Tales from the Jugular

The Atmosphere of the Record Industry

By: Frank Hill
Published: Friday, June 6, 2003
I've worked in two completely opposing jobs within the same field of Information Technology.

The first was a large company with a majority of them temp workers that they didn't have to pay benefits to. Nobody wanted to share ideas because they were all highly protective of their job and didn't want anyone else to get any kind of advantage over them. It was a stifling atmosphere without innovation.

The other place was very small and fairly stable and ideas floated around frequently. If you needed some help, you could practically yell out a question and get an answer yelled back. It was a great place to work as on an individual basis.

What does that have to do with the music business? It has to with the atmosphere of an industry.

There are about 270 million people in the U.S. and about 6 billion on the Earth, so it perks my interest somewhat when I hear stats that say only 30 new artists a year sell a million records. The music industry seems to always be in a state of finger pointing. From artists who spend millions and claim to be cheated out of more, to companies that use accounting tricks to keep small-time composers from getting just royalties, to fans that moan about the sorry state of radio; there's so much energy there that it's created a perpetual motion machine. Unfortunately, that machine is too often moved by greed and ego instead of the talented hands and minds that forged its existence.

Let me take a look at it from both sides on a sliding scale from one extreme to the other.

The Artist Side
The Personal Extreme: What would the pure artist do with his music? On the most extremely personal side, I would think that they would take the tune that's rolling around in their head, pull it out to their own performing needs and be as happy as a scratch is to an itch. They don't even need anybody else to hear it, but would we have a song industry if everybody felt that way?

The Sales Whore: What song can they obtain that will sell to the highest number of people possible? They could care less what song they buy from what publisher or steal from another artist as long as their cult of celebrity is maintained with their bank account. We'd have an industry full of lifeless, mechanical tunes. Maybe we could just program a computer to write everything for us.

The Company Side
The Commodity Broker Extreme: You may have just written "Let It Be", but to us all it is a piece of paper with marketing potential. We don't care what it says in a poetic sense; we care about if your words encourage listeners to buy. We're giving you the artist an advance of money because like a gambler or a stock broker we expect to get our money back with interest. You will sign this six record contract, so that we can have enough time to develop you away from a loss and everything you do for us will be considered as our property on a work-for-hire basis. There are 100 other bands I hear of daily that want your opportunity, so take it or leave it.

The Nice Guy Extreme: We love your band! They are awesome and we'd love to put the combined muscle of our company behind you to get your music out. Unfortunately, our muscles are growth stunted and we're pretty weak because we're too concerned with who is likeable to us instead of who could be profitable. We threw our money at too many failed ventures and can barely keep our heads above water.

As much as there is talk that record companies will be destroyed by file trading and Internet distribution, I think that there will always be speculators willing to give out money to musicians because there will always be artists that can't afford studio time, a producer, an engineer, airtime in media, a marketing plan, store space and every thing else a company provides. Kazaa and Grokster may have millions of users but if you don't know exactly what you're looking for they don't help much. Record companies in theory are supposed to go beyond word-of-mouth to help artists find the people that want their type of music and right now that doesn't exist in most peer-to-peer programs. Mega-artists have the media at their beck-and-call to announce new music, but the small timer doesn't.

Companies should be commended for helping get to me CDs I have stacked up by my stereo. I'm grateful for that, but a mass produced chair is just a mass produced chair and a song is more than just a commodity. Whether it be "Hotel California" or "Sick of You", it's still an original piece of human inspiration that moves us and makes us look at life in some new way. Making money is fine--Michelangelo and Da Vinci had patrons--but to deny songs as a work of Art is to ground-out our potential as humans. The soul of our collective culture rises with Art and our creative spirit isn't something you can squeeze into a formula as much as it's tried.

Artists--We know when you're faking it and we don't need your processed garbage played to us in heavy rotation over and over ad nauseum in order for us to buy. Put some passion into your music and we will open our hearts and wallets to you.

Maybe the Truth lies somewhere in between all the extremes of self-interest and if we can foster a more synergistic set of relationships we'd have a move optimistic industry and a better selection of songs developed for us all.

Maybe it's all about the atmosphere.

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