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who, me? not jaded?
calling out corporate rock
by jeffrey d. walker
4.23.03
music


If you read my column last month, the view from the stage, about my band making our debut at CBGB, the show went very well. I would like to thank all those who showed their support. Additionally, thanks to the critiquing parties as well as you loyal readers who made it my highest rated piece in the three years I've been with Intrepid.

Still, the last discussion comment (at the publish date of this column) caused me great grief. The comment was from none other than Intrepid's own Jeff Miller, who wrote:

Well, see, what I like about this is how unabashedly NOT jaded you are, after ten years of slugging it out in the clubs.

It took me some time to realize that when Jeff said "NOT jaded" that he was talking about my enthusiasm for playing, because playing is so ingrained in me at this point that I don't even consider how I feel about it anymore – I just play and that's it. It's part of who I am. So when I saw the word "jaded" in a discussion about music and myself, I instantly thought he was referring to my attitude regarding the music industry in general. This being my interpretation, my first reaction to Jeff's comment was: Are you kidding me?? Not jaded?

I wake up every day of my life taunted by what commercial radio is playing, and baffled by the fact that swarms of citizens living in a free society choose to purchase these (putting it mildly) lackluster commercial albums given other available options. I live in a land where every major record label has ceased to be its own entity and now exists as a division of a larger corporation - thus, its new sole purpose is to turn a profit, not care about music. I live in a land where, even if I successfully landed a major record contract, I'd be told what songs would go on my album as well as which songs will be released as singles (if any at all, wholly at the discretion of the label). I work in the music industry, a job sector where hard work, sacrifice, practice, skill, precision, passion as well as dedication are no guarantee of a single dime, much less a sustainable living.

Jaded: Thy name is Jeff Walker.

Don't misunderstand, this is not another simple swipe at "the Big Five" record companies. I mean, I'm really sick of this, "Boo Hoo! We can't turn a profit because too many people are downloading songs on the internet!" thus ignoring other plausible explanations for the profit losses such as:

#1: The overall slump in the economy.

#2: The 7.2% increase in average CD price from 1999 to 2001.

#3: The major five labels released 20.3% fewer titles in 2001 than in 1999, and 14% fewer titles in 2002 than it did in 1999.

#4: Only about 10% of all internet users even have Kazaa - one of the largest file sharing services still in existence. {Editor's note: Don't download Kazaa, download Kazaa Lite and save yourself the headache of spyware}

#5: One study suggests that approximately 81% of file sharers buy even more CDs than they did before they started getting music off of the Internet.

#6: Perhaps they're simply selling a bunch of crap?

And lucky #7: Consumers are ditching major labels for indie-label artists.

Yes, it's true! Profits at indie labels, especially true independent labels existing outside of any corporate rock umbrella, are way up – some by 50 to 100 percent over previous years.

Part of the reason that minor labels are thriving while corporate rock is failing is because the greedy corporate whores are choking on the costs they've created for themselves. As explained by Intrepid founder Joe Procopio in his manifesto long live rock, the big record stores are in bed with the big record distributors. Big chain stores won't carry an album not guaranteed to sell at least 5,000 units (a guarantee which can typically only come from major labels). While a major label artist used to be guaranteed those sales, history has not been repeating itself. If you're a big five record label and your big album is not selling and your distributors aren't turning a profit, you're getting hit from two sides at once.

Moreover, the big 5 record companies are also in bed with the big commercial rock radio stations. And these days, the costs of getting a song on commercial radio is roughly about half a million dollars: costs that come directly out of record sales before a single record has been sold. However, since most of the radio stations fall under the same corporate umbrellas as the record distributors, the money is just a sum being passed between the same hands.

The real loser is the artist, who now has to sell over a million albums before they can clear any money of their own - due strictly to the fees now inherent in the "big music" business.

Minor label artists can live well off of a fraction of these sales. Besides the lower overhead costs - which results in quicker recoupment of expenses, the artist benefits because minor labels often split their profits 50/50 with their artists - as opposed to, if the artist is lucky, 90/10. The artists are also typically free to make their own album and retain the proprietary rights to their songs. That means more money directly to the musician as well as more creative control, both of which make an indie label more appealing to the typical artists' temperament.

