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George Graham's 1998 Year-End Essay
1998 Year-End Special
by George Graham

(As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/30/98)

Time now for our annual year-end wrap-up, essay and curmudgeonly commentary on the music of the past year, at least as seen from the perspective of this radio show, which has precious little to do with the contemporary commercial music scene, except as a vantage point from which to throw some pot shots.

After a year in which the whole world seemed to go crazy, especially the nation's capital, the music scene, by comparison was rather uneventful. Each year, when I am putting together these things, I go back and read my commentary from the previous year, to see how things have changed or not. And actually I could have saved myself some work and just gone back and repeated last year's tirade, for the most part.

At the end of 1997, I lamented on how few albums there were at the top of the pop charts that came anywhere near fitting into what we do on this program. Last year, out of the top 25 albums on the Billboard annual cumulative charts for the year, there were only three that we found suitable to play on Mixed Bag. This year, it was even worse: there was only one CD of the top 25 that we ever did play, and I think it was only once: #17 Chumbawamba. In fact, out of the fifty top-selling Billboard albums of 1998, there were only two we regularly played: The Dave Matthews Band's Before There Crowded Street, #30; and Barenaked Ladies' Stunt, #33.

Instead the top of the charts was dominated by, reading from #5 up to #1: Shania Twain, Backstreet Boys, Garth Brooks, Celine Dion and the Titanic Soundtrack. The sinking ship's music being #1 for the year was no surprise, given the enormous media hype the film received.

Last year, we noted the significant trend as being the popularity of very young acts, such as Leann Rimes, Hansen, Jewel and Johnny Lang. This year, there was the commercial success of the Backstreet Boys, but the teenage act did not dominate the charts quite so much this year. Still, there were still many talented veteran performers who continue to do fine work and never had a chance to crack the top 200, let alone get to the top of the charts.

Still, with music as -- what we would probably call -- "bad" as it was, people were buying a lot of CDs. Album sales continued to rise in 1998. And Garth Brooks managed to sell a million copies of his CD in the first week alone, a quest that his record company set out to achieve. In many ways, music has become a product to be mass marketed just like anything else, which brings me to probably the biggest development in the music industry in 1998: consolidation.

For many years there were just six major, global record companies -- there are quite a few subdivision labels, but most are owned by Time-Warner, Sony, Capitol-EMI, Bertelsmann or BMG, Polygram and MCA. Many thought it was uncompetitive that so few corporate parents would control so much of the supply of recorded music. This year, the number of players decreased to five, when Montreal-based Seagram, which a couple of years ago bought MCA-Universal announced a buyout of Dutch-owned Polygram. The merger was recently completed, and soon the operations of the various labels, including MCA, Universal, Curb, Polydor, Mercury, Verve, Island, A&M, Philips, London, Deutche Gramophone and many others are set to be combined. Perhaps more profound will be the consolidation of the two entities' distribution networks. Seagram already announced a goal of cutting $300 million in expenses worldwide through the merger. A lot of record company employees will likely be losing their jobs, but more significantly for the music fan, a lot of artists are likely to be cut as well, and with one less major player in the business, there will be substantially fewer opportunities for artists to receive wide distribution for their music.

On the other hand, the number of independent artist-owned labels is in the thousands. It's now easy and inexpensive to make your own record and have a thousand or two CDs manufactured, but with the shrinking number of national record distributors, getting those records into record stores across the country is increasingly difficult.

The little fish are being eaten by the big fish in other fields as well. Two large national record retail chains, Trans-World Entertainment and Camelot merged, and a company called SFX was in a buying spree and acquired several concert promotion and booking companies, again reducing the number of players in the live music concert business. The latter attracted the attention of the Justice Department's anti-trust division. And of course, in the commercial broadcasting business, the relaxation of the law governing the number of stations one company can own, has virtually eliminated locally-owned commercial radio stations in this country. As anyone who has tuned across the radio dial in the past couple of years has heard, more and more programming is syndicated and it's now commonplace for several radio stations in the same region to be broadcasting identical programming simultaneously.

This, in my opinion, has contributed to the current sorry state of pop music. Large corporate radio group owners, programming lots of radio stations, want to be assured that their ratings will high as possible to ensure adequate return on investment, so the techniques that work in marketing products are being applied to music selection on the radio: focus group research, and testing music's likely popularity by randomly calling people and playing 30 seconds or so of a piece of music to them to see how they react, as if 30 seconds of music over the abysmal sound quality of a telephone is enough to form an adequate judgement of a piece of music. And using standard opinion-research techniques, those songs which get a particularly strong positive reaction are eliminated, since they are likely to get a stronger negative reaction from others. So the research steers the music to the insipid middle, music that people, listening over a telephone for 30 seconds, like but not too much. With the research results fed into a computer, playlists are then generated. And that's the selection process for music on increasing numbers (but by still not means all) commercial radio stations. It's little wonder the top of the charts is as artistically barren a place as it is.

