(As broadcast on WVIA-FM December 29, 2004)
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Once again, it's that time of year when we invoke another of those long-running traditions for which nobody can think of a good reason why it was started, and but keep going on nonetheless. I refer to our annual Mixed Bag look back at the year music, as viewed by our I should own up and say "my" decidedly skewed perspective. For something like 30 years, we have been have been doing this radio rant, flagrant philippic, disdainful diatribe, bouquet of bluster and volume of venting on the developments, if you could call them that, in the music world. Why there should be yet another redundant year-end review in the midst of all the other media retrospectives is open to question, other than the fact that I think everyone enjoys throwing some brickbats from time to time. So here are some of mine.
The year 2004 was full of developments from the ridiculous to the alarming. It was definitely a very eventful year in the music business, with some significant paradigm shifts. But as usual, in preparation, I went back to my year-end harangue of 2003 and came to realize that I could probably use the script from last year, plug in a few new dates and figures, and end up with something that described 2004. The end of 2003 really presaged what happened during 2004. But there were some developments that were definitely unique to 2004. The two phrases that come to mind that describe the year are "wardrobe malfunction" and "swift boat."
More about those later. But back to the continuation of the changes wrought by the trends of 2003. The major-label music business continues to thrash around in the wake of its reason for existence essentially disappearing, thanks to the Internet. I hate to say I told you so no, actually I do enjoy saying "I told you so" but 10 years ago in my 1994 year-end commentary, after I had just gotten hooked up to the Internet and saw its potential, that I said that through the Internet, record companies as we know them could cease to exist, with the ability to exchange music on files directly between people, and specifically from the artist to the music fan. It has taken most of the 10 years, but I don't think that prediction and I was hardly the only one to make it at the time was very far off. The consequences are that how we listen to and distribute music have fundamentally and irreversibly changed.
That certainly had an effect on the major record labels. Ten years ago, there were seven major record companies. Now there are four. At the end of 2003, the two oldest continuously operating record companies announced their plans to merge. Sony, which owns Columbia Records, since it was sold by CBS in the 1990s, and the German media company BMG, which owns RCA Records and the venerable RCA Victor recordings, labels that go back to the beginning of the 20th Century, announced that they would merge their record company interests, with each of companies owning half of the joint venture. The merger was completed in 2004, and not surprisingly, a lot of jobs were lost, and a lot of artists lost their record deals. The company announced that their goal was to cut some 2000 jobs at the labels. The blending of the managements of the labels continued during the year. Also, at the end of 2003, Time Warner announced it intention to sell its music division, Warner-Elektra-Atlantic records, and the deal was completed, with a Canadian-based organization headed by Seagrams Whiskey magnate Edgar Bronfman owning a controlling interest. Again, the goal was to reduce costs and cut at least 1000 jobs. Two of the great American record labels, Atlantic, home of the great soul hits of the 1960s, and Elektra, home of some of the great folk acts of the 1960s as well as groups like the Doors, were to be merged. The Warner group was also the last American owned major label.
Another sign of consolidation was the announcement that Universal Music Group, tied as the world's largest record company, and the now non-Time-Warner Warner Music group were looking to merge their back office and accounting functions. And then there were three.
For those of us who remember the glory days when companies like Atlantic and Columbia were releasing exciting new music almost weekly, seeing those once fabled record labels swallowed up and merged into corporate entities certainly evokes feelings of disappointment and loss, but from a cold-hard accounting view of the situation, even from an artistic point of view, the mergers were pretty much inevitable. The large record companies, which are now just a small part much larger of multi-media empires, are basically there to serve fill out the corporate bottom-line, and not to incubate talent, as was the case when people like Jerry Wexler, Jac Holzman, and Goddard Lieberson of Atlantic, Elektra and Columbia respectively were music fans first and label executives second. The major labels have become almost completely devoid of creativity, with the pressure to sell records that look good on the quarterly balance sheet. Of our Mixed Bag best of the year list, probably fewer than 10% are on the major labels.
Fortunately, there the independent labels, from a single artist putting out records on his own and selling them on gigs and on the Internet, to larger independent operations like Rounder and Ryko Records. It is amusing that a CD released by an artist on his or her own, costing a couple of thousand dollars or less, usually ends up being much better musically and technically that a half-million-dollar "product" with bad music and bad sound, released on a major label.
But the ease of putting out records also has created what I call the vise-grip of bad music. On the one hand, you have the major labels releasing worthless mindless commercial fad milking pap, and on the other, you have almost every band on the block putting out their own do-it-yourself CDs sometimes before they learn to play their instruments or sing on-key. That's a lot of bad music out there. However, between the press of big-budget dreck and do-it-yourself musical incompetence, there were still enough worthwhile, and downright impressive new recordings to give one encouragement. In fact, in some areas such as singer-songwriters, quality is as high as it has ever been, even going back to the glory days of the 1960s.
