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The New Music Dilemma

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You can’t get traction. And everybody who says they’re a worldwide star known by everyone is lying.

Music used to be a controlled marketplace. The big hurdle was distribution. Retail paid incredibly slowly, and they tended to only pay those with a continuing conveyor belt of product. So if you were an indie, even if you could get your record into a retail store and it sold, the odds of getting paid were low, and if you had a hit it would put you out of business. You’d be manufacturing and shipping new product to fulfill orders and then you wouldn’t get paid. Music was a sleazy business, a street business, contracts could be irrelevant. It all came down to money, force and relationships.

Relationships are everything. But when the music industry was built you had to actually see and know the people you were dealing with. Ergo conventions. You did business on the phone. Today’s younger generation does business via e-mail, iMessage…oftentimes they have never even met the people on the other side, sometimes they’ve never even talked to them! Talk to an experienced agent, they’re stunned how quiet it is in the office, everybody’s just on their computer.

And relationships were king at radio. Especially after the crackdown on payola a few decades back. Stations didn’t want to risk dealing with indies. Furthermore, radio knew major labels had the resources to support a hit if it took off.

And then MTV made hits worldwide, bigger than ever before and then…

The internet came along and blew up the whole thing, and it’s never been the same since.

We live in a pull culture. Everything is on demand. You take what you want when you want it. In addition, if someone is pushing something on you you’re turned off. You hate advertising, you do your best to avoid it. The only people you trust are your friends, even Pitchfork was sold to Condé Nast. As for online influencers? They whored themselves out for the bucks years ago, they might make entertaining content, but you can’t trust a word they say.

Now the classic rock acts made their bones in the old era, which is why they can still do such good business, why their tunes are still in demand. But if you made it after let’s say 2005, with MTV and VH1 dead, it’s a very different world. The internet turned a tight knit society into a Tower of Babel. You used to be proud you were an outsider. Now if you’re an outsider, you might as well be Pluto, which was demoted from being a planet, so far out there and so small that we don’t even care about it, never mind think about it. Rebelling in culture, being dictatorial about choices, approving what should be listened to, is completely passé.

But there is still a hit business run by old men to appeal to young kids. Young kids haven’t seen the trick, it’s new to them. They’re susceptible to the hype. They’re building their identity. They want to own something, which is why you can’t take a kid to any kind of store, they want EVERYTHING!


As for the oldsters… They know there’s always a hit from the past that’s better than the ones in the present. Forget that the Doors and Led Zeppelin are forever, the most memorable track of the past decade was “Blurred Lines,” and I won’t get into the copyright issue whatsoever, but in truth it was based on a Marvin Gaye song that wasn’t even one of his big hits!

And now the common belief is that anybody can make music. You can buy your beats online and then rap over them. Very democratic, not very interesting. It’s like YouTube, we have endless bandwidth but very little that deserves attention, that blows up, that gets traction.

Not that the major labels don’t have some power, but they blow up what independent artists have made headway with. Think about that, the major labels don’t sign inexperienced artists, don’t develop them and only work with that which the audience has already approved of. If it’s new and different, the type of stuff the labels used to sign and stay with until it broke through, the majors want nothing to do with it. It’s too expensive and the odds are long.

This happened first in the movie business. Major studios started making and releasing fewer pictures. The marketing costs were just too high. And small pictures got smaller, they required marketing in excess of production costs and they almost never blew up and returned beaucoup bucks, so the studios got out of that business, which is now supported by the streaming services. Still, movies are more expensive to create than music and there are a limited number of slots for them. There’s an unlimited number of slots for music!

As for exhibition… Every streaming outlet promotes a top list, but most of their audience doesn’t care about it. It’s not the Top Forty of the sixties, varied, it’s all singular. And if you don’t like that kind of music you don’t listen.

And hit country music is more formulaic than pop stuff, with a lot less interesting lyrics. So, the mainstream is a backwater.

And the rest of the stuff?

There’s a great station on Sirius, XMU. It’s kind of like the college radio of yore, back before colleges sold off their stations, but you hear a great track and you wonder…AM I THE ONLY ONE WHO KNOWS ABOUT THIS?

This is a huge problem in music. We don’t want to be out there alone, we want context, we want to be a member of the club, and if there is no club, we’re probably going to go someplace where there is one. We want to belong. It’s human nature. Singularity is death. It’s the same way in politics, you’re on one side or the other. And if you’re afraid of being judged, you just say you’re an independent, even though you usually vote one way or the other, usually Republican. That’s another thing, we can’t take the temperature of the public. Trust NO research, none at all. The people who will talk to pollsters, fill out online forms, are a self-selecting group. Leaving out most people with a life who don’t want to blow time working for free. Which is why election forecasting is no longer trustworthy. But if they can’t get it right on elections, with all that money and “expertise,” what are the odds they can get it right on any other subject? Essentially nil. Which is why Steve Jobs never did research, he trusted his gut, because when something resonates with your gut, there’s a good chance it will resonate with someone else’s. And to make it in today’s overstuffed world something must be great and resonate.


