George Graham's 1999 Year-End Review
(As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/30/99)
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My usual practice in assembling these year-end tirades is to go back a year, and see what were the significant issues, fads accomplishments and embarrassments of the last year. In 1998, I noted how not that much had changed in the music world, with the media's attention focussed on the bizarre political episodes unfolding in Washington. 1999 was quite different, and it's interesting to consider how much things have changed. Last year at this time, the biggest selling record concerned a sinking ship. And there was country mega-star Garth Brooks, attempting to and succeeding in selling a million albums within a week. This year, people barely remember the Titanic, and Garth Brooks first announced that he isn't going to be Garth Brooks, but instead Chris Gaines, fictitious rock star, and then that he was going to retire altogether. He still sold a lot of records though.
The big soundtrack album was not for the much ballyhooed Star Wars film, but instead, according to the year-end Billboard sales charts was the Tarzan soundtrack, which came in no higher than #54. The Star Wars soundtrack came in at #99.
Instead, as many who have been unable to avoid being within earshot of top 40 radio can attest, 1999's big trends were teenage acts, and so-called latin performers, and consequently a teenage latin singer, Christina Aguilera. The top 5 Billboard albums for the year were by, from #5 to #1, Ricky Martin, 'N Sync, Shania Twain, Britney Spears, and #1: The Backstreet Boys. But interestingly, the #1 single for the year was by someone who was performing for years before any of these teen stars were born: Cher.
Still, to many music fans, the top of the Billboard charts seem more and more like foreign territory. Last year, we lamented that of the top 25 albums in Billboard's annual charts, there was only one that we found suitable for Mixed Bag. This year, there were none at all. In 1999, the highest-charting album that had anything to do with Mixed Bag was #42: Sarah McLachlan's fine live CD Mirrorball.
Still, there was one unexpected result of the latin fad, Carlos Santana and his band reached #1 on the weekly Billboard charts. Because of the way the annual charts are compiled with the deadline going back almost two months, Santana's album did not show up on the significantly on the annual charts.
On the subject of teenage pop acts, as much as we old fogies may snicker at the performers and music, teen acts really have had a significant part in pop music for over 40 years. Teen phenomena seem to be a cyclical thing. After all, the biggest audiences for Elvis Presley in the 1950s and the Beatles during their early period were teenagers. And don't forget, Presley himself started out in his teens, along with artists like Stevie Wonder, Steve Winwood, Janis Ian and even that famously profound English singer-songwriter Richard Thompson, of Fairport Convention, achieved the beginning of their fame in while still in their teens. And they are not exactly flashes in the pan. Whether Britney Spears will become another Janis Ian, or the Backstreet Boys another Fairport Convention, remains to be seen, though. However, one sign of hope is 15 year-old Shelby Starner, who was signed to Warner Bros. and put out a surprisingly mature and thoughtful album. And she's from right in our neighborhood, Stroudsburg PA. Somewhat less hopeful is a threatened comeback by the teen sibling group Hanson.
Despite the teen regime, there was also a plethora of nostalgia going on, with lots of musical groups, advertising campaigns, and other pop phenomena taking a decidedly retro approach, often in the pursuit of money. This culminated in another event which seemed to epitomize the year and its music: Woodstock 99. An attempt to recreate a defining cultural watershed of the 1960s, which happened more or less by accident, 30 years later turned into an orgy of greed, and became almost everything that was the antithesis of peace and love. With extortionary ticket prices, military-style security, and people intent on venting their frustrations, along with a bevy of bad bands some with downright mysogynistic lyrical messages, the event deteriorated into riots, rapes and recriminations. Hopefully, some painful lessons will be learned from the debacle. But I doubt it. You better start preparing for Woodstock 2004.
