God Says Nothing Back

The age of stardom is over.

I was hiking in the mountains listening to XM’s Cafe on my MyFi and I heard
one of those ethereal numbers that sets your mind adrift, the kind of music
that was popular back in the early seventies but is completely absent from
mainstream radio today.  I picked up the unit to discover it was "God Says Nothing
Back" by the Wallflowers.

I hate the Wallflowers.  Jakob Dylan is too good-looking.  But, worse, the
machine foisted him upon me for two years straight, as if he counted, as if he
could single-handedly save music.  But, despite a couple of catchy tracks,
Jakob Dylan is a mid-level artist at best.  And now there’s no room in the
landscape for him.  People like me were turned off and all the casual fans, who
bought "Bringing Down The Horse", have either moved on to the next evanescent
act or disappeared from the marketplace.

Yes, the major labels will tell you these people have just resorted to
STEALING the music, that the marketplace has just SHIFTED!  I posit that the type
of person who listened to the radio and enjoyed "One Headlight" is turned off by
what he hears on the radio today and is listening to his old CDs, if he’s
listening at all.

Who knew you could become rich and famous playing music back in ’63.  The
songs on the hit parade were written by plain-looking people in offices.  The
performers were attractive, but not only did they not write the tunes they sang,
they didn’t play on them either.  Rather, there was an infrastructure of
session players who performed the hits.

Then came the Beatles.

But really, then came Led Zeppelin.  The Beatles only made money because they
sold SO many records, their deal was terrible.  But Peter Grant turned
touring into a money-making machine.  Suddenly, everybody had a Zeppelin album
and wanted to see the band, if they could get a ticket.  There was a mania in the
early seventies that ultimately caused all the indie labels to be purchased by
conglomerates, there was just TOO MUCH MONEY INVOLVED, record labels were CASH MACHINES!

And the present owners expect them to continue to be.

But the landscape has changed.  You see, we used to live in a narrow society.
 There were a limited number of radio stations, an independent couldn’t get
his record in the store, concomitantly, with the advent of MTV a successful
record could sell in excess of TEN MILLION copies.  Yup, they created an award
they haven’t used in years, the DIAMOND certification, to commemorate this. 
But, the people selling all the records, acts like the Wallflowers, they weren’t
outgrowths of Led Zeppelin, they were made not for music, but for MONEY!  The
game changed.  Instead of discovering a good band and trying to find a market
for their music, now it was about finding music that fit the MARKETPLACE! 
Music that not only MTV and radio would play, but that would appeal to the people
who purchased the ten million records.  A shifting crowd that followed trends
and were not true music fans.  But, suddenly, after creating blander and
blander material, and genre-specific material like rap that a great percentage of
the audience didn’t enjoy, and the outlets, interested in money too and only
exposing a few records, the audience tuned out.  Music wasn’t for them.  Yes,
even though nothing reaches you like a great record, the records weren’t great,
it was more fun to play videogames, watch DVDs, go snowboarding.

The solution to this problem put forth by the major labels is to find MORE
potentially broad-based acts and SHOVE THEM DOWN OUR THROAT!  Major label
priorities appear on "Today", in "People".  They’re two-dimensional.  They’re the
OPPOSITE of what was sold in decades yore.  You wanted to know the musicians
because of the music they MADE, not vice versa.

But those days are returning.

This week "Rebel Sweetheart" sold 6,019 copies.  Down from 7,964 the week
before.  It slid from number 128 to 186.  And, before that, it was number 95. 
And the record was only released on May 24th.  Obviously the band doesn’t have
much of a hard core fan base.  And why should they?  Who believes in a pretty
boy band that you couldn’t AVOID for YEARS!  Used to be the opposite.  You
played for fans, hoping you could hit the mainstream.  It was about establishing a
base.  But major labels can’t be bothered with a base, they’ve got to sell
two million copies out of the box, they call that artist development.  That’s
sales history, there’s no development involved.

But, the irony is, "God Says Nothing Back" is pretty good.

Not that you’ll hear it on terrestrial radio.  Not that you can check it out
P2P unless you’re really dedicated.  The services are OVERLOADED with spoofs. 
THINK about that, Interscope is doing its damndest to keep the public from
discovering a stiff record.  They want millions to rush out and BUY it.

There will always be a handful of stars.  But that’s all, a handful.  We live
in a decentralized society.  An almost tower of babel society.  Where
everybody’s into different things.  It doesn’t make economic sense to invest a
million dollars swinging for the fences when the odds of success are infinitesimal. 
But this is what the major labels are doing, in some weird imitation of the
National Hockey League.  Not understanding that the audience is declining and
the numbers don’t work.

If you want to be rich and famous, I’d recommend you study "Us".  Go hang out
at the places they feature, mingle with the stars in its pages.  It’s an
easier route than trying to make it through music.  No, you should only play music
if that’s your calling, if that’s truly what you want to do, if you want to
make a LIVING!

The music scene is healthy.  But it’s not the major label music scene, nor
the shed scene.  People turned off by the system are finding out about acts that
write and perform their own material, who speak from the heart.  And they’re
going to see these acts in small venues.  It’s like it’s been for centuries,
except that via Net word of mouth, you can be known outside of your own village.

The major label paradigm is broken.  It’s even worse than network TV. 
Instead of being on a cable system of a couple of hundred channels, they’re in a
marketplace where EVERYBODY can make and distribute a record…just go to
cdbaby.com if you doubt me.  And the people making these records have different
goals from Ashlee Simpson.  It’s about making a personal statement, not getting
rich, certainly not about being famous.  Sure, some of these people will break
through, become the equivalent of platinum artists, but this will come AFTER
years of playing.  Meanwhile, the majors are spending millions to reach an
audience that doesn’t exist.

In the future, music lovers will own the equivalent of record labels with the
sole goal of turning the public on to great music.  Unless the majors adopt
this strategy, they’re doomed.  It’s not about signing indies and upstreaming,
it’s about hiring a bunch of A&R people, and letting them sign bands on the
cheap.  And trying to flog ones and twos.  Hoping that the private jet overhead
is reached by distributing something SO good EVERYBODY wants it, not because
they’ve been told about it by the company, but because their friends have
turned them on to it.

Meanwhile, if you haunt the P2P services long enough (ten minutes), you can
find the real "God Says Nothing Back".  Download it.  Don’t sit there and play
it and evaluate it.  Just insert it in your iTunes library.  And sometime in
the future, when you’re listening to your tracks on random on your computer or
on your iPod, you’ll hear it, it will take you away.  You won’t say it’s a
hit, you’ll just like the way it sounds.  Actually, the hit is dead.  It’s not
about selling one song and filler, it’s about creating an aural cocoon, that
people want to revel in.

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