By Steven Capozzola
There’s no music business any more. Or, what still exists of it serves only to sell the most banal of “low-risk product”—pre-teen pop and the latest ‘American Idol’ album.
I often wonder if the music stars of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s ever realize now how lucky they were to be born in a certain era. Timing is everything, and the music stars of yesteryear were born at a time when singer-songwriters could work their way toward album contracts and publishing deals. Essentially, they could scrounge out a long-term musical career through touring and some album sales, maybe even real success.
For the masses, none of that exists now. It’s all gone, replaced by millions of music websites and Facebook pages, an endless succession of digital iTunes.
This is the face of progress, but it’s also the slow death of culture. Some of these singer-songwriters are incredibly talented. But the rest clutter up the landscape with a mediocrity legitimized through endless webpages and the microscopic praise of reality TV.
“Signal to noise” was the euphemism that TV producer Phil DeGuere Jr. often used to describe this vast morass of Internet culture and chaos. Today’s consumer faces too many options, too much dreck to wade through in order to find the rare gem. This goes for music, art, literature, comedy…
What’s really galling, though, is that we endlessly recycle the near-past, rather than celebrate emerging genius. In New York City alone, there are thousands of singer-songwriters. Amidst those masses exist some incredible songwriters. Why have we never heard of them? And why, instead, do we focus on the umpteenth reunion tour of sub-par 1970’s classic rockers like Styx or Kansas?
The only way to make it in music would be to have “gotten in” before the record industry completely disappeared. Until the early 2000’s, there still existed CD sales, and a commercial marketplace for music. Artists who made their name in the 1990’s, and sold CDs, could continue on that momentum and name recognition even as the industry disintegrated around them.
Example: Wilco. Great band. They tour every year, keep releasing albums. They receive tons of press, both indie and mainstream. But ask yourself: If Jeff Tweedy were 24 years old today, and just starting a band, who would ever hear his songs? How would he ever come to national prominence?
Even better, picture a young John Lennon or Bob Dylan kicking around the open mic scene of New York City today. They’d be one of the endless parade of guitar cases waiting to play two songs at a corner bar on a Monday night. And unless they possessed some rare, super-whore talent for self-promotion, a great “look,” and the staggering luck to befriend the daughter of HBO producer so-and-so, they would slowly fade away.
We lavish praise on Steve Jobs for inventing the iPhone and iPod—the hallmarks of our new age. Both toys are manufactured in factories staffed by Chinese teenagers who have resorted to suicide rather than endure continued workplace abuse. But we exalt the iPod and iTunes as crystalline proof of our new genius age.
There is a flip side, though. In the anonymity produced by millions upon millions of faceless digital songs, there resides the next generation of starving geniuses. And we will never hear from them.
But maybe a backlash will arrive. When the economy completely falters, maybe we will finally cease our fascination with Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston, stop gawking at Lady Gaga or whomever is her equivalent/crass flavor-of-the-moment. Maybe we will somehow return to the fundamentals of soul and simplicity. We’ll find an interest in local politics and the great artist standing on the street corner.
Until then we exist in a depressing grey era of endless noise and little talent.###
Steve, are you being serious or is this a joke column where your “Mr. Fabulous” character bemoans the end of a handful of wealthy, close-minded record company executives telling us what we can listen to? Look at the title of your article. The music industry had soul? What's your next column going to be called --“There's No More Soviet Union. Damn!”
You write this column as if this is all new (didn't you write a nearly-identical column ten years ago called “Britney Spears is a Whore: A Brief Thought About American Culture”?)
You write how there are tons of talented singer-songwriters who will never be known by the masses because there's so many music websites out there today. And in the old days when .00000001% of songwriters got a record deal they would have been known by the masses? You also write that talents like Bob Dylan and John Lennon wouldn't develop followings today. If people liked their music, they would, Steve. They just wouldn't have as big of followings as there is simply more stuff out there. They'd have a leaner, more dedicated fan base of just people who listened to them because they're great. In the old days, when less artists had exposure, the few who were famous had a fan base that also consisted of people who thought they were “pretty good” or “okay”. The mass media is dying and the niche media has emerged and we're all better for it.
I have known several people who have pretty much wasted their lives trying to make it in show biz. They had talent, but in order to make it you, as the saying goes, had to be in the right place at the right time. And the odds were staggeringly against it, no matter how much you wanted it. What's great about today is that young people don't waste their time trying to get record deals. They just put their music online and if it takes off, it takes off, if it doesn't, then they still got some people to hear it who would have never heard it in the “good old days”.
Instead of waiting tables, working temp office jobs, or doing other tasks they're overqualified for while they wait (and wait, and wait) for that big contract to come their way, today's artists can create their work without studio interference and work in careers that have NOTHING to do with the entertainment field. Real careers, not some rock and roll fantasy.
--- Gene Mahoney, SF Herald editor and publisher
P.S. You put down Lady Gaga. I like Lady Gaga. Sting of The Police likes Lady Gaga. Yoko Ono said that if John Lennon was alive today he'd like Lady Gaga.
Steven, I had already written my response to your timely and profound article before last night. Now I have two words to tie it all together. Whitney Houston. She exemplified everything you wrote about so eloquently. An iconic voice, beauty, star presence, and great songwriters and producers who knew exactly what to do with her. No, she wasn't Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell. She was Whitney. And there will never be another....
--- Kimberlye Gold, SF Herald columnist
The captains of the music industry are to blame. In the 1970s, they saturated the market with mediocre musicians and replaced creativity with flashy effects. In their greed for money, they threw so many of their unworthy but hopeful stars at us that we just found it too difficult to sort the gems from the dirt.
--- Ray Tilton, Los Angeles, California
Yo, good story but things are not that bleak. You just gotta be smarter and do more homework to get the good music out there.
--- John Giaccone, founder of Generator Films and the guy in the cowboy had at...
--- Erik Eriksen, Ripton, Vermont