A friend and contributor writes:
For the sake of full disclosure, I’ll get this first part right out of the away. I’ve worked for a record label in one way or the other since 1996. Amazingly, like mostly everyone left on the label side, I survived major label regime shake-