by Michael Goldberg
Monday, March 25, 2002
For The Music Business, The 'Present' Is The Past
Chasing the elusive million-seller could be the kiss of death for the corporate music business
We live in the "present," more so than most of us realize. Only that "present" could be the view of the world we had when we were 15, or 20 or 30. For example, try talking to someone over the age of 40 about rap or hip-hop. It's a rare individual in the fifth decade of life who thinks of rap as music, just as my father never came around to believing that rock 'n' roll was music, or that Bob Dylan was a real artist.
Certainly the music business lives in a "present" that in fact ended five or so years ago, when the sharing of digital files began to take off. Since then, we have seen the "Big 5" (Sony, Vivendi, BMG, EMI, AOL Time Warner) yell and scream and bring out the lawyers in their futile effort to stop the tide of progress from washing away their music divisions.
This is currently the "present" for the corporate music business. They sign a bunch of artists, spend a fortune on recording the albums and making the videos. Then they spend another fortune hawking them to the corporate radio business and Viacom's MTV. If they are successful, they create one or two stars. Millions of teenagers (most afraid of not fitting into their peer group) convince themselves that these stars they hear on the radio and see on MTV are good, and worth parting with $19 for a CD. The corporations use the millions they take in when one of those heavily marketed "artists" hits big to subsidize all the other artists they've spent money on, and pocket the rest.
So each year you end up with 50 CDs, perhaps fewer, that sell (a million or more copies). Some 30,000 CDs are released (or re-released) each year, according to the New York Times.
This system has worked just fine for those five corporations. But what of the thousands of good artists out there that don't qualify? Just out of luck?
In the "present" many of us live in, the above-described system is the way it has always worked. But go back 150 years or 200 years. Guess what? There wasn't a star system. There were no record companies, no million-sellers. No copyrights. The dominance of the music business by five companies is a recent phenomenon in the context of the history of mankind. There is no certainty that, 100 years hence, that will still be the way things work.
You have to wonder why people are such lemmings. Why can't they think for themselves? It's not because the music is actually any good that Alanis Morissette's Under Rug Swept quickly hits the top of the Billboard 200, or Linkin Park's Hybrid Theory sells over 7 million copies in the U.S., or Cher's Living Proof debuts at #9.
Most weeks I drive to San Francisco and stop in at a number of record stores, including the gigantic Amoeba store on Haight Street. You enter the store, walk down a hallway and then, to get to the records, you must descend a short flight of stairs. Thus, standing at the top of the stairs, you can see the whole store. It is a sight to behold! 100,000 different CDs? More? You could fit the entire Billboard 200 into one of those small storage boxes you can buy at Office Depot. Place that box on the floor in Amoeba and it would vanish amid the racks and racks of CDs.
And yet 90% of the people in America buy the albums in that little box, and pay no attention to the other 99,800 or more albums that fill Amoeba.
We humans seem to have settled into a most complacent state when it comes to music. We don't search for something new, we settle for the worst (as long as it gets played on the radio).
Yet on occasion, something really good breaks through. Witness the success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. And, in 1997, the success of the Buena Vista Social Club album. When the word somehow reaches us about something really good, we respond.
The Big 5 are freaking out as file-sharing programs allow a disgruntled populace to cherry-pick the songs they want. A friend told me recently that his teenage daughter-in-law is interested in one song on a hit album the one she hears over and over on MTV. She has neither the attention span nor the interest to listen to a whole album, he says. She makes mix CDs of the hits.
I was talking with a onetime major-label president the other day. He agrees with me that the days of the Big 5 are coming to an end. "I don't think it's 10 years away," he told me. "More like three or four."
I know indie bands that now make a living touring not from record sales. I also know artists who can live modestly releasing albums on their own labels, selling them off the Web, at shows and at record stores. This is the real "present." And in it, artists are proving to be smart and innovative. We are watching as the Big 5 run out into the ocean, chasing the elusive million-plus seller, and soon they'll be dragged to their deaths by the undertow.