Issue July 17, 2006

$UCCE$$: Media and Approach – Forced restart (How and why Big Technology decided to get personal)

Illustration by Gina Moeller
Illustration by Gina Moeller

Moving into a new century has proven awkward and sometimes surreal for the music world (or, if you prefer the more pejorative term, the “music industry”). For all of the incredible advancements in digital sound quality and Internet availability (anyone remember 8-bit samplers or the first time someone said, “Omigod … CDs … there’s no HISS!”), the business of selling, creating, delivering and manufacturing music has changed so quickly that no one, really, has any clear answers about what the future holds.

Many big music business institutions, which traditionally would have every reason in the world to support new music technology, have presented themselves as computer-fearing Luddites with zero grasp of public perception. The Recording Industry Association of America, in perhaps the most glaring example, has unwittingly pursued one of the largest bad-press campaigns in music history, aggressively suing families for downloading copyright-controlled music. As the world’s largest manufacturer of recorded music, the RIAA has much to lose. But with more than 15,000 lawsuits (without clear evidence in some cases), RIAA has come off as feeble, misguided, defensive and afraid. When any huge conglomerate starts subpoenaing 83-year-old grandmothers like Gertrude Walton, accused of “peer-to-peer” file-swapping, it’s hard to have any sympathy at all.

Another more recent bad-press winner is Sony BMG Music Entertainment (one of the “Big Four” major labels — more on that later). Sony secretly included copyright protection software on CDs that caused the recall of millions of units last fall. The result was numerous public apologies from the media giant for, among other more Orwellian notions, serious pain for the artists, record stores, record distributors, mailpeople, accountants and even some innocent consumers who just wanted to rock out to Neil Diamond’s latest album.

The copyright protection programs hidden on the store-bought Sony BMG CDs installed themselves onto consumers’ computers, causing drive failures and virus susceptibility. Internet security expert Dan Kaminsky, during his Jan. 13 lecture at the SHMOOCON “hacker” conference in Washington, D.C., reported that Sony’s signature digital-rights management software had infiltrated 500,000 networks, including the U.S. military and other government offices. It got so bad that many businesses, educational facilities and government agencies banned the titles from workplace computers.

Photo by Jason Noble: Ben Jones has been deeply involved in Louisville music for two decades, helping develop musicians and also 	selling records to the public. He’s stayed in the game by adapting to and embracing change.
Photo by Jason Noble: Ben Jones has been deeply involved in Louisville music for two decades, helping develop musicians and also selling records to the public. He’s stayed in the game by adapting to and embracing change.

As the major label conglomerates perpetuate a feeling of mild hysteria, why wouldn’t the public become angry, or at least worn out? The reality is that despite the hype surrounding the “bad news” cases about technology, there are countless ways it has increased the power of music and access to all kinds of people.
It’s such a large subject that there are weighty scholarly papers being delivered about the threat of downloading. Also, numerous Web sites promote a liberation of recorded music from its pure capitalistic base, and many others currently debate this subject with intelligence and open minds.

The art of personalization — is there one?
The debate over media relates most specifically to the industrialized world, or those people who have a fair amount of leisure, security and access to expensive things like computers and DVD players. But the demographic of music listeners is changing drastically, from age to nationality, as technology redefines how people receive information.

Digital media has opened the landscape for sharing music and other art forms beyond any format change in human history. As we watch a new media with echoes of egalitarianism for its access points — and with increasing economy and quality — we also see a reduction, an introversion taking deep hold over the final “user.” The more access to technology we have, the more it offers us a private theater of the senses, impermeable and cut off from our surroundings.

Try to imagine what music meant to someone in the 14th century, when it would’ve been unthinkable to have daily access to pristine recordings and reproductions. Music would have been a public event, a religious rite, a work ritual, a dance. Go back a little farther and, at its root, music was one of the primary tools of communication. Music would be the sound of your life, from Indonesian Gamelan orchestras to Indian ragas detailing the time of day, to church bells to … on and on.

