Trying To Get To You

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

A Music Fan And Label Executive Writes In

A friend and contributor writes:

For the sake of full disclosure, I’ll get this first part right out of the away. I’ve worked for a record label in one way or the other since 1996. Amazingly, like mostly everyone left on the label side, I survived major label regime shake-ups, company consolidations, near-deranged executives stomping around expensive hallways with a false and exaggerated sense of self that would make Dick Cheney look like Mahatma Gandhi. And that was just in my first year as an Assistant.

In the 13 years that followed, I've watched the label business get shrunk to its core. To say that it’s a shadow of its former self is an understatement that can only be totally understood if you experienced major label life at the height of their power. As survivors (a badge not worn with honor, but more with a sense of numb mystification), we now spend our time taking bets on which major retail chain will be the next to go out of business. We do this mainly because betting on week 1 album Soundscan numbers lost its luster about a half decade ago. But I’m not here to talk about all that doom and gloom. There’s already enough of that to go around.

Feeling a little nostalgic, I’m here to reminisce about that magical time a decade ago when I spent most of my waking hours in my studio apartment glued to my computer downloading songs from Napster. On a 56K dial-up modem no less. Looking back it now, that moment in time had the same impact on me as my first CD purchase years before it. The album was Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut. I remember that day like it was yesterday. Figuring out how to get the wrapping off the blister pack…popping the disc in CD player and listening to the album for the first time in its entirety. I sat on an orange bean bag on the marble floor of our basement unable to move. And not because I was stoned, although that would have made it even better, but because the SOUND was so awe inspiring. And much like everyone else, I started re-buying the key album titles in my collection to try and re-capture that same moment. Over and over.

The Napster experience took it one step further. I now had access to everything. Dylan outtakes I’d only seen at Bleecker Records on expensive Italian bootlegs. They were now mine for the taking. All of them. Right away. Even on some studio recordings, it never occurred to me that the SOUND was many generations removed and that the files themselves were shitty compressed versions of their former selves. I didn’t care. And neither did anyone else outside of the hardcore sound geeks. Convenience trumped it all. And of course, this was in pre-iPod world.

In its own way, the infancy period of Napster was like going to a NYC strip club in the pre-Giuliani years and finding out that you COULD have sex in the champagne room if you could afford it. And not only could you afford it, you didn’t even have to be a Wall Street guy or a ball player. You actually walked out with the stripper’s real digits. And she returned your call! Silly analogies aside, in the years that followed, we now know that we (the record music biz) did everything mostly wrong. The list is too long and too painful to go over although for me, #1 with a bullet is still the RIAA’s idea of an attack campaign that essentially justified suing its own consumer base. Decision makers actually sat in a room, looked at each other and went “that’s a great idea!” And unbelievably so, some people even bought into it. A well-known manager (you won’t figure out who), once told me “The RIAA is doing a great job, they’re teaching kids a valuable lesson, because their parents aren’t telling them that what they’re doing is outright stealing.” My response back? “Hey do you know what kids in College dorms do if they have extra money? They buy a 500 gig drive. And fill it with content. Then another kid down the hall buys another external hard drive and they TRADE them…They don’t seem so scared to me…Maybe they’re scared anyone in their right mind would price a shitty album at $18.98 for 2 good songs. I mean shit; buy 5 of those suckers and you can get 40,000 songs in a box…for free!” The manager looked at me as if I’d just stolen his merch rights. But returning to the topic at hand, the actual reason for this missive isn’t actually so much about what we did wrong (and continue to do wrong) but about something else that indirectly ties into this mess we’ve found ourselves in for a decade now-- the death march of the album. Actually, forget about the march. It’s already buried. And believe me, I’m one to talk first hand; I own about 6,000 of them. CD’s that is.

The album experience in a pre-Napster world was a wonderful place indeed. Transformational works from Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Coltrane, Led Zeppelin, Public Enemy, Cash, Aretha, Miles, The Stones, Elton John, Nirvana changed the world. The list is long. But guess what…that world is now D.E.D. Finito. Over. Done. Will it come back? Maybe one day…but not anytime soon.

The album world has been a replaced by the record companies biggest fear—a world completely dominated by singles where the Digital Soundscan chart has literally replaced the Billboard Top 200 album chart as the chart to pay attention to. It’s probably the only chart left that actually has labels “oohing and ahhing” on Wednesday mornings when Flo-Rida or Eminem shatters a new digital single sales record. These #’s (400, 500, 600 thousand units sold) is precisely what the ALBUM chart used to be. Except for one minor detail…instead of building an $8, $10, or even $12 per unit business, we’re now surviving on a .60 cent per unit model.

10 years since the beginnings of Napster, the album has turned into the type of dead animal that you seeing rotting on the side of the road. It’s the type of cadaver that you want to slow the car down for just to get a good look at the corpse. What’s replaced it? A never-ending series of playlists - the modern day version of cassette mixtapes. And you know what; I’ve made my peace with it. I’ve found closure. Because at the end of the day, I’ve come to realize that I LOVE the idea of singles. And not necessarily singles per se, but individual, stand alone tracks. I don’t need ALL of Give ‘Em Enough Rope by The Clash. No really, I don’t. And I love the idea of p. Songs that you wouldn’t have DREAMT of putting side by side can now peacefully co-exist. And nobody has to know. And because the worldwide domination of the iPod has made music more insular than ever, we have no problem lining up artists and songs that really have no place being on the same set list so to speak, let along in the same iPod!

