For What It’s Worth

Why do I know this stuff?

The new version of iTunes, just updated today to 7.0.1., has a feature entitled "Cover Flow", that allows you to scroll through your library by album cover.  If you purchase tracks from the iTunes Store, covers are automatically included, but if you’ve stolen the tunes, or ripped them, the software will search the iTunes database and download the appropriate covers, assuming you’ve entered the name of the album properly and the cover is in the database.

At least that’s the way it’s supposed to work.  But the initial version only downloaded a small fraction of the art for my tunes, and very slowly.  So, I decided to insert the artwork myself.  At least that was the plan until I realized the cost would be carpal tunnel syndrome.

Remember how you used to love alphabetizing your albums?  How it refamiliarized you with all your purchases?  How you visited them like children, remembering when you bought them, how you listened to them?  That’s what it was like.

First you have to make sure you’ve got the right album title.  And then you go to Amazon or AMG and drag over the artwork.  And you end up being able to flip through the covers, it’s such a cool effect, kind of like combing the bins of an old record store.  It single-handedly might keep the idea of a collection alive.  After all, the covers represent an album, each single doesn’t have its own cover, but now maybe it should, with this feature.

But what stunned me was I knew all the albums.  Some artists I had fifty tracks of, and almost all, I knew what LP they came from, even though they were released decades ago.  Ask me about today’s music, the ten or twelve tracks on an album, and I’m probably clueless.

But it’s not only me.  We boomers are coasting on the smoke of a long gone generation, when music was king, when music drove the culture, when you needed to know this stuff.

I now know this kind of stuff about computers.  I can not only run you through the history of Apple Computer, each and every model, both successful, like the Apple II, and unsuccessful, like the Lisa, named after Steve Jobs’ first child and ultimately renamed the Mac XL, but each iteration of the Intel chips used in what used to be known as IBM-compatible computers and then were referred to as Wintel machines and are now known just as PCs.

I didn’t take a college course, I didn’t study this stuff, there was no effort involved, I accumulated this depth of knowledge because I was interested.  There are not enough people interested in knowing music to this depth today.

The exception is hip-hop.  I envy the music’s fans.  That they’re that interested.  In who created the beats, who did the rhyming, the history of the producers and the acts.  They believed just that much, the music was that important to them, they built up this knowledge through pure desire.  Not that the mainstream business was hip to this for eons.  And once execs did realize and understood the culture, they bastardized it, removing the essence that got people interested to begin with.  Hip-hop wasn’t about booty-shaking girls in videos on MTV surrounding a rapper uttering inanities, it was a direct expression of life in the inner city, the black person’s plight, and it was this raw honesty that attracted not only those of similar circumstances, but white suburbanites too, because of its tuning fork veracity.

There’s ONLY honesty in computers.  Because they’re based on math.  And there’s only one answer in the 0’s and 1’s digital world.  But there’s no soul.  There’s only soul in what comes OUT of the machines.  Music comes out of Pro Tools rigs all over the world, yet most of it just doesn’t affect people the way it used to.

Now I don’t think we can go back to the sixties, or even the seventies, when a young person was limited to expressing himself in music.  Sure, musicians were interested in getting laid and rich, but the process was so much more basic.  You had to know how to play.  And you had to write resonant material.  And you were successful only on this basis.  There was no television exploitation.  You made it on your talent and wits.

Eventually "Rolling Stone" gathered critical mass and the younger generation made some of the best movies of all time, but when corporate America started paying attention, there was implosion.  We ended up with corporate rock, and then disco.  And it’s never been the same since.  Music was an outsider’s medium, a revolution.  MTV only worked if it was considered mainstream.  That’s what TV demands, a lot of eyeballs.

And movies were changed by the "Jaws"/"Star Wars" effect, wherein the goal became solely about topping the weekly box office chart.

And now these businesses both exist, music and movies, but they’re not where it’s at, where it’s happening, and people aren’t paying attention.  Oh, I know that’s an overstatement.  But the shift in public attitude is important.

