Column 150 — It’s the End of the Music Industry as We Know It (And I Feel Fine); Noah’s Ark, Cloven Path tonight…

Category: Blog — @ 1:35 pm November 15, 2007

The bottom line: Change is good. Change is inevitable. Change is unstoppable. It’s like that ol’ slogan used by challengers in political campaigns: Are you better off now than you were four years ago (or eight years ago or 20 years ago)? For an industry and a genre that’s dying, I’ve never listened to more good music than I have in the past couple of years. Change is here. And things are only going to get better.

Column 150: Alive and Well
The reports of music’s death are highly exaggerated.
Is anyone else getting tired of hearing how music — indie or otherwise — is dying or already dead?

Seems like you can’t pick up a publication these days without reading how the music industry is in its final days, its death knell is being tolled by a digital bell. Just ask Rolling Stone. The once-great arbiter of all things rock ‘n’ roll has been publishing the music industry’s obituary in almost every issue for the past couple years, documenting the slow decline of CD sales and the rise of digital downloads.

As part of the magazine’s 40th Anniversary, Rolling Stone just published a special issue that includes a section titled, “The Future of Music.” Inside, 21 “top artists” were asked about “technology, inspiration and what’s next for the record industry.” Among them, Lily Allen, Wayne Coyne, Michael Stipe, Justin Timberlake and our very own Conor Oberst.

The consensus: We’re all screwed. Music is dying on the electronic vine. MP3 files are causing our ears to wither into dried tortellini noodles. Revenue streams are drying up faster than Atlanta’s water supply. Once proud rock stars soon will be hocking deodorant and Cadillacs (Just ask Bob Dylan). While music has never been more available to the masses, it’s all bad music (except, of course, for the interviewees’ own records), and people are starting to lose the ability to tell good shit from bad shit. Record companies have seen the writing on the wall and are adjusting to the downturn by screwing artists with contracts that not only take away most of their album revenue but also a big chunk of their auxiliary income — i.e., merch sales. Wave goodbye to your luxury tour bus and back that converted ’97 Chevy Beauville right into the driveway.

Sounds bleak. Too bleak.

The industry will survive. It won’t be the industry that folks in their 30s knew growing up, but something completely different. Something better. The industry will change from being a group of record labels that sells products, to a business that provides a service to both artists and consumers. Yes, you’ll be able to find just about any song or album online for free — all in high fidelity, brought to you in convenient digital chunks. Just download and listen. So how will artists survive? By performing, by selling merch at venues including limited edition CDs and vinyl — i.e., collectors’ items. And yes, by making endorsements and selling their music to Madison Avenue. And those who refuse to “sell out” will have other, more noble options for their publishing rights, including movies and television.

As for the death of indie — when was indie ever alive? It’s always been an underground phenomenon whose bands have survived on record sales that count well below 100,000 units. Those numbers come with the territory. Indie music isn’t supposed to break into the popular culture, because after it does, it’s no longer indie music.

People constantly fight over what “indie” means. My definition: Indie music is generally anything not released on a major label that doesn’t get FM radio airplay for one reason or another. Some would say all good performers were “indie” at one point in their careers. I disagree with those who say indie has a distinct audio fingerprint. It doesn’t. Take any indie song, put it in heavy rotation on Clear Channel, and it’s no longer an indie song. Perhaps a better definition: Indie music isn’t written for the broadest consumption — in other words, the songwriter wasn’t trying to write a “hit.”

Most indie artists I’ve interviewed over the years never expected to sell 100,000 copies of anything. Sure, they would love to, but they never deluded themselves into thinking it would actually happen. That’s not why they became musicians. Their reticence to sign with major labels has more to do with an unwillingness to “play the game” than it does any “cool factor.” The price for being an arena rock star means the loss of your creative freedom.

And indie has always been about creative freedom — the ability to write and perform whatever you want. Sometimes the cost for that freedom is only having 20 people at your shows. 100,000 albums? Most indie bands would feel successful selling 10,000. Many would be happy selling only 1,000.

And finally, for god’s sake, quit blaming everything on iPods. This idea that people love their gadgets more than the music they play is both contrived and nothing new. When I was growing up, it was cool to have a bitching stereo system. Most of the guys I hung out with in high school spent a sizable chunk of change on their stereos, and were proud to show them off to ear-bleeding effect. Who remembers going to World Radio and Stereo West and all the huge stereo stores before the rise of Best Buy? Back then, few could afford a high-end stereo, but even us “disadvantaged” kids were proud of our Realistic and Spark-o-matic systems.

Technology is a good thing. Do MP3 files sound as good as CDs? No. Do most people care? No. Most people don’t have stereos good enough to tell the difference. What they do have is the ability to carry their entire music collection with them wherever they go. And unlike the old stereo days, the technology is affordable and continues to drop in price, unlike Compact Discs.

I’ve seen the future too, and it’s going to be okay. Honest. We’ll make it through this. And Homer’s will be there, too. And there will even be a sound track to live by. And it won’t cost you a dime.

We go a couple days without shows around here and you think it really is the death of music. Well, there are a couple good ones tonight, and the weekend’s looking pretty crowded as well. As mentioned yesterday, Cloven Path plays at O’Leaver’s tonight with or without a vocalist. Along for the ride is opening band Slough Fed. $5, 9:30 p.m. Meanwhile, over at The Waiting Room, it’s the full-throttle grinding head-rush of Noah’s Ark Was a Spaceship with Yuppies and Bazooka Shootout. I haven’t seen Noah’s Ark in about a year and a half. Judging from the tracks on their Myspace page, they’ve changed their style somewhat since then. “Adult Sized Skeletal” is filthy slacker indie punk that reminds me of Vitreous Humor. I don’t remember Noah’s having vocals back then. They’ve got ’em now. And what is it about Bazooka Shootout that reminds me of Chavez? Probably the way the lead singer does his thing. Vitreous Humor? Chavez? I’m really dating myself with these references. If you’ve never heard of either band, run out and buy their shit now, then head to The Waiting Room. $5, 9 p.m.

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