Monday, November 19, 2012

Quality, Not Quantity: The Recording Industry, Piracy, and John Mellencamp

When I first started learning guitar, I was interested in hearing sounds from the past that had been chronicled in periodicals like Rolling Stone, where elongated reviews of album releases romanticized various musical trends. Most 'vintage' albums had been issued on both vinyl and cassette formats, and, due to low visibility of many of the artists existing outside of the 'first tier' of entertainers, some recordings were tough to find. Kids would trade cassettes back and forth, forming a 'shared experience' along the way. Because our parents had been products of the 'rock and roll' generation of the 1950s and 1960s, general knowledge of those sounds was there. For instance, a view into my eighth grade yearbook reveals the 1962 chart hit 'Tell Him' by the Exciters as the top track of the year, as selected by twelve and thirteen year olds twenty-five years after the tune's original release. Of course, the spins it actually received in our classroom paled in comparison to the popular albums of the day, 'Permanent Vacation' by Aerosmith, 'Look What the Cat Dragged In' by Poison, and Bon Jovi's 'Slippery When Wet' - all issued (and sold) in massive quantities.

For those wiling to dig deeper, though, weekends offered a chance to scour old record stores for music rarely (if ever) heard on FM radio. A walk down these aisles would reveal such artists as Chain, Edgar Broughton, Love, MC5, Moby Grape, Orpheus, Patto, Spooky Tooth, and many more. I'd pick up these albums, record them onto cassette tapes, and then bring them to school - where the students summarily dismissed them in favor of Cinderella, Motley Crue, and Winger. However, I was able to discover the albums and artists that the '80s icons learned from, which is, unfortunately, an experience many musicians cannot claim to have enjoyed at the time because of a lack of exposure to such music. Today, the internet makes it possible to discover music that may have gone unnoticed upon initial release from the comfort of your own home.

Prior to the commercial advent of the compact disc, the sound quality on both cassettes and vinyl records was as variable as that of radio broadcasts, where listeners could record nearly all popular rock albums ever released when aired on local stations' 'Seventh Day' programs. Full albums (and, in some cases, full artist catalogs) were heard, from start to finish. Initially, vinyl skips stamped the broadcasts; later, as CD audio became the standard, the sky was the limit for the acquisition of free commercial album releases and live performances.

One artist whose music proliferated such FM broadcasts was John Mellencamp, whose recent Huffington Post article decried such practices as applied by the current digital age ('Good News! Ten Commandments Reduced Now to Only Nine,' October 25, 2012.) However, as for the music industry's 'mega-sellers,' i.e. artists who have achieved household name recognition such as Don Henley, Madonna, and Mellencamp, none of this has influenced their standing as important industry power players to any degree. In fact, the Eagles' 'Greatest Hits' album (on which Henley appears) is, generally, certified above Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' as the best-selling album of all time - meaning that, even though interested fans could have easily recorded all tracks from any album ever recorded by the band at any given point on FM radio for no cost, the same people later bought the exact same tracks and paid astronomical fees to watch the group perform the cuts, live. Given this, I wonder if Mr. Mellencamp, whose contributions to rock cannot be understated, is in actual need of the money he claims he is owed through the process of illegal downloading when, truthfully, the message of his music has, likely, spread far beyond the limitations that would have been imposed without word-of-mouth efforts by fans and critics. Consider the situation: if he had been unable to turn a profit after several major label marketing campaigns, why would labels continue to promote him? Additionally, if 'Our Country' was part of an automobile's ad campaign, didn't the artist - who, in this case, is also the songwriter - profit threefold: from artist royalties, songwriting royalties, and the large fee levied upon song licensing? Wouldn't the heft of such funds offset the loss of 99 cents per track (the average online mp3 price), even given 5,000 or more illegal downloads?

Regarding live bootlegs, as technology progressed, a larger market for such items was created. Two decades ago, the jam band concert scene that flourished with college-aged patrons had blossomed, and one of its hallmarks was the preservation of nearly all performances by touring artists like the Grateful Dead and Phish, who both benefitted extraordinarily from such an approach. Subsequently, it was utilized by more straight-ahead rock artists such as Pearl Jam, who, by then, could effectively beat the bootleggers at their own game by employing the tactic as a marketing vehicle. Here, the model of artists being forced to create revenue through live performance amidst the expectation of financial loss on studio recordings was turned upside down, as artists could then increase potential earnings by building a reputation, performing, and then denoting each concert as a separate, sonically-enhanced document that would survive far beyond the individual gig's encore. Regardless of short-term revenue, long-term possibilities, given this approach, are infinite, as, today, concert tickets now average higher prices than a full tank of gasoline.

Gone is the era of multicultural radio, where all genres sit together on playlists. Listeners are forced to search long and hard for music that may satisfy their tastes. I - like many others - still spend hours, online, in search of music that, while not as commercially successful as recordings by Green Day, Lenny Kravitz, or Jay-Z, is closer to the style of music I personally enjoy. Through such research, I became acquainted with recordings by artists including the Blackbyrds, El Chicano, Malo, Paul Pena, Pieces of Peace, Soulful Dynamics, Mike Skinner and the Streets, and '90s NYC-based indie band The Box, who closed out their apparently short-lived career hitless but created some interesting music just as improvisational as either Ekoostik Hookah, Groove Collective, or Rusted Root - if you are even aware of those three bands.

Given the popularity of audio downloads and file sharing nowadays, I am certain that I am not alone in my desire to hear music that may not be what is routinely presented on 'The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,' 'The Voice,' or 'Saturday Night Live.' Therein lies the actual value of downloads, as music that, otherwise, would go unheard is rife for rediscovery by either fans who will spread the word, or musicians who may, in time, change the face of the industry through their consumption of sounds far from today's established 'mainstream.' Through such exposure, the inspiration to create greater artistic works may arise. In this day and age of blatantly derivative, over-processed, auto-tuned music, to quote Mr. Mellencamp, such a standard of excellence is something needed now, more than ever.

No comments:

Post a Comment