The Landscape

Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go

"Angel From Montgomery"
John Prine

The future may be so bright we’ve got to wear shades, but the present is so confusing it makes us want to throw our hands in the air.  We used to have answers, now we only have questions.

There used to be amateurs and professionals.  Amateurs bought equipment at the local shop and rehearsed in their rooms and after playing a few gigs gave up.  The professionals got the bug and wanted to go further, they wanted to get a RECORD DEAL!

Oh, it was all simple then.  Upon reaching the holy grail, upon getting your deal, you were LEGITIMIZED!  Above all the rest not only in the eyes of your buddies, but the average music buyer.  Using the label as a bank, you worked hard on your music, hoping to create something that could get on the radio.

But now almost nothing gets on the radio.  Radio is broken up into niches, that play the same damn tracks over and over again.  And, if you’re not in the Top Forty niche, you can’t sell enough records to be ON a major label.  Doesn’t matter if you’re good, if you’re not a rapper, the major has nowhere to expose you, so it doesn’t sign you.

Oh, you can’t blame the major.  The Telecommunications Act of 1996 did the big labels in.  Radio consolidation fucked up the landscape.  Alternative and AAA formats are almost extinct, and you can almost never cross over from Active Rock to Top Forty.  And sure, there’s a Hot AC market, but you can languish there FOREVER and never cross over.

But then it got worse.  Call it Napster, but really it’s MySpace.  Everybody with a band has now got a page.  So the waters are muddied.  It’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff, hard to rise above the hubbub, hard to get TRACTION!

It all used to be so simple.  AOR played a wide swath of material, supported by touring.  Then, after disco killed AOR, MTV came in to blow up the scene.  But it turned out that television exposure burned out acts.  And now MTV PLAYS no videos.  The major labels can’t even employ that paradigm anymore.  Unless it’s for a hip-hop act that shoots a million dollar video, that can compete with the other programming on MTV, that has ENTERTAINMENT value.  If you don’t rap and don’t have beautiful girls and a storyline in an expensive clip, you can’t play.  And, if you can’t play, the major label doesn’t want anything to do with you.

I feel sorry for the musicians.  The real ones, the lifers, the professionals.  Oh, the pundits will tell them it’s a DIY world.  That’s fine if you’re an amateur, but what is the pro supposed to LIVE ON?  If not the advance of the record company, which will get airplay and drive fans into the venues.

Furthermore, a good musician is almost always a lousy businessman.  Good musicians NEED businessmen to get paid and have their work exposed.  But no one wants to step up to the plate, because you can’t sell records.

That’s what’s truly scary.  All those legends filling sheds?  No one wants ANYTHING new by them.  Oh, there are exceptions, but by and large it’s true.  The Stones put out their best-reviewed album in decades and it stiffs.  There’s no radio repetition to drive people to the stores and the audience just wants to hear the old stuff.

And the young ‘uns.  They perceive music differently.  Not all of them, not the musos, but the mainstream.  Music is FUN!  Grease for the club.  Listen to the new Justin Timberlake track, does it work ANYWHERE but the club?

And with P2P, never mind iTunes, people ONLY want the track.  The rest isn’t meaningful.  It’s like we’re in the pre-Beatle era.  An album is just filler.  And with only one track being purchased, the label takes in less money and can invest in less.

And those who do go to the concert go rarely.  Since consolidation has resulted in extravagant ticket prices.  Going to the show is now like going to the prom, a once a year event!  You’ll rent the limo, buy a new dress, go out for an expensive meal, but you won’t do it again the following month.  And with everybody clamoring for this same dollar, the number of acts who can sell out reduces, hurting not only THESE acts, but the promoters.  In the not too distant future, on sale dates for the summer will be before Christmas.  To beat the other acts to the marketplace, to get some of those dollars in the coffer before the audience SPENDS IT!

So, we have a touring land of haves and have nots. Those who can command in excess of a hundred dollars a ticket, and those who can barely play anywhere.  Because no one knows about them, almost nobody has heard their music.

And you can’t blame the consumer.  He tuned out terrestrial radio when it went to twenty plus minutes of commercials an hour.  His iPod only plays what he ALREADY knows.  And satellite radio is a decent filter, but still, they’re playing so much stuff it’s hard for an act to gain traction, especially when so few people SUBSCRIBE to satellite radio.

I’m not sure how it plays out.  But it’s clear the present model is broken.  We can debate whose fault it is, but suing file traders and lowering ticket prices a smidgen is not going to solve the problem.

We need a whole new crop of entrepreneurs.  Who believe in their acts and will find a way for them to get noticed.  Because the old managers don’t even sign new acts, what’s the point, why put in all that effort to make so little money?  And the labels are caught up in the above-delineated scenario, fighting each other for the Top Forty sliver.  A new player will provide the services acts need, while purveying music that is not only Top Forty.

But as I said in the beginning, the future is not even close.  We’re going to see a further downward spiral.  Because with the present systems in place, you just can’t gain enough MINDSHARE to break through.  The funnel/filter is too tight.

This is a read-only blog. E-mail comments directly to Bob.

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