The music business used to be like the Internet.  Everybody was forming bands, there was a new act from the U.K. seemingly every week, there was no formula.  Now we’ve only got formula.  The essence has been lost.

It can’t be regained under the present system.  The corporate owners of the labels won’t allow it.  These are cash-generating businesses that report to Wall Street.  This is not Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss deciding to plow all their revenue back into A&M Records.  It’s certainly not Chris Blackwell smoking ganja and turning a Jamaican reggae musician into a worldwide rock star through sheer will.  The people element is gone from the business.  It’s no longer seat of the pants, but a consult Excel business.

It’s not about stopping P2P theft, it’s not even about discovering new acts.  The business is missing an element that makes everybody stand up and say wow.  It was the Beatles, then Led Zeppelin, then MTV and finally Napster.  Napster was killed and so went the business.  Because Napster allowed one to not only get tons of music for free, but download live takes of your favorite bands.  There was a sense of discovery, an excitement, which you can get on YouTube right now.  Before the copyright police have their way.

Music online has been hobbled by copyright issues.  I’ve got sympathy for rights holders.  But in the name of everybody getting paid, of there being a contract for every transaction, the excitement has drained out, people have stopped paying attention.

But it’s not as simple as allowing everything in the vaults to be available for a pittance.  It’s about a whole culture, of creativity, that makes people want to be involved, as opposed to treating the whole business with disdain.

Music will be around forever.  But boomers lived through the Renaissance.  When the stars aligned.  Painting continued, but there was only one Renaissance, just like there was only one Beatles and never a new Dylan.  I’m not hopeful for the future.  If there’s any excitement, if there’s anything worthy of attention, it won’t emanate from the usual suspects, just like Capitol initially passed on releasing the first Beatle album in the U.S.  We need rule-breakers, challengers, not a Pete Doherty getting arrested every week, but someone who commits crimes in his mind, against the stagnant, calcified world music has become.

We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969.

There’s a reason the Eagles can still sell out today.  They reflected our culture back to us.  Unfiltered, without corporate America watching.

Keep doing those endorsement deals.  Keep raising ticket prices.  Keep driving this business off a cliff.

One Response to For What It’s Worth »»


  1. Comment by Mike Farrace | 2006/09/27 at 18:57:52

    Hey Bob,

    That’s a great line, "…but someone who commits crimes in his mind." But your column today reminded me of something you said awhile back.

    You talked about how Apple is filled with believers the way Tower used to be. No doubt. Even working there has analogies to working at Tower in the ’70s. My son Patrick is working there now and you can’t believe the excitement in his eyes, the commitment. Unlike his past jobs, he goes in a half-hour early, just to see the bulletin from headquarters about what’s going on — what’s new, etc. But it’s a lot different, too. The place is really organized, unlike the way we did business, at least in the ’70s. No deals for friends except for a modest friends and family discount, no taking home stuff at night. And, needless to say, no drinking at lunch, which was practically a requirement in those days.

    The store has quotas that every employee takes very seriously. They also think very seriously about floor sales, create ad hoc programs that try to put the unique temperaments of individual employees to work productively and generally keep employees on their toes. In our day, we’d have rebelled at that kind of top-down command. But today, the kids eat it up. They are part of something.

    What is interesting is that, unlike those days at Tower when you had passion for the music first and the company second, the Apple store kids have passion for Apple, not computing per se. Sure, it comes from the products and especially for that next thing that’s coming down the pike. But it’s really about the company and what it stands for.

    My son wasn’t even born when Apple was created. But, like you, he knows every detail of Apple’s history, every product, every glorious screw-up and can be even counted on to defend the thinking behind the failures. He masterfully uses all the tools, knows where they came from and always has an educated guess where they’re going next. And he enthusiastically shares it with everyone, including his prospects when he’s on the sales floor. It’s much more sophisticated than working at a record store. I’m not sure which job would be more fun if you could compare them, which, of course, you can’t.

    One similarity is that each of those two companies have, or had, one person at the top, a source of inspiration and a driver of their respective values. I like the idea that my kid has found a place that makes him feel like I felt back then, a company he can believe in.


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