For some time now, we’ve offered the observation that the entire sh-thump-thud, revolving-door-rehab, pop-tart-du-jour, Britney Lohan thing is soooo over, and that for a long time, everybody has known it except Big Music and their single paradigm of the only thing they know how to market.
If you’re wondering, we use capital letters for Big Music because it’s like Big Oil: not a single enterprise (or an enterprise at all) but a monolithic presence that has its own esoteric standards with little or nothing to do with meaningful consumer choice or anything sustainable. Certainly, both those "Big" entities are obsessed with what’s good for maintaining themselves in absolute control, regardless of what anyone else (i.e., not in control) thinks of them and their collective fiefdoms. Sure, their towers are no longer ivory, and for a while now they’ve seemed more like Fort Apaches, because they’ve run inside, manned the parapets, and they shoot anything that moves out there. And until all our money went to bailing-out their corporate-parents’ investment bankers, everyone outside the fiefdoms enjoyed watching them crumble and take with them the money-grubbing enemies of art and sustainable culture.
But the default mode of those isolated big shots continues to be short-term-profit-taking business models and consolidated, conglomerated operations that are "too big to fail." In the case of Big Music, that has nothing whatsoever to do with art. Yes, all that’s simplistic, but it essentially explains everything you hear on Big Music’s corporate mega-giant owned big labels and their incestuous partners, the payola-driven radio stations.
Before we lose you to an uncomfortable inclination that you just read a hopelessly radical and inflammatory remark, please give us a moment. The cyber revolution is coming to finally fulfill its oft-hyped, seldom-realized promise to change everything.
First, let’s look at why it must come.
It’ll Change Because It’s All Out of Whack, And We Can Prove It
In the Los Angeles area alone, live performances of roots / folk-Americana / acoustic Americana / and acoustic renaissance music overwhelmingly outnumber live music performances in ALL other genres, combined. Not by some narrow margin, but often by multiples. The Acoustic Americana Music Guide (http://acousticamericana.blogspot.com) presents news and statistics that prove that again and again, every week of the year. And that’s just the beginning.
“For the average music fan, the only great questions always are, how do I find: (1) music that I’ll like, (2) music that I might part with some bucks to buy, so I’ll have it whenever I want to hear it, (3) new (and previously-released) music by those same artists, once I’ve found them, (4) music by others who are as good as the artists that thrill me, since it’s increasingly unlikely I’ll turn on the radio and ever find anyone who thrills me? A fifth question, in a venue-rich town like LA, is when and where can I hear that artist perform, since I like their recorded music so much?”
Listening to the radio, especially in LA, you sure wouldn’t know that those related kinds of live acoustic and folk-Americana music are ubiquitous here. Likewise, the LA Times and the LA Weekly all but ignore the most-performed genres of music in this town. Presumably, club owners and venue bookers are rational business people who need to pay the help, the rent, the light bill, and who want to be in business next week. Yet they are choosing to present music that cannot be heard on LA radio and is ignored by LA’s mainstream media. Astonishingly enough, people find the music anyway, because they want it. They are motivated to seek – and attend – all those live shows in so many venues. Seems many "non-mainstream" artists can draw a crowd. Moreover, the underground is orders of magnitude bigger than what’s on the surface.
The Local PBS and NPR Disconnects: Will They Be Left in the Dust?
PBS pledge drive specials are heavily inclined toward folk-Americana music specials, with no counterparts during the regular season. That’s especially true for LA’s PBS flagship, KCET, which had the gall in its recent pledge drive to claim, "In Southern California, only KCET airs the complete PBS lineup."
Simply untrue. Only KLCS, the Los Angeles Unified School District’s PBS station, airs Austin City Limits in LA. And KCET ignores other roots music offerings that other cities see. One wonders why, given that those roots music shows are such pledge magnets, that’s the only time we see them on KOCE and KCET? Somebody doesn’t get it, and whenever that happens, opportunity arises for someone else to fill the gap. Any local affiliate should wonder how long before boxee.tv enables all of us to escape cable lineups, station scheduling, and local programming exclusions, anyway?
Still, public television is not expected to be a primary a medium for music programming. But it’s just the opposite with radio. At least, it should be.