To give you an idea of the disconnect between the commercial music scene and what we try to do here on Mixed Bag, of the top 30 albums in the Billboard top 200 cumulative annual sales chart, there os only one release that would find a home on Mixed Bag, Norah Jones' CD. And yet, during the year, we introduced you to over 500 other worthwhile, mostly independent CDs. Among those 500, were at least 31 releases by outstanding regional artists most of whom have appeared on our Homegrown Music series. However, toward the end of the year, after the eligibility for the annual Billboard charts expired, one of the most significant CDs of the year, Ray Charles' Genius Loves Company, completed not long before his death in June, did hit #2 on the charts, and that is certainly a CD we have played.
After the major labels bitterly complained that music downloads were destroying the music business, an interesting thing happened in 2004, record sales increased, after a couple of years of alarming drops. The increase in sales of conventional CDs was especially strong in the first part of the year, but sales slowed somewhat toward the end of the year. Still, 2004 looks to be a positive year.
And speaking of downloads, the sales of paid downloads, spurred by the success of Apple's iPod portable player, skyrocketed during the year. Thirty million downloads, at 99 cents a pop, were sold through Apple's site alone in the first year, ending in April. Two thousand three was the first year that download sales exceeded sales of physical singles on cassette or CD. So far in 2004, download sales were outselling physical singles by 17 to 1. Overall, paid downloads grew by a factor of 10 in 2004. Also, many other companies have entered the paid download business, most notably Wal-Mart. Meanwhile, the lowly cassette, once the most popular music medium, declined in unit sales by a further 49% in 2004.
In 2003, there was much litigation over music downloads, with the major labels thinking they could stop the march of technology through lawyers. The labels continue to launch thousands of lawsuits against people, like 11 year old kids, sharing music over the Internet. The rise of the paid download services did stem the volume of illicit downloads, but by year's end, it was said that traffic on file-sharing services like Kazaa and Grokster was higher than ever. Toward the end of the year, the Supreme Court agreed to take on a lawsuit against Grokster, which could have the potential to overturn the so-called Betamax case which provided a legal foundation for people to use devices like VCRs to record material for their own use. The ruling is expected by summer, and many on both sides of the issue are girding for the results. In the meantime, the fallout from the election points to an even more corporate-friendly Congress. In 2004, a so-called "Induce" bill has been introduced which would essentially make file exchanges illegal. One Congressman introduced a provision that would make it illegal even to skip over commercials through devices like TIVO. Fortunately, that provision was withdrawn for now.
The aggressive tactics of corporate so-called "content-owners" has spawned an interesting debate on the whole issue of copyright, especially in the digital age when it's so easy manipulate and propagate creative works of almost any kind. Lawrence Lessig, a law professor and intellectual property expert has argued that restricting the ability to copy and distribute information could put the US at a competitive disadvantage in an information-based world market, and has proposed something called the Creative Commons, which would provide an alternative to restrictive copyrights and would allow sharing of works with the artists donating their copyright or taking minimal compensation at first, which would allow for example one artist to build on the work of another by sampling of other means, without teams of corporate lawyers and litigation. The music biz has identified the Creative Commons as a major threat, with Michael Sukin, the head of the International Association of Entertainment Lawyers urging the music industry to "lobby against Creative Commons worldwide," according to Billboard magazine.
Even outside of the download business, the way that recorded music is being sold is undergoing a shift. The venerable Tower Records chain, known for their large selection, declared bankruptcy in 2004, but used it primarily as a means to reorganize. They remain in business. Starbucks stores joined various records and electronics stores in offering kiosks where one can make and buy your own CD mixes of various tracks. The artist again known as Prince had an interesting approach, bundling tickets to his live shows with his latest independently released CD. And Prince was one of the biggest draws on the concert circuit this year.
The growth of the iPod and similar devices, and the proliferation of downloads, both paid and otherwise, has amplified a question that we hinted at last year: Is the album dead? It's been no secret that many artists, even some respectable ones, felt obligated to fill out a CD, especially with its longer playing time than an LP, with less-than stellar material. The idea of paying $15 or more for a CD with only one or two decent songs was no doubt a big factor in the growth of individual song downloads, and the record biz only has itself to blame for that, with a concentration on one or two songs that were aimed at commercial radio and video channels. So downloads and iPods represent an "unbundling" of the album as a concept. So if it hasn't reached thatpoint yet, it may soon get back the situation in the early days of rock when the principal medium for recorded music was the single, the 45 rpm record. The concept can also free up the artists to create a musical work of any length, not governed by the capacity of a CD.
One interesting development on the major label front came from the Universal labels, which in 2003, stunned the rest of the music biz by cutting prices on many CDs. In 2004, they announced the formation of a download-only label, aimed at artists who might not sell millions of CDs, and whose fans are likely to be computer savvy. It will be interesting to see how that unfolds in a business which for generations revolved around the concept of manufacturing and distributing physical goods.
All of that begs an observation about the way music is being listened to, now I guess I should say, the way music is being used. For the price of an Apple iPod, you can get a very good home stereo setup, with good speakers, a CD player, and most importantly of all, an FM tuner. Instead people are paying a lot of money for what is admittedly a miniature technological wonder, but the sound quality is decidedly lacking. Maybe I'm old fashioned, but the idea of having cheesy-sounding music in your ears all the time, along with such things as ringtones on cell phones playing excerpts of hit records, is to me, cheapening the experience of listening to music.
