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The Paradigm Shift

All of you Rock history buffs have seen it before. The values of Rock music are dead, the airwaves are ruled by music so lightweight it could be aural styrofoam, and the music industry powers-that-be have a grip on the business so tight that not even light can escape. You could describe the late Fifties/early Sixties era that gave us the likes of Fabian, Paul Anka and Ricky Nelson that way, until The Beatles came along and changed everything. We’ve all seen this before, right? Or have we?

I don’t think so. I think the situation we have now is unique not only in the history of Rock, but in the history of the recording industry. There has never been a time before when so much was up in the air, and so much hung in the balance. We are at a threshold now, and the music business paradigm that has existed since the 1930’s is shifting. It’s ultimately good for the recording artists that this is happening, but inevitably there will be some fall out. The established pillars of the music business are attempting to fortify themselves so as not to crumble. But there are a few significant forces of erosion that threaten to undermine their foundations, and it looks to me as if these forces are gaining strength. Let’s hope that I’m right about this, because the efforts of the music business behemoths to shore up their fortresses can result in some pretty ugly structures; and we are seeing the consequences of their desperate attempt to maintain a vice grip on the business in the last couple of years. The years that have passed since the Internet (and Napster in particular) first threatened their castles.

The consolidation of the record companies, the concert production/promotion business, radio stations and record retailers has hurt the business tremendously. There are only 5 major record labels left now, where at one time not all that long ago there were many. Rock radio around the country is pretty generic now. Chances are when you are listening to a Rock station in a major metropolitan market, you are listening to a station owned by Clear Channel. (You may recall that Clear Channel was the company that came out with a “Do Not Play” list in the wake of the 9/11 attack.) Since they own so many stations in so many markets (nearly 1,200 stations in 47 of the top 50 markets), they have an overwhelming influence on what gets played on the radio. There are still independent stations, of course, that do not work off the Clear Channel play list. But the independent stations that survive are not organized. Clear Channel is a national network of stations that all play the same music. Guess who has more influence over what people are hearing on Rock radio these days? As a result, there is little chance of “regional diversity” creeping into play lists at radio stations these days, and the sources of new music have been narrowed to the point that very little squeezes through.

Clear Channel also produces concerts around the country as they have bought some of the largest concert production companies in the country, SFX Entertainment being one example. SFX was Bill Graham Presents, now it is all Clear Channel. So we also have less people producing and promoting shows across the country, and less people able to influence who gets on those tickets. Clear Channel has had some problems aired in the news regarding their promotion of shows, as well as allegations of corruption regarding who gets on their play lists. These allegations revolve around the participation of what are known as “independent” agents. “Independent” agents are people who get records played on the radio, and who supposedly do not work for record labels. Hence, the “independent” tag. There were allegations concerning “payoffs” to Clear Channel in order to get records played by their stations. If this is true, this is just more evidence that the fix is in, and that it is even harder than ever to get new music on the airwaves.

When empires are challenged, they inevitably go on the attack in order to “defend” themselves. The record companies have the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to do their attacking for them, as their attempt to pass legislation defining all songs delivered to the labels as “Works for Hire” attests. One significant way in which the “paradigm” is shifting is that now musicians are organizing, and that is something that has never been done before. The Recording Artists’ Coalition was formed by Don Henley and other artists as a way to fight back against the RIAA and the major labels. Mr. Henley formed this group so that not only record companies would have representation in court rooms and on Capitol Hill. He formed it so that the artists themselves would have an organization to stand up for them and their rights. You will be hearing much more about the Recording Artists’ Coalition soon as they are planning a big bash in LA the night before the Grammy’s. This is a great development for musicians and it will give artists a true voice in the industry and a way for us all to “Fight the Power”!

As good a development as the Recording Artists’ Coalition is, I feel that the true paradigm shift will be that music goes back to the people, on a grass roots level. The record companies will not be going away any time soon, and they shouldn’t. They still have a roll to fill in getting recorded music out to the people who buy it. But they shouldn’t be in control of the situation, stifling artists’ creativity while they force feed drivel to the ever smiling consumer. Because the consumer isn’t smiling anymore, that’s what led to Napster. And the artists aren’t smiling anymore, that’s what led to the Recording Artists’ Coalition. In the next few years you will see big changes in the way that contracts are structured, in the way that copyrights and royalty payments are handled (My prediction is that the copyright laws will change substantially, and the already outmoded system of royalty payments will be chucked out the window altogether. Can you say, “profit sharing”? ) and in the way that concert production and promotion are done.

It will get smaller, not bigger. There will once again be a place for artists who can sell 100,000 copies of a record, and for bands that can consistently sell out small venues. There won’t be as many Rock Stars anymore, but there will more people who can afford to make music and live comfortably. There will be a revival of rock clubs across the country and record labels will become “partners” with their artists. This is, in fact, already happening, and it is the Internet that is leading the way. It is only because of the Internet that some of these recent issues have come up, and it accelerated the movement that lead to the formation of the Recording Artists’ Coalition. You are going to see some very innovative approaches to how labels work with their artists and to the contracts that they enter into, and it will be Internet music companies leading the way. What have we got to lose?

PS-I was in Brazil on vacation this past Christmas and I had the pleasure of meeting the great guitarist Vernon Reid of Living Colour fame while playing at a studio in Sao Paulo. He was exceedingly warm and gracious and we talked for a good long time while we watched some MTV in lobby of the studio complex. Mr. Reid says he thinks Rock will make a comeback this year, and push the teenies from their spots atop the charts. Let’s hope he’s right!!! 

Stay Tuned,

The Virtual Musician

 
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