||SHECKYmagazine.com HOME||BACK to the Columnist INDEX||ARCHIVE||
The recent pissing and moaning on the part of the
recording industry execs leading up to
the Grammy Awards got me to thinking-- again-- about
the big picture as regards the current pickle
they find themselves in.
They're like any other executives in that they
seek to blame everyone but themselves for their
current predicament. I guess that executive is
rare who can see the future and either get out of
a tanking business or steer it away from impending
doom. Right now, the recording industry is glug,
glug, glugging into the murky depths like a giant
Titanic, a large, ugly gash ripped in its hull by
the iceberg that is new technology.
It might be instructive to go back, way back, to the
beginning. Sherman, set the Wayback machine for 1877,
for it was in that year that Thomas Alva Edison invented
the phonograph, recording "Mary Had A Little Lamb"
on a tinfoil cylinder. Sales were sluggish for some time
after that. Alexander Graham Bell and Emile Berliner and
a Danish fellow by the name of Valdemar Poulsen all came
up with crucial bits of technology and, before you know it,
you've got a record industry. Caruso becomes the first
artist to sell a million copies of a "record" in
1903. Then things really heat up when 78's hit the scene,
in 1915. And, when radio explodes, well look out! Things moved a little slower back then. But by
the time the Depression hits, record sales are at
100 million units per year. By 1951, 180 million records move.
By 1983, Michael Jackson alone sells 40 million copies of
Then, along comes Thomas Stockholm, Jr... or was it James T.
It seems that no one can agree on who should get the credit
for the invention of the compact disc. Perhaps both names are
fake-- a case of no one wanting to take the blame for
the compact disc. Would you want a pack of "record
executives" knowing that you were the man responsible for
the eventual demise of your business? They all shoulda seen
it coming. An entire industry was in denial. And, just like
the steady, monster buildup of the industry in the
beginning, the steady, monster dismantling of the
biz is happening in verrrry slooow motion, depending on the
appearance and convergence of several technologies.
By 1986, CD's account for only 10 per cent of all sales.
A few short years later, Pearl Jam gets publicity for
releasing their latest album on vinyl as well as CD.
The transformation was complete.
Then Napster becomes big news by early 2000. By 2001, the
people who brought you Napster are up to their ears in legal
briefs. By early
2001, the RIAA is telling anyone who will listen
that piracy was responsible for
more than 4 billion bucks in lost sales.
Remember when everyone was debating whether or not the
file-sharing enabled by Napster was a good thing? What a load
of horseshit! Some bands supported it! Some bands didn't.
Record execs were, understandably, against it. The only
group who had a legitimate complaint were the execs. Do
we sympathize with them? Certainly not. Why not? VH-1's
Behind The Music, that's why.
Watch almost any installment of BTM and, by the second or
third commercial break, you find out that the band being
profiled has discovered that they are flat broke in spite
of selling enough records to equip each and every man, woman
and child on the planet with a copy of their latest record.
The culprit is usually a shady deal cooked up by the record
company. Is there a sleazier gang of people on the planet
than record company execs? Art Buchwald would argue that
movie moguls have them beat. He might have a point. My point,
however, is that, as unsympathetic as they are, they still
have contracts and they still don't deserve to have their
product (and the "intellectual property" of the
artists they sign) ripped off by folks with a cable modem.
But, the fact remains that a significant portion of
the jack never reaches the artists themselves, but that's
not a problem that can be solved by wholesale thievery.
And that's exactly what it is, too. It's thievery.
Oh, sure the goateed set puts a nice spin on the whole
file-sharing thing with heaps of quotes from the latest
edition of Wired, but they largely argue past the point. They
play on our hatred of record execs to gain any support for
their "new paradigm" vision. But it's still
Hey, I've done it myself. Back when the controversy raged,
I decided to investigate the whole hoo-haa and download a
few files for myself. Mind you, it was all in the interests
of journalism. (And, I hasten to add, pretty rough sledding,
with nothing but a 56K modem to squeeze those giant music
files through!) I downloaded about a dozen tracks from various
artists. I have since made a purchase or two based on what
I heard. e.g.: I downloaded a Thelonius Monk song and decided
that he was what I would buy should I be moved to purchase
any jazz. Which I did. Score one for Napster.
