How MySpace killed the radio star and our collective musical culture
The internet keeps telling me what a good thing it is that major labels have lost control of the music business. You know: Digital recording lets musicians make inexpensive, professional-quality records at home. Online distribution allows bands to reach listeners without the interference of narrow-minded mainstream gatekeepers.Then how come music is such a train wreck? Visit MySpace and you're confronted by more than two million artists, presented in a way that gives equal weight to Bob Dylan and to primitive rants by some guy in a tinfoil hat. New music has disappeared from commercial radio. In an escalating race to anoint the next big thing, bloggers subject bands to withering scrutiny before they can even figure outwho they are. These days it seems that the best a new band can hope for is an anonymous music cue on Grey's Anatomy.An uneasy truth remains: The shared experience that made music so dominant in our culture was the transitory product of a combination of record-company influence and radio play, and that moment has passed. It's easy to list the ways that the record companies blew it: They ignored underground American rock for almost 20 years and almost missed out on the alt-rock explosion. They never rewrote their nonsensical recording contracts to give artists fair royalty accounting. Other than radio play, they never figured out a form of promotion that actually sold records. But there is no one who doesn't recognize the importance of the music they released in the 50 years after World War II.
How come music is such a train wreck?
The late Ahmet Ertegun cofounded Atlantic Records in 1947 with that most noble intention of avoiding a real job. He also wanted to record the exciting music he'd heard in black nightclubs. And as Atlantic recorded era-defining artists like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, profits were a welcome byproduct of the company's real business: making great music.The reputation grew with the business. When Jimmy Page made the first Led Zeppelin album, he gave it to Atlantic without approaching another label. When the Rolling Stones left Decca in 1969, every company in the world pursued them; others offered more money, but the Stones bonded with Ertegun over a shared collector-geek obsession with old blues and R&B recordings. It became one of the most successful relationships in business history.Ertegun ultimately joined corporate America, selling Atlantic to Warner Brothers once he was convinced that new chairman Steve Ross would keep out of the way. No one in the boardroom really understood what was going on in the music division, but so long as the profits kept rolling in, Ross didn't ask questions. And, for 20 years, Warner's corporate disregard for the details of the music business became the model for every successful major label.But the compact disc was the beginning of the end for this laissez-faire corporate oversight. The changeover from vinyl to CDs forced consumers to repurchase their entire music collections, bringing the record companies unprecedented revenue. That money also caught Wall Street's attention. By the mid-1990s, record companies had been absorbed by a new group of publicly traded companies for whom CDs were nothing more than widgets, and who looked at their music divisions and saw only mayhem and waste. There is an essential conflict between shareholder value and creativity, which is almost by definition an inefficient process. When your idea of success depends on orderly spreadsheets and predictable growth, music is a loser.The money available to actually pay musicians, studios, and engineers who know how to make records has also dried up. Labels still advance big money in pursuit of this quarter's pop hit, but even those records are mostly made in home studios with little outside input. It's as if Hollywood lost the nerve and the ability needed to make Lawrence of Arabia and Apocalypse Now and we were left with nothing but an endless loop of Kevin Smith movies.It's almost impossible to accept that the cultural forces behind "Heartbreak Hotel" and "I Wanna Be Sedated" have melted away, but they have. The infinite choices provided by the digital world are only useful if you already know what you want to hear. What's missing is the communal listening experience that gave 20th-century artists such great impact. Unless we invent some new form of broadcasting, we'll have to accept that music may have gone the way of literary fiction: loved by a niche market but never again the primary means of cultural expression. If I made television, I'd be paying attention.