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“Record Company Blues”
About ten or fifteen years ago, I remember reading an article in the Wall Street Journal that claimed record companies during the late '90s were trying to hatch a plan by which compact discs could be fixed with expiration dates. This plan emerged in the wake of Napster's growing success with their file-sharing software, leaving the record industry scrambling to adjust to a perceived loss of revenue but lost steam when Metallica sued that company out of business. Since then, sales of CDs and other hard copies of music have fallen to such a degree that by 2014, the only pop music recording artist in the US to have a platinum album (meaning sales of over a million units) was Taylor Swift. The outlook for the CD's continued existence seems doleful yet vinyl has made an unexpected comeback at the same time. This comeback isn't enough to change the fortunes of the record industry but it suggests an odd trend: Why would the consumer put up money for albums on vinyl rather than digital formats that are easier to find, and in many cases available for free?
I pondered this question while reading an article by a European record executive who reported that CDs are still huge sellers in Germany and Japan. Apparently, 85% of music sales in Japan are comprised of CD formats while Germany boasts 700 CD retail outlets that are regularly frequented by consumers. This article was from 2014, the same year that the aforementioned Ms. Swift scored her platinum album in the States. The author's contention was that CDs still sell and would still turn a profit had the American recording industry not turned its back on them. The buzzword right now is on streaming and the sites that provide it, like Spotify, are apparently the future of music.
I call B.S.
I still buys CDs. I don't buy vinyl because the albums are overpriced and I haven't had a turntable since I was 15. I distinctly remember putting away my vinyl when I got a CD player for my 18th birthday. In that three year span, I listened to cassettes (remember them?) and bought both formats well into my twenties. I still have both to this day largely because I have a medium on which to play them (it's a Sony boombox purchased from Amazon) and because most of them are still playable-which I can't say about most of my vinyl, sadly. The other reason for playing them is their portability. Open my car and you'll be sure to have CDs spill onto you if you open the glove compartment. Even after acquiring an iPod last year, I've continued to purchase at least 20 CDs a year outside of any downloads from iTunes and similar sites.
This behavior flies in the face of current industry marketing strategies and I know whom the culprit is: teenagers. Once viewed as the cash-cow demographic for the entertainment industry, teenagers are directly responsible for its ailing health. I teach high school and not a single one of my students has said that they pay for music over the past five years that I've been asking this question. About half admit that they illegally download movies, sometimes before a movie even comes out. These post-Napster children are being courted by clueless record companies who wonder why sales are down when the target audience has been conditioned to think that file sharing without compensation is the norm. It's flogging not just a dead horse but using a noodle as the whip.
It seems to me that the record industry's woes are a result of pursuing the wrong audience. People who grew up with vinyl and compact discs are hardwired to want something tangible as part of their musical purchase. Remember when CDs came in ridiculously long boxes because record companies feared that the consumer would feel shafted in buying a disc a quarter the size of a record album but cost a few dollars more? Their fears proved unwarranted. Having something to unwrap satisfies the consumption need-the rest is up to the quality of the music. Baby boomers and Gen Xers are also a demographic that has this silly idea that music is something that one has to pay for and coincidentally, tend to have more disposable income than today's teens.
Just something to think about...
“Simply Mad About the Maus”
One of the ways in which I waste time (that could more productively be used to advance humanity) is to watch YouTube. It's addictive and in its early years was highly educational in making long-forgotten clips of departed stars available for the first time in decades. Then cellphones made home video clips ubiquitous, Google bought the site and now I can't watch a 30-second joke from George Carlin without watching a 2-minute ad for Cialis first.
One of the recent ads I've seen involves a series of online courses featuring any number of successful people like Steve Martin, James Patterson, and David Mamet teaching their particular craft. For signing up, and I'm assuming shelling out a fee, the viewer can partake of the featured performer/artist's pearls of wisdom and gain access to their work routine, thought process, artistic philosophy, etc. The other day I spotted one of these online courses taught by the EDM DJ known as deadmau5 ( pronounced “dead mouse”) in what can only be described as product placement for Apple and ProTools. Deadmau5 gets his name from an oversized metal mouse head that he wears in concert.
I'm not going on a tirade about dance music here, or electronically synthesized music, or why acoustic music is somehow more “authentic.” What I am going to rant about is a sentiment that Dave Grohl summed up nicely a few years ago in Rolling Stone magazine: “When did DJs become rock stars?” He was referring to not only deadmau5 but also other performers such as Skrillex and Marshmello. These performers routinely play EDM festivals throughout the world with a laptop, sometimes a rack of albums to scratch on their turntable, and a multimedia presentation of lights and images to accompany their music. Audiences shell out hundreds of dollars to basically trip out on Extacy for few hours while the DJ provides the soundtrack.
I hate it. Obviously.
I can hear the trolls out there now. I'm cantankerous, I'm old school, I'm tied down to the past. My closed mind and traditional values are weighing me down and preventing me from enjoying the experience. Some erudite defenders of these performers will contend that they are producers first and performers second, much like the great composers of the past, sequestered away on a computer rather than a piano. It's absolute music, without agenda or History buffs will point out that even the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, and Rush used synthesizers and studio tricks in their music, so what's the difference? If Kraftwerk was doing it 40 years ago, why isn't it acceptable now? Giorgio Moroder did this with some of Donna Summer's biggest hits, why not slam him? Where would hip-hop be without sampling and keyboard triggers? We wouldn't have the Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, or Public Enemy without these tools so why can't EDM expand upon it? Any number of EDM acts like Enigma have been popular in dance halls and discotheques since the 90s.
My response is, they weren't playing festivals. They also hired musicians to play music that they sampled or manipulated to achieve their sound. Acts like the Beasties, PE, and Quest actually could play their own instruments and used the technology of the time to alter it and expedite its production. In this regard, they were no different than the Beatles, Pink Floyd, or Jimi Hendrix.
Fair enough. I still hate it. I hate it because, as Henry Rollins observed in one of his speaking engagements, these DJs show up at their shows with a light show and a rack of albums of OTHER PEOPLE'S MUSIC and charge ridiculous sums of money for people to hear them chop it up. Because they're... y'know-"artists." In some cases, the turntables are merely props and the only effort the DJ expends is to press buttons on his computer while pumping his fist in the air. There is no real improvisation, the music is synthetic, the drugs are synthetic, the experience is synthetic. Plus, and this is the worst part: there aren't any guitars.
Now get off my lawn.