Also in the nostalgia department, the swing phenomenon that really took hold in 1998 continued in 1999, with Brian Setzer's 1998 album The Dirty Boogie continuing to appear on the pop charts, and a host of worthwhile new swing-oriented albums being issued. A kind of sub-trend was that of established blues performers, such as Chris Daniels & the Kings and Omar & the Howlers putting out swing albums during the year. And, in the Squirrel Nut Zippers tradition, there were interesting and fun albums by the Asylum Street Spankers and Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire going back even earlier for their influence. 1999 also brought some CDs by groups going back the more mellow side of the mid 1960s, influenced by artists like Bert Bacharach. Among them were the High Llamas, the Aluminium Group and the welcome return of the melodic pop of the Lilac Time.
Of course, the other big trend in the music business, and just about everywhere else, is the Internet. It's e-everything e-everywhere you e-go. I have been talking about the Internet, as it relates to music since 1995, and this year, it really started to have a major impact. On-line music stores, from the huge, but still not-profitable Amazon.com to websites put up by conventional a record stores, provided a way for people to buy CDs that may be hard to find in local stores. Many sites allow one to sample a recording before purchasing it. Much to the chagrin of conventional bricks-and-mortar record stores, some of the major record companies have been experimenting with selling CDs directly. This sort of thing is much more common now among small, independent labels, the number of which has grown exponentially.
But the most profound possibility of the Internet is the idea of bypassing record companies entirely, with music fans being able to download recordings directly from websites operated by the artists themselves. That was only a potential, when I started talking about it four years ago, but now it has very much taken off. MP3 technology, which allows moderately acceptable audio quality to be delivered over the 'Net has already allowed hundreds of thousands of music fans to download songs. And, an increasingly popular product on many high-tech Christmas gift lists this year were portable MP3 players, into which you can download music that you have downloaded from the Internet, and then use like a Walkman to listen anywhere you go without needing your computer.
Naturally, the major record companies immediately recognized the threat this represents to their oligopoly on the music business and started launching a string of lawsuits against manufacturers of the MP3 players -- so far unsuccessful -- and agitating among technology companies and lobbying Congress to put a stop to it, or at least make it such that their control is re-established. They do have a valid point when people place copyrighted material on websites without permission and allow people to download it for free. But that's no reason to stop the exchange of music between artists and fans. It's interesting that some popular artists are making new songs available for download before they are released on an album, and that has infuriated the labels, who again threatened lawsuits. But, not to be outdone, some record companies are making music available for download at a price. One rather small independent label, TVT Records recently announced that they have made their entire catalogue, all their albums, available for sale via download. And Virgin Records made David Bowie's latest album Hours available for sale by download before the CD was officially released.
The labels are also trying to co-opt the music downloads for themselves by lobbying for new technology that prevents people from copying and exchanging the music they download. At year's end, a coalition of big media and technology companies is working on something known as the Secure Digital Music Initiative, which would use special encoding to prevent unauthorized copying. How many days do you think it will take before some hacker breaks the code? There are also conflicting standards, and chances are people will get very frustrated trying to download music for a fee, only to discover that you need special software to play it.
And you can tell it's getting big when Microsoft steps in. Bill Gates and company are now lobbying the music industry to adopt Microsoft's own audio download system.
Nevertheless, the Internet is already paying benefits to independent artists whose music can be made available to the whole world without having to deal with any record companies, other than the one they create for themselves. Of course, the other side of the coin is that there are so many choices, that it's often pure chance that brings a music fan to the website of a new artist.
The big financial news of 1999 of course, was of high-flying Internet stocks and huge mergers in the telecommunications and media field, with telephone companies, long-distance companies, Internet companies, cable companies, cell-phone companies and television networks swallowing each other up. CBS television announced its merger with the company that runs MTV, and the two biggest owners of commercial radio stations in the country announced their merger. The era of deregulation was intended to bring greater diversity to consumers, but instead control is increasingly flowing toward fewer and larger companies. Of course, we have already been seeing the results with commercial television and hearing it on commercial radio. And in the music business, what were once six big record companies were reduced to five in 1998 with the merger of Universal/MCA with Polygram. Early in 1999, the results of the merger were felt, with large number of layoffs, and many talented artists being dropped.