Let’s take examples from LA’s two NPR affiliates. National Public Radio – NPR – is the radio counterpart to PBS-affiliated public television. Both of LA’s NPR affiliates, KPCC and KCRW, are resolute about buying only the American Public Media / NPR "talk" packages, and both eschew the rich offerings of music packages available to them as NPR affiliates. Under a great deal of pressure from listeners after a sudden format change, KPCC did manage to pry A Prairie Home Companion from one of the music packages in which it lives, making it the sole NPR music program on Los Angeles radio. Otherwise, it wastes a perfectly good FM signal on talk. So, no one in this town has ever heard of Thistle and Shamrock, the world’s most popular Celtic music show, because only an NPR affiliate is eligible to air it, and neither of ours will.
There’s a clincher in this. Preferences aside, yours or ours, none of those decisions by LA broadcast stations make a bit of sense as business positions. KPCC refuses to consider any other music shows, yet its cash cow in pledge drives is A Prairie Home Companion. On public TV, KCET and KOCE both rake-in the pledges when they air the Pete Seeger, or Bruce Springsteen roots-Americana, or John Denver, or any (of the four) Celtic Woman specials at pledge drive time (the only time you can see any of those shows here).
Then, there’s this head-scratcher. KCRW hasn’t been folk-friendly in recent memory. Yet they produced a special, McCabe’s at Fifty Years, that featured gems of performances and interviews recorded live in conjunction with the beloved venue’s famous concert series. It aired last Thanksgiving Day, ran again on New Year’s Eve, and was recently nominated for a National Entertainment Journalism Award. Not only did the special bring music from iconic artists not heard on the station in decades, and many new ones not otherwise heard on that station, but it quickly became the most popular special the station has aired in years. Yet KCRW has no interest in finding room in its music programming for a show that would play well to that same audience.
All that offers important examples for how the gatekeepers of music just don’t get it. No doubt the influence of Big Music is the chief reason why. The industry has behaved like a hungry octopus, extending its tentacles into everything, and attempting to strangle whatever isn’t part of itself.
The net effect of all that? Anyone who presumes to determine for others what we should hear by promoting the insipid and dismissing the "obscure" music that we go out to experience live, just doesn’t get it, and those who don’t get are making themselves irrelevant. Now, if you think you see it coming that you’re about to read the next line and say, "I’ve-been-there-before" – if you expect yet another rehash of the argument that the anarchy of the web is its own patternless model, that’s not where we’re going. Bear with us. We’re coming to something quite specific.
Big Music’s Failed Business Model
With the rise of CD technology and mp3 downloads, the question in and out of the industry is always, "So, what is the face of music’s future?" Increasingly, and with a few notable exceptions, it’s indie – the independent, not-on-a-major-label musicians. That statement isn’t new or revealing, but the reason behind it may be. That’s where artful music-making can come first, and business is a necessary externality to enable it.
Why is that simple point so central? Because the alternative is Big Music, where business trumps art, where the fear-based, sound-the-bugle, types scream either about "internet anarchy" or the need to totally control music on the web. They fail to understand why their relentless have-it-all-their-way efforts clash with the spirit that drives indie music and that, for the indies, it isn’t primarily about money. That has made the industry a sluggish beast that is unable to adapt, and hesitant to risk trying anything it isn’t already doing, except to recklessly try to control things it doesn’t understand, but thinks might be a threat. Collectively, the incestuous partners of Big Music – big labels and corporate radio – have simply lost the ability to find and sign and present the best of today’s talented musicians, in just about any genre, who write and perform original music.
The corporate label side of Big Music is all about grinding out more of the same, like sausages with high fat content. And making sure that none of it is "too good" (an exact quote we’ve heard repeatedly from industry insiders). They simply can’t risk anything being too good. If you’re dumbfounded with a bunch of "whys," their business model is simple: if the only product they present is not memorable, then it has a short shelf life, people tire of it, and Big Music can sell you more unmemorable stuff with a quick turnaround time. After all, the corporate labels won’t sign anyone who does anything else, so where could you hear anything but what they know how to market to you? Thus, we get lyrically insubstantial and intentionally disposable pop, driven by a business model based on the idea that if you get tired of it sooner, there’s another 99-cent download waiting to replace the last one with something else you’ll be ready to discard in a week. Except that the number of people who are buying that stuff is an ever-diminishing market share.
