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33 1/3
An Exploration of the History of Music & Critique of Current Movements

          Throughout its history the recording industry has profited enormously (and more often than not, unfairly) from the works of many diverse and talented artists. The story of record execs offering a pink Cadillac as compensation for an artist's work while the label and management quietly ran with the bulk of cash is certainly the most common and indicative of early business practices.
          The only real difference in dealing with major labels today is that you, as an upcoming artist, will know up front that you will be screwed when signing a standard contract. You won't own your masters, you will pay for everything (at a premium), you won't have control over your career and you will, after all is done, even after selling thousands of CDs, see only a relatively small percentage of profit while the label retains the majority. In a worst-case scenario you will end up in debt to the label, unable to get out of your contract for years.
          The recording industry has, through its monolithic business practices, repeatedly shown a tangible and impudent contempt not only for the artist, but for the music consumer as well - ironically, the very same people they depend upon to thrive and prosper. Unfair recording contracts, oligarchic control over artist image and creativity, over priced CDs, resistance to new consumer media technologies, unnecessary re-re-reissues of re-packaged releases have driven artists and consumers to seek out or to create and sustain viable and prospering alternate, independent d.i.y. outlets.
          For the industry, this is a dramatic and problematic shift from the necessity of their ruthless and unfair influence. The majors must realize their powers are flawed, but are either in denial of the real reasons why, or their corrupt system has become so engrained over the past century that they just can't formulate another modus operatus.
          This realization was particularly apparent at this years 17th annual South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. Thousands of bands and artists turned up for showcases to find major label execs and suits noticeably absent, unwilling (or unable) to gamble on the "next big thing" as in past years. The clichˇ frenzy of wheeling and dealing that was so prevalent and exciting in the past all but disappeared in a noticeable haze of major label downsizing, depression and pessimism. It's been rumored that the majors will layoff thousands of employees by this spring and release many of their acts from their contracts by the end of the year. What changes will arise, which artists and acts are nurtured and which will be let go will be interesting to witness.
          This, in of itself, is not all that remarkable considering our current economic state, pending war (as of this writing) and the reported decline in overall music sales during the past 2 years. The major labels and Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) are unanimous and very quick in blaming file sharing and CD burning as the biggest contributors to the drop in their CD sales. The RIAA has consistently waged a series of overtly aggressive, knee jerk campaigns to wipe the perpetuators of file sharing off the face of the net, shortsightedly missing out on a potentially invaluable marketing tool for a new generation. Is it really so black and white, this horrendous file sharing? Or is it possible that the industry has alienated so many proven talented artists and screwed so many others that their undoing is the result of their own shady doings?
          Many arguments have been made for and against file sharing, but is this practice really that damaging to the major labels profitability? The mantra of modern technology seriously threatening the profitability of the music industry is all too familiar. Way back in the day, home cassette recording was considered a major threat and the common theory held that rampant, unchecked copying of music was touted as "the END" for the industry and the artist alike. But profits still must have come in through the eighties and nineties. The industry obviously survived. People still purchased overpriced vinyl, overpriced cassettes and then overpriced CDs with apparent zeal.
          Maybe the majors somehow forgot that most people actually buy music, not units (CDs). For too long the majors created, market tested and force fed to us, ready to wear, copycat soft-core porn T&A girls, bare chested boy bands and gangster/pimpin/hustlin rappers. Ok, sometimes it's catchy and they're fun to watch almost like a show at the "All Girl Revue" (who doesn't want to see the two girls from Tatu making out - I can't remember the song, and I doubt I'll remember them next week). But they hawked such transparent, poorly written, overproduced "popular music" which saturated a market that is so ready and hungry for groundbreaking substance.
          All the Britneys, Christinas, Justins, Korns, et. al. still bring in the cash, courtesy of 13-17 year olds who are force fed what's hip by MTV and Clear Channel (the mega media corporation that programs and controls nearly every commercial music station in our country). The industry has done all it can to perpetuate the quick buck by creating a buzz around artists that have marginal talent, debatable longevity and substance to garner a long-term fan base. Do these artists really push the boundaries? Do they even create or write their own music? Where are the tangible young artists that a music lover and consumer can grow with? Remember the Spice Girls, or Mariah Carey?
          Meanwhile, the majors have also shown how good they are at alienating and losing many intensely creative artists with proven, loyal fan bases - to the point that the artist is compelled to be free of such shortsighted "bottom line" mentality. Prince, Paul Westerberg, Tom Waits, and many others have all had varying degrees of successes moving from the majors to independent labels. They are given far more artistic control in their works and careers as well as a far greater share in their profitability. They all took their fans with them and they're not coming back.
          The no show and perceived pessimism of the majors at SXSW is particularly telling when contrasted with the steady successes of growing independent artists, labels, publicists and alternative distribution networks. All are finding their audiences without the access that only a major once could offer. What is so amazing of this shift is that not very long ago it was far too costly and time consuming for artists en masse to afford to do this without major label influence and control. For an artist today, recording technology has become cheaper and marketing and distribution channels (free email, independent web music stores, artist controlled web sites and independent publicists) are easily accessible as well. This only bodes well for the music fan and performer as this allows artists to easily bypass the major labels and their illegitimate business practices completely.
          So, in effect, a 2nd industry has been quietly emerging, as much out of necessity of artists and fans as due to the major's insatiable greed and inability to develop a long term and technology friendly marketing scheme. The resistance to major labels and the d.i.y. groundwork laid by artists like Fugazi, Ani DiFranco and others has provided a valuable model for many talented artists wary of the majors. The artist friendly support of bigger independent labels like Matador, Epitaph and Sub Pop as well as smaller, artist run labels prove that major label influence is waning for both new and established artists.
          Duke Ellington once remarked that there are really only two kinds of music, the good kind and the other stuff. The reality is the one cannot exist without the other-even the "other stuff" of today may somehow become the "good kind" of tomorrow. Maybe there are only two kinds of music business as well. With committed artists and fans producing and seeking out the "good kind" through alternate media and independents, one can only hope the majors will begin to take their current slump to heart and begin to operate their business with more respect to their artists and consumers alike. It might pay to play.

         - Robert Garling
Robert is a freelance writer and creative musician currently residing in Mpls, MN.