The same kind of hubris shown by the major record labels also took its toll on the live concert business in 2004. By all accounts it was not a good year for ticket sales. The consolidation of the concert business, and the virtual monopoly held by Clear Channel Entertainment in many areas no doubt was a factor in the rapidly rising price of tickets. For many, it reached the point that seeing their favorite bands was just not worth close to $100, along with the restrictions concert audiences were being subjected to. Toward the end of the year, there was actually talk of cutting ticket prices. By the way, the year's top touring acts were Madonna, who grossed $124 million in ticket sales, Prince, Shania Twain, and Simon & Garfunkel. One of the more significant events of the year was Phish's goodbye festival in August, which attracted 58,000.
Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" at the Superbowl in January is about as far removed from Mixed Bag as one can possibly get in the music world, but it was emblematic of the schizophrenia and downright hypocrisy that the commercial media, politicians and the American public have about free speech. For me, the music being played was more upsetting for its tastelessness than the exuviation of part of Ms. Jackson's anatomy, but that's just my opinion. Nevertheless it started an unavoidable howl in the media and especially among vote-trolling politicians. Of course, as a result, the FCC had no choice but to punish CBS-TV, and it put out the word that all kinds of indecent and obscene content in the over-the-air media would be punished. Now for all its succumbing to political pressure, the FCC is in a difficult position regulating content, and it has long faced this dilemma: on the one hand, is a desire to restrict indecent content from those not wishing to see it or hear it, or children, for example. But on the other, there is the constitutionally protected right of free speech, which the FCC is reluctant to violate, in a principle known as prior-restraint. So among broadcasters for as long as I have been in the business, the principle has been, "We can't tell you what not to broadcast, but if you do air something outside the bounds, we'll go after you."
Nevertheless, the whole incident put fear into commercial broadcasters who were finding smut profitable. In the wake of all of that, the FCC ruled that it could not restrict content on subscription services like satellite radio and TV. So commercial radio shock jock Howard Stern announced that he was moving to satellite radio, which may or may not boost satellite subscriptions. Another refugee to satellite radio for a very different reason was NPR's Bob Edwards, who was unceremoniously relieved of his Morning Edition hosting position, presumably in a search for younger hosts, That set off the probably the biggest controversy in Public Radio in a very long time.
In case you didn't notice, there was a presidential campaign during 2004, the longest and nastiest, but which the one poll said was one of the most informative in memory. Musicians were involved in a big way. While George W. Bush had Toby Keith, most of the contemporary music world was behind John Kerry and organized an unprecedented get-out-the-vote tour called Vote for Change, with artists like John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, the Dixie Chicks and many others who put on a series of concerts in swing states like Pennsylvania. Of course, despite millions of young voters being registered, the younger generation justly earned its reputation as slackers and voted in no greater numbers than in previous elections, something like fewer than 1 in 10 voters was under 30. The campaign certainly inspired a new generation of protest singers, and chances are we are going to see a lot more of them in the next four years assuming they don't all get arrested.
About the music, something that often gets forgotten in all the discussions of the music business, there were not a lot of interesting new trends, but a continuation of both the good and the bad. One trend catching the attention of the biz was the so-called mashups, records made up of other hit records manipulated by people with their computers, or other artists, with the so called Gray Album, created by L.A. producer/DJ Danger Mouse (a/k/a Brian Burton), combining Jay-Z's Black album with the Beatles White album being a popular example. That got record company lawyers salivating at the prospects of lawsuits, but so-called "legitimate" mashups, sanctioned by the powers that be, are beginning to appear.
Another trend that illustrates the evolving relationship between media is the emergence of video game soundtrack CDs.
And that brings us to our quick technology review. A couple of interesting developments have taken place. One is the perfection of a two sided audio CD/DVD combination disc, with a one format on each side. A company also figured out how to put printing on the disc and still have it readable on both sides. Meanwhile, the SACD high-resolution audio discs, most of which are compatible with regular CD players continue to appear at a slow rate. Players for the extra-high audio quality format are still rare. And with pop music recordings increasingly being made with downright bad sound, often intentionally, and the proliferation of mp3s further driving down the quality of sound, sometimes there seems to be little market for high quality audio anymore.
The other interesting development was the decision by the biggest owner of commercial radio stations, the controversial Clear Channel Radio to invest in digital FM radio, now called HD radio, which offers near-CD quality over the air. They are in the process of outfitting hundreds of their stations to transmit in HD Radio. Perhaps that will break the logjam for digital radio, since receivers are currently virtually unavailable, with manufacturers waiting for stations to go on the air before building and selling them. It is also a smart defensive measure against satellite radio.
Well, that's one admittedly eccentric view of things. If you have put up with all of this, perhaps you might be able to win your endurance award by staying tuned. Coming up later, the 31st or so Annual Graham Awards. But next, it's the 2004 Musical Obituaries, some of the personalities in the world of contemporary music we lost during the year.
(c) Copyright 2004 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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