The deregulation of the commercial radio airwaves has also essentially made legal something that created a big scandal in the early days of rock radio: payola. In an effort to break through the barriers to new music that research-directed programming has created, record companies are now essentially buying airplay of their records as commercial time. Station group owners are selling the airplay of a record along with opening and closing announcements to the record labels. That caused a controversy in the early part of the year, but the story pretty much slipped out of the music trade publications by the end of the year. It's not known how much of this buying of airplay is still going on at this point.

For at least the past three years, I have been talking about the Internet as a whole new way of getting music from artists to the public, essentially eliminating record companies as we know them. This year, that came closer to reality. MP3 audio files, which are essentially recordings of music squeezed into smaller digital files using so-called "MPEG layer 3" technology, can be downloaded from the Internet easily. There are already thousands of tunes available, most of them free, but there are some on-line sales of music going on. Naturally, record companies are up in arms, seeing their control of the market threatened. They are rightly upset when copyrighted music they own is put on a website downloadable for free. Though the law has yet to catch up with the technology, it is easy to make a convincing case that this is clearly a violation of copyright law. So labels are once again attempting, as they have done so many times in the past when a new technology comes along, to lobby for some kind of legally required anti-copy device to prevent these downloads from taking place. But as for artists putting their own work on the Internet, and attempting to sell it, there's nothing legally wrong with that. However the Big 5 world media conglomerates seem intent on working to put up legal barriers to any dilution of their control of the market. Of course, at the same time, almost all the record companies already have their own websites, and a few are offering downloads. Of course, your local neighborhood record store is likely to get caught in the middle of this.

The Internet has already become a significant force in the selling of conventional recordings. On-line record stores are proliferating, the big record clubs are starting set up business in cyberspace, and even some of the major record labels are starting direct sales through websites. Of course, consolidation again was a factor in 1998, with the two largest on-line music retailers, CD-NOW and N2K merging. The Public Radio Music Source also has a considerable on-line presence. But the wonderfully democratic nature of the Internet has also made it possible for the smallest artist-owned labels, with one release to their name, to have a website just as easy to access and just as good as anything that the major labels have.

Nevertheless, as I said last year, and I think it's still true, there's still nothing like physically picking up a CD or cassette, or especially an LP, and looking it over in your hands before you decide to buy it. And for many, that's still a good reason to make a trip to a record store -- that is if you are lucky enough to have a good one nearby.

Now from the business to the music, and some trends that caught my attention. One of the most talked about is the return of swing. Suddenly it's cool to put on a zoot suit, and listen to music played on acoustic instruments that makes you want to dance the jitterbug. In 1998, three swing albums made their way up the Billboard charts for a while, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, by the group of the same name, the Cherry Poppin Daddies's Zoot Suit Riot released in 1997, and the Brian Setzer Orchestra's The Dirty Boogie which reached a peak of #9 on the Billboard charts earlier this year. There was also the latest album by the Squirrel Nut Zippers which sold well. Off the pop music charts, there were also some fun records that got off into a more romantic mood in swing genre, Rachel Garniez's Serenade City, and the eponymous album by the French group Paris Combo was a delight, with the French lyrics giving it more class. And our friends, Homegrown Music veterans and frequent performers in the area, Ron Sunshine and Full Swing had an impressive debut CD called Straight Up released toward the end of the year.

Nineteen ninety eight was a year of looking back musically in a number of other ways. Beatles-influenced melodic pop was making a comeback among younger alternative bands, with many adding grunge to spoil the stew, while others, such as another French group called William Pears really got it right. Also this year, a figure from the 1970s, songwriter Andrew Gold, came up with one of the most fun semi-serious send-ups of the 1960s psychedelic era in an album by a group consisting of himself called he called The Fraternal Order of the All.

With the passing of the Grateful Dead, and the current popularity of the group Phish, a good number of what I call "jam bands" have appeared with worthwhile records. These are groups that get into extended and spirited instrumental jams in performance and even on record. Most impressive was String Cheese Incident, and there were notable albums by Moe, Calobo, Rusted Root and Strangefolk.

