All of you Rock history
buffs have seen it before. The values of Rock music are dead,
the airwaves are ruled by music so lightweight it could be
aural styrofoam, and the music industry powers-that-be have
a grip on the business so tight that not even light can escape.
You could describe the late Fifties/early Sixties era that
gave us the likes of Fabian, Paul Anka and Ricky Nelson that
way, until The Beatles came along and changed everything.
seen this before, right? Or have we?
I don’t think so.
I think the situation we have now is unique not only in the history of Rock,
but in the history of the recording industry. There has never been a time before
when so much was up in the air, and so much hung in the balance. We are at a
threshold now, and the music business paradigm that has existed since the 1930’s
is shifting. It’s ultimately good for the recording artists that this is happening,
but inevitably there will be some fall out. The established pillars of the music
business are attempting to fortify themselves so as not to crumble. But there
are a few significant forces of erosion that threaten to undermine their foundations,
and it looks to me as if these forces are gaining strength. Let’s hope that
I’m right about this, because the efforts of the music business
behemoths to shore up their fortresses can result in some
pretty ugly structures; and we are seeing the consequences
of their desperate attempt to maintain a vice grip on the
business in the last couple of years. The years that have
passed since the Internet (and Napster in particular) first
threatened their castles.
of the record companies, the concert production/promotion business, radio stations
and record retailers has hurt the business tremendously. There are only 5 major
record labels left now, where at one time not all that long ago there were many.
Rock radio around the country is pretty generic now. Chances are when you are
listening to a Rock station in a major metropolitan market,
you are listening to a station owned by Clear Channel. (You may recall that
Clear Channel was the company that came out with a “Do Not Play” list in the
wake of the 9/11 attack.) Since they own so many stations in so many markets
(nearly 1,200 stations in 47 of the top 50 markets), they have an overwhelming
influence on what gets played on the radio. There are still independent stations,
of course, that do not work off the Clear Channel play list. But the independent
stations that survive are not organized. Clear Channel is a national network
of stations that all play the same music. Guess who has more influence over
what people are hearing on Rock radio these days? As a result, there is little
chance of “regional diversity” creeping into play lists at radio stations these
days, and the sources of new music have been narrowed to the point that very
little squeezes through.
Clear Channel also
produces concerts around the country as they have bought some of the largest
concert production companies in the country, SFX Entertainment being one example.
SFX was Bill Graham Presents, now it is all Clear Channel. So we also have less
people producing and promoting shows across the country, and less people able
to influence who gets on those tickets. Clear Channel has had some problems
aired in the news regarding their promotion of shows, as well as allegations
of corruption regarding who gets on their play lists. These allegations revolve
around the participation of what are known as “independent” agents. “Independent”
agents are people who get records played on the radio, and who supposedly do
not work for record labels. Hence, the “independent” tag. There were allegations
concerning “payoffs” to Clear Channel in order to get records played by their
stations. If this is true, this is just more evidence that the fix is in, and
that it is even harder than ever to get new music on the airwaves.
When empires are
challenged, they inevitably go on the attack in order to “defend” themselves.
The record companies have the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA)
to do their attacking for them, as their attempt to pass legislation defining
all songs delivered to the labels as “Works for Hire” attests. One significant
way in which the “paradigm” is shifting is that now musicians are organizing,
and that is something that has never been done before. The Recording Artists’
Coalition was formed by Don Henley and other artists as a way to fight back
against the RIAA and the major labels. Mr. Henley formed this group so that
not only record companies would have representation in court rooms and on Capitol
Hill. He formed it so that the artists themselves would have an organization
to stand up for them and their rights. You will be hearing much more about the
Recording Artists’ Coalition soon as they are planning a big bash in LA the
night before the Grammy’s. This is a great development for musicians and it
will give artists a true voice in the industry and a way for us all to “Fight
As good a development
as the Recording Artists’ Coalition is, I feel that the true
paradigm shift will be that music goes back to the people,
on a grass roots level. The record companies will not be going
away any time soon, and they shouldn’t. They still have a
roll to fill in getting recorded music out to the people who
buy it. But they shouldn’t be in control of the situation,
stifling artists’ creativity while they force feed drivel
to the ever smiling consumer. Because the consumer isn’t smiling
anymore, that’s what led to Napster. And the artists aren’t
smiling anymore, that’s what led to the Recording Artists’
Coalition. In the next few years you will see big changes
in the way that contracts are structured, in the way that
copyrights and royalty payments are handled (My prediction
is that the copyright laws will change substantially, and
the already outmoded system of royalty
payments will be chucked out the window altogether. Can you
say, “profit sharing”? ) and in the way that concert production
and promotion are done.
It will get smaller,
not bigger. There will once again be a place for artists who can sell 100,000
copies of a record, and for bands that can consistently sell out small venues.
There won’t be as many Rock Stars anymore, but there will more people who can
afford to make music and live comfortably. There will be a revival of rock clubs
across the country and record labels will become “partners” with their artists.
This is, in fact, already happening, and it is the Internet that is leading
the way. It is only because of the Internet that some of these recent issues
have come up, and it accelerated the movement that lead to the formation of
the Recording Artists’ Coalition. You are going to see some very innovative
approaches to how labels work with their artists and to the contracts that they
enter into, and it will be Internet music companies leading the way. What have
we got to lose?
PS-I was in Brazil
on vacation this past Christmas and I had the pleasure of meeting the great
guitarist Vernon Reid of Living Colour fame while playing at a studio in Sao Paulo. He was
exceedingly warm and gracious and we talked for a good long time while we watched
some MTV in lobby of the studio complex. Mr. Reid says he thinks Rock will make
a comeback this year, and push the teenies from their
spots atop the charts. Let’s hope he’s right!!!