Some people believe the digital age has been a good thing for the music world. I believe it has been a total disaster. I get frustrated when I start thinking about all the benefits artists like Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, John Mellencamp and a host of other folks have done for politicians. I cringe when I realize that these same politicians did not even raise a finger when the ability to earn a living while creating and performing music has been taken away from our current artists and the artists of the future. When the auto industry started to hit the skids everyone on Capital Hill took notice. I understand that car manufacturing plays a big role in our nation’s economy. But no one has raised a peep when new technology has driven a multi-billion industry to its knees. It has also threatened a part of our culture and crashed the dreams of generations of musicians, past, present and future.
T-Bone Burnett is one of the greatest producers of our era. His list of successful projects is too long to list here. Recently he was interviewed and shared his thoughts on the affect of the internet on him, his peers and future generations of artists. It makes good sense.
Audio aside, why do you find the digital revolution disturbing? The entire infrastructure that supported the world of music for a century has been dismantled, and in its place we’ve got these little things, these little handheld devices. The worldwide web was supposed to give everybody access and democratize everything. It was supposed to create a level field and increase the middle class and everybody had more access and more information. But now anybody can say anything and nobody cares. This is the problem of ubiquitous data. And what’s happened in reality is that the power’s been consolidated in very, very few companies, and the middle class of musicians really has just been wiped out. I mean, the Internet has been an honest-to-God con. It’s as if the Grateful Dead and Metallica got into a fight. This whole thing went down in northern California! The Silicon Valley cats were acid freaks and loved the Dead — not all of ’em, but the vast majority. The whole Internet grows out of Grateful Dead culture. The Grateful Dead was not a recording band; they were too high to record. They didn’t mind that their fans would tape their shows and pass them along. It was just spreading the word. They didn’t value the tapes; they were live performances. That’s where their art was, all that live improvisation. That’s the way the Internet went, because those are the people controlling it. The Internet went into: “Everything wants to be free, give your stuff away, pass it around, we don’t care about the definitive version — the hive mind will take care of it. Leave it to the wisdom of the crowd, that’ll work it all out, and everything will be fine in the end.” And by the way, the Grateful Dead’s business is a complete travesty — now. The other camp was Metallica, who said, “No, we like to play live, but we also want to create the definitive version. So we want to maintain copyright; we don’t want to do this free thing.” But naturally, the people who were offering things for free won in the short term. In reality, we all lost. The car industry gets decimated and people go into apoplexy. The recording industry gets destroyed and people seem to be sanguine or happy about it, almost, because they’re getting everything for free. If somebody had come down from Silicon Valley 30 years ago and said “I’ve got this new technology, and you’re gonna be able to see all around the world, transfer your stuff all over the world, you’re gonna be able to send things, you’ll be able to see your friends, you’ll be able to hear music — all you have to do is give up your privacy and your royalties,” everybody would have said, “Get the f— out of town! Right now! Get out of here!” Instead, these guys came down with their shtick, and everybody went “Well, how can we make money from this great new technology?” “Oh, you’re not gonna make money from it. Everything’s gonna be free. Just give us the intellectual property we can send around in our pipes, everybody will subscribe, and then we’ll be rich. Not you, though.” [Laughs.] “Don’t ask us what we’re doing with the money. Just make the stuff and send it to us for free.” That’s how much of a straight-up con it’s been. People in Hollywood, we should go up there with pitchforks and torches to Silicon Valley now. Unfortunately, that’s [how sophisticated] our response would be — pitchforks and torches.
It is easy to blame the record labels for allowing Napster and other services to essentially commit piracy. They should have had a better strategy for dealing with it. But what if there was no answer? After all it is difficult to compete with a price point of “zero”.
Record labels now are putting the pressure on unsigned acts to make something happen before they will even look at them. As a result, many of the acts that we hear about are not the most talented, but they are the best marketers. I have often said, would we have ever heard of Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan if they were forced to make a viral video to get noticed? Would Dylan stand in the back of a venue, while the headliner was playing and hawk his albums? Not a chance. Very few real artists are capable of whoring themselves out the way new artist NEED to at this time.
James Taylor “Fire and Rain” on the BBC 1970 Another artist who probably wouldn’t have survived in the digital age. Here is an appearance from 1970 on the BBC. I only know this, because I recognize the sweater.