In a pre Napster world, no one would have dared to play certain songs out loud from fear of being made fun of or possibly humiliated. But now, it doesn’t matter. The idea of being ironic by including song X next to Y in your computer or digital player is no longer an issue. If anything, it’s become practical. The shame is gone. Because as it turns out…you actually LIKED those songs! You can now breathe easier and let go of that repressed feeling of “what would so and so think of me if they actually knew I was listening to a Loverboy song?”

Think I’m kidding? Check this out. Among the playlists I’ve created, I have one that I particularly love called AOR AND OTHER?! It includes 72 songs (some with commonality, some not) including tracks from April Wine, Visage(!), Asia, Plastic Bertrand (because time has been kind to “Ca Plane Pour Moi”, turns out it’s actually minor pop punk gem), Red Rider (“Lunatic Fringe”), Shooting Star (a mid-west minor league band who had 1 radio hit with “Hang On For Your Life”), Frida (from Abba) old Saxon, Genesis’ “Paperlate” (great pop song), R.E.O. Speedwagon (if Daughtry wrote a song like “Time for Me To Fly” people would shit themselves with excitement), Survivor (pre-“Eye Of The Tiger”) and the list goes on and on. Not to sound like Bill Clinton but let me just be perfectly clear about this…I find zero irony in any of these songs. I wouldn’t make devil horns to any of them. Not even to the colossal live version of “2 Minutes To Midnight”—as near to a Pop song as Maiden will ever get.

So what the fuck is my point? These songs make me feel good. Together, they create some type of retarded schizophrenic panoramic collection that no Razor & Tie compilation could have cooked up (love those too btw, so no diss here). Some of these songs could easily exist on a Kansas City classic rock station or on L.A.’s Jack FM. Some are just here because they’re insta memories. Wait, “No One Like You” from the Scorpions just came on.

Do I miss the album? Every once in a while. But not as much as I thought as I would. My modern-day version of the album has morphed into something different. It’s been replaced by digital bootlegs of outtakes/live albums and B-sides that I’ve amassed over the years. Those too have also been turned into variety of playlists or folders containing deeper playlists. Music, much like life itself has morphed into an A.D.D. blog-tastic type world where attention spans are rolled in 90 second sound bites. And trust me when I tell you that music networks (or what’s left of them) do research on this type of thing. It’s a proven fact. Because they’re not even so much competing with each other anymore, they’re competing with YouTube. And here again, that’s why playlists have become what they are. No one pays attention to anything anymore. We’re so completely messaged and devoid of patience that by compiling dozens and sometimes hundreds of songs into one continuous running order, we have the option to quickly skim through all of them. Just like we skim through a radio stations on a car stereo.

I should be bummed that my business has turned into the quagmire that it’s in, but who’s got the time? Not when I can make another New Wave Of British Heavy Metal playlist!


Anonymous said...

Nice post about coming to terms with the DOA (Death Of Albums). I think another analogy would be baseball's 90 foot distance between the bases.
It seems to work perfectly (like the album), but, we've never seen it any other way. On the other hand, music has been about individual tunes a lot longer than albums have been around.

LP's are an unnatural (though accepted) way of containing an artists output. Their length coming not from artistic considerations but from the physical capacity issues of the disc. Cd's only seemed to make it worse.
This is not to say that artists didn't make the best out of the album format and create work that fit it perfectly. For the most part though, music is created and listened to one song at a time.
So the death of the album is a back to the future thing in my mind.
I'm sure the album will live on, because 10 or 12 good songs is a nice number to catalog an artists output over 6 months or so.
In a lot of ways the LP was a convenience on arrival as didn't have to keep putting on new 78's every song, then there were changers so you didn't have to get up for hours.

Nowadays the LP seems like a chore to someone like my seven year old, but there was something about the process of selecting the LP, getting out of the chair to put it on, pulling out the vinyl, cleaning it, and placing the needle down on the record that added to the listening experience. First and foremost, you really needed to commit to listening. Secondly, it was likely that you would not multitask and really listen to the record.

The listening process is a little different now, for many, with music often used a a soundtrack for some other activity (activities). I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss, sitting on the couch and really drinking in a record.
You make a lot of great points on the demise of the biz that so exalted the LP, that the LP's demise is really hurting the biz.

So, I am a little conflicted on the death of the LP..I accept and even love the new digital way(s) of listening, but I can't help remember the joy and commitment that vinyl wrought in me.

RobCo said...

Hey Ben, as a former Industry executive I found your post an articulate rant on what I don't think I could have made found the words for. I started working in a record store in 1980 and watched a lot happen in the next 20 years. The good news is that if you look for it, there is still plenty of good music to be found. I will continue to check in on your site and appreciate what you are doing here. Be well.