Which is almost nothing in the music world.

Adele? “30” is not in the league of yesteryear’s pop music, not even close. Which is why Morgan Wallen’s “Dangerous” was the biggest album (in this case double album) of last year. Just listen to it! The songs are catchy, they’ve got changes, you can sing along. This is what people are looking for, Wallen did not blow up because of those on the right supporting him after he was canceled, it’s just the music. Aaron Lewis’s right wing b.s. song got no traction, and neither did those “Let’s Go Brandon” songs, novelties that got some ink and then promptly fell off the iTunes chart, a backwater unto itself. If someone is quoting iTunes numbers, forget them.

So how can the new music problem be solved?

NOT EASILY!

It demands great music and commitment, and we’ve got little of both.

Let’s start with the second issue. No one today takes the long view, no one can delay gratification. Stay off social media and practice your instrument alone? FORGET IT!

Take years to support a new and different artist before rewards are reaped? The label isn’t interested in that, it’s got to make its quarterly numbers.

In other words, there’s no investment in the future, and when this happens an industry withers. Like the new music industry.

A new and different hit sound? That used to happen every three or four years, maybe five. We haven’t had a new sound in TWENTY YEARS!


And it’s harder than ever to reach people and even if people bite it takes forever to spread the word, possibly years, because there’s so much in the channel, so many other choices and diversions. And people believe that music is a juvenile backwater that deserves little attention, they’d rather watch streaming television, which they can talk about. When was the last time we had a “Squid Game” in the music business…GNARLS BARKLEY? Most people are not interested in the Weeknd and they’re not listening to Adele either, if they’re listening at all it’s to the oldies, which they already know and are better.

Meanwhile, on TV singing shows, which stopped minting stars eons ago, if they did at all, songs are king, But some of today’s hits don’t even have a chorus, they’re sans melody, you can’t sing them whatsoever!

And who was the mastermind of the last big breakthrough? Lou Pearlman, who wasn’t even in the music business. A hustler crook just like the old record men. He saw a hole in the business and poured umpteen dollars into making his acts successful. And they became so, selling more CDs in their initial week than any acts before them. Just ask Clive Calder, who became a billionaire based on Pearlman’s hits and has never ventured into the music business again, who took his money and went home! Lucian Grainge? He’s not in the league of Clive Calder, who with his compatriots Ralph Simon and Mutt Lange started off making soundalike records in South Africa and then moved to the U.K. and conquered the business. You see those three knew the fundamentals, they saw the complete landscape, Mutt could make hits with AC/DC as well as Shania Twain and Michael Bolton. Who has that experience today?

Oh, that’s right, Max Martin, who Pearlman gave a chance with his bands and still rules two decades later. But Max learned in school, and not only do we not have these specialized schools in America, we’ve eradicated arts programs from the rest of them. And where they support the arts, like Canada…those are the countries that generate the hits.

So it always comes down to songs. Verses, choruses and bridges. Melody. Riffs. You start with the basics and grow from there. But we’re so far from the garden all the flowers have died.

You can’t turn the ship of new music around in a day. It will take YEARS!

First, we have to show acts we’re interested in their experiments, then we have to market them, which is a slow, difficult process.

But what we’re really looking for is that one great act. One great act can change everything. Something new and different that changes the whole scene. The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, outsiders so great the audience flocks to them. We’re absent these artists today, and until we have them new music is gonna be in trouble, because it’s got to compete with the greats of the past, which used to fade away but now they’re just a click away on the streaming service.

As for streaming outlets? They hype what the majors will commit to, they’re the new radio stations. But it’s a circle jerk of small-minded, small market stuff, which most people don’t care about, it’s hard to grow a business on that

And it used to be music was a license to get rich. Not anymore, not on a big time level, which is why all the innovators, the square pegs in round holes, go elsewhere. And all VC money left music after the labels held them back by not licensing their music. You want innovation? Go somewhere else.

I mean the industry could band together, have a record of the week, that everybody would be interested in checking out. But the industry doesn’t want this, because the track would have to be a one listen smash and most of what they sell isn’t.

But we’ve still got the classics, just like we’ve got Beethoven, Bach and Mozart. The fact that the public wants these old classic acts is a GOOD THING! We’ve just had trouble making new classics.

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