Since the earliest days of recorded music – those cylindrical wax Edison records, the RCA dog listening to his master’s voice, the 78s, the 45s, the LPs, 8-tracks and cassettes – everyone knew that you could project ahead 20 years to a high school reunion and play 20 or 30 songs from the period, and couples would embrace because "they’re playing our song." Whether it was "A Bicycle Built for Two" or "As Time Goes By," or "Come Together" or "Annie’s Song," or Bob Dylan or Tom Petty or Johnny Cash or Linda Ronstadt, every partial generation has had a short list of enduring pop music that was the stuff of "our song." But it’s hard to imagine that being true for anyone coming of age with today’s top 40 pop. It’s intentionally disposable.
As for the centrally-programmed, over-consolidated, commercial radio side of Big Music, anyone inside the business can tell you that big radio is ruled by payola (regardless of what they call it, it’s payola). Even more than its deepening failure in bringing you what you already know you like, and not driving you away with far too many commercials and annoyances, it has all but sacrificed its once-key role in helping you find good stuff you’re going to like.
The Fan, The Artist, and Why the Presumed New Model Hasn’t Worked – Yet
For the average music fan, the only great questions always are, how do I find: (1) music that I’ll like, (2) music that I might part with some bucks to buy, so I’ll have it whenever I want to hear it, (3) new (and previously-released) music by those same artists, once I’ve found them, (4) music by others who are as good as the artists that thrill me, since it’s increasingly unlikely I’ll turn on the radio and ever find anyone who thrills me? A fifth question, in a venue-rich town like LA, is when and where can I hear that artist perform, since I like their recorded music so much?
The nebulous answer that’s often given, without regard to any actual question, is the web. But let’s get real. CD Baby alone has over 300,000 different CDs. About a half-million different CDs, altogether, are out there. If you take the approach of the 99-cent single-song download, multiply those half-a-million albums by 13, the average number of tracks on an album. That’s over six-and-a-half-million tunes, and, at an average length of three and a half minutes per track, you would need to listen continuously for more than 43 years to hear each of them just once.
Yet with all that diverse variety, Big Music can’t find anything to offer but soundalike sh-thump-thud, revolving-door-rehab, pop-tart-du-jour crap?
In fact, Big Music is somewhat protected by the sheer inundation of CD and mp3 based recordings, since it is just overwhelming to everyone who seeks to find or promote anything new.
Some music fans seek input, even guidance, from music journalists. On behalf of myself and colleagues I know and don’t know, we are all humbly grateful that you have at least a passing regard for what we do, whether that’s in print or on the web. Not one of us is able to explore more than the tip-of-the-tip of a very few icebergs. And as Big Music melts down, having lost control of their environment, their once unified ice pack continues to fragment more and more, filling the musical sea with ever-increasing numbers of those bergs. Unusual analogy for music, but does it illustrate fragmentation across something far too vast to see as a whole, from any perspective?
Obviously, a new paradigm is overdue, and we’ve argued that it must be characterized by multiplicities of sensibilities to music and genres. We once thought that satellite radio would play a key role, but then the realities took hold, that the systems as deployed really weren’t able to accommodate much variety, after all. Then came the absence of competition since the Sirius / XM merger, and the dirty little secret that all of Sirius plus all of XM is more programming than either system can handle if each becomes the other’s clone. Hence, less consumer choice, not more. Then came the business failure of that monopoly and, therefore, the entire medium. It doesn’t look good.
So the people are getting what the people want but only at live performances, and the music industry, which has proven incapable of "getting it" at all levels, still controls what you hear on the radio, which is not what you are going out to hear, performed live. That, added to al else we’ve surveyed here, has got to make the world ripe with opportunity for change.
And Now for That Promised Cyber Acoustic Future
There IS something that will almost certainly supplant everything else, the way the telephone supplanted the telegraph. It requires the next great leap in cyber technology, and that’s coming. What we envision offers profit potential so great, for somebody, that it can’t be all that far in the future.
That next great leap will be the ability to receive streaming internet radio in your car, and on any portable device, anywhere, very cheaply or free, and in real time.
