Ten Things That Are Killing the Music Biz

With 2008 almost halfway completed, it’s clear that once again music sales are continuing to slump. Despite pipe dreams that somehow ageing pop stars like Mariah and Madonna were going to somehow perform retail miracles, the public has yawned and just continued to play Grand Theft Auto and watch DVD’s.
The music industry continues to place all of the blame on those pesky downloaders, and while it is certainly a legitimate issue it’s been way over-emphasized. Did Sheryl Crow’s latest piece of garbage really die because every office had a person who burned it for every co-worker? (I actually read that excuse on an industry message board.) No, that album failed because there was no demand for more of the same from her.
In many ways, it’s my belief the industry is getting exactly what they deserve. Ever since Britney Spears first danced in her schoolgirl outfit, the record industry has shifted to a system that has attempted to dictate to us what we’ll like. For a short time it actually worked, but after a two year spike in sales, music sales have plummeted every year since then.
The rise and fall of teen pop is not the only reason music sales are down, though. Here are what I feel are the main symptoms of an ailing industry:
10. Pro Tools. When used correctly, Pro Tools and other audio software programs are great tools for producers. Artists no longer are forced to spend months in expensive, sterile recording studios, and various tweaks and effects can be easily made on the cheap.
Unfortunately, both producers and artists are using these programs as a crutch. The term “fix it in the mix” has become an overused reality, and engineers have plenty of stories of musicians and vocalists refusing to redo inferior takes.
In too many cases, entire albums are cut and pasted together from dozens of uninspired takes, and then “sweetened” to create a phony perfect take. The results are completely soulless, and there’s simply no possibility of “happy accidents”.
9. “Brand Name” Performers. These days, as soon as somebody has a hit they’re looking at their next business venture. Pretty quickly their music is just an advertisement for their latest line of perfume or clothing. CD booklets now have more advertising leaflets than People Magazine has subscription cards. The music has become an afterthought, and it shows.
8. Test Marketing. The music industry is so desperate that they’re now copying the movie business. Instead of inviting people to critique rough cuts of full movies, though, they’re testing songs by playing extremely short snippets (ten seconds or so) over the phone. Songs that don’t test well are rewritten, remixed, re-recorded, or scrapped altogether. No wonder most pop music is now just a catch phrase!
I’m sorry, but even bubblegum pop music doesn’t work this way. Few songs have an immediate impact, especially when one only hears the hook, and even fewer of these types of songs have a chance of making a lasting impression. No wonder most pop hits are forgotten by the time they are placed on the latest Now That’s What I Call Music compilation.
7. Radio. The radio industry has had a similar decline in recent years, and they have their own scapegoat. Ipods are to blame for all of their ills. Well, they’re sort of right, but it’s also their own fault.
The solution is simple. All they have to do is expand both the number and diversity of the songs on their playlists, and eliminate the use of consultant companies who program the majority of radio stations. A hit in Shreveport, LA may not necessarily be successful in Sioux Falls, and vice versa. Returning this task to the individual stations may result in their hiring people based less on their look or sound and more on their knowledge of music.
6. Phony Collaborations. In the last few years, the great minds at the record companies have attempted to clutter almost every pop hit with as many names as possible. Few charting songs these days don’t include “with” or “featuring” as part of the artist, and it seems to be the same person every time. A few years ago, it was Fat Joe and Ja Rule; now it’s Justin Timberlake and Chris Brown. Few of these pairings sound legitimate; it’s usually clear that the second performer’s input is tacked on at the label’s insistence.
5. Superstar Producers. Even worse than the last entry, though, is the overuse of the latest hit-making producer. When they’re considered hot, it seems like they’re involved with every high profile release.
Unfortunately, most of their output sounds exactly alike from release to release. Timbaland, Scott Storch, Jermaine Dupri are just a couple of examples of producers who believe they’re visionaries but really have nothing more than a trick or two they use on every single production.
4. The Death of the Record Store. It used to be that independent record stores (or small chains) were the heart of the record business. They had not only the best stock, but the best prices, while the chain stores stocked only the biggest hits that they sold at full list price.
That practice ended in the early 90’s, and now retailers such as Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and Target have pretty much killed the hip, locally-owned music store. Using CD’s as loss-leaders, they routinely sell discs at prices that are lower than the indie store’s wholesale cost.
Yet that’s not enough of an advantage. Wal-Mart has recently asked the major labels for an exclusive extreme price break that will possibly kill the few remaining indie stores. While they have made this demand many times in the past, the music industry is so desperate that this time it will succeed. If you only care about the Carrie Underwood’s of the world, then this is a good deal for you. But once the small stores completely disappear you’re not going to have much luck in finding that obscure jazz reissue, or even the latest noisy guitar band that Pitchfork has been raving about for months.
3. Overexposure. Letterman, Leno, Conan, Kimmel, Regis, Tyra, Ellen, Oprah, Larry King, American Idol, Sportscenter, The View, Today, Good Morning America, Colbert, Daily Show, Entertainment Tonight, the Insider, TMZ, SNL, MTV, CMT, VH1, E!, soap operas, sitcoms, dramas, YouTube, Rolling Stone, People, Us, USA Today. This is just a partial list of where an artist can promote their latest album or single, and damned if some acts don’t attempt to hit them all.
It’s really amazing how performers want nothing to do with 99% of these media outlets until they have some product to hype. Then over the course of three or four days, you can’t escape them. I have to believe that even some of the biggest Mariah fans were sick of her after she made the media rounds a few weeks ago.
Is it any surprise that performers come and go so quickly these days? Yes, there have always been one-hit wonders, but there really is no concept of long-term development in today’s climate. It’s all about getting everything you can right now, and the public can’t help but get burned out when you can’t escape them.
2. Label Mergers. It used to be that a label merger was a good thing for the individual labels. Combining resources certainly strengthened Warners, Elektra, and Asylum back in the late 60’s.
Those days are no more, as the reasoning for these mergers are not at all related with improving efficiency. It’s all about making a splash at Wall Street, and a quick buck for the brokers who create the deal. Little, if any, of the proceeds are used for artist development. More typical is the case of Warner Music Group’s 2004 IPO, where less than one percent of the $750 million in proceeds were earmarked for company operations. It’s no wonder there is no such thing as long-term artist development.
1. American Idol. An entire article could be written about the evils of AI. Talk about pure evil; how can anybody take seriously a glorified karaoke show with an admitted lip-syncher and a former member of Journey as judges?
Idol wouldn’t be so offensive if it didn’t have so much power..or if it actually awarded potentially true artists. Instead, it’s the birthing ground for an entire generation of puppets that are forced onto a public that appears to care less and less about integrity than cute haircuts and syrup-y power ballads over-sung by caterwauling Mariah Carey wannabes.
Technically, only the winner receives a record contract, but inevitably almost the entire cast is signed up by desperate labels that will do anything to capitalize on what they see as a built-in audience. Thankfully, the vast majority of these clowns fail to make any sort of splash, and are forced to go back to their dinner theater careers. But that doesn’t excuse that we are forced to endure the horrors of Clay Aiken, Chris Daughtry, and Carrie Underwood.


