We didn’t know how simple and uncomplicated we had it back in the day. You would hear a song – say from the new Crosby/Stills/Nash album – on the radio. (Radios were boxes that… just Google it). You liked the song. Maybe it even made you think of someone at school you’d been romantic with or wanted to be romantic with. So you went to Sears or Kmart or some other very American, very acceptable mall store and you bought the LP and paid full retail.
Then some hippies in town would open an “underground” record store, which meant no Andy Williams albums and the vending of small pipes “for the smoking of tobacco only!” And voila, a “subculture” was born. And now after pot legalization and vinyl begetting cassettes and cassettes begetting CD’s and then music files… you see an ad in the paper for Crosby, Stills, and Nash appearing on a cruise ship. I’m not making that last part up, although it’s not confirmed if the band will stay in the Suite: Judy Blue Eyes Suite.
If you consider all that a full and complete cycle, then maybe my generation shouldn’t even weigh-in on what is happening to music and the music business; maybe we don’t have a horse in this. But here’s my opening salvo anyhow: A truly cool scene never costs $400 or more to get into and, if it is truly cool, it doesn’t have a “VIP” anything, okay? We’re going to spend 50-plus years in this country struggling for racial and gender/sexual equality then go to a “music festival” and divide the audience into “VIP’s” and… what? The ‘cattle’?
LA Times pop music critic Randall Roberts wrote about some of this economic stratification in reviewing early blowback to Jay Z’s new Tidal music streaming service. The article was peppered with some of the feisty rock critic writing of yesterday when Roberts called Jay Z’s declarations about the significance of the Tidal launch “outlandish” and added that, while the technology of Tidal provided an “obvious” improvement in the quality of the sound, “… it’s hard to fathom anyone other than the wealthiest one percent – or those of us with expense accounts to pay for such luxuries – buying in.”
It didn’t help that the mini-pantheon of music stars that appeared at a Tidal publicity fete inspired one person on Twitter to write “Tidal: A business venture to help rich musicians get richer. Cue a rise in music piracy instead!!!” The three exclamation points are the Twitter writer’s, but I’ll add mine: What the hell is Madonna being righteous about at any event other than a PTA meeting!!!
Tidal is promising to give artists more compensation than other streaming services, which pay thin slivers of a penny for use of musical content. But again, Madonna conflated with an argument that artists should get more money is laughably self-defeating.
In fact, there isn’t a crisis in music today until you talk to people from “the industry.” They are the ones most despondent about a point Roberts makes, which is that “most music content can be heard for free on YouTube.” They, like Jay Z’s struggling artist friends Kanye West and Jason Aldean who also appeared at the Tidal event, are concerned about the money. Taylor Swift, who I believe has her own accountants, has gone on record in the Wall Street Journal (the hippest music publication around…) as saying that “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.” Except for sounding like pages from a Hello Kitty diary, I hear her point.
But forces caused pop music to suddenly be available everywhere for free as digital files. Now “the industry” and artists in the industry want to get a rope around that. Entire generations have grown-up hovering over keypads in a universe where music is something you get free. Artists asking for that to turn around may risk alienating fans, but that’s not a given. Contained in my generation’s ‘hippie’ aesthetic was the idea that artists sometimes “sold out”. Now, if Camel cigarettes presents the Coca Cola Music Festival powered by Apple… it’s no big deal.
Music art is rare, Taylor, but there’s often a feeling that it is promoted with the same blunt force as Crest Whitening Strips or a can of beer. New bands that take hold of their own futures by pursuing social media, touring relentlessly and even putting out their own recordings can have control over that lack of sensitivity. At least until they get “signed” by “the industry.”
Back in the day, I don’t think we could have lived without the physical media needed for music. The romance of pop rock was contained somewhere between the cover art and the lifting of a tone arm to play that really good cut in the middle of Side 2. That romance for today’s music consumers may be contained inside the free trading of files and the viewing of visually arresting music videos… for free. Art matters, but paying for it should never crush or suffocate a music lover’s romance.