But it’s no slam-dunk, even if the technology arrives and performs flawlessly. For starters, the entrenched powers-that-be might attempt to block it or price it out of existence with new-media royalties and licensing fees. We went down that road in Big Music’s last war to exterminate web radio with fees so high that no one could pay them. Even the current uneasy accommodations are far from settled there. Universally-streaming, get-it-anywhere, web-based radio could face fees that would be prohibitively exorbitant – unless, of course, the content presenters of new-cyber accept the old status quo model of presenting only what is propelled by Big Music payola, enabling the industry hand that pays them to pay the industry hand collecting money from them.
Currently, while there are several models, a primary one for presenting music on web radio requires making royalty payments based party on the number of listeners. The more popular your show, the more it costs to webcast it.
But Will They Price it Out of Existence?
Of course, right from the starting gate, go-anywhere web radio cannot be priced like a cell phone bill. It must be so ubiquitous that reception is never an issue, and that capability will necessitate infrastructure of some kind. Will they become a subscription, like satellite radio? Or will it bring advertising to its programming? Either would work, but not both. Paying to listen to commercials, while it works for TV, won’t fly with radio. But those aspects have useful models.
All around, Big Music’s demands for money are a seriously limiting factor. Web-based radio, as it exists now, has miniscule listenership. It’s limited by lack of portability and the constraints placed on its content by the threat of hefty fees and charges. The medium’s small audiences cause the advertising revenues to be low, making the fees more than can be raised. That’s why nearly all web radio offers only original indie music for which the artists have signed waivers, declining their rights for publishing and performance royalties. But if a web-based show plays an indie doing a Bob Dylan cover, or Willie Nelson singing his own song, royalty payment demands are forthcoming, together with fines because licensing wasn’t paid up-front. And don’t expect those iconic artists to sign waivers. They can’t. Their Big Music labels won’t allow it.
We still don’t where one thing will go. Big Music has even sought to demand and collect all the fees and royalties "for the good of the industry" whenever an indie artist has signed a waiver. Sort of like prostitutes demanding money anytime anyone, anywhere, has sex.
The necessity to dodge fees results in a characteristic of nothing-but-waivered music. Together with its limited portability, that’s given us the dirty little secret of web radio: it is a broad pond that is very shallow. Its programs each have tiny numbers of listeners. That’s directly determined by web radio content creators’ inability to pay those royalties, and payments are necessary to offer familiar touchstones to listeners – touchstones being iconic artists and iconic songs. The icons are (or were) all on big labels when they had hits, and the labels own the publishing rights.
Infinite Choice for Listeners is the Key
Next, what of the listener, and will this really work for them? As it is right now, the average person quickly finds web radio’s waivered music a bewildering sea of the unfamiliar, lacking all familiar songs that might be navigational aids. Even if you hear something you really like, four unfamiliar songs later and you’ve forgotten the name of that unfamiliar artist and the name of that unfamiliar song. That state of continuous bewilderment, together with lack of portability, are, it seems, asking too much of the average person.
The psychology of familiar touchstones cannot be underestimated. If you approach a stream, you’ll cross if you see protruding dry rocks within stepping distance of one another, but you won’t if all you see is the swirling water. That’s why successful programming needs to include something familiar, every few songs. Touchstones are the umbilical to comfort zones. But to include iconic music, if you play, you pay.
By now, you’re asking why anybody would think that Big Music would ever allow any of this to change. But it will, ultimately, because their octopus tentacles will prove unable to control it. Everything will change with in-your-car web radio reception, simply because listeners will choose between commercial broadcast radio’s nineteen minutes per hour of commercials-and-clutter-and-Big-Music-mandated-crap, or NPR’s droning umpteenth rehash of "talk package" blah-blah-blah, or unknown indies on a deep niche channel of your favorite genre on Live 365 or Pandora or Osh or WUMB’s webstream or FolkAlley.
If that isn’t already enough, driving down the road or stuck in traffic on the 405, every time there are too many commercials on broadcast radio, or too much boring blah-blah-blah on the NPR-affiliate/talk radio, who wouldn’t hit the button for the endless supply of unknown indies specifically in the genre(s) of music you want?
