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January 7, 2004

Songwriters must get with the program, too ...

OK, the latest whinge from the music industry - but not from the artists or Executives, this time: The New York Times tells us songwriters are hurting from free music downloads (AKA file swapping). This, of course, is a no-brainer. If songs don't sell, the songs' creators of all kinds get nothing for their efforts.

What I found really interesting about this article, though, was what was stated but not examined. The article featured a 75-year-old white songwriter whose song, written for a theatre musical, was performed by a ?young? African American rapper, Jay-Z. Further down the article, a 45-year-old male writes songs for Britney Spears.

What's going on here?

I think what's going on here is what's always gone on - collaborative production of music. The "pop" we hear as "Britney Spears' latest hit" is actually the result of the efforts of a lot of people - only one of whom is the attractive Blonde who gyrates along to the tune in a pop video. Trouble is, the marketers try to downplay this complexity or pretend that it doesn't exist - it's much easer to market a single phenomenon like "Britney" or "Jay-Z" or "The Backstreet Boys" (five guys plus backing musicians sold as a single band).

That's fine on its own, and it works well for selling cars, but it indicates a mindset that says its OK to separate the music from its source - and that's the attitude that I reckon is responsible for much of the decay in the popular music "industry".

Music everywhere is used in social settings and involved in rituals, rites and ceremonies (yes, even pop music fills that description). The music provides intra-group communication and communion in a way that spoken or written words cannot. This process of sharing is essential, timeless, a cuts across gender, age and ethnic boundaries.

But if the music is disconnected from its roots (commodified), its essence is destroyed. It's replaced with shallow marketing gimmicks like "attitude" and tries to present unrepresentative images (like New York Street culture in remote third-world villages). This disconnect between the performance and it origins leads to manufactired pop and tripe like Shannon Noll's utterly souless version of Moving Pictures' What About me?

But what really got me thinking about this was the accompanying article about a company that determines what sells (in the US retail market, anyway). Seems that this company, which has no public profile or accountability, is hired by most of the major retailers to tell them what to bother stocking and what not to.

Again, that on its own is not a problem - it's economically efficient - but it creates a self-fulfilling prophesy of what will sell. If a recording is not available, no-one's going to buy it, are they? It also indicates a mindset that says it's OK to not to allow people to have something that not many others want - or that the anonymous arbiters don't think others will want. Trouble is, if people can't find something they want (or like), some of them won't buy anything at all ...

It's just this removal of consumer choice that the left, and particularly many Internet activists, rail against. And they tend to blame the only entities that gain from the process: the faceless, dehumanising music-promotion corporations. That's probably unfair and misrpresents what companies are about but it's entirely understandable.

However, the Internet is built to subvert this narrowing of choice, and also to harness the power of collaboration. I'm glad that my efforts at this web site have been designed to oppose these "music industry" trends. I want the music associated with this site to have as diverse a source of inputs and to be distrubted as widely as possible. I think I can make a living out of doing exactly that and make a lot of people fairly happy, too.

That's what music is all about.

(Thanks to Phil Tripp's Music Industry News for the links)

Posted by Hughie at January 7, 2004 11:04 AM

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