The fact of the matter is that there are lots of talented people in the world. They just don’t have the money to get the exposure necessary. Or they choose not to make videos that show women with the tops off, just to get attention. They believe in their music, they just don’t know how to make people aware of it.
The internet is democratic. Everyone has access to it. As a result it is filled with shit. 99.99999% of what is available on the internet is complete crap. The funnel has been eliminated. There is no quality control. As a result, it is difficult for a good act to surface amidst all the sewerage. It always took luck to be discovered. Now it takes a miracle.
All the success is limited to a few acts. A huge majority of the albums (CDs) released last year, sold less than 10 copies. As T-Bone says there is no more middle class in the music business. Now you are either a superstar or you starve. Even acts that have a great deal of success, seem to fizzle fast. That is because we live in an era where everyone has the attention span of a moth. There is no such thing as artist development. After every project it is like starting all over again. Established artists are seeing their career diminish by the day. They just hope they can get enough momentum to sustain themselves for a few years. No one coming on the scene today will have long careers like James Taylor, Springsteen, U2, Elvis Costello, Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, the Allman Brothers and almost every other classic act in the business. It is impossible to sustain a career these days. In the pre-digital era, it was possible to build a career one step at a time. Some of the steps could be small. But if you did the right things you knew you were headed in the right direction. Now it seems acts come from oblivion to stardom and back to oblivion quickly.
Here are two perfect examples of the way it was years ago. It makes me sound so old, but there is no other way to put it. Bon Jovi released their first album. One song “Runaway” got a good amount of airplay, especially in New York, but the album did not sell. Their second album didn’t do much better. They were beginning to be known as a band with a passive audience. They wrote turntable hits, but people didn’t buy the albums. Today, they probably would have been dropped after their first album…surely after their second. As it turned out, they released “Slippery When Wet” next and the rest is history. They also have one of the most active and loyal audiences a band could hope for. Billy Joels’s first album “Cold Spring Harbor” was released, but it was mastered at the wrong speed and Billy sounded like a chipmunk. His second album, which had “Piano Man” and “Captain Jack” got a lot of airplay, but also did not sell extremely well at the time it was released. His next album “Streetlife Serenade” was a disaster. No hits, no excitement. He was inches away from being dropped and would have been, had it been 20013 instead of 1975. But there were people at Columbia who were looking beyond the numbers. As it turns out he released a masterpiece next, “Turnstiles”. Then “The Stranger” and he became one of the biggest stars of his generation. All of this would not have happened today. This same story could be applied to almost every superstar act of the 70s, 80s and 90s. A second album is the hardest to make. Look at the history of some of your favorite bands. Their second albums seem to be their least successful. The performer has his whole life to write the songs for the first album and six months to write stuff for the second album. Most of your favorite acts would not have succeeded in today’s environment. There wouldn’t be a record label head or A&R man that would put his “nuts” on the line to save a band. There is too much as stake. Like his job.
Billy Joel “Miami 2017” in 1976– This is a song we almost never heard. One of my favorite songs by Billy
Rebecca Black-“Friday” The ultimate viral video 59,000,000 views. You tell me which is better. The Billy Joel clip has 14,000 views.
Let’s not forget the fact that today most people listen to music through their iPhones. There was a time when SOUND mattered. Not sound, but “SOUND”. It was part of the appreciation for the art of music. Pink Floyd prided themselves at making great sounding albums. They would literally look at the grooves of the record under a microscope to make sure it was as perfect as it could be. Steely Dan’s “AJA” was used in every high end stereo shop to sell a pair of speakers. Speakers, which by the way sold for $5,000. We used to listen on headphones. I used to listen to music on a platform called DAT, because the sound was so good. This was immediately after the album disappeared. But now we stream bad sounding MP3 files and listen to them on a speaker with the fidelity of a coffee can. How the hell did this happen? That is another blog altogether.
So, is the internet good or bad for the music industry and for musicians. People can rationalize all they want, but it has decapitated the industry. Unfortunately, the genie is out of the bottle and there is no way to get him or her back in. Right now it is all we have. I have tried for years to figure out a way to monetize the web, as have people more intelligent than I. There doesn’t seem to be an answer…at least for the time being. My advice is, if you love music and play, you need to have another source of income to survive. If you are debating whether to go to college or “go on the road” with your band, for god’s sake, go to school. Unfortunately the dream that seemed attainable for so many others, may just be a pipe dream for you.