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BRIAN MCKIM has performed standup comedy in all 50 states. He earned a B.A. in Magazine Journalism from Temple University. Any resemblance to a living person is purely coincidental.


Brian McKim
Editor In Chief

"Music To My Ears"

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 Thriller.

Then, along comes Thomas Stockholm, Jr... or was it James T. Russell? 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 stealing.

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, Jeff Foxworthy), 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, live performance.

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 fans.

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. HOME Back to the Top