Being On Fire Is The Best Reason To Take A Walk In The Rain
by Cozmos Quazar
From Vol. 3 No. 1, 2004
Like millions of others, the out and out cool of the music industry hit when I was just starting high school. For me, that meant Nirvana was just releasing their last record and I was about to hear Pavement for the first time. Like millions of others, I was wandering around not really knowing what to make of myself, confused, outcast, and prone to naively-self righteous fits of rage, whose grandeur, I now realize, were grossly exaggerated. In my pubescent solitude, it seemed that nothing else touched me to the point that music did, that music “saved my life” as I became fond of saying. But really, what was happening was a switch over in my mind from the music I grew up with (a not-so shabby blend of Beatles, Hendrix, Bowie, Elvis Costello, Elton John, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan) becoming strangely illusive, if for no other reason because 99 percent of it was released before I was born. Suddenly, however, I turned my attention to the new, the current, the obscure, and then the as-yet-to-be-discovered, succumbing to an addiction fuelled by a fascination with context; how things got done and how to be a part of it. The feeling that I, regular, normal, self-conscious, old me, had the power to find my own place in the wildly kaleidoscopic splendour of the music industry. It was enough to set anyone on fire. So, narrowing the millions a touch, I decided at 13 years old to pursue a career in the industry. Cute, no?
Fast forward to now, ten years, twenty-odd recordings, 6 releases, countless shows, 8 bands and an independent record label later, what have I learned? What information can I share with my peers? Or those just entering the whole mess?
Let’s start by saying that for some, this info is old hat, and for that I apologize, but there are just some facts I can’t get over. When I consider the industry as a whole, certain words rise above the muck and make themselves known. Nepotism, for example. Take Billboard magazine: here we have what is publicly considered to be the main resource for record sales and accurate chart info for every genre under the sun. Forgetting that several genres are just plain over-looked, how about the fact that the magazine is owned by Time/Warner? Yes, the Warner Brothers company that is one of the five “major” record companies in the world. Does no one see a conflict of interest here? Another fact critics of the industry consistently reveal is that there is a far too convenient correlation between the position of a given artist and the amount of advertising purchased in the magazine. [even more insidious is the fact that the charts track how many records are “shipped” instead of actually sold, which accounts for how blockbuster albums usually debut at no. 1—ed.] This sort of situation is eerily common, and, even more eerily, slips by unnoticed by most.
Let’s look at a more current scenario– the American Idol phenomenon. This is one of my favourite examples of the industry’s mentality.
Item number 1: Voting for your favourite performer costs $0.99 USD, every single time. This is completely irrelevant. The show is a smash hit and thus makes its revenue from advertising just like all other TV shows. Unlike other shows, however, they don’t have to pay for a full cast of actors, locations, writers, film-stock and other common expenses. They receive millions of votes per season.
Item number 2: Consider the nature of the program; the audience is in effect doing the job of hundreds of A & R reps for labels. The whole idea of being A & R is spotting marketable talent. Then the label must invest money to build up the name of the artist to ensure they sell records. Here, by exposing the selection process to the public and taking their opinion into context– charging them all the while, mind you –they have got people paying to do the job of these high-priced talent scouts. As if this isn’t enough of a profitable spin on the run of the mill record industry contract, when the winner or runner up releases their CD, millions are already waiting to buy it, perhaps fuelled by having invested in the win by voting. Basically, they’ve eliminated any risk of low sales with these artists and ensured that they’ll get their money back tenfold.
Item number 3: American Idol debuted right in the midst of the huge stink created by the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) about free music downloading/ file sharing. They made their stance based on two factors, short-term and long-term losses. Short term losses entail a decline in CD sales, primarily for artists who are remarkably famous. What they rarely mention, is the increase in CD sales, audience numbers and fan base for lesser known acts.
As for the more important long term losses, file sharing in mass numbers strips the almighty RIAA of their power to control what people listen to. The power of the Internet is the power of choice, conveniently laid out for any who cares to look, lending to generations who only become more adept at surfing the Net. These little kids may not think they have too much influence in the world at large, but they are currently holding one of the most ruthlessly corrupt and powerful industries in the world hostage with their ability to access a wealth of music and select what they like. Naturally, the RIAA retaliates with brilliant schemes like American Idol, where they can propagate the cycle of money-making while offering millions of viewers the illusion that they’re actually involved in selecting what they’d like the entertainment industry to do.
I could go on for days about the RIAA but, for those interested, various handy resources are available on the subject. First off, the indispensable “The Problem With Music” by producer Steve Albini, which offers perhaps the clearest, no-nonsense look at major-label signing of bands. The article illustrates the demoralizing plight of roughly 80% of bands signed to a major label, and can be found at www.negativland.com/albini.html.
For opposing arguments on music file sharing: www.riaa.com & www.boycott-riaa.com.
As for my own stance on the matter, I don’t think peer-to-peer sharing is much different from making a tape copy of a record your friend just bought. Though I was too young to remember it, there was a whole brouhaha about cassettes at the time as well, but you know what… people kept on buying records.
Being On Fire Is The Best Reason To Take A Walk In The Rain