While I may be jaded about the music industry as I've known it for years, I'm starting to see the sun through the clouds. Corporate rock is starting to fall and the rise of small labels brings with it music free from board-of directors' opinions and big corporate hoops. More than any time in the previous decade, it's a great time to rock.


ABOUT JEFFREY D. WALKER

A practicing attorney and semi-professional musician, Walker writes for his own amusement, for the sake of opinion, to garner a couple of laughs, and to perhaps provoke a question or two, but otherwise, he doesn't think it'll amount to much.

more about jeffrey d. walker

IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...

# 24 with a silenced bullet
an unexpected climb up the charts
by jeffrey d. walker
topic: music
published: 5.21.03


if you’re an artist, when is enough enough?
somewhere between a calling and a curse
by jeffrey d. walker
topic: music
published: 8.8.11





COMMENTS

tracey kelley
4.23.03 @ 11:33a

For now, to get any type of personal satisfaction from the devastation that is commericialized music, just buy stock, not product. While the brainwashed Lisa Marie Presley-buying lemmings continue to fall over the cliff, we'll make a fortune....then sell in the final moments and have a party with IM artists to celebrate our newfound wealth.

jeff miller
4.23.03 @ 11:45a

Okay, well, maybe you're a little jaded.
You know what the worst part of the whole commercial music thing is for me? I actually like a lot of it. Gwen Steffani, for example, has been effectively marketed directly into my fantasy life.
I love rip-off metal like Disturbed, I was the first person in my crew to own Audioslave, and I will probably buy the last Missy Elliot record. The opposite extreme: my drummer refuses to listen to or buy anything produced after 1978, which is EXTREMELY frustrating for me, but he don't support no industry consolidation, now, do he?
Jeff, you and me, we gotta face facts: music is audio Big Macs. Mmmmmmmmm tasty. How bout a Coke, or a value meal? Mmmmmmm consistency. Delish.

eric brunman
4.23.03 @ 11:47a

It's great to hear someone finally talking about the real problems the industry is facing these days. Downloading songs....please!!! For one thing, the majors have completely given up on any kind of artist development. Good luck getting a second album if your first one doesn't sell. Secondly, let's send a little blame over Clear Channel's way as well. When one company controls so much of the radio and touring market, it can not be good for any artist trying to develop their career. Far be it from any of the labels to try to go against the grain and actually try to do business any differently. Instead, it's let's see what everyone else thinks is hot, sign as many of these acts as possible, shove them down the publics throat until they can't take anymore, and then drop all of the artists when we are done.

margot lester
4.23.03 @ 12:24p

downloading's a convenient scapegoat for poor business models and ....well, don't get me started. as for the corporatization of radio/music -- it's happening in every industry, not just radio. homogenization is everywhere.

i don't listen to commercial radio any more because there's nothing there for me. i spend my time on the left side of the dial.

here are two oases that are actual stations. there are far too many "internet radio stations" for me to even begin to listen to:

KCRW . my faves are morning & weekend becomes eclectic and the open road. the music "channel" is great, too.

WXYC also provides hope, though the schedule changes so much, it's hard to keep up.

real music for real people.

russ carr
4.24.03 @ 11:00a

Ooh. As long as we're tossing out good (streaming) broadcast stations, I'll chip in for WOXY, an independent modern rock station out of Cincy. Yes, they're a commercial station...but they're privately owned by a husband and wife, and they've done an excellent job of avoiding the taint of corporate stations. I've heard more new music from groups I've never heard of than on any other station, anywhere.

Pop music -- and I lump most "rock" music in there these days -- is a wasteland. Five minutes of American Idol should be proof enough that it's not going to change any time soon; everyone on that show sounds alike, trying to gain fame by melding into the homogenized music experience.

Actually, that'd be a cool name for a band.

jeffrey walker
4.24.03 @ 11:13a

homogenized music experience? sounds a little clinical. Then again, it may be better as a name than
"alien ant farm."

matt morin
4.24.03 @ 12:13p

The thing we all tend to overlook about this mass-produced music we're ripping on is this: People actually like this stuff. N'Sync doesn't sell millions of albums just because of marketing. Celine Dion doesn't get a $100 million Vegas show because she's on every light rock station in America. There's a huge segment of the population (probably the vast majority) who like every song on a radio playlist, and who think O-Town are the next Beatles.

