I find it hard to separate the effects of corporatization on music from the
similar effect of those institutions on so much else of life, especially in
the US, where capitalism is so unfettered. I'm reading a history of Henry
Ford and his company, and pondering what we now see as the deeply mixed
blessing of that one-time miracle of personal liberation. Through its
business-enabled ubiquity, is music a victim of its success?
An example of my thinking is in Jazz, where a folk music became an
entertainment sensation, then an art form. The young lions of the 40s were
already bored with swing and mistrusting of the business that fueled it.
They were trying to "say something new," and that newness, laying below the
radar, developed organically through personal contact, or stories and
rumors, or the occasional late night radio hookup. There were many paths
that brought a new style and attitude to Manhattan, little of it dependant
on electronic media.
Flash ahead twenty years. Recordings had become not only numerous and
important to the careers of a lucky few, but had attained the status of holy
writ. Now, saying something new on a recording became the end of the road,
rather than a beginning; seeming to inspire more imitation than further
development. No small labels, just majors pushing for another imitation hit.
And, where once the generations mingled, now there were barriers. I think
the growing dominance of the big labels are a central aspect of this
devolution, not limited to Jazz, nor to the music business itself.
Mention of radio brings this to mind: about ten years ago, during the height
of the consolidation shark-attack when smaller owners were selling out to
Clear Channel, a research exec from a smaller behemoth warned his
colleagues. The centralized programming that underpinned the logic of
consolidation will lead to a loss of knowledge about regional, emergent
artists and styles, and undermine the ability of the industry to respond.
Whether because of that, the deadly pressure of debt, and/or simple
ineptitude, music radio in the US is a basket case. Analogies can be
extended to the record business.
We have a fine community music school in Rochester, the Hochstein School of
Music and Dance. I do some recording for them. A shoe-string operation, like
anything that is not top-tier, they proudly showed me the "music lab" they'd
finally scrimped to establish. All Macs and keyboards and headphones.
Privately, I felt sad. Certainly the students want those skills and the
school needs to maintain its currency. Musical skills built through these
tools may not necessarily be imitative and limited. I'm just concerned about
driving technology, and its dominance, ever deeper into something that
doesn't really need it.
Better minds, probably on this list, have pondered these same ideas. Pardon
the necessary broad-brush. I love recordings and I love making them, but
some skepticism about their benefits is needed. Demographers tell us that
the Millennials (currently 18-30) are a deeply social generation, and
technology is obviously thoroughly integrated into their lives. They are
figuring out ways to use this stuff to build community rather than destroy
it, as their parents have. Music is human, and if people survive, so will
music. We're just lost in a time where the effects of our highly-specialized
and too-powerful institutions are reaching their limits, and it will be a
long struggle to replace them in our minds with a better vision.
It seems incontrovertible that the Music Industry and in particular
its relation to the Record Industry has run its course. Those of us
who had some relationship to those enterprises find all or part of
what has happened upsetting, perplexing or both.