Wednesday, July 30, 2014

What's Wrong with Music? Well, I'll Tell Ya....

It's been hard to write. Not only finding the time, but finding the energy. I don't feel like I should be Pollyanna-ish with this blog, but I don't just want to spew piss and vinegar. There's plenty of that out there already.

Aw, who am I kidding? Maybe I can add some nuance to the grouchiness that's out there anyway.

First point of business: Have you ever gone to an art exhibition in an independent gallery - where you have no more than a few degrees of separation from the artist, or know them personally? And have you ever taken a picture of their work, and said to the artist with a smile, "Cool! Now I don't have to buy it! I have a copy."

Would you say that? Would that ever sound anything less than insulting and inconsiderate when said to someone who's spent numerous hours working on their particular media?

If your answer is "yes, I do it all that time/I would never pay a $100 for art anyway," you might as well stop reading, because there's no chance of penetrating your thick skull. For the rest of you, the next question is - well, why do you do that to musicians? Sure, there are a lot of musicians out there who didn't go to school to learn how to play and just picked up a guitar or bass or something and decided to do it. But they, or someone who believes in their work, decided to pony up a serious amount of cash to put out their music. And maybe they aren't in it to get rich, but they should get some kind of return on their efforts for a job well done. It's become clear that streaming sites have become the new go-to for music now, and with the further death of the tactile listening experience, they've become more of the standard. Musicians, who weren't getting rich in the first place, are getting little more than a bone for their efforts. That's everyone from David Byrne to Marc Ribot to Sean Lally. And some of these musicians DID put in a lot of equity (sweat or otherwise) into their work.

About 12 years ago, I did a piece for InPgh about Napster, where I asked a bunch of local musicians for their position on the topic, and printed their block quotes. People like Justin Sane from Anti-Flag and Michael Kastelic from the Cynics seemed to think sites like Napster weren't completely evil because it helped get music out to people who wouldn't normally hear it. At the time, I took a stance closer to that too. Paul from Pauls CD's (which has morphed into Sound Cat) said that a lot of customers would come in his store looking for things that they heard on Napster and would buy it.

But times change. Paul got out of the business a few years ago. (I'm not going to speculate why, but you have to wonder about that.) In the intervening years, Pandora and Spotify have sprouted up, and there's a good chance you can hear a song on youtube if you look it up. There are always going to be those people who loooove music and will go to a record store (or an online store, but that's another matter) to pick up a CD. Or an album. Or they'll buy a download from a touring musician. But those numbers are dwindling. Like I said, the listening experience has really changed over that time and my thoughts have too.

 I know plenty of 40-something folks who feel like they don't have time to invest or really care about exploring albums anymore. Just shrug your shoulders, say "Oh well," and listen to the new Wye Oak single on Spotify. Or never mind a band like that which might require more concentration. You keep hearing about Pharrell Williams, so why not just listen to that song so you know what all the fuss is about? And it's a hit anyway, so it's okay if he just gets the equivalent of a few pennies from me.

Do I have a solution? Well, not exactly. I could suggest that you all go out and buy a couple new CD/albums, and remember the good old days when we all had time to sit in our bedrooms and brood while [fill in the blank with the name of your favorite band when you were 18] played on the stereo. Then again, how many people listen to music on something resembling a old-fashioned receiver/speakers/turntable/disc player/hi-fi system anyhow. Isn't it just a couple of piddly-to-decent speakers in front of the computer? Or something in your ears when you're getting coffee?

But the better solution would be to get all the streaming services to pony up and make a better royalty system to the artists they play. Radio stations have to do that, but oh yeah, that reminds me.......

It's getting close for another one of those concerts that's going to make history - a promise the ads make even though the concert isn't happening for another couple months. Yeah - the good folks at I Heart Radio with their let's-put-everyone-on-the-bill-to-try-to-appeal-to-everyone methodology are at it again. It's another indication of what's wrong with radio now. Putting Taylor Swift together with Motley Crue and Josh Grobin and Big & Rich and Hank Williams III and Prince and Clarence Williams III and Jack Johnson and Blind Melon and Third Eye Blind and Steppenwolf and Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett and Gogi Grant and Bread and Justin Bieber and Barbra Streisand and Pink Floyd and Slim Whitman DOES NOT make history simply because you're putting all these acts together on the same bill. (NOTE: THIS ROSTER DOES NOT REFLECT THE ACTUAL SCHEDULE OF PERFORMERS AT THE I HEART RADIO FESTIVAL. IT WAS CREATED TO PROVE A POINT, WHICH I WILL GET TO NOW.)

I don't like to repeat myself, but I have to re-use a metaphor from about a year ago. (I"m not good with them, so I stick with them when I find one that works). This festival reminds me of when, as a kid, we'd finish dying Easter eggs and I'd mix the colors all together, thinking it would make one big, beautiful blend of colors.

All it did was turn brown.

And when you try to cram all these acts together, you don't get a glorious harmonic convergence of acts who join hands and sing "Poker Face" and the best of Fugazi. You get something watered down and bland.


Unknown said...

EXCELLENT "rant", Mike...I think you're proposing the only possible solution left that gives musicians a(nearly fair) piece of the pie. I don't know how accurate this is, but several musicians have stated that they .08 cents for a play on Spotify! Insane...

shanleymusic said...

Thanks, Dewey. Yeah, that "royalty" rate sounds accurate, alas.

Unknown said...

Mike, I think that you might be preaching to the choir, but I totally agree with the sentiment!

I'm still waiting for the awesome band that drags me out of my chair to a show. It seems they are few and far these days.

I so want so see this band :)

and this one (father figure):

best and thanks for the 'rant'.