True, from our point of view, it's all crap. But those people are in the majority -we can't just discount their opinions as worthless.

russ carr
4.24.03 @ 12:52p

Actually, I'd take the exact opposite point: without the marketing, there would be no O-Town, *Nsync or Celine Dion. Marketing has everything to do with the sales of these "artists'" records. It's all about exposure.

Case in point: Celine Dion was moderately successful with adult contemporary listeners when "My Heart Will Go On" was a released as a track on one of her CDs. But it wasn't until two years later, when it was featured on the Titanic soundtrack, that she really broke it open. Why? Millions of people -- undoubtedly many of whom weren't regular adult contemporary listeners -- saw the movie, equated the song with the movie (ooooooh, LEO!), bought the soundtrack, then bought her CDs.

People like this stuff because they're assaulted with it every day. Like Miller said up there, it's audio fast food. People eat at McDonald's because it's easy, palatable and doesn't require much time or work. They're confident that any McDonald's they go to, they'll get the same, reassuring meal. Same for pop music -- It's served up in easy listening portions for mass consumption by a public to lazy to be discerning. Same holds true for movies and TV.

matt morin
4.24.03 @ 1:14p

Yes, marketing gets the exposure, but exposure doesn't guarantee great sales. People have to like the music. If all it took was exposure, Michael Jackson's last album would have been a hit.

I disagree that people like something simply because they're assaulted with it every day. Personally, I hate things I'm assaulted with every day.

I also don't think it's a bad thing to be audio fast food. Think about it - their goal is to sell the most records, therefore they have to appeal to the largest audience, and to do that you have to be middle of the road. You have to appeal to the lowest common denominator. That's what most pop songs do. Hell, they've even devised a computer program that can pick pop hits based on certain universal factors.



matt morin
4.24.03 @ 1:18p

Oh, and too lazy to be discerning or not, people still like the music they listen to. And most of America listens to pop - hence the term "pop(ular)."

We can rip on it all we want, but personal tastes are personal tastes. There's no guarantee that if we took Backstreet Boys fans and exposed them to a bunch of indie bands they'd suddenly say, "Oh! This is the kind of music I really like!"

jeffrey walker
4.24.03 @ 1:37p

The thing is, they'd never know if they liked other stuff unless they make an effort to find this music. The stranglehold on commercial radio & video distributors keep only a small amount of music within the earshot of the average populace. How many people are really going to go out of their way to find out about bands / music styles they don't already know about?

Sure, there's no guarantee they'd like something else, but it's hard for the average person to even know what choices they have.

matt morin
4.24.03 @ 1:43p

And I think you made that point really well in your column, Jeff. It's true - most people don't know what they're missing and the record companies/radio stations aren't helping matters any. But as Russ pointed out, people don't want to make that effort to educate themselves. However, that's America for you - it's half the reason people don't vote, or exercise, or reduce personal debt. It takes effort and this is a lazy-ass country.

jeffrey walker
4.24.03 @ 2:22p

That could be true. Then again, how much is it "lazy" and how much is it just plain not knowing? For example: I eat chocolate ice cream. I like it. BUT, just the other day, by accident, I ran across a "special edition" blueberry cheesecake ice cream.
Given the choice, I'll eat the blueberry cheesecake daily. Not that I hate chocolate now, I just never knew I could have it so could. And how could I have, without accidentally running across this?

But unlike the grocery where I did happen across this flavor, the typical radio station & big record store won't have the other "flavors" - i.e., small label artists. How can the average consumer be expected to even know what he's missing?

[edited]

tracey kelley
4.24.03 @ 3:34p

There will always be pap. But what Jeff said above is exactly true - when Clear Channel owns 1,500 stations in America alone, spoon-feeding promotion-generated artists, it leaves very little room for all forms of music break out into the open.

And, sorry smoking boys, not everyone likes to sit in a smokey bar for 4 hours listening to indie bands. If the clubs were smoke free, I'd go 3 times as much as I do now. So we need other alternatives.

We need da da da DA! IMPublishing!

matt morin
4.24.03 @ 3:45p

Come live in California where the bars/clubs are smoke-free and you can see 4 good/decent indie bands in one night for a $6 cover!



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