Music Business Election Lessons

It’s not the 1960s anymore. You remember, the era when music drove the culture and impacted young ‘uns philosophies. Musicians were wise gurus. Sure, they were getting wealthy, but concert tickets were three, four and five dollars. Albums were under five bucks and royalty rates were low. There were no tech billionaires, never mind finance bros. In other words, musicians graduated from the middle class to the upper class and they brought their middle class values with them, there was no one-tenth of one percent to sell out to, and in that era, and throughout the seventies and into the eighties, corporations were the enemy, you didn’t do commercials, you both wanted and needed to keep yourself pure, to align you with your audience. Your career was everything. There were no side hustles. No branding of identity to sell perfume and clothing and other dreck. You were what you sang, and your public believed you.

Furthermore, you could reach everybody. That was the power of Top Forty radio. Which transferred over to FM radio in the late sixties and seventies. Everybody was clued-in, there was a dividing line, between youngster and oldster, and although not everybody was hip, they wanted to be, they may have waited years to grow out their hair, years to get into album rock, but they didn’t pooh-pooh the scene, they were oblivious until they were enlightened.

Today the landscape has been complete shattered, Balkanized, even though the industry and the oldsters still believe we are operating under the old paradigm.

The “stars” don’t reach enough people to have influence. Every act is positively cottage industry today. However, believing there’s still one fan to make, they bland out their image so as not to offend anyone, so they can sell them products down the line. Then there are the cartoons, talking about a fantasy life that exists for almost no one, gangsters and dope deals and other stuff straight out of the movies. These tracks are the equivalent of high concept, blockbuster movies, with superheroes and special effects, they bear no resemblance to life here on planet earth, it’s all fun.

And the fun is had by the hoi polloi. The public oftentimes has more power, more of a voice than the stars. Everybody can participate in social media for free, and there’s always someone with traction. Then again, it’s like a glorified high school election, someone is a star and then the next year’s class comes in and the old stars are forgotten.

So, you can’t reach everybody. The key is to go backwards, into your niche, to explore and ultimately reveal your identity and feelings. This has always been the essence of blockbuster music, but interestingly, once again, the regular folk are showing the way. The way you make it on social media is to have an identity, to have edges that can hook people, it’s interesting that pop acts shave those off, ultimately leaving them without influence.

And the audience no longer looks to musicians for messages. Of course, there are the bottom-feeders, but they’re no different from Kellogg or Post advertising cereal on television so kids will force their parents to buy it. There’s no thinking involved. And as soon as someone can think, they want to be an entrepreneur. Business has replaced music as the goal, unless you’re from the lower class, have received a substandard education, or are a minority with few opportunities, then music is an option. And the focus is money. Making a living is more important than getting your message out. Music used to be the domain of the middle class, that’s no longer the case, as the middle class slowly evaporates.

So oldsters, boomers, are still waiting for that twenty first century protest song. But that would require acts to create it and fans to listen to it. Today’s young acts did not grow up with a history of protest songs. Now they aspire to be Mariah Carey, who broke thirty years ago. Or a rapper. And in a world where Whitney Houston is inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, how can the institution and the music purveyed be said to have any meaning? Not only was Houston not rock, she was singing fluff. And there’s a place for fluff, but that is not what the Beatles sold, which broke this industry wide open.

So, today’s young ‘uns don’t have the bones to create the protest song. And whatever they create has a limited audience. Ariana Grande has a new album. Have you even heard it, are you even aware of it? The biggest acts in the business are sideshows, with a self-hyping industry little different from the Democratic Party and its media partners, who think they know what’s going on when they patently do not.

Music has power, but you’ve got to use it.

As for Kanye West setting himself on fire, creating a presidential sideshow, it turns out it was a media story and that was it. No one wanted to vote for Kanye, no one took his run seriously other than the press and maybe Kanye himself. Train-wrecks sell ads. And if there’s an ad to be sold, the media is complicit. To the point where non-stories are amplified and real stories go unaddressed. Everything’s about money. And when that’s the case, there’s no soul. Steve Jobs famously said Apple computers were tools. It was up to the user to create something. But for two decades, the public worshipped the creations of the techies, until the game of musical chairs ended, with a handful of technical companies ruling, and software became the game. You’d think the focus would be on software in the music business, i.e. the music itself. But the biggest story in music today is the size of streaming payments, when the truth is if you’re popular, you’re making a ton of money, assuming you don’t have a bad deal with your label/distributor. As for everybody else? Not enough people are listening, sorry. They’re like the nincompoops agitating for manufacturing to come back to America. That is never going to happen. It’s just too expensive. And it’s the customer who won’t bear the freight, the customer that rejects the overpriced local product. I mean who wants to pay a thousand bucks for a mediocre flat screen TV?

