The End of Music

I have been turning this question over in my mind for years: How can the music industry be dead? I don’t want to bother with the details — there are Google-a-plenty details available — but the gist is that the major labels are the new Rust Belt. Only established acts make money, and even they can only make money through merchandising and relentless touring. Van Halen, AC/DC, the Rolling Stones, Roger Waters, KISS, stop me any time. These are the bands that are commercially viable. There’s no room for you youngsters, best of luck at Starbucks. You’ll make a great barrista.

The music industry is a relic of another time, the story goes. Yet there’s my teenage son, every bit as passionate about his favorite music as I was – as I am, for that matter. And what’s wonderful for me and a bit tragic for him is that a good chunk of that music passion overlaps our generations. We bond over Bowie and Zeppelin, The Who and Zappa. Granted, he has his own thing going on, too, but it’s kind of on the periphery of contemporary music.

And why is that? Because a boy who takes the time to figure out “St. Alphonzo’s Pancake Breakfast” on the xylophone isn’t likely to contract Bieber Fever. He isn’t going to embrace Katy Perry or Lady Gaga or the kids from Glee. He’s not looking for a prepackaged, marketable experience. He wants something that he can claim as his. And so for the most part he’s stuck in my stacks, discovering deep cuts and planting his flag.

Music matters to him. It matters to me. It still resonates. The music industry isn’t dead – it has simply forgotten that music matters.

Don’t misunderstand: Crappy pop music has existed at least as long as recording technology has existed. Edison’s recording of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” wasn’t exactly “Stairway to Heaven.” But especially since the Sixties the major labels always struck a balance between art and commerce. Sometimes they got lucky and the two collided – The Beatles, for example. Sometimes, not so much (see: Herman’s Hermits). The point is that the game wasn’t so absurdly stacked in favor of accounting.

Tom Waits is an outstanding example. His first album, Closing Time, was released on the Asylum label in 1973. It’s by no means a bad album, but it bears no resemblance to the brilliant beast that we know and love as TOM WAITS. And neither does his second album, nor his third. Three years later on his fourth album, Small Change we see the Tom Waits make an appearance.

That one barely cracked Billboard’s top 100, and it would be 12 more albums and almost 25 years before he cracked the top 30. Maybe more importantly, it wasn’t until 1983’s Swordfishtrombones that Waits emerged as a fully formed, unique voice.

What I’m getting at is that Tom Waits managed to kick around the music industry for ten years and nine albums before he got it all dialed in. In that ten years his best chart showing was #89. What does this tell us? Somebody — many somebodies — believed in his act of creation enough to subsidize it, arenas and merch be damned. And as a result of this patronage, a truly unique artist was allowed to develop. Without some money guys trusting that there was a Black Rider lurking in there somewhere, we’d be down several musical treasures.

This is the major label music industry that is dead, unfortunately. Obviously people still make music, and Web 2.0 has enabled a grassroots indie movement that I couldn’t have even begun to imagine when I was a teenager with an asymmetrical haircut and a penchant for college radio. But a major label (or two) giving an artist ten years to find his sea legs? No way, Jose Feliciano. A new artist doesn’t get that kind of time to develop. It doesn’t make good short term business sense.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. I genuinely believe that the big labels need to be reminded that art matters, that music matters. It isn’t just a commodity. It isn’t New Improved Tide. There is a reason that old farts like me think of music as the soundtracks to our lives. I enjoy a good laundry detergent, but that’s hardly the same thing.

So here is what I’m fiddling with: I know I’m not speaking to anyone but myself here. I may be self-absorbed but I’m not delusional. But I think I’d like to walk through the soundtrack of my short life, to tell the story of the music that I’ve known. Maybe I’ll get lucky and someone will listen.

Wish me luck.

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