Now imagine today’s world, not so removed from the need to communicate and dance and have ritual, but increasingly using music as an escape from such things. People carry thousands of songs in iPods, Rios, laptops and the like. The culture of the headphone — the private world in a public space, directly traceable to Sony’s introduction of the Walkman in 1979 — has moved far beyond your old cassette player or favorite radio station. This is the concept of massive choice. Total autonomy.

It applies most drastically to the cell phone, the universal “don’t bother me” media tool. If you have an endless phone conversation going, you don’t really have to interact with anyone (as a record store employee, I’ve seen an unbelievable number of customers who check out without ever saying a word to me, and in fact hardly acknowledge my existence). Add the ability to download your favorite music to the same device, to make music your personal ringtone, and you can customize all of the moments in your day so your soundtrack is applied to any situation.

The randomness of daily life — the accidentally perfect song that comes on the radio, the music of waiting rooms, the sound of conversations in buses — is slowly fading out. The idea that more choice reduces our interaction with the world is a compelling point of discussion for me. Why would we shut ourselves away? Why are we so interested in self-programming?

The simple, singular fact of who supplies the content, the actual music, makes the idea of ultimate, unending choice somewhat fallacious.

The flipside is that the personalization of music, then — as furthered by new, portable and accessible technology — reinforces the power that consumer choice really has over how music is perceived, sold and created. As evidenced by the corporate music world’s legal battles and attempts to control how music is shared, the “big” industry expects to be the primary supplier. Essentially, it doesn’t want things to change at all.

Closing up shop, part one

Consider the mass of record label closings, buyouts and mergers in the last 15 years. In the 1980s and ’90s, hugely successful companies joined with other multinational companies until there were only six or seven giant labels.  Hundreds of labels were bought up, partially controlled by major labels or run out of town. By 2004, the music world had reached an all-time low of four major labels: Sony BMG, Universal, EMI and Warner Bros. In 2005, Nielsen Soundscan reported that more than 80 percent of the world’s recorded music was supplied by the Big Four.

This may seem rather innocuous, a natural fact of life in a world of big business: Smaller companies can’t compete — the mom and pop groceries, bookstores, record shops and video huts close up in the face of overwhelming competition. With that in mind, one must also consider the fact of the matter: The entertainment market is “programmed” by a very small group of incredibly wealthy and influential people. What does that mean for quality and content?

Granted, there are intelligent, thoughtful people in the mix at these mega-corporations, but the sheer number of people choosing what is released, what makes it into the world, is profoundly reduced.
In a June 1999 article in Berklee Today Magazine, Peter Spellman, director of career development at the Berklee College of Music, discussed the acquisition of Polygram Records by Seagram’s, which later absorbed Polygram into Universal Music Group.

Spellman noted: “The shifting of tectonic plates caused by giant mergers inevitably results in upheaval and dislocation. Record companies A&M and Geffen have been folded into Interscope Records, a successful former indie operation in its own right, responsible for the rap stars Dr. Dre and Tupac Shakur, among others. Mercury and Motown (down from over 200 employees to seven) have virtually ceased to exist with any former autonomy gone. Numerous smaller labels are also on the chopping block on both coasts. When all is said and done, Seagram’s will issue pinks slips to over 3,000 employees worldwide (including many middle managers and a number of executives) and let go of 300 artists by the end of this year.”

Bands that sold hundreds of thousands of albums were dropped and attentions were shifted to the most popular, commercially safe groups. To that already scary-sounding climate, add the routine backroom deals, the price gouging and the monopolizing of distribution pursued by the big entertainment companies, and the potion starts to turn to poison.


Oh, the humanity

What do the RIAA and the Big Four have in common? Huge influence, wealth and a desire to hold onto customers at any cost. This is not, at base level, an unrealistic goal. They’ve been so large for so long that they can’t quite adapt to the speed at which technology changes the public’s interests and tastes.
And after all of the dire material contained herein, it’s only fitting that the ray of light comes from Big Technology in service of the little guys. The way digital technology has opened up all facets of the music world is astonishing — although obviously not without a larger price.

On the positive side, there is a new era of affordability in producing music in virtually any space with a modest amount of high-quality equipment (no, the computers still can’t write the songs or make them good). In a scant 10 years, the speed of computer processors has rocketed forward, making a 24-track (or more) computer-based studio within a creative person’s reach. With that, digital recordings become more and more lifelike — more human and warm, more like analog recordings. The downside to this change is that many classic recording studios and time-tested analog recording processes are suffering financially, even disappearing.

