I saw a very interesting post by John Mellencamp the other day in Huffington Post (of all places—who knew he was so literate).Â He made some very articulate points on the music biz. To both paraphrase and use a well-worn marketing metaphor, he suggested that, back in the day, touring was the razor and ‘records’ were the blades. Musicians toured in order to support a record. That was how we talked about it. We supported the record. You didn’t worry so much about making money on the tour because the record was the thing that brought home the bacon.
However, today, he posited that this equation has become reversed; it is now it’s the music which is almost the give-away, which tries to lure customers to theÂ tours (and ancillary merchandising deals) where the real money is made.
Why the shift? Several reasons:
1. Money (duh). For quite some time, the artist’s share of CD revenues has been shrinking, not to mention the fact that sales of CDs themselves are falling off a cliff. Since people can and do get music for free, Free, FREE? They do, Do, DO! So artists have to get the money the only places they can… touring, merchandising, placement in TV and movies, and of course, the dreaded ‘corporate deals’. So CDs have become less relevant.
2. Also, back in the day, the record was your art product… the thing that, in the end, mattered. If you look through Rolling Stone or whatever, you’d see bands going into the studio for weeks or months to create their latest ‘work’ with the assumption that they were creating something that was their body of work. Sure the gigs were great, but it was that permanent disc that was the thing. That’s why they called it a record. The record was, for a pop band, what an Opus # was to a classical composer. Artists agonized over which songs to put on an album and the order of tunes, all to create a statement. The album was the thing for which the artist would be remembered.
3. Nowadays, because of the internet and the ipod and whatever, music has reverted back to being largely a singles-driven market. All hail the new age of the single! So now what matters is individual songs. People download songs, they buy songs, they listen to songs. This is not just a packaging shift, but also an aesthetic shift of tectonic proportion.
For dinosaurs such as meself, who were raised on Sergeant Pepper, Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, various Frank Zappa epics and so on, this is hard cheese, indeed. I’ve spent weeks working on track ordering for each record I’ve done—not just choosing from a grab bag of tracks to include, but also composing new songs, or changing existing songs to fit the theme of the album. Each album is meant to have an arc and create a beginning to end experience; not anything as unified as an opera perhaps, but there is a definite flow and balance I’ve tried to design into each. In short, I don’t see each of my albums as ‘ten songs’, but rather, like a folder of pieces by Duke or Chopin which, though each very different, all have some organic reason to be published together as a single ‘Opus’.
Pretentious? If you say so. But until recently, albums mattered. And I would suggest that it isn’t that this aesthetic has been proved false, but that the technology has changed and created the illusion that this aesthetic no longer matters. So often, it’s the technology or the dough-re-mi that fools us into artificial choices when it comes to art. Vinyl LPs were 40 minutes, so bands started making 40 minute ‘epics’. CDs came out and bands started creating 65 minutes of music because… well because that’s how much we can squeeze on there! Maybe if they’d stopped at 40 minutes, more CDs would have been worth getting! Now singles are all the rage and so 3 minute ditties are back. Whatever.
Great music will always be made in all sizes, but what concerns me is that, if we put all the focus on ‘the shows’ and make ‘the song’ or ‘the album’ only about getting butts into the auditorium, then we’re reducing music to a mere marketing tool. I love playing out, but I don’t write the songs with that goal in mind. In other words, when we make ‘the music’ the razor and ‘the show’ the blades, we may be moving further and further away from ‘the song’ as art and towards ‘the song’ as simply a marketing tool.