Anonymous said…
While I would agree that your take on music industry problems is an interesting perspective, it’s a subject that’s important enough to warrant a variety of views. There are less than a half dozen reasons for the current problems associated with the music industry. I prefer to analyze the industry based on what music consumers cite as their reasons for not spending money - on a local and national informal polling basis.
All evidence indicates that making copies of artists music greatly reduces the earning potential of recording artists, and the profits that create an incentive to make a career in the music business. Many musicians and singers across the nation from 1992 to the present have opted for careers in other areas because of the lost incentive to record and commit to tours because of pirating music and the unwillingness of people to purchase CD’s retail. Artists that started in the business prior to pirating music (or borrowing music from other consumers) have noticed that their earnings have dropped dramatically. This isn’t something that only happened to ’Cheryl Crow’. Many recording artists and prospective recording artists are aware of consumers acquiring music without having to make payment. To suggest this development has no impact on artist incentive is simply the rebuttal made by people that prefer to get their music for free.
A second reason for industry wide market loss is due to the poor quality of recording artists that decide to remain in the business. Without doubt, many bands that recorded from 1992 to 2008 didn’t submit quality work to the consumer market. This is reflected by the fact that many consumers have complained about the poor quality of work by recent recording artists, and would also explain the popularity of “classic rock” FM. The perspective that the customer is always right, depends on whether artists are serious about selling to a wide range of mainstream consumer markets, or more interested in selling social and political views to a small cult following. The fact that many recent recording artists lack instrumental skills, or melody construction skills is reflected in consumer opinions across the nation. Many rock fans even turned to country music to find the melody and instrumental skills they enjoyed from mainstream rock bands that lead the industry from 1965 to 1992. The old adage that “there’s no market for crap”, means that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Bands that mask their poor skills with sound suppression filters and amp static created a common sound style from 1992 to 2008. Many of the same riff hooks and gimmicks became commonplace for an industry that promised innovation. The grunge sound and style needs to go away. Arenas were filled by bands that played hard rock. The feminization of rock music undermined the industry locally and nationally. The Pomp Rome demise could be traced to the transition in music tastes that patrons rejected with their wallets. A local club that once had fine regional hard rock bands like ’Bad Daddy’ from Chicago, were replaced by the feminine sound of Spooncat and other bands closely related in style. Many clubs across the nation rejected the hard rock format, and the people stopped going to the clubs. Clubs then resorted to retro classic rock in order to bring pack the customers. Which further proved that the effort to reject hard rock in clubs, FM stations, recent released music and music television resulted in net loss in profit industry wide.
After recently watching ’Purple Rain’ last weekend, I was struck by a statement made by the nightclub owner to Prince. “Nobody digs your music kid, because nobody understands it but you.” Prince then resorts to performing a mainstream song written by his band mates that wins over the club audience the next night.

