[Another Wirebender-only article from 2004.]
Record companies would like, more than anything, to have this question answered: "Where the hell is the industry, our art, going?" Mostly, record company execs want to know where the money part of the industry is going to be, the art can take care of itself. Artists, too, would like to know where the money is and where it's going to be in a few years. It's hard to make art if you can't find the finances necessary to buy the materials and equipment.
Unlike many art forms, the materials and equipment necessary for the production of music are getting cheaper by the second. Full-featured, professional digital recording equipment, capable of doing the recording job far better than analog equivalents of 20 years ago, costs a minor fraction of barely-featured, semi-pro gear from "back in the day." Transparent microphones, multi-track digital workstations, effects processors, and acoustic treatment materials are easily found, with high quality and low cost. While cutting vinyl used to be an expensive, slow, and tenuous process, burning CDs is something every grandmother can do on a cheap personal computer. Basement studios have, sometimes, more tools than the most productive pro studios of twenty years ago. Go back another decade, to the late 60s or early 1970s, and there is no contest between Abbey Road and a $10,000 investment in a modern basement studio. The basement wins, hands down. The Beatle's Abby Road would seem like a primitive garage in comparison.
From that historical perspective, the music industry isn't hurting either. Record companies posted an gross income of about $500 million during one of the boom years of R&R, 1968, and they complained of only grossing a reported $13 billion in 2003 (up from $9 billion in 2002). Production costs are a fraction of past expenses and gross income is 25-times the boom years' earnings. So, who's hurting in this art economy?
Artists, that's who. Artists are experiencing a declining market, lowered expectations and diminished returns for time and talent invested. The average contract allows an artist about 72¢ income per CD sold, before contract expenses are paid. Most contracts require the artist to sell a half-million copies before the artist makes a nickel on sales. The outlets for our art are vanishing and customer interest is also declining. When the Who's bassist, John Entwhistle, died, several music critics commented that he might be the last R&R bass player to be recognizable by non-musicians. At one time, believe it or not, bands mattered to their fans. People cared about the music and the musicians who played it.
These days, nobody but 12-year old girls care who's who in R&R bands. And they quit caring when they turn 15. Record companies have depersonalized music to the point that it's a simple, pointless commodity. Nobody cares who is making the noise that serves as a background to our lives because nobody interesting is making that noise. Boy bands, girl bands, American Idol stars, who cares? It's all lifeless, pointless, irrelevant noise that serves to mask the drone of SUV tires as we travel from home to work and back. That fact couldn't be better illustrated than it is by the band-to-band coverage of geezer rock stations. Since today's pop music is so irrelevant, we're mostly listening to yesterday's music, which is no more relevant but at least it once had a reason to exist.
All that said, there is nothing wrong with much of the music being produced today. In fact, there is (statistically) as much good music being done today as there was in the boom years. The difference is, FM radio is as ratty as AM was thirty years ago. There is no practical outlet for good music to leak through the poor taste of the majority of radio station music programmers. The record companies get the blame for this, since they own a good percentage of the distribution channels. Blame who you want, as long as there is no alternative distribution channel, as FM once was, there is no way for great music to find a popular audience.
Try to imagine the 1970’s Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Pink Floyd, or even the late-Beatles music finding a home on that period's AM radio stations. Never happen. Impossible. Now, try to imagine anything equally original breaking through on today's FM stations. Equally impossible. Radio is dead and the corporate media monopolies will make sure it is never revived.
The obvious channel for new music is the internet. Until high-speed, wireless access is cost-effective, that channel is extremely limited. Early in the life of the world-wide web, we had a collection of interesting, innovative net radio stations. Slow access speeds and hard-wire-only access killed those stations almost as quickly as the record companies decided that distribution channel was too difficult to control. Viciously innovative distribution systems like the old MP3.com format completely removed the old record companies from the distribution chain. More than anything, the record industry clowns want control. More than profit, more than industry growth, more than music, the execs want control. When they don't have control, they don't have a clue where the business is taking them. When they don't know where music is heading, they don't have a firm grip on their executive suites. Where else would these losers rake in the big bucks if music didn't provide easy money?
Music could care less about music company executives. Music creates itself. Musicians play music because they have to, for the same reason that cows produce milk. While rich and famous musicians have more complicate motivations, the really innovative creators of music that is relevant, powerful, and gripping don't have a moment of control over their muse. Music is a vicious, powerful bitch that is perfectly happy to kill the instrument and the musician and the audience to get the sound into the air.
That's the way of all creativity. For example, medical science doesn't need the profit motive to innovate. Drug company execs and their barrels of money aren't the source of new science. Scientists are, and they are driven by a need to know and describe something new about the nature of their art. Art doesn't know about profit and loss, art is simply something that is pounded into our nature and is driven to escape the confines of human skulls and fingers any way it can.
I think the internet is likely to be the next escape route for innovative music, but low power radio stations has a lot of potential, too. However the music finds its way into the air, it is out there waiting for a path. We just have to be working and waiting for that to happen and it will. It always does.