1.31.2006

Bum notes from a broken record

Jon Fine makes a good point about the music industry in his most recent BusinessWeek column, but then tries to dig a bit deeper and ends up tumbling into something not quite right. In talking about the increasing need for bands to sell in the millions in order to make money at the top level (either for themselves or for their labels), he rightly cites the fact that there are fewer guaranteed multi-platinum sellers these days. But he goes on to say that the structure that once led to such second-tier hitmakers as Grand Funk Railroad and Foghat is no more.

"This type of band no longer exists and neither do the conditions that fostered their ascent," he writes. He goes on to lament the demise of rock radio, the splintering of genres and the spiraling cost of arena rock shows. And then... well, he doesn't really make a point or end on one. But, by supplying oneself that which is not there, it's clear his ode to days gone by is meant to suggest that things are worse today.

In fact, that's far from the truth. Thanks to the very fragmentation he laments, and rapid advances in technology, there is more and better music than ever before. Artists on the tier just below superstars today are just as popular and successful as Grand Funk was in its day, and there surely are conditions in place today that make that possible. The mainstream airwaves? They're gone, commodified in a marketplace that has long favored style over substance. Get over it. Mom and pop record stores are nearly gone, too, and as a digression, that's one never-ending eulogy I'm tired of hearing. A discussion that has arisen recently over independent labels somewhat naively signing off on a Best Buy promotion that found the big box retailer selling CDs for less than what the small independent stores paid wholesale makes this point clear: Small stores essentially need a subsidy if they hope to survive under the status quo. Offer better service or die, because you can't compete on price. Keep employing wannabe punk rockers who look on in disdain when I ask in vain for something other than the trip-funk-ambi-slowcore disc blaring through the speakers, and I'll gladly give my money to an online retailer. You haven't had a captive audience for about a decade now: deal with it.

In the place of radio, good record stores and cheap concerts is the Internet and its various modes of distribution. There is plenty of great music being made out there, and the access to it is so easy that it makes the choices dizzying. By overlooking the obvious, Fine is clearly missing out on some good music. While they don't offer the reheated boogie rock of Grand Funk, bands like the Killers or Death Cab For Cutie or the Gorillaz are certainly platinum sellers that aren't necessarily top-tier. Just a level below are even more (and I'd argue, better) bands. Once you get past the glitz of iTunes, which has become a slightly hip online Sam Goody/AOR radio station, you find outlets like eMusic, which posts about 2,000 new albums each month, none from major labels. The company's CEO, David Pakman, talks about the major-indie split in a recent interview on MP3.com: "When the digital music space first took off, the conventional wisdom was that it would grow the overall music market because you'll have more access, convenience, and unlimited shelf space. But that's not a foregone conclusion anymore, principally because the mainstream digital music services like iTunes are doing their very best to re-create the same things that happened in physical music retail. They're basically selling and marketing the hits. And there's nothing wrong with that. You can sell a lot of music that way because that's what most people want to buy."

If Jon Fine looks only at iTunes, he'll be disappointed to see that things do seem to be worse than ever before. In the push for profits, labels promote some hideously bad music and you seem to see and hear the same sad thing over and over again. But while he's busy lamenting that, there are plenty of people promoting and enjoying a wider variety of choices than ever before.

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