Have a nice day.
Scott said…
Kurt, why haven't I seen this side of you before? That was a reasonable and informative reply to my post that didn't jump to conclusions about my personal life or political affiliations.

While I don't agree with some of your analysis, you raise some interesting points.

Thank you.
Anonymous said…
The Pomp Room's demise was most certainly NOT due to tight-walleted patrons. In fact people were paying $7/head just to walk in the door, bad band or no band. The reason they closed was the owners were too cheap to keep up the maintenance of the building. I think the roof was about to go.
Anonymous said…
A lot of complaints about the music industry seem to stem from the same source. Artists and consumers don’t have control over the means of production. But they could have control if they approached the problem as an investor collective. People brought together as a common cause resolve problems by pooling financial resources.
When hip hop artists were confronted by free speech recording barriers, it was amazing how these artists were able to create their own production studios. Common cause incentive freed hip hop from corporate censorship, and necessity prevailed in supply/demand. Newly developed east/west coast studios allowed regional artists a place to go for censor-free recording. But much more could’ve been done industry wide. And why rock artists and their fans didn’t invest in the means of production more extensively remains a mystery. Large corporate contracts continue to eat artist profits, and overcharge consumers in CD sales.
Dan Rather’s interview with the Dixie Chicks revealed the corporate greed, as artists struggle for restitution in CD sales with large corporations. While at the same time, consumers continue to pay $8 - $15 for new CD’s. It’s no wonder people pirate, if not for revenge itself. Artists and consumers still need to create their own means of production. I can’t feature that finding investors would be difficult when the incentive to create a fair market is still in high demand.
Wouldn’t the total sum of prospective investors include everyone? As the WWII generation heads for heaven, the rock and roll generation defines the culture. Elvis fans turn 65, and Beatles fans approach 60. Lots of prospective investors with lots of money. And they’re tired of paying top dollar for CD’s, yet don’t want to choke off artist incentive by pirating. Why should the suits walk off with all the profit, when we can protect ourselves through a common cause investment. Pirating music doesn’t help artists, so it makes sense to reduce the price for the finished product. New CD’s for $5 to $6 dollars, and music listeners own the means to have music and leave enough profit as an artist incentive.
The breakdown of investor costs isn’t extremely difficult. I recently visited an organization that had all the equipment to create CD master recordings in Sioux Falls. They even have a building for recording. The most expensive piece of equipment cost $20K. So a recording studio of reasonable means can be assessed in ten’s of thousands of dollars. Studio expansion would be dictated by increased demand. Cost cutting in key areas allows consumers savings in reduced CD retail, and provides artists with extended career longevity by keeping artists product affordable. Less loss when there’s less to invest.
The creation of more independent recording studios was one positive trend from 1990 to present. But more large cost effective studios could have been (and should have been) started in the 1960’s. While some degree of noteworthy gains were made in recording studio development, the actual production of albums, tapes and CD’s remained in the hands of big business. It cost an average of $1 to produce one CD for retail market. But the artists and fans aren’t pocketing the net profit, since they don’t own the means of production. (Distribution can be handled by Amazon of other online means. We don‘t need Walmart to define the music culture.) But if one million music fans buy one share of stock each month for ten dollars, they could raise $100 million in one year to start a modest factory for CD production. Expansion would quickly follow as demand increases.
Owning the means of production to control costs is feasible, provided consumers envision the same common cause artists do. Mutual benefit preserves incentive to make a career in music, and allows consumers to build large collections of music. The next step to follow would be a federal mandate to reduce the number of FM stations corporations own. This would free local communities to buy back local FM for local use, and allow the airplay of more diverse music tastes. The next administration could achieve this since both candidates have expressed a distain for monopoly control in radio communication. FM could once again advise consumers on what’s available by sampling a wider spectrum of music. So if owning the means of production wouldn’t cost an arm and leg, why hasn’t the youth movement gone after opportunity? Maybe some leadership is needed by artists. Provided they can take a break from all their political causes.

Anonymous said…
"The Pomp Room's demise was most certainly NOT due to tight-walleted patrons."

Response: Ummm...you're right - tight-walleted patrons weren't the reason. Nor did I state that was the reason in my commentary. Had you read my comments, my point was 'the bands stunk' after the owners refused to book hard rock band in place of soft rock alternative bands. That's when the patrons stopped attending. It's also when the Pomp went from 7 nights per week to 5.

"In fact people were paying $7/head just to walk in the door, bad band or no band."

I never paid that amount. Must have been when 'Glory Holes' were popular. Mid to late '90's patrons had no conception of the value of money, so it wouldn't surprise me.

"The reason they closed was the owners were too cheap to keep up the maintenance of the building. I think the roof was about to go."

That was a whole separate issue, which I didn't write about. But up-keep, and the waste of profit, fit into the financial problem in the bitter end.


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