And that brings me to a theory I have, which you can take with as many grains of salt as you like: It's my contention that the current run-up of the stock market may very well be the reason that music on the commercial pop scene is so bad. Let me explain. Years ago, even the major record labels were essentially relatively small, family-type operations still run by some of the people who founded them, people who were music lovers first and business people second. So the common practice was to sign artists to multi-album deals with the expectations that the first couple of albums were unlikely to go platinum, and might well lose money. But the record companies stuck with the artists in the hopes that eventually, they would take off. With all the mergers and acquisitions, some going back to the 1970s, record labels became more and more beholden to larger corporate structures, with the labels essentially being just small parts of multi-media companies, but parts that are expected to contribute to the bottom line. The label founders have been retiring for some time, replaced by a new generation of business people. In fact, there has been a very public flap over Clive Davis, the founder of Arista Records, who is being asked to retire by the label's German-based owners, and he does not want to go.
With the bull market on Wall Street, and the media field being so competitive, the pressure has become immense to boost quarterly profits, and thus enhance the stock price. So sticking with artists who may lose money on their first or second albums is not likely to go over well with the stockholders of the multi-media companies, many of whom are mutual fund managers who couldn't care less about music.
As a result, A&R people, those in record companies whose job it is to sign artists, are under enormous pressure to put out albums that are going to sell in the millions quickly. And what better way to ensure that than to sign artists who sound just like the current hit. I have heard through the grapevine that many record label A&R people are scared to death for their jobs. The turnover rate has become enormous. So what is the record company A&R person to do, faced with a choice between a talented and promising artist slightly out of the mainstream but with great potential, or a cookie-cutter clone of the current #1 hit, and he knows that if he doesn't sign a band that gets a big hit he is likely to be right out the door. Chances are, we get more of the same.
A similar phenomenon is happening in the commercial media, both radio and video channels: with stockholders demanding quick returns, programming is not likely to be very courageous.
Now if a bear market hits, I don't know if the music will get any better, but as it is now, the major label music scene has become a vast wasteland.
Fortunately, there is independently released music, but the number of such CDs is getting out of hand. Even more so than in previous years, every band and artist, no matter how good or bad, has the ability to put out their own album and sell it on the Internet. We may be approaching an era in which instead of a few albums selling in the multi-millions, we have huge numbers of independent releases selling in the hundreds to a few thousand. The definition of hit may have to be redefined. But for now, the Backstreet Boys, Mariah Carey, Britney Spears and Shania Twain are selling in the millions, and the worthwhile, creative music is not.
Another new development that was inspired by the Internet, and the ability to download songs and make your own CDs, is the appearances of custom CD kiosks in some record stores, which allow you essentially to put together your own CDs from thousands of tracks by various artists. Interestingly there are a number of record companies who are co-operating in this kind of venture by making some of their recordings legally available for these custom CDs.
Well, back to the music. Some of this year's other interesting trends include a significant increase in the visibility of high quality bluegrass. Country star Ricky Skaggs announced that he was going to go back to his roots and concentrate on bluegrass. Early in the year, he released on his own label, by the way, Ancient Times, an excellent straight bluegrass record. Banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck, known in recent years for his eclectic fusion group the Flecktones, released his first bluegrass album in several years, called Tales from the Acoustic Planet Volume 2: The Bluegrass Album, and it was an amazing recording. And toward the end of the year, another of Nashville's superstars, Dollie Parton, did a straight bluegrass album called The Grass is Blue, featuring some of the genre's best pickers, and the result was another gem. Alison Krauss, on the other hand, moved in a more Nashville direction on her 1999 release Forget About It, but it still had some authenticity to its sound.
Nineteen ninety nine saw the continuation of a trend that I like: another cornucopia of roots rock bands, young groups who eschew synthesizers, samplers and anything that smacks of music after about 1973, and do sincere-sounding vocals with tried and true rock ingredients. Among 1999's notables are Say Zuzu, Entrain, Bob Delevante and the band called John Train. However, like most trends in the pop music world, there were the also-rans, groups who try so hard to sound sincere that they come off as pretentious.
High quality singer-songwriters remain as numerous as ever, with particularly worthwhile albums during the year by Darrell Scott, Jonatha Brooke, Brooks Williams, Guy Clark, and Luka Bloom.
