Wednesday, November 28, 2007

More Songs About Buildings And Greed

The music industry is reminiscent of a B-movie thug bleeding out from a belly wound who refuses medical treatment lest he get thrown in the slammer. The main difference is that the music biz's wounds are entirely self-inflicted. These wounds were caused not only by unprecedented stupidity but also by unprecedented greed. A bold statement given our subject but hear me out. It wasn't enough for the label honchos to fill their coffers to overflowing with found money re-selling their back catalog as music buyers converted their vinyl faves to CD.* They had to overcharge for new releases too.

I recall an extremely frustrating and somewhat bizarre conversation with a now former major label president in the mid-90s regarding CD pricing. We were trying to break a completely unknown new artist. The list price was $16.98 with certain stores charging up to $18.98. Competitive artists were selling in the $11.98 to $13.98 range. I asked this prez who ran our distributing label to agree to lower our list by at least $2 and preferably by $4. His verbatim reply: "If they (the consumers) really want it, they'll pay $16.98 for it."** Through persistent lobbying, the list price was eventually lowered. We did break this band after a year-and-a-half single-minded perseverance. No thanks to a certain old school label fat cat their debut sold in excess of 1 million copies.***

Can the music business as we know it survive? Not a chance. There's been decade-long mass exodus of many of the industry's brightest minds. Frustrated by the stupidity, sickened by the greed and tired of jumping from one unstable company to the next, these folks have forsaken their life's passion for relative normalcy. They have rewarding new careers as real estate agents, insurance salesmen, teachers, caterers, software developers, activists, advertising executives, political bloggers, and stock brokers. That's right. Those who could have performed timely surgery necessary to save this wounded beast have long since left it to die on its own.

Some of collateral damage caused as the music industry staggers bleeding into the future has been difficult to swallow. I hate watching old friends and former colleagues lose their jobs. I acutely feel the loss of history and tradition as labels from A&M, Virgin and Polydor (US) to the much maligned, and deservedly so, MCA became mere imprints. (For fuck sake the EMI idiots sold the Capitol Records Tower to be made into condos! Thankfully, the resulting outcry and loss of face forced them to enter into a sale and lease back agreement).

Still I cannot help believe that this may be for the best. We've seen how the music industry historically is highly resistant to change. Their bloated inefficient business model begs to be razed to the ground. Perhaps then and only then will a visionary or three be free to undertake a long overdue industry re-make/remodel.


*Record companies rushed their back catalog CDs out so fast that they didn't bother to master them properly. No worries. A few years later, after much negatively publicity (just two examples here and here) regarding the superior sound of vinyl vs. that of CDs, they re-mastered them and sold them back to us yet again. The re-mastered CDs were then followed by "expanded" or "special anniversary" editions containing B-sides, unreleased tracks, demos, radio spots et al. Those bastards! I can't count how many different CD versions I have of Elvis Costello's This Year's Model alone.

**Music fans' resulting resentment and rejection of this highway robbery were major factors spurring the explosion of "free" MP3 sharing discussed previously.

***For this and our overall unprecedented success, we were rewarded with the equivalent of our long-promised, long-awaited Christmas bonuses...and pink slips. Natch.