Billo said...

Hey Ben,

Have you got Blue Oyster Cult's "Going Through The Motions" on that playlist? Classic.

Beni Borja said...

Great post. I think that Cody B. comment touches the essence of the problem - the listening experience.

I'm a record producer myself, and I remember distinctly the day that I realized that I no longer listened to albums seated in my couch , but driving , sometimes aimlessly, in my car.

At first I thought that was just an example of my quirky personality, but talking to others I noticed that this was a general trend.

I still listen to albums in the car, but in front of the computer , where I spend most of my time these days ,is playlists all day long.

I came to believe that in modern home life there´s no space for atentive listening.

Yet I have in my car among many, two recent albums that are more than a collection of songs "For Ema " by Bon Iver and "I, Flathead " by Ry Cooder, are two albums in the classic sense , ones that can only be fully appreciated by listening on it´s integrality.

But I have to recognize that gems like that are rare.

jz said...

2009 is the year "guilty pleasure" listening goes out the window; this post is a good argument as to why. *Everything* is valid, every song, from the most obscure Can album cut to the next Britney single, is on an even playing field. Thanks to playlists and downloads, we no longer have to defend our choices like we had to when albums--major investments in time and money--were the arbiter of taste. Individual songs carry less baggage, so we're more fully revealed, allowed a broader spectrum as individuals. Each track in a playlist adds up to a reflection of taste and personality far more current and three-dimensional than a record collection ever could.

Anonymous said...

I predate your time in the business when "we" decided to use the single as a "marketing tool." We de-valued the configuration to where we cut it out making only the album available. This led to cutting out the young buyer who is the life blood of music. No one was going to continue paying $20 for a song. The music business has been dead for 25 years but the advent of the cd configuration boosted sales as we cut out vinyl. You don't build a fan base with only a hit record but it does make it easier to fill your iPOD with assortment of hits. Artist development and strong compilation of songs is what is necessary as it was before the greed became palpable!

Anonymous said...

Reading this piece lets you realize that it's minds like this that created the label business's unsustainable and exploitive model. In describing the album as "dead" what you really mean is the industry's ability to buy the rights to artists' work for much less than you turn around and package and sell it for is dead.

The label business is dead, not the album. This format will live on even though the context in which we have to understand it has changed. The album became what it was because artists were forced into participating in a system that only accepted their output in a specific format because it was viewed as most profitable. Now that this industrial restriction on consumption and production has been lifted (and as you correctly note, it has been for a long time), the consumer is no longer going to pay big bucks to a company that has underpaid artists and has nothing to do with the integrity of the work. The only new news here is that the record biz is slowly starting to realize that they shot themselves financially along with the artists this time.

The gist of this post, even though I think it's slightly off-base about what exactly has died, is just old news. The record execs failed to foresee that their model was unsustainable in light of developing technologies and devote the necessary resources to retooling the industry.

I'm glad the label is dead. We need to figure out a better way to get money in artists' hands and music in the consumers' ear (the latter will undoubtedly happen no matter what the industry or markets look like).

Anonymous said...

Hey anonymous,
Record labels you think there is absolutely no change to the way people listen to and create music?

I am very interested in seeing how artists will get paid as we go forward, whether their copyrights get protected, whether being a musician means you have to be internet savvy in order to survive,etc.

I don't know if the totally democratic model will push the best music to the most ears..or just push the music that has the best IT behind it.

If it is all about money, then there will always be exploitation..

Anonymous said...

In response to "anonymous"...No one is questioning or debating whether or not the labels shot themselves in the foot by creating an unsustainable "exploitive" model...clearly, we're all now seeing how the movie ends, the end credits are moments away as labels tried but completely failed to react adequately to file sharing epidemic...However. the romanticized notion that "all labels" exploit their artists and that labels "buy artists rights for much less" to then in fact turn around and "sell them for substantial profit" is sort of fantastical sounding in its generalization. Because if that were the case, why would 92-96% of ALL album releases per year LOSE money? According to your math, shouldn't it be the other way around?
While no one is disputing that some labels do make crooked deals and try and take more than what's owed to them (sadly at the expense of the artist who often times signs a terrible deal and/or gets bad advice), unless you're running an indy label with no real marketing behind the artist (no tour support, no producers to pay, no radio promotion, no video production, etc etc) and you're pressing your physical music at bottom barrel prices and pay no distro fees well good for you. If you can make a living from it, even better. A lot of labels can't. Which is why so many of them operate at a loss and are going belly up.

The digital album solution making up for the erosion of the physical format is still in its infancy IN MOST CASES. Again, some labels will sustain themselves on this model and I'm excited to see that day come.
If you're happy that labels are dead-- cool. But contrary to what your stating, record "executives" have seen this spiral headed their way for many many years. No one is suddenly waking up to it and pushing the "oh shit" button. The cost of re-tooling the industry became an international crisis years ago. It's nice to see some governments (like the French) trying to do something about it.
Wish we'd woken up to that notion 9-10 years ago, but alas, no one did. And now we're paying a steep price for it.