Does The New Business Of Music Change The Way Music Sounds?
photo by Zeetz Jones on Flickr
I was on a panel at Bandwith Conference last week and the “Who is going to play The Staples Center in five years?” question came up again. I answered (again), “Who the fuck wants to see a show at The Staples Center?” Do we judge the health of the music business by how many people are pulling half a mill in a single show at a terrible venue? I don’t. Let me be clear, unless your sole source of music discovery is network television and Radio Disney, I hope you never have to see your favorite band at The Staples Center. I saw Bob Dylan there once. It’s a bummer, only fun for the people counting the money.
Admittedly a) I’m one of those movie and TV-hating music fanatics who over-zealously thinks music is the answer to the world’s problems, b) I’m an optimist, c) my professional success is tied to the success of the new music business. So it’s not at all surprising and obviously self-serving I would naively believe these technology changes would have a positive impact on the music landscape, but I do. My friend Jay Babcock (LA will miss you, Jay, NY beware) and I used to argue regularly about the effect of technology on culture, Jay of the general opinion that technology has compromised our quality of life since the dawn of man and me believing basically the opposite.
Not only do I marvel at the notion that a kid from my hometown (Goshen, Indiana, where I used to have my mom drive me an hour to buy a copy of Maximum Rock N Roll so she could then write me checks so I could wait weeks to hear the music I paid for) has the same access to music as I do here in LA (that’s a lot of change in 20 years), but I think the rise of the new music business is actually going to change the way music sounds — the kind of albums that are made five years from now will certainly be different than the ones that were made fifteen years ago.
In 1991 a band called On A Friday was signed to EMI/Parlophone and changed their name to Radiohead at the label’s request. They were told what every band was told: “There’s just a few targets out there and they’re called radio formats — Modern Rock, Top 40, Country, Urban… AIM AT ONE OF THE TARGETS, BOYS.” Radio and MTV were the marketing channels. So Radiohead made “Creep”, a song that both gave them their career and haunted them for the rest of it. Thankfully Radiohead navigated the waters and found their way to become a band who can afford creative freedom. But how many bands have tried for the hit at the insistence of their investor only to alienate their would-be fans, too? Would the Dandy Warhols records on Capitol have sounded different if Capitol wasn’t hoping for hits and videos directed by David LaChapelle? Hard to say for sure (Perry WR, what do you think?) but I think it’s easier to answer the question: If an artist and producer is making an album for their fans is it going to sound different than if they’re making it for a hit in the limited radio marketing channel? In most cases, yes.
I had a conversation with a Nashville-based artist two weeks ago about how he’s changing the way he makes records. In the days past, when he was shooting for hits (he had five #1s on one record in the late 80s), he would hire the best band in town and pay them 2x union scale. Problem is, when you’re doing more than one session a day with the best players in town it gets pretty expensive pretty quick, so you try to do the recording in a few days as possible. Now you’re a great songwriter and the musicians are top-notch so this isn’t the end of the world, you can make a few (soul-less, homogeneous) hit songs this way. But he sees a different way of making records in the future, one that appeals more to music fans than country radio. He sees getting great musicians that are his friends together for a month or more and saying, “We’re going to eat well and have a roof over our heads but we aren’t going to get paid union rates. We’re all going to take an ownership stake in this record.” I don’t know about you, but I can hear the difference between the record that was made in five days by the “best musicians in town” and the one made in a house by a group of friends over a couple of months, and personally I’d definitely prefer the latter. It’s the difference between “Blondes Have More Fun…Or Do They?”, Rod Stewart looking for (and finding) a disco hit, and “Every Picture Tells A Story”, a bunch of rejects making the music they loved (and an enduring hit to boot).
While I typed this, for example, I listened to Paul Westerberg’s best album since The Replacements (IMHO), his (now unavailable) 49:00. Then I bought (ironically, 2x the price of 5:05) and enjoyed 5:05. This is definitely not the product of someone backed by a label looking for a hit at college radio, even, and I’d argue it’s better as a result.
It’s a matter of taste, of course, but I’m sure a few people are feeling the same thing, no?