Trying To Get To You

Monday, March 30, 2009

Theory Vs. The Real World

I get that the music business (the record business expecially) is struggling and may be at a loss in how to deal with their challenges. I'm not an apologist for the record business. I could write a long list of mistakes I believe they've made and others I think they continue to. But I am so exhausted reading the theories of techies and futurists who know very, very little about the real world of music.

Last night I came across a blog post by a guy named Albert Wenger. Wenger is partner at Union Square Ventures, a New York based venture capital firm. In his post titled, “A Coming Paradigm Shift In (Online) Music,” Wenger recaps the familiar shifts in the music business over the course of the past decade, and then writes of three companies/services that he sees as possible paradigm shifters. I’m not familiar with the services so I can’t comment. But what got my attention and raised my ire were the following sentences in his final paragraph:

Of course one immediate question about such a new paradigm is how artists will make money. I think it would be a grave mistake to be caught up in that question. For starters, it seems to me that over the course of history very little of what we now think of as great music was produced specifically because the people making it were concerned about making the music a commercial success (I was reminded of that this morning listening to “Breakfast with the Beatles”). (Bold and italics are mine - BL)

Really? Tell that to Motown founder Berry Gordy, who specifically designed Motown to be a commercial proposition, tailoring its sound at all times to the perceived desires of the marketplace - "The Sound Of Young America." Motown was not founded on the pure self-expression of the Artiste. Its production model was the automotive assembly line. Each single was created expressly to be a hit - and writers and producers were ordered to continue to use a musical style until it fell out of favor on the charts.

Mr. Wenger mentioned the Beatles in his post, so let’s write of the Beatles. While the Beatles clearly had a true passion for music, to say that they weren’t concerned with commercial success is utter hogwash. Paul McCartney once said, “When John and I used to get together to write, sometimes we’d say, ‘Let’s write a swimming pool today.’” And John Lennon was never more authentic when he sang, “Money (That’s What I Want).”

Great independent labels from the 50’s and 60’s like Chess and Atlantic were founded not just on a great feel for the black music market – they were founded on a desire to make a lot of money in the process. The men who ran these companies were not patrons of the arts - they were hustlers who loved the music, and loved the money they could make selling it. James Brown, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin…all of these great artists had their commercial considerations right alongside their artistic ones. One never negated the other.

The myth that art and commerce are separate – that “true” or “great” art has nothing to do with the desire for commercial success or financial reward is the cause of more inauthentic behavior amongst artists than anything I’ve ever encountered in the music business. I’ve met so many left of center, independently minded artists who either claim (or feel they need to claim) that they’re above commercial considerations, when the truth is the opposite. (And in my experience, those are the artists that are the most expensive to sign - when they say they don't care about money, that's when you have to hold on to your wallet.)

There’s nothing wrong with caring about commercial and financial goals. Yes, I believe that the art should lead, and that compromising the essence of your principles for a buck is what we call selling out. But when artists try to pretend they don't care for or desire money or commercial success - well, that's when things get phony. It's the worst way to try to attain credibility as it has nothing to do with true authenticity.

Because the music industry is so challenged at the moment, there are a ton of thinkers from outside of music who theorize and opine about what changes need to be made to the music business. That’s fine. But when these non-music people create theories that are on top of an utter ignorance of music, musicians and music history, well then something needs to be said. Theories and ideas are great – as long as people reading the theories get that there’s a gap between theory and the real world. A very big gap indeed.


mnmjr. said...

It's telling that you cite Motown, Chess and Atlantic as examples of great musical art intended to make money. How much of that money did the artists actually get? The history of all three labels (as well as many others) is made up of onerous record deals, unpaid royalties, legal disputes (some of which have yet to be resolved) and embittered artists on the outside looking in.

Are you sure this is the example you want to go with of why the record industry deserves our pity?

Ben Lazar said...

How anyone can read that post and come away thinking that it is designed to elicit pity for record labels is a mystery to me. What part of "I'm not an apologist for the record business" did you not get?

The piece is about how great music and the desire for commercial and financial success have often gone hand in hand, which is a truth that runs counter to the theroies of many, like the gentleman whose post I cited.

JrzyGyrl said...

If anyone is looking for an example....

Shelia Weller's book, Girls Like Us, offers a great account of the "drive" for commercial success of pop music in the 60s, specifically in her re-telling of the Carole King story and the portion of her work done at the Aldon Music hit factory.

Anonymous said...

Those who can, do & those who can't, teach.

I am very tired of theories about the music business being put forth by people who work elsewhere.

Brian McTear said...


I too took exception to Mr. Wenger's post, particularly the part about artists making money. I truly don't think he intended to say that making money is not important, after all he's a venture capital investor. Nonetheless, whether he meant that or not, I think it's terribly damaging for people to go on assuming that music shouldn't earn artists a living from their music. I (along with a few partners) am launching a music non-profit this week called weathervane music org, in part to tackle this exact issue, because I really think that even if artists think they can work for nothing, as a culture we're going to need to figure out a solution. If not, artists careers will be short and underdeveloped at best, and all the best music will be from the past.

Paul said...

Another great example is Sun Records. Sam Phillips was looking to make a buck. Of course he had good taste (which at some level is consistent with making money selling music), but the driving force behind the key label in the development of rock music was $$$.

Ben Lazar said...


The Sam Phillips example is an excellent one, and one that I left in the comments section of Wenger's blog. Why did Sam Phillips find Elvis? Because he said, "If I could find a white man with the negro sound and the negro feel, I could make a million dollars." Phillips loved the music and was a racial pioneer in many ways, but he most definitely was out to make some dollars. And he made seminal art.

mnmjr. said...

Actually, all the piece does is prove that your opinion is different than his. Like it or not, there are a lot of artists (in all fields) who do what they do out of passion and not for money...I happen to be one of them.

Pretending these artists don't exist to prove your point smells like an agenda (in my opinion).

Paul said...

mnmjr - Lazar is not pretending those artists don't exist. All he is saying is that the other article is factually wrong for stating that most great music was created without concern for commercial success.

The point is to simply ask for factual accuracy. Assuming we can agree on the identity of the great artists, the assertion that most of them were not driven by a concern for commercial success is either true or false. It's not a subject for opinion.

ambersun said...

Hi again

Interesting post. I don't know much about the music industry but as a try hard author I would love to make money doing what I love.

I'm covering all bases by training in Admin. just in case I don't. But...I think everyone who has a passion would like to make a living doing it. And what's wrong with that?