Sideshow/Main Show

The internet killed the sideshow.

You remember the sideshow, populated by acts who got record deals but just could not create a hit. The list is endless. Little Feat. Bonnie Raitt before she lucked out nearly twenty years later.

The sideshow was kept alive by media, word of mouth and scarcity. Hit fans were grazers, the same people addicted to playlists today. Whereas true fans were students of the game who had a comprehensive knowledge of the entire scene and drilled down into that which they found worthwhile. Ergo the battles of taste. All true fans hated the grazers, and the true fans argued and had contempt for each other and their tastes. There was a coherent scene. That which was mainstream, and that which was not.

Sideshow acts rarely played arenas, never mind stadiums, but they had loyal fan bases that kept them in action and alive, to this very day in fact.

Whereas hit acts’ careers waxed and waned on the basis of their chart performance. They could sell tickets when they had a hit, when not, they couldn’t.

MTV was an interim step. It blew up careers and rained down more money than ever before in the history of the music business. Everybody wanted in on the action. So for the better part of two decades we had a monoculture. And then the internet blew the paradigm apart. We were sick of having so little choice. We hated being dictated to by so few gatekeepers.

And now we’ve got an incomprehensible scene made up of hitmakers with less reach and influence than ever before, and a zillion acts who are mostly unknown fighting for attention.

Meanwhile, the press, like the government, is so far behind it’s got no clue. Posting the hit charts when SoundScan is eclipsed by the Spotify Top 50 and everybody with a clue knows it. Meanwhile, record companies are businesses, and they want to focus on hits. Used to be you’d invest, wait for the outside, the sideshow, to find its moment. But with no one at a label who has skin in the game, with quarterly reports and bonuses key, no one wants to wait. It’s not about investment, but cherry-picking that which has traction and trying to blow it up. It’s kind of like sports betting, but in this case the label has rights, at least for a little while.

So I’ve established the game has changed and the media is out of the loop and the purveyors don’t care, but what about the public?

You ignore the public at your peril. Those who acknowledge the needs of the people triumph in the end. Which is why the music business is moribund.

The people want more music. Hyped and distributed in a comprehensible way.

The barrier to entry in music is incredibly low. So if you wade into the sphere you’re immediately overwhelmed by product. Everybody is overwhelmed, even the professionals. There’s just too much music to comprehend.

So we have to prop up the sideshow.

The business has to pivot to paying attention to a limited number of acts who don’t create traditional hits, in this case being hip-hop or pop, and maybe country, who deserve attention. Playlists should be shorter. Most acts should be ignored. The scene must be made understandable to listeners. So they can dig in and digest new acts, marinate in their music.

Right now we’ve got a free-for-all, a tsunami of hype, and it’s turning off the populace at large. The business is in denial. But it’s heading for the dumper.

What kind of bizarre world do we live in where an excoriated film about ancient rockers is the only thing with universal appeal? People care about Freddie Mercury and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” most are unaware and don’t care about what passes for hits today.

It’s not that we need a farm team, but an alternative.

The music business has a long history of promoting alternatives, alternative rock to begin with. Seattle overthrew the hair bands. Isn’t it interesting that we haven’t had a new sound THIS CENTURY!

Meanwhile, there are endless press releases about this act or that breaking a “Billboard” record… It’s as if we’re promoting the results of the AYSO.

Now change always comes. Usually from outside, from those not inured to the old ways.

As for the techies, they aren’t about music, and this is definitely a musical issue.

We don’t need to promote every act, just a few.

But hype is broken too. Our entire system is broken other than distribution. We know how to get the music to everybody, we just don’t know how to promote what deserves it and de-emphasize that which does not and get the general public excited about new acts and new tunes.

Hell, music doesn’t even represent what it used to. It used to set your mind free, give you insight into the times. Now it’s mostly machine-based wanking with platitudes and boasting laid on top. Try selling that to Netflix, the service wouldn’t be interested.

But if you buck the system the climb is just too steep. You need help. You need attention. Most don’t deserve it, but some do.

This isn’t about fixing the Grammys.

It’s not even about fixing the charts.

No one used to care who won a Grammy, the charts were irrelevant. Quick, what was the peak of “Purple Haze”? “Stairway To Heaven” wasn’t even a single.

And Kurt Cobain wouldn’t do anything that wasn’t punk.

Whereas today acts are only true to the almighty dollar.

This can be fixed, and it won’t be tough. Just adjust the angle by a degree or so and the whole picture changes.

I’m not talking about emphasizing a minor league. I’m talking about pointing the spotlight on acts that deserve it. Who might not fit into the round holes. Isn’t that what artists are, square pegs?

Let’s find them, anoint them and expose them.

It’s everybody’s responsibility. We’ve got to create a paradigm that works for modern times. Lord knows, we haven’t got one now.

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