Gene Simmons is right about the music industry, and he’s certainly not the first prominent artist to point out that the business model that has kept the recording industry afloat is hopelessly disrupted. Rock is dead, and so is a whole lot more, really. There isn’t going to be another Led Zeppelin. I don’t think there’s even going to be another Coldplay at this point. But what concerns me is the question of “so now what?”
What comes next for us musicians? I pray that we are not in for a generation of “Gangnam Style” because the indication there is that we are going to see an unimaginably small number of mega-successful stars producing very disposable works that border on being novelties. Unfortunately, most pop hits are leaning in this direction while rock is eating its own tail, treading the waters of the last 40 years without producing much that is really new. Innovation in music tends to be punished unless it’s incubated in a special environment that is just “ripe” for something to happen. London ‘62-63 or San Fran ‘66-67 are probably the best examples of this.
Gene Simmons will tell you that the problem is about piracy. David Byrne says it’s streaming. I say, to quote Carville, “it’s the economy, stupid.” These things are not accidents, and they aren’t the fault of label executives, and even piracy can’t explain it all. What we’re seeing is the confluence of cultural, economic, and technological realities in a time of pervasive disruption, and very few people are appreciating the big picture.
Unsound, the documentary in production from producer Count Eldridge, is exploring the impact of this disruption on the lives of real artists who have had the rug pulled out from under them mid-career, in a much more vulnerable place than quasi-retired rock gods. With a view that is broader than just the impact on units sold, Unsound takes you inside the tormented lives of people in the midst of an economic adaptation that is both terrifying and seemingly impossible to navigate successfully. I have to hope that this film reaches a wide enough audience to fuel discussion of some of the larger issues about our rapidly shifting economy and its impact on creativity and the industries of creative professionals.
In the meantime, I’ve been living my own version of this story, watching the wheels go ‘round so to speak, and finding other people doing their own investigations of the technology/economy disruption problem, beyond even the areas that are directly related to the music industry. For the last year I’ve been framing my thoughts on these issues in the language of Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future? Lanier places most of the responsibility for the demise of creative industries on the digital copy as well, but moves further to the issues of big data, the network effects of the world’s largest servers, and giving away your information in exchange for the chests of trinkets that are the social media platforms and free software services.
The personal struggles of the subjects in Unsound are familiar territory for me. I certainly tried to swallow the “level playing field” pep talk of the earlier internet age when we were told that the audience was right there for us to sell to now. We could forget dealing with labels, contracts, and recouping our recording costs. The whole thing was wide open, they said. I say “find me one artist who broke with that model and stayed in that model while doing well enough to put their kids through college.” Go ahead. Find me one. I’m sure some folks did ok, maybe they’d even call it success. But the numbers who can legitimately say that the it brought them to a place that was a perfectly good substitute for a professional career have to be very, very small. Anyone who achieved real success did it because they broke through the ceiling into whatever was left of the star-making machine of album sales (that was rapidly being supplemented more and more by advertising money).
In the meantime, the middle class gigs for guys that had always been able to make a decent buck playing bars and picking up the work of the local or regional musician were also disappearing. Part of that might be generational, but the technological and cultural factors are playing into it as well. For starters, more music is made on computers than instruments now. DJ’s are cheaper than bands, and likely to have more songs than even the best cover band would dream of having in their repertoire. And for another thing, rappers are not playing that many bar gigs on Thursday nights. They also aren’t likely to be doing covers.
The portion of the American public that is demographically likely to want to hear a bunch of white guys play guitars is shrinking. It’s nothing new for middle class white kids to stretch their cultural boundaries when it comes to finding music they love. That’s how we got rock n roll in the first place. But now they are reaching to places where people don’t play instruments anymore. They aren’t going to hear that music covered by a band down the street. Nor do they care because it just isn’t part of that culture to start an ensemble that tries to cover well-known songs. How long until the bar gig is completely vanished from America? At least it outlived the jobs that are gone from record stores and recording studios.
As a musician, it didn’t take me long to discover that none of these things was going to meet my needs in the real world of feeding the kid and paying the taxes. Even my shift into attempting to work on the commercial side in advertising was a disaster. Part of the problem was that I was committed to staying in my hometown instead of going where the work was. Twenty or thirty years ago I could probably still make a living gigging around town or regionally but now that job looks mainly like full time promotions and the music is almost an afterthought. I know people that do it, some grudgingly and some eagerly, but I just don’t have a flair for being my own sales rep and I know that. They are probably a fraction of what a region of a million people would’ve supported at one time.
Again, this is economics. It isn’t labels doing this. It’s cultural. It’s giant movements of the masses – their tastes; the technology that drives society. We aren’t going to fix this with a new version of YouTube or a few cents more a month from Pandora. But I also don’t think that it’s a permanent trend. There will inevitably be a backlash to it and I suspect it may look like a cross between the punk revolution, the troubadours, and the chitlin circuit. The question for me is how far off that moment is, and whether there will be any respectable income to be made off it. Because I’d love to be playing, writing, and surviving on that. God knows there ain’t no retirement waiting for me so I still keep my chops up just enough to not completely embarrass myself on the worst day.