all fall into the same pile.  It is just as easy to download this stuff for free as it is for any other kind of music (I use the term, "music" falsely when speaking of Rap and such), but, the kids still pay money for the real thing - the real CD - with graphics on the disc, photos, credits, secrets, and whatever else.  From where I sit, it appears to me that the reason country, as well as most of the "Rock" genres are not selling is because nobody likes it enough to pay for it.  A side - sometime in the mid 90s, I wandered into a used record and CD store.  There were tons of "New Country" in the reject bins - and tons in the used bins.  I could find no Creedence, no Stones, no Led Zepellin, no Johnny Cash, no Merle Haggard, nothing that I would listen to - in that whole store.  Oh yeah, and there was lots of Disco and R & B.

I call the whole Nashville system, the New York system, and the L.A. system "The Machine".  The Machine is broken.  They manufacture, they contrive, and they sell.  They use cheap sales tactics, they will lie, and they will play on teenagers' need to be validated and/or accepted by their peers.  They sign lots of pretty boys and pretty girls who can't even tune their own guitars, much less play them, and most can't hit half the notes they try to sing.  Of course, there are a few exceptions - very few - Brad Paisley can actually play, LeAnn Rimes can actually sing, and Taylor Swift can actually write, play, sing, AND perform - but again, very few exceptions.  It also appears to me that these exceptions slip through the cracks, they make it in spite of the record companies, and not because of them.  Even funnier is that when that does happen, the record bigwigs will demand that all subsequent "artists" mimic these accidental megastars - how ironic, and hypocritical.

So, we've had to listen to these record companies talk down their noses at artists for decades, spitting up ultra conservative B.S. such as, "Well, don't blame US for YOUR failure", and, "You gotta remember, most of the artists we sign don't even sell enough to recoup our investments" - did you catch that - the artists that the RECORD COMPANIES SIGN - most of them fail.  So, what does THAT tell you?  What it tells me is that the A & R people (formerly known as talent scouts) who are supposed to recognize talent are inept - either that, or they are purposely keeping the bar as low as possible - in order to make it easier to sell their halfwitted, mindless, contrived noise.  Meanwhile, they are blaming piracy for their horrid "unit" sales.  So, their ultra conservative nonsense is a one way street - paved only in their direction.  You see, as is always the case with the ultra conservatives and Pop Psych gurus, "Self responsibility", and, "Don't blame us for your failure" applies to everyone except them.

I have an acquaintance who is part of the upper level of the biz, we will call him "Denny".  He worked for me in Hawaii from '86 - '88.  He was a very good lead guitar and pedal steel player, and a decent guy.  After I left Hawaii in late '88, he and another band member who worked for me at the time hired two more musicians and continued to work the Hawaii country music circuit.  In '91, Denny decided to head to Nashville to see what he could do there.  He had a good friend there who was to help him - steer him towards auditions, inform him of what was going on and where, introduced him to people who were connected, etc.  Denny landed a gig in Paulette Carlson's band, where he worked until she was dropped by her record label - I think it was just a couple of years.  He then got hired by Tim McGraw, and has been playing pedal steel and lead guitar for Tim since about '95.  I had a few conversations with Denny via email.  His views are, of course, in line with the Machine - ultra conservative, polished playing, blaming piracy for the dismal "unit" sales, and throwing the word, "Blame" around whenever it was convenient.  He once sent me a link to an article describing one of the sub organizations of the Machine and their lobbying to lessen the royalties paid to the songwriters, so more money would be for them, the record companies.  They whined about how the dismal "unit" sales were causing them to lose money, that it was all because of piracy, and they had to make up their losses somewhere.  I replied to Denny, saying that as usual, the huge corporations were ruthless, were going to bully everyone involved, and take money from the writers.  I don't know what the result was, but the article did say that they (I think it was RIAA, but not absolutely sure) were lobbying Congress to change the writers' royalty rates from 6.5 cents per unit to something like 5 cents per unit.  Anyway, that was the last correspondence between Denny and me - he didn't like hearing the other side of the argument.

As I said, the music business as we knew it has changed drastically over the past 30 years, and the music industry brass is desperately trying to hang on to the absolute power they've had all these decades.  The internet has contributed to their declining power, but they continue to do what they can in order to cover their sorry rear ends.  My hope is that their dynasty comes crumbling down within the next ten years, and it may happen.  I do know, though, that they have their eye on things, and will do whatever possible to clutch their power, but as long as the internet remains a free avenue for unsigned artists, writers and performers to show their stuff, it will be difficult for them, even with all their bullying, to keep things in their hands.  Yes, there does need to be more changes in favor of the small artists, for one thing, there has to be a way for listeners to filter through all the garbage more quickly, so they can find the good stuff.  As of now, it's a bit tedious and time consuming.  Hopefully somebody will come along with a remedy to rid the internet, or at least be able to filter out, most or all of self serving, ego driven noisemakers.  In the meantime, I continue to look for ways to get a fair price for my work.

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