Shed no tears over record-biz blues

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., March 4, 2004) – I have two words for those whiny record-industry honchos who blame Internet file sharing for the decline in sales of recorded music over the last few years: cassette tapes.

Blank cassettes have been around for years, widely used since the 1970s by fans to tape music off the radio and to make copies of albums for friends. Indeed, the 90-minute tape format was created precisely in order to fit one album – vinyl LPs were limited to about 45 minutes – on each side of a tape.

Back in the ‘70s, in the heyday of free-form radio, stations actually advertised in advanced broadcasts of entire albums without commercial interruption. The unspoken assumption was that listeners would have their cassettes cued up and ready to tape the albums right off the air.

With cassette tapes, fans made copies of their favorite albums and passed them along to friends, not so they didn’t have to buy the records, but as a way of persuading them that they should buy the albums. They were, in a sense, functioning as an informal marketing arm of the record companies. The technical term for what they were doing is “word of mouth,” and before the entire recording, broadcasting and concert industries went bonkers for the corporate bottom line, that used to count for a lot.

Nowadays, record company types blame all their financial ills on the easy availability of Internet downloads and CD burning equipment. Granted, music in digital form is a lot easier to transfer than in the old analog days of tapes and LPs. But basically this is just a high-tech version of swapping cassettes, and it misses a crucial point: music fans are by nature collectors, and if they really like an album, they are going to want to own the official version with the original artwork and booklet, and not a mere sound file or a copy burned onto a generic CD-R. Music fans aren’t really interested in being in the CD manufacturing business. And a recent, wholly unscientific survey of friends revealed that none could tell me how to seamlessly and successfully burn a CD every time. What downloads and burning do is simply make it easier for fans to do the marketing for their bands that record companies have so woefully failed at over the last decade.

I’ve got another two words for those whiny label types: Norah Jones.

If there is any lesson to learn from the wholly unlikely and spectacular success of Norah Jones’s debut album, “Come Away with Me,” which has sold nearly 20 million copies worldwide, and her brand-new follow-up, “Feels Like Home,” which having sold nearly two million copies has been perched comfortably at number one in the three weeks since its release, it is that people will buy CDs if there’s something worth purchasing..

You don’t have to be a marketing genius to figure out that Norah Jones’s spectacular success upends all conventional wisdom in the music business. Jones’s was an all-acoustic album that came out on a jazz label featuring quiet songs that bore virtually no resemblance to anything else on the pop charts in recent times. Instead, it featured the real voice of a real singer backed by real musicians who up until very recently played in bars and jazz clubs, performing old-fashioned-style songs they wrote built on classic songwriting values and not on the flavor of the week.

But does anybody believe that Norah Jones is so amazingly terrific that she’s the only singer out there with her talent? Nonsense. I can name you a half-dozen others whom you have never heard of who are as good as or better than Jones. Jen Chapin, Nellie McKay, Jonatha Brooke, Lori McKenna, Amy Fairchild (who just won the John Lennon Songwriting Contest for the second year in a row), Lucy Kaplansky. There, I did it.

I have another word for those clueless bean-counters in the music business: $2.99.

That was the sale price of the bestselling albums at Jimmy’s Music World when I was a teen-ager growing up on Long Island in the 1970s. Nowadays, new CDs list for between $18 and $20. I know you have to adjust the figures for inflation and for the fact that top musicians, like athletes, command much higher fees than they did back in the day. But conversely, the cost of recording and manufacturing has plummeted in the digital age. You don’t have to be a math whiz to figure out that at something like $8 or $9 a pop, people – especially teen-agers with limited funds – would be a lot more likely to take chances on new music. And this has been proven in recent years when labels have slashed prices on certain artist’s CDs and then seen them jump to the top of the charts.

I have another word for those dumb suits: regionalism.

The truth is there is no such thing as regional markets in pop music any more. This isn’t the fault of the record business alone. In tandem with corporate-owned radio stations, they have destroyed any semblance of regional bases out of which music used to spring. Local radio stations used to have their own playlists, and you could actually score a local hit and become popular in a town or city and sustain a career something short of national. As recently as 1990, Chris Isaak became a star simply because one radio station in Georgia kept playing his song, “Wicked Game,” even when no one else was playing it. Eventually other stations caught on, and Isaak landed a major-label deal and had several hit albums.

That could never happen today. Nowadays, it’s either all or nothing. And as a result, the record business doesn’t care about anyone reading the Berkshire Eagle. Your opinions, likes and dislikes are irrelevant to the corporate music business. The relatively sparse population density of the Berkshires and the small number of record stores and media outlets here make it easy for them to just write off this region as not worth the bother. There are almost no representatives of major labels working this territory, pitching songs to radio stations, visiting record stores or local clubs, or trying to entice music journalists to see live performances of the latest acts they’re hawking.

There is of course an upside to all this. While the music business digs its own grave by focusing exclusively on overpriced, corporately-created acts that appeal to the least common denominator across the broadest possible geographic and cultural base – and failing miserably to connect with audiences in the process -- musicians of genuine integrity continue to struggle to make the best possible original music they can. They find ways to bypass the music-biz monoliths and to reach audiences directly, by putting out their own CDs, releasing music directly to fans online, and performing in independent, grassroots venues like Club Helsinki and church coffeehouses where they can be themselves and rub shoulders and sell their wares directly to their fans.

Ockham’s razor says the simplest theory is always preferable. Why are sales of recorded music down? CDs cost too much, and most of them stink anyway.


Jen Chapin

“Linger” (Hybrid Recordings)

While it introduces singer-songwriter Jen Chapin’s, jazzy yet delicate full-band sound (as opposed to the vocals-and-bass duo approach of 2002’s “Open Wide”), “Linger” is equally a showcase for the singer’s soulful vocals (think Billie Holiday and Phoebe Snow), her pointed lyrics, and her considerable songwriting chops, which range from the African folk of “Me Be Me” to the Latin-inflected “’Til I Get There” to the urban-folk epic, “City,” which quietly builds to a dramatic emotional and musical climax worthy of mid-‘70s Springsteen. The musicianship is always first-rate in the service of the vocalist, with special props to bassist/producer Stephan Crump and keyboardist Peter Rende. An aural, sensual delight, and one of the year’s best. [ 3/7/04 ]

Jen Chapin is at the Iron Horse in Northampton on Friday, March 12.

Amy Fairchild

“Live” (So Fair)

At their best, Amy Fairchild’s songs boast an abundance of classic-rock virtues: catchy, organic melodies, muscular rhythms, lyric hooks. And as heard on this terrific live album, she delivers them all in a roots-pop package that nods to the Replacements (“Simple Thing”) as much as Suzanne Vega (“Renee”). That’s a broad swath, but Fairchild connects those disparate influences with her gritty, sultry vocals and her down-to-earth approach that combines the sensibility of a singer-songwriter with the dynamics of a chick rocker.
[ 3/7/04 ]

Amy Fairchild is at the Pioneer Arts Centre in Easthampton on Friday, March 12.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 5. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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