by Michael Goldberg
Monday, January 6, 2003
When Music Is Just Entertainment
Some thoughts on why the music business is in decline
The music business is in trouble. For 2002, sales were down 11%. It seemed the majors were trying every trick in the book to turn things around: greatest-hits albums from some of the biggest artists in the history of rock (Elvis, the Rolling Stones, various ex-Beatles); double albums from hip-hop stars such as Jay-Z and the late 2Pac; interim releases from recent heavy hitters System of a Down and Linkin Park; a soundtrack album from Eminem.
Still, sales declined.
It's not just that much of the music released by the majors is tired (a live Paul McCartney album?) or pathetic (an album of the songs that didn't make the cut for System of a Down's Toxicity?). I'm coming to the conclusion that, for many people, music has become just one of many entertainment choices. Now, in addition to the old standbys TV, going to the movies, attending a sports event, engaging in some kind of sport or outdoor activity, shopping we've got video games, cell phones, pagers, skateboarding, movie rentals, the Internet and a zillion cable or satellite channels. No one has the time for all of that. And then they're gonna listen to music too?
Sure, music is sometimes the soundtrack for those activities, but for the past few years it's felt as if music, and the artists that make the music, haven't meant as much to the average person as they have in years past.
I'm not talking about you or me. If you're reading this column, it means you've gone to a bit of trouble to seek it out. You're likely a serious music fan. More than that, you're probably into a lot of cool, semi-esoteric music not the stuff typically found getting air time on the radio or MTV. For us, music remains central to our lives.
Yet I know that for me, the artists I dig the most these days aren't important in the same way that, say, Bob Dylan or The Beatles or the Rolling Stones or Frank Zappa were when I was 15, back in the late '60s. I don't think I look at Spoon or Cat Power or Beth Gibbons the way I looked at Brian Eno and The Clash and Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen.
Is it just that I'm older now, that I no longer look to pop stars to act as role models? Sure I find wisdom in their lyrics, but it's different. Bob Dylan was once one of my heroes. I think Chan Marshall (Cat Power) is a great talent, but she's not my hero. Even the women of Sleater-Kinney, who I greatly respect, are, to me, artists not gods. Don't laugh. OK, laugh. But when I was a kid, I really thought that the pop stars I dug were godlike.
Do the millions of kids who've bought Linkin Park and Eminem and Britney albums think of those artists as heroes? I doubt it. Certainly those artists have been role models you can find plenty of kids who have adopted the look of contemporary pop stars. But my sense is that it's different. And not just because the music those artists make is insubstantial (time will tell, but I betcha none of their work will be looked at as classic in 10 or 15 years). These are not artists who are growing with their audience.
In the '60s, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones began by recording pop music that pre-teens and teens could dig. But as we got older, their music became more sophisticated; the lyrics became smarter. At 15 or 16 we discovered Bob Dylan, a folk singer who was suddenly recording some of the most intelligent (in terms of lyrics) rock songs the world had ever heard. And Dylan, too, evolved and changed. We grew up and he grew up.
In the mid-'70s the same was true of The Clash and the Talking Heads and Bruce Springsteen, and in the '80s it was true of U2 and R.E.M. Real artists, it seemed, matured. Just like real people.
Now, can you really imagine Eminem in 10 years, making music that someone approaching the age of 30 will relate to? Most likely, he'll be long gone. Linkin Park? Come on! From my vantage point, it looks like show business, nothing more.
Much has been made especially by the music business of file sharing as the culprit responsible for the decline in CD sales. Certainly it's playing a role. But I fear that the problem goes deeper. I think we are experiencing what happens when kids grow up with more entertainment choices than they can deal with.
Once, rock wasn't an entertainment choice. It was life or death. There was no choice. We had to have it.
Those days appear to be long gone.