The State of the Union (musically, that is…) Part 2

In a sense, what the world wants is exactly what the world gets, one could say.  As the public makes certain artists famous, those choices reflect on the values and sensibilities of the collective cultural consciousness.  With the current climate of music, the answers are not simple as to what happened that got us here and how do we get out.  Besides, who knows if the collective “we” wants to get out anyway? 

First, economics always has a lot to do with what happens in the music industry.  Through CD sales collapsing and piracy running rampant, the major record companies are continually losing money.  Therefore, the money is not there to really develop new and groundbreaking artists.  If an artist is really innovative, it involves a legitimate risk to market and put them out there.  It may also take time for that type of artist to break.

When art is truly different, it will initially be met with resistance.  (Perhaps people don’t remember anymore that Decca Records passed on signing the Beatles once upon a time.)  Today, we primarily see new performers who may stray from the already existing formula just a smidgen with a tiny bit of their own stylistic flare, but we need revolution!  Not just a little window dressing on the same old room.

Today, record companies don’t usually give artists more than one record to make it.  Either you become a hit expeditiously fast, or you’re out of the game.  Back in the day, an artist could potentially have up to 3-5 albums to find their audience.  Now, with the pace of pop culture being so much faster, along with such a shortage of money to spend on developing new talent, an artist will probably get one shot and that’s it.  In addition, it is less likely for a new artist to get financial tour support from the record company to be able to build a live audience.  Before, having financial tour support offered by the record company used to be a vehicle for many acts of the past to grow a sizable fan base throughout time. 

On top of the economic factors, the avenues for new music to be exposed to a LARGE audience have greatly dried up.  In the 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll boom, it was the 45-RPM single record and AM radio that allowed new artists all over America to explode onto the scene overnight.  With FM rock radio of the sixties, lots of great underground artists became exposed to big audiences who may have missed their calling if AM singles-based radio still maintained a stranglehold on pop music.  Thank God it didn’t!!  With early MTV, it became the biggest radio station in the world and ushered in many new eras.  We forget that for most of the 1980’s and 1990’s it was a simple formula – to make it, you needed to get your video in heavy rotation on MTV.  That formula for success now is convoluted and unclear to anyone in the business.  The entire music industry is scrambling to find a way to make it work, as the major labels are seeing less and less revenue with no seeming solution in sight.  Record companies are laying off thousands of employees, while MTV and VH1 hardly play music videos any more.
So video has largely become a dead medium, as the record companies are less likely to spend money on something that doesn’t really sell product.  Or, if a major label spends money on a video for a new artist, it is from a generic pedestrian point of view (where you see the artist name multiple times in the video – get it kiddies, it’s the name of the band and you better remember it), as the money isn’t there to spend on cutting edge clips.  Instead, we get to see “New York” AKA Tiffany Pollard go to Hollywood and attempt to become an actress and singer overnight, along with other staged reality TV shows. 

Record stores are becoming a dying breed.  How I remember being in high school and rushing to the record store to listen to what was new and purchasing as many records as I could afford.  Other kids were there, and people could come together, share music and ideas about what was going on.  There is something delightfully grassroots about a local record store – as it fuses community together with music.  Radio stations are becoming a corporate monopoly in this country, which means that there are less options to get your music on the radio and be heard.  With so many avenues of large exposure drying up for new artists, especially innovative ones, the question needs to be asked, “Where is the action and the excitement that is needed to keep popular music on the cutting edge, or does it even exist at this time?”

It seems that the biggest venue for an artist to find a huge audience right now is through American Idol.  Yet this show does not primarily promote artists who are innovative or who have a unique vision of their own.  They may sing pretty well, and occasionally quite well, and in rare instances, even write songs, but what about their ability to create a new aesthetic through songwriting, appearance, performance and production? 

This show is primarily a throw back to the early 1950’s pop music period where singers were just that – singers.  They didn’t write songs or create a whole new sensibility – they did what they were told to do, by the writers, producers, record companies and their handlers – meaning, those who were in control.  And sure, once American Idol contestants “make it,” they’ll fight with the record company to try and forge an identity of their own – some will be successful at it like Kelly Clarkson has been while others won’t, but they mostly come to us without a real message or vision to begin with.  But if you doubt the show’s success and influence, consider this:  The artist Daughtry, who was a fourth-place Idol finalist, has sold 3,907,841 copies of his debut album as of March 2008.  Kelly Clarkson, the very first American Idol, is now a Grammy Award winner.

Besides American Idol, You Tube and My Space are certainly great vehicles for today’s new artists, and occasionally some new musicians break through, but it is hard to really garner big results in such a complex and convoluted landscape.  Yet, with both of these mediums having an open ended aesthetic, it bodes quite well for artists who are innovative, or at least, different from the “sheep herd” mentality that is so prominent in the current state of the union. 

It is wonderful to see a video from a kid in their basement alongside a Madonna video!  Both You Tube and My Space at lease help to somewhat level the megastar playing field for new artists.  But still, though, facts are facts, as the music industry has shrunk dramatically – and that can be proven simply by the numbers – sales are down and there seems to be no indication that those numbers are coming up at all at this time.

Coming up next: Part 3 – Me, me, me and the machine

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