Monday, February 20, 2012


This is an old post from my myspace days, but I've updated it a tiny bit and it's still worth posting...

   To begin, let it be duly recorded that I am a guy that owns more than three thousand CDs. I will be the first to admit that the majority of my musical listening experience comes from recorded music and that recorded music has been a valuable, indeed, an essential resource in my musical studies. I have no problems with recordings in the home, as a personal vehicle for the enjoyment and exploration of the musical landscape. I also, to some extent, acknowledge the validity of a recording as an artistic statement in its own right; there are things you can do in the studio to produce works of musical art that just can't be done live. This being said, however, I do have some real problems with the commercialization of music and the negative impact recordings, and their manipulation by media culture, have had on musicians’ livelihoods.
   There used to be a time when the owner of a cafe, restaurant or other venue had to go out and hire musicians to play if he/she wanted music in their place. This held true up until the advent of tape and, ultimately, CDs and other digital media. Now, all one has to do is get a good sound system, flip on a recording/download and presto: instant music. Who needs to hire bands? This has had a catastrophic effect on musicians' livelihoods; due to the loss of demand, paying work opportunities for the rank and file (that is, the vast majority of us) have dwindled almost to nonexistence. By way of illustration, consider this: During a recent conversation I had with an old timer, he informed me that forty years ago there were three times as many members in AFM 802 as there are today. Why? Because there was work for them. They were making a living wage playing music in local clubs, because there was a paying demand for it. That is not so, now. By making recordings of ourselves widely available we have cut our feet out from under us. People don’t need to have us around to listen to us.
   Before the advent of the recording industry, international stars may have been few and far between, but there was plenty of work around for everyone else. You might not become a household word worldwide, but if you could play, you could always make a living doing so...and right in your home town. Such a musical culture fostered individuality and diversity, things that today’s global media is actively working to smelt down into one dully glowing pool of unified slag. Such a musical culture produced the likes of J.S.Bach and Franz Listz, and gave birth to jazz in New Orleans, flamenco in Spain and raga in India. The world was not musically sterile before the invention of the record player. The primary listening source then, though, was the live performance. Recordings have altered our entire relationship with music, and how we view its place and function in our lives.

So why the allure of mass media culture for musicians today? The prospect of worldwide distribution and ultimately (yes, admit it) celebrity seem to be the main motivating forces. But lets face it, the trade offs are prohibitive. I hear story after story of how new bands who sign with major labels net in the neighborhood of 2% of the total sales figures of their recordings after paying recording costs, management, production, marketing and touring costs. That’s to be split among the band members. Example: I read of one band that grossed 8.5 million dollars in product and each of the four band members walked away with $40,000 at the end of the year, no vacation and no medical or other benefits. Period. That’s less than half a percent. Sure, those that become popular make up for it with concert revenue. You can count them on one hand. The rest? No one knows, because no one hears from them again. They fade away, in debt. (Even popular acts can suffer like this: TLC, for all their popularity, had to declare bankruptcy...and stop making music.) Who benefits from recordings? Everybody but the artists. True, in its heyday in sixties pop music, there was a good living to be made with recordings. (We won't discuss the countless artists that got ripped off by producers/managers/corporations; we'll just acknowledge that there were a number that were quite successful in making a living from their records.) Those days appear to be gone.    Personally, I don’t think the trade offs are worth it. I’m not interested in world fame. I’d rather have the respect of my peers and the support of a loyal local following. For me the most satisfying media outlet is word of mouth; the most rewarding musical experience is live performance. I’d be perfectly happy playing small venues and being fairly compensated for it. (I prefer small venues anyway, for aesthetic reasons, but that’s another post.) I’m afraid, however, considering present social and cultural trends, that dissolving the unholy alliance between music and mass media culture-- better yet, the dissolution of mass media culture entirely-- is something that cannot be easily accomplished, if indeed it can be accomplished at all.
We may have painted ourselves into a corner with this one.

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