But the rest is pure thievery.
Strip away all the "outside the box" blather from
these folks who try to justify musical larceny, however and
you'll find that some of what they say is true-- and it's all
bad news for the recording industry. Hey, they had a nice
80-year run. But it's never going to be the same. The
technological genie is out of the bottle, as they say.
What does this mean for musicians? More importantly,
why is the editor of a magazine about standup comedy talking
about it? Because comics have never depended on record sales.
Oh, sure, there've been a coupla comics here and there who've
moved a lot of vinyl (Shelley Berman, Steve Martin, Bob Newhart,
but they've never really depended on that money. Why
not? Because they're real bread and butter was earned in
other ways-- television, movies and, perhaps most importantly,
With rare exceptions, musicians don't draw at the box
office. Besides, as we mentioned above, the solution to
getting ripped off by record execs is not to be ripped off
even bigger by movie execs! So, maybe, if you're a musician
(or, as they like to call themselves a "musical artist")
perhaps your future lies in television. Pay per view?
A revival of the variety series, perhaps? Hmmm... not likely.
That leaves live performance. Golly, what a novel concept!
A musician might have to make a living by... performing?!?!
I daresay that, prior to "Mary Had A Little Lamb"'s
release on tinfoil, most folks' experience with musical
performances was a live one. The bandstand in the town square,
Caruso gigging at the local opera house, Uncle Gregor on the
back porch with the balalaika. And, to look at it from the
other angle, a performer, for the most part, only imparted
his genius directly to the consumers. Fast forward 50 years and
you have the Beatles-- a band that, after a certain point in
their careers only recorded and never performed
live! It's no wonder that in the 25 or so years
post-Beatles you have artists who are, quite literally,
incapable of performing live! Remember, that
along with the
abovementioned technologies, one of the big advances that
was frequently talked about was "digital sampling, "
or what I like to call "Madonna-helper." Ah, this
technology! She is a double-edged sword, no?
In the first four or five decades after the explosion
of radio and recording, our exposure to live music has
dwindled further and further, the opportunities to experience
it have become more controlled and much more narrow in variety.
As Martha Stewart might not say, this is not a good thing.
I suppose that what I'm leading up to is that the eventual
collapse of the recording industry as we know it might not
be a bad thing.
In the new future, what it will come down to is this:
Can you do it live? Can you compel the public to come out
and see you do your little thing in a concert hall or a club
or a town square? Which brings us back to standup comics.
There is no such thing as digital sampling for us. There's
no such thing as hiring a great producer with a string of
hits and collaborating on a hit comedy album. It's either
funny or it's not. And we don't mind working for a living.
Oh, sure, it'd be nice to have a wave of dough from CD sales,
but we don't shy away from the prospect of having to actually
get out there and hit the boards. In fact, many comics, after
having achieved fantastic wealth in TV or movies, are
drawn back to the live performance. It's what got them
there in the first place... it's what they do best. We're
like country and western performers in that regard. You won't
find a gang of artists that can deliver like them country
folks. Nashville places a premium on delivering live!
Could it be because, for so many years, the intended audience
lacked the newfangled technology to hear their favorite artists
via the impersonal and comparatively hollow recorded media?
Is it just because of the Grand Ol' Opry? Whatever the
reason(s), country music fans are demanding-- and brutal to
those who can't deliver the goods. Rather like standup
One of the presenters at the Grammy ceremony last month
said something to the effect of, "The recording industry
will thrive and the music will survive!" He's being a
bit presumptuous when he ties the survival of the music itself
to the industry that leeches off of it. He's in denial,
big-time. The music will always be there. There may even
be more of it. And that which is available may be better.
CD sales may drop down to the status of an adjunct source
of income, a souvenir of a performance, rather than the
huge revenue juggernaut that they are now. Comics have known
this for quite some time now. We'll see if the musicians
learn from their experience.
||SHECKYmagazine.com HOME||Back to the Top||