If the deal still isn’t closed, it’s really no choice at all, with your car’s Garvin or a similar satellite traffic monitor. You won’t need to do the Russian-roulette-pushbutton-search of local radio to find alternate routes that avoid SIG alerts while getting aggravated by traffic reports for all the freeways you are not on.
Thus, web radio in your car will change everything. Unless? Well, unless Big Music pre-positions itself to get control and ruin it. And if they do, the change will happen, anyway. Internet music broadcasting would simply "move" to say, North Korea and Cuba, beyond the tentacles of the octopus. We predicted that exact thing in these pages three years ago, when Big Music first tried to exterminate music on web radio.
The genie, already out of the bottle, will board the magic carpet wherever necessary. With your new cyber-receiver in your car, you can get whatever "it" you want, once it’s on the web, regardless of its apparent place of origin. That is, you can get it unless you’re someplace that suppresses its own people when they want to access the web – like they do inside North Korea and Cuba – or anyplace where Big Music gains control. Or the illusion of control.
As it always does, as it always must, art finds a way. You cannot lock it in a box, whether or not that box is filled with circuits.
Think of it. What’s coming will change everything. You will get in your car, you will drive wherever you want, and you will be able to easily hear music that will again be listenable, with melody lines and harmonies and meaningful lyrics. Will more people opt for deep-niche specialties? Sure, but it’s more likely that the influence of those genres will change programming as a whole. The next pop stars will be more like the current singular aberrations. More like Nora Jones or Alison Krauss. (Is Big Music still trying to explain-away Alison Krauss’ Grammy? No matter. They don’t get it, and they’re done, anyway.) Bye-bye pop tarts and intentionally-disposable thud-thud-thud and poster children for bad behavior.
Once truly portable web radio technology arrives, everyone will demand it. The days are numbered for Big Music’s deciding what we will be able to hear.
In another two or three years, we might all be listening to a wholly new kind of fresh, radio-friendly acoustic pop from artists you’ve never heard of (what a concept: musical ARTISTS). It’ll be rootsy, it’ll be innovative. It’ll come from youthful new artists like Skeyler Kole (www.myspace.com/skyelerkole), and from many who are accomplished but hard to find, like Susie Glaze (www.susieglaze.com) and Stephanie Bettman (www.stephaniebettman) and Nicole Gordon (www.nicolegordon.net) and Marina V (www.MarinaV.com) and Kat Parsons (www.katparsons.com) and Amilia Spicer (www.amiliaspicer.com) and Manda Mosher (www.mandamosher.com).
And we haven’t even gotten to the bands, like I See Hawks in L.A. (www.iseehawks.com) and VOCO (www.myspace.com/vocoinfo) and Lisa Haley & the Zydekats (www.bluefiddle.com) and Cliff Wagner & The Old #7 (www.oldnumber7.net).
Or to the duets, like Lowen & Navarro (www.lownav.com) and Fur Dixon & Steve Werner (www.furandsteve.com).
Or to the male solo artists, like Dave Stamey (www.davestamey.com) and Sourdough Slim (www.sourdoughslim.com) and James Lee Stanley (www.jamesleestanley.com) and John Batdorf (www.johnbatdorfmusic.com) and Roy Zimmerman (www.royzimmerman.com) and Brett Perkins (www.brettperkinspresents.com).
And there are so many, many more we will hear on the power-to-the-people reinvention of radio. Many wonderful, delightful, moving artists, for whom the title of artist is deserved and appropriate. They’re all out there, and even for those who have enjoyed successes with their originals, or their live performances, or their recordings, all are struggling to have their music heard by people who will love it, if they ever get to hear it. Before long, maybe they will. This whole cyber thing can yet redeem itself.
You can read Larry’s Acoustic Americana Music Guide with its extensive descriptions of upcoming folk-Americana and acoustic renaissance performances, and its companion, the Acoustic Americana Music News; both are updated frequently at http://acousticamericana.blogspot.com. He contributes regularly to No Depression, at http://community.nodepression.com/profile/TiedtotheTracks. His acoustic Americana radio show, "Tied to the Tracks," enters national syndication this summer. Contact Larry at firstname.lastname@example.org.