The place for the actual musicians, producers and engineers is often lost in treatises such as this. But with all the outrageous change and growth in the music world today, it still comes down to something fairly simple: Got any good ideas? Something to say? Passion? Discipline?
On a related note, one powerful part of this story is the humble, trendy, ferocious and unbelievably dedicated world of independent record labels.

From “The Future of Music” by David Kusek and Gerd Leonhard: “Major record labels are often too large and ponderous to be in a position to discover and nurture great musicians during the early phases of their careers. Independents worldwide have been and will continue to be the lifeblood of the music industry.”

The homegrown label is a major player in the last 50 years of music, although more people probably don’t realize that than do. Many artists — far before the current controversies — wanted to own and distribute their own music. Or they wanted to partner with driven people who cared about the content, the subculture and the message. From Black Flag’s SST and Ian MacKaye’s Dischord to the Chess and Sun record labels in the ’50s, these record company-and-band relationships defy the notion of “business first,” and by extension, monoculture (although Sun Records’ founder Sam Phillips did see the writing on the wall and sell Elvis’s contract to RCA for a nice sum, which he reinvested in the company. A similar thing happened with Nirvana and Seattle’s Sub Pop label in the early ’90s). With the continued pressure to maintain their most powerful commodities (big-selling artists), the majors let real musicians with amazing careers slip out of their hands.

The pleasant (albeit unintended) result has been a huge array of styles, genres and artists with respectable sales, working with the indies. Not only punk and experimental artists, either: classical, jazz, dance, hip-hop, alt country and world music, to name a few. A central concept is this: Independent labels, unburdened by huge staffs and ties to giants like Seagram’s or Vivendi, are more equipped to quickly adapt to media as it advances.

Closing up shop, part two
The final primary players in this world are record stores, for they stand to lose the most — and quickly — if technology moves the music audience toward an entirely technological medium for listening. My heart tells me that humans still love a good record store like a good bookstore: The thrill of accidental discovery, the freaky smells and actual human contact. It’s painfully true, however: Many of the most beloved record stores in America have closed their doors.

To wit, from a January 2006 L.A. Weekly article by Tanveer Badal: “It would be an understatement to say that independent record stores are struggling. The numbers are staggering. Nationwide, 1,500 record stores — many independent — have shut down in the past three years, with more to follow suit in the first quarter of 2006, according to Almighty Institute of Music Retail (AIMR), an L.A.-based market-research group. To put it in more brutal terms: 10 years ago, there were 5,000 record stores; today there are about 2,800. Meanwhile, the iPod revolution is a fait accompli: Nielsen SoundScan reports 332.7 million digital downloads last year — and that’s only counting legal downloads. That’s an increase of 148 percent from a year ago.”

The power of music downloading — the liberation of content and the ease of use — has propelled Apple’s iTunes software to the forefront of this debate. iTunes reached the one billion mark this year. Really: One billion songs have been downloaded from its service at 99 cents each. Last year, iTunes supplanted Tower Records as the nation’s seventh-biggest music retail outlet. And iTunes promotes a weird kind of egalitarianism: There is no distinction made about label — major or indie, big-budget or small, hype or hype-less. Sure, there are ads and tie-ins — no different than any store. Except for the intention that you — and no one else — can choose what you like.

Our turn to think
Does the average consumer have to balance every one of these factors when he or she chooses art and entertainment? Can we see the tangible benefits to smaller, savvier record labels? Can we be inspired by the creative freedom and affordability offered to musicians now? Do we see the massive media conglomerates losing touch and losing their audiences?
Yes.

If you want to be ready for the future, though, it’s worth your time to decide who you want to support. Before this decade comes to a close, you might be surprised how much personal influence you could have on who survives and stays in business — right from your living room or desktop.

Jason Noble is a veteran Louisville musician, comic book savant, record store clerk and general superhero to more up-and-coming musicians than he probably knows. He’s written for LEO periodically over many years. Contact him at leobeat@leoweekly.com