This year also was interesting for several albums that blended classical and pop elements. There were two combining classical musicians in eclectic settings, the delightful album by bassist Edgar Meyer and classical violinist Joshua Bell called Short Trip Home bringing together bluegrass and jazz with Bell's classical technique. Another classical violin phenom, Nigel Kennedy put together what he called The Kennedy Experience and did an album of Jimi Hendrix music. A talented West Coast composer and arranger Joel Pelletier did a wonderful album called Chamber Pop combining classical instrumentation and arrangements with original pop songs. Joe Jackson released an impressive CD called Symphony No. 1, featuring classical, jazz, rock and other fusions, and Paul McCartney released his Working Classical CD, with orchestral and chamber works by the former Beatle.
The world music scene was full of interesting new recordings, with some especially beguiling CDs coming from Brazilian performers, such as Monica Salmaso and the duo of Rosanna and Zelia. Throughout the year, a label called Northside Records has been releasing a series of interesting and appealing records by Scandinavian artists drawing on some traditional elements, including Troka and Vasen.
The blues scene was very active in 1999. And the teen phenomenon has also been making inroads into one part of the music scene which traditionally celebrates the maturity of its artists. Teenage guitar slinger Johnny Lang was the top selling blues artist of the year, followed by veteran B.B. King, and another relative youngster, Kenny Wayne Shepard. Toward the end of the year, Arista released with much hype, a record by a 14-year-old guitarist named Shannon Curfman. On the other hand, not making the charts yet, but certainly representing what the blues is all about is the recent release Live at 85 by pianist Pinetop Perkins. The 85 is his age.
The jazz world continued active with many of the traditionalists holding sway. The top selling jazz albums, on the Billboard charts, as usual were vocal recordings, in this case by Harry Connick and Diana Krall. It seemed that Wynton Marsalis was releasing a new CD almost every other week, and most were quite impressive. During the year, we lost a particularly large number of notable players, from vibist Milt Jackson to saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr. We'll have the our musical obituary section in a few minutes.
Closer to home, the regional music scene remains active. There were at least 25 CD releases by artists who have appeared on our Homegrown Music series. That is down somewhat from last year, when there were 37, but it's still a healthy number, which include two CDs each released in 1999 by both The Badlees and Dead Left. There were also three CDs released during the year which consisted of recordings from our Homegrown Music series, recorded here at WVIA. They were by Greg Burgess, Charlie Singer and Rick Sirota
And now for my annual look at audio technology. For the last few years, I have been talking about the great potential for super high quality audio that the Digital Versatile Disc or DVD holds. DVD is not just an video format, but has the potential to carry audio with quality much higher than compact discs, with for example 24 bit resolution, compared to 16-bit for CD. After several years in discussions, finally, early in 1999, a technical standard for DVD audio was agreed upon, and manufacturers would be able to start to design and sell units for DVD audio. Unfortunately, toward the end of the year, it was discovered that a hacker was able to defeat the anti-copy system in DVD audio, and the introduction of DVD audio units was postponed until the copy-protection issue, again at the behest of the big record companies, is straightened out.
But I'm beginning to wonder if DVD Audio, if it is ever introduced, will make a difference. This year, the audio quality on most major-label CDs continued to deteriorate rapidly. CDs are sounding worse and worse as labels and seemingly deaf producers attempt to make them sound as loud as possible. Worse still are some producers who for the sake of trendiness, add intentional distortion and heavy compression that makes their CDs sound like a bad cassette played with a worn out battery. The compact disc is capable of very good sound. There is simply no excuse for intentionally bad sound. As someone for whom audio quality means a lot, it has been a discouraging year between badly recorded low-budget independent releases, and major label productions made in world-class studios with all the latest technology, but made to sound like sonic garbage.
Well, there we have our view of the world, as the 1900s approach their end. Who knows what year 2000 will bring musically. Probably just like most other years: some interesting music, and a whole lot of silliness. Coming up, our 1999 obituary section, and later, the much-dreaded Graham Awards, the 26th or 27th annual.
(c) Copyright 1999, 2000 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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