[14 July 2008]
“I think it’s an exciting time,” Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh recently told the LA Weekly. “I’m glad I got to be here to watch the record companies disappear.” I admit there’s a certain idealistic thrill at watching those quixotic majors slash and tumble on their way down after creating so many years of misery for their talent and their consumers. I don’t have to explain what they’ve done to deserve such bittersweet schadenfreude at this point. We’ve all read the Albini essay. The heads of music are like all those Bush appointees who spent their entire lives preaching against the superfluousness of the department they’ve now been selected to run. They don’t like music, musicians, or music fans. Just taking a huge margin off the top.
Of course it’s shameful, looking at the industry as a whole like a crumbling morass of cynical greed and perpetual ineptitude. It’s more like the toppling of the Saddam statue, being that those who will really suffer for these sins will be the low cats on the totem poll. All the executives sleeping in their beds full of dirty money will be just fine. They’ll make their mortgage payments and keep their swimming pools. For the rest of them, it’s back to Tower Records… er, Sam Goody… er, Wal-Mart?
Still, even for an industry that took so many consistent wrong turns, the mainstream music empire has to be the most deeply out-of-touch monolith to ever sustain itself since the fall of Rome. Way back when people were still buying CDs, the record companies dealt with their wealth by raising wholesale and list prices, as documented by Bill Wyman here. The gratuitous litigation complex alone could probably snip a dollar or two off the list price of every disc. But as Wyman shows in a more recent post, we’re still having the conversation about pricing years later as physical music gets trampled by digital media in the pricing wars.
Nevermind that there are boatloads of music fans who don’t even get their music this way. If the record industry is going to throw all its efforts behind the traditionalist market like it’s still 1994, they might as well do it right. Half of all music sales are made at Wal-Mart not because they understand or even give a shit about music. It’s because they offer music at market values that may actually be worth the product they’re getting. Speaking strictly in terms of material value, a consumer “gets” far more out of a DVD or a video game than a CD, yet they’re paying essentially the same price for each medium’s back stock.
Even after displaying utter contempt for their consumers by suing and taxing their enthusiasm for the product, you’d think the record companies, radio, and/or print media might actually take time to find out who their buying audience is. With most big media divesting massive energy into public relations and individualized target marketing, the music industry has consistently tried to treat the lot of its consumer base as if they were a herd of sheep, limiting their options, doling out ubiquitous product, disengaging with technology or innovation, spewing disposable waste, and recycling faded heroes. Mainstream music hasn’t even been able to manufacture a lasting movement with a significant cultural impact since Alternative and Gangsta Rap, with the possible exception of American Idol. This has to be due in part to the fact that the industry buying and selling all this music doesn’t have a fucking clue who’s listening to it.
Theirs is a culture pre-branded with rebellion and individualism, one that thrives on, right or wrong, the listener being the center of the universe. It’d be common courtesy to try to find out what their wants and needs are. Yet the music industry consistently tries to manufacture these desires, not realizing how fragmented and polarized its audience really is. Not only do different listeners have highly specialized aesthetic tastes, but their preferences for how they experience, consume, interpret, and utilize music are as disparate as all those different listening subcultures.
Corresponding with music business’s mighty fall comes an era when its product is at its most omnipresent. You literally can not escape it. Popular music has seeped into every crevice of social and particularly consumer life. It’s coming out of speakers in cars, at work, in stores, in waiting rooms, on airplane headsets, in restaurants, and on alarm clocks easing us back into consciousness. It’s inundated behind television programming, advertisements, films, and video games. It shouts at you as you click on a website or a MySpace profile. It harasses you when you’re trying to ignore it. It intimidates you when you’re parked next to it. It finds you when you’re trying to ignore it. The government even uses it as a torture device, a kind of mass culture bomb to deafen, disarm, and dehumanize ascetic Islamists suspected of terrorism. It provides the soundtrack to the mundane for millions of headphoned wanderers on buses, trains, jogs, workouts, or long car rides. In universities, file sharing is a communal rite, allocated with the same philanthropic spirit of passing a joint. Peer-to-peer network have also increased the average middle-of-nowhere suburban kid’s musical acumen exponentially. I myself owe a great deal of my own musical knowledge to the access gained through my early college years and the ubiquity of Napster, Gnutella, Audiogalaxy, and the Massachusetts-specific Flatlan software.
There are hit TV shows about performing songs, dancing to songs, knowing the lyrics to songs, and reminiscing about songs (“I Love The [Insert Decade]‘s”). This is not to mention the ease in which any one and their kid sister can make their own profession-quality songs on a standard grade laptop, post them on the internet, and win an instant fan base. Overall, despite the music industry’s failure and segregating its attentions, there are more people exposed to, interested in, involved with or knowledgeable about music than ever before. The quality of their relationships to the music is largely irrelevant in a market context. The fact is, regardless of what the broadsheets say, people have not given up on music.
In upcoming posts, I will attempt to profile the different types of listeners and how their habits and attitudes fit into the cultural marketplace, from the professional thieves to the perpetually loyal benefactors, in the hopes to convey the multivalence of a broad and increasingly unclassifiable strata of music fans.