Alcibiades Today's Blog

Outsider view, insider knowledge
DECEMBER 10, 2009 12:09AM

When Lawyers and Engineers Run the Business

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More than four years ago, I joined a little email debate about what was wrong with the music industry, and went a little crazy. I thought of this five year old debate this evening after a conversation with my teenager who was complaining about the paucity of "good" on the airwaves, and how websites such as pandora were so critical to finding "new" music.

That led me to share that once upon a time, you heard music on the radion that struck you as both new and cool, and you went out and bought it. I played the last two albums that I bought because I heard a track from them on the radio: Lovelife by Lush after hearing "Ladykillers" on WHFS; and Zig-Zaggin Through Ghostland by The Radiators after hearing "Red Dress" on WRNR. We listened through parts of half the cuts on each album, and each has ended up being "borrowed" for a time.

So here is the original rant, now over five years old but remarkable current, edited only for stand-alone coherence.

Back in the salad days of the later 1960s through the early 1980s, several things were very different than they are now.

First and foremost, the music. When I listened to the radio in the backwater of a town that I grew up in (five-six years behind the West Coast and two-three behind New York), there was a variety of compelling fare ON THE SAME STATION. Once upon a time, in the unformatted days of FM, when payola and its progeny were not polluting the air  waves, the deejays played what they thought was cool, and spread their enthusiasm to the (primarily under-30) crowd who listened to them. Those of us who traveled heard regional differences in the radio, with the good songs or bands eventually making it national. Check out Clear Channel's testimony before Congress about how many "new" songs it plays every year and how many "new" artists crack its play lists, and you will discover how little music that is in any way new to the listener can be heard on their stations. The other big companies are not as bad, but they're in the same league and the the problem remains the same.  What doesn't turn me on, I don't buy. If I don't hear it, it cannot turn me on.

The music industry part one: the recording industry. Why can I buy movie that cost 3 million dollars to make and another 50-100 thousand dollars to master onto DVD for 20 dollars, but have to pay eighteen dollars for a CD that cost maybe two hundred grand to record and virtually nothing to master to CD? I am not the only consumer who wonders this. Why, for example, when the Sony-Phillips patent for the CD expired, did the price not go down by a dollar? (The royalty fee on that patent was about a dollar per CD.)

After radio, the next great avenue of learning new music in my salad days was through the mix tape -- so why is the RIAA so damned determined to prevent me from making a mix CD? And what, of all things, is  business doing suing its customers -- some business model, as many have observed. And then there is the matter of the recording belonging to and paying not the artists but the David Geffens and Richard Bransons of the world, which helps perhaps to explain why so many good live bands stay the hell away from the recording demon.

The music industry part two: the music video industry. Music videos are the most expensive form of advertising ever, costing far more to produce in most cases than the entire album from which the track is drawn. This money must then be recouped from CD sales, which helps to explain some of the price problems. Oh, the prophetic power of the Buggles. This is not the problem it was, but still contributes to the overall problem of getting new music out to the potential consumer.

By the time a band has had enough of this crap, many quit the industry or, alternatively, the label gives up on them but still owns the rights to future work. Pick a band whose work you really care for, then think about whether the quality of a first album alone is enough to generate significant back catalogue sales years later. It is not concert promoters alone who are living off dinosaur bands.

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