But in a world of winners and losers, the major players, i.e. the three major labels, are circling the wagons, putting out less and less material, all of which can potentially be huge right out of the gate. They’re in the moonshot business, whereas this business was always built on singles and doubles, you didn’t hit the grand slam right out of the box. Then again, the home run rules in baseball, it’s all or nothing, and the managers are ruled by data to the point the soul has been eviscerated from the game. But there are rules in baseball, not in art, the sky is the limit in art, but there’s an inherent ceiling, no one in the infrastructure wants disruption, they just want things to continue the way they have been as they spew false figures to make themselves feel good that have no real effect, like trumpeting Springsteen has had a top five album in the last six decades. It’s like watching sports, where the announcers are constantly coming up with irrelevant statistics. Never mind in this case manipulated. Who cares about the social impact of Springsteen’s new album, we’ve quantified it! Isn’t this the opposite of what Springsteen stood for?

As for Springsteen and the rest of the acts taking political sides… Why should anybody listen to them? Where is their gravitas? Springsteen may be a hero to his fans, but he hasn’t had a ubiquitous hit since the eighties, before many voters were even born.

So, the oldsters have no impact upon the political mind-set of their constituencies.

And the youngsters were never selling what Springsteen did, never mind Barry McGuire or Neil Young. There’s no history for this. And why should a youngster believe the words of a musician, adopt their views?

So musicians can have no political impact. None. There’s no framework for it.

Furthermore, the audience may not be receptive to their views. They’re getting their messages elsewhere, the musician has to compete with the gamer, those who rule online, who evidence their personalities. So, you got promoted by the machine, you sang a bland song, you did corporate deals…why exactly should I listen to you again? The artists have sacrificed their cultural power.

As for those complaining they’re doing it right, yet with no traction, I respond that they are not doing it right, because either their music is not good enough, not enough people want to listen to it, or they don’t realize music is a hard game today, where you’re lucky to have an audience at all, and if you do, you superserve it and grow it from the bottom up as opposed to the top down. If you’re complaining about your reach, you’ve missed the plot. The game is to motivate your listeners, instinctively, so they spread the word. And if you try to motivate them falsely, by imploring them to stream on Spotify, and complaining about the game, that you’re not number one on the chart because of a manipulation, you’ve lost the plot. Growth needs to be organic, or you’re done. The faster your ascension, the quicker your descension.

To change this we must start completely over, with a blank slate. The industry operates on the eighties MTV paradigm, one of monoculture. The monoculture is gone, history. As for being truth-seeking and honest, those are anathema today, because you might not get rich and people have no respect for truth and honesty.

Only they do.

Movements start small. Now that we can reach everybody, creators wants to reach everybody at once. That’s a fool’s errand. To disrupt, you start small, with an incredible product that you refine over time. And users/listeners, are more important than cash. You get the audience and then you monetize. Quibi should have realized this from the start, but they didn’t, they were slaves to their business plan, there is no business plan in art, it all depends on hits. And hits are made by the public, not the machine.

So, music has squandered its political influence. And it’s not as easy as going back to the past, because our nation has fractured politically, there’s not a ready-made national audience for an outsider performer, irrelevant of their politics. Until this business flips, and focuses on the music as opposed to the penumbra, the chart statistics, the grosses, all the metrics that have nothing to do with the art, never mind the entrepreneurial ventures, music will continue to be a sideshow of little influence, as it was before the Beatles. Sure, there were stars, there were hits, there was fandom, but it did not impact the soul of our country, it did not move the political views of listeners, never mind the government.

So, to change we’ve got to run in the other direction. Away from the modern construct. We’ve got to focus on the art, the message, sans the hype that is dismissed by most of our nation today. To compete with Trump you must be his opposite, you can’t win playing his game.

And you must know the landscape, both inner and outer. You must draw people to you as a result of the magic you create. And to a great degree magic has gone out the window in the internet world where mystery is history and everybody is fighting for attention.

Yes, not only has the music business changed, but the music itself. And the audience. To expect the game to play out as it did in the past is a joke. You’ve got to first make music believable before you expect people to believe its message. But art is more powerful than business, every day. Art is more powerful than money. But you must use the tools, you must adhere to your inner tuning fork, one devoid of conventional trappings. The business has abdicated that viewpoint, it is far from the garden. There is no new Joni Mitchell. As far as getting back to where we once belonged, JoJo no longer has to leave Arizona to score some California grass. Times have changed, but the business is stuck in the past, to its detriment. It has lost its place in the political firmament.

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