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Why The Record Business Needs To Return To Their Entrepreneurial Model  Print E-mail
Home Theater News Music - General News
Written by Jerry Del Colliano   
Thursday, 13 November 2003

Musically, the period of time between 1967 and 1970 was nothing short of magic, thanks to never before seen or heard creativity from artists like Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Janice Joplin and many others. The records made in this short, politically tumultuous time in history musically defined the hopes and dreams of the Baby Boomer generation as they became adults. We may never see a more important few years of musical creativity in terms of pop-rock music.

For the music industry as a business, things were just starting to get good. Despite the fact many of the best artists of the era didn’t live past 1970, the music they and their predecessors created had incredible commercial appeal. Even with Jimi, Janice and Jim Morrison gone, there were more bands and artists coming onto the scene throughout the 1970s who continued to define the sound of rock music in both commercially and creatively important ways. The record business experienced unprecedented growth and Album-Oriented Radio became the preeminent format on the FM dial across America.

The 1980s continued the boom times, thanks to great rock acts like Van Halen, Bon Jovi and Guns N’ Roses, while pop music took record sales to uncharted highs thanks to Michael Jackson. MTV allowed the transformation of music stars into celebrities that were more like movie stars, thanks to the visual power of the increasingly popular music video. Things couldn’t be better in the music business, as records were selling by the tens of millions for the world’s most successful artists. Radio commanded listeners’ attention and MTV captured the attention of the teenaged Gen-X kids as they sat at home, mesmerized by cable TV.

In 1990, something horrible happened to music. As if the music industry were suffering a hangover from the excess of the heavy metal and hairspray of the late 1980s, a new form of rock music called grunge hit the charts direct from Seattle. Nirvana was the unquestioned leader of the new genre and they championed the “it’s not cool to care” attitude that replaced the musical virtuosity that powered rock music from the late 1960s to 1990. Now, not all grunge bands were as lousy as the always-out-of-tune yet critically acclaimed Nirvana. In fact bands like Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots and Alice In Chains were quite good during the early 1990s, but after about 1993, popular music as a whole moved away from focusing creative energy on musical performance and moved much more towards image.

This change from performance-driven rock and pop music was the official end of the classic rock era and was the beginning of the end of the music business’ long commercial success, as well as an end to the popularity and power of commercial FM radio as it was known. Still, to this day, the music business is busy trying to craft methods of repackaging the same classic rock albums in new and creative ways to sell to the same old audiences. This has resulted in decreased sales for three years and counting, with no sign of the agony letting up. Newer pop and rock acts can’t make up for the sales lost by the lack of quality albums on the store shelves.

Consumers truly appreciate great performances and entertaining bands who put out excellent albums consisting of eight, 10 or dare I suggest 12 good songs. Try a test sometime where you listen to any “alternative” rock stations across the nation, looking for any uniquely impressive performances such as guitar solos, great drummers or flamboyant frontmen. You are unlikely to hear the next Jimi Hendrix, John Bonham or Diamond David Lee Roth on your FM dial. If you are lucky enough to catch a guitar solo, it is likely limited to the general melody of the song and will only last a few measures.

The fastest way to improve record sales of existing formats like the CD, as well as via new media like downloadable tracks, is to create, nurture and develop new important artists. Since the early 1990s, many executives in the music business have focused on exploiting the commercial power of bankable talents of pop divas and boy bands. Now they are suffering the ill effects of selling their record-buying clientele crappy music.

It is not too late to take action and sign great bands or artists who emphasize performance over image, but it will take leadership that hasn’t been seen in the music business since the great entrepreneurs like Ahmet Ertegun, David Geffen and Herb Alpert were signing and cultivating talent. For the last decade (or longer), the group of A&R execs responsible for finding the next great artists have been flooded with the children of record executives, talent agents and powerful managers (think Jack Osborne), not people who really know a great artist from a mediocre one. The problem goes even deeper as labels seem to be looking for artists as if every new act should have the pre-packaged appeal of the Spice Girls or The Village People. For too long, the image has overidden the quality of the music ad the performance. The leadership from the suits at the major labels needs to be clearly refocused on finding new artists who can perform first and grace the cover of Vogue second. This macro change would start to cure the malady that is killing popular music.

Consumers are sending a wakeup call to the record labels via their platinum cards and their peer-to-peer download applications that they are fed up buying lousy $16 CD albums that feature only one or two hit songs. If consumers want the song they will download it (legally or illegally) and there is nothing the labels can really do about it. What can be done is to fix the musical product from the ground up. The sales will follow, based on the creative talent, performance and production of an act and their album. Record labels would be well served to give consumers a reason to buy “the next” Sgt. Pepper’s, Electric Ladyland or The Wall, instead of focusing all of their attention on trying to resell them the classic albums all over again. If they fail or ignore this industry-wide creative plague, new technology will make the need for a major label increasingly irrelevant, and artists ranging from Ani DiFranco to Prince to The Eagles to Van Halen to bands you have never heard of will use the Internet and independent distribution to promote and distribute their own records while they make $2, $3 or $4 more for themselves per record.

With a return to the classic model of signing, developing and promoting acts that can play and or write songs, the major record labels can right their product problems as if they were Cadillac trying to find a new market for their cars and trucks. For the major record labels, “It has been a long time since they rocked and rolled.”

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