Of course, all that nostalgia has brought back a few veterans performers to commercial success. Kiss reunited and had a commercially successful tour. And the biggest grossing concert act for the second year in a row was the Rolling Stones, who in five nights in Buenos Aires collected $14.5 million.

This was also a year when some performers got back to their roots. Acoustic blues seemed to be making a comeback, with 80s stadium rocker Billy Squier making an introspective solo acoustic blues album that was quite a surprise and not a bad blues record. Chris Whitley, who has been on the edge of acoustic blues in past records released an excellent, and similarly stark recording called Dirt Floor, and Chris Thomas King, whose past efforts ranged from electric blues rock to reggae to hip-hop under the name Chris Thomas made a no-compromise acoustic blues record called Red Mud. Jazz-rock guitarist Robben Ford also released a great jazzy-blues live album on acoustic guitar entitled The Authorized Bootleg.

This was also the year when a newer style began to get interesting. Techno-dance, or rave, or ambient electronica -- synthesizer-based music created for the rave-dance scene, previously left me pretty cold. It was stiff, repetitive, generally dumb, and ultimately maddeningly annoying unless perhaps you were on the dance floor, presumably under the influence of something. Eventually, given enough creativity, almost any art form can rise to a level of validity, and this year there were three really interesting records that took the ingredients of techno-rave to whole new level. One was by a young Canadian-born Scottish resident Martyn Bennett who combined the style with traditional Scots-Celtic music in a fascinating and engaging record called Bothy Culture. Also combining techno and world influences is the latest recording by Talvin Singh, entitled OK which included Indian and even classical orchestral elements in the blend. And for pure techno raised to the level of art is there is the CD by the illusive San Francisco synthesist named Jhno, and his recording entitled Kwno.

Celtic music continued to attract some attention from the public. There seems to be two directions being taken by groups in the field. Some, including such long-time traditional groups like Capercaillie, have gone in the direction followed by Clannad by adding synthesizers and new-age style drones to their music, while others like Solas, have maintained the traditional acoustic instrumentation and achieved new levels of instrumental virtuosity.

This also seemed to be a year for impressive debuts by second generation performers: Jamie Hartford, son of folk legend John Hartford, Shemekia Copeland, daughter of bluesman Johnny Copeland, and Rufus Wainwright, son of Loudon.

In terms of number of albums released that came in our direction, 1998 was certainly the year of singer-songwriters. There were hundreds of such albums released this year, almost all on independent labels, which ranged from brilliant to just plain awful. This seemed to be a year in which duos became more numerous, with notable albums by Harrod and Funck, Evan and Jaron, the duo Rockwell Church, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Jay Under and Molly Mason, Robin and Linda Williams, Pete and Maura Kennedy (The Kennedys), and so on.

Last year at this time, I commented on how many CDs had been released in 1997 by regional artists whom we have had on the Homegrown Music series. There were a remarkable 37 that I counted. This year the number is also 38, though if you count the album by Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha, on which three-time Homegrown Music guest Neal Casal plays a prominent role, then the number is 39. I guess I helped contribute to that plethora, having been involved with as producer or engineer on five of them released in 1998.

And now for our annual audio technology commentary. Again, I can pretty much repeat last year's notes: the DVD, which stands for the Digital Versatile Disc, not by the way "digital video disc" holds out hope for sound quality improved substantially over current compact discs, with for example the capability for 24-bit digital audio and high sampling rates like 96 KHz. Last year, there were the beginnings of work on technical standards for DVD audio discs, but the standard has still yet to be agreed upon and so no audio-only DVDs are yet being produced.

Also last year, I decried the declining audio quality on CDs, not because of technical problems, but because of intentional measures taken by producers, engineers and record labels. The biggest problem is excessive compression which robs the music of its realism. There seems to be a competition, not unlike commercial radio, to have the loudest-sounding CDs, even when that kind of thing is inappropriate for the music. Compression is the use of electronic means to make the soft portions of the music sound as loud as the loudest passages, thus robbing the music of all its life, and makes it hard to listen to after a while on anything but a cheap system. There is also a persistent so-called low-fi movement, especially in the alternative rock field, to make recordings that intentionally sound bad, with distortion, noise, and even record scratches in the misguided belief that somehow this sounds "cool."

We already talked about the Internet and MP3 technology, but an interesting wrinkle to that is the introduction of a portable MP3 player that is essentially a solid state Walkman-like device with no moving parts that plays MP3-encoded music from memory chips, which may be downloaded with files from the Internet. Again, record companies are up in arms and have already sued the player's manufacturer.

So musically, 1998 has been more or less a reprise of last year, and compared to the world at large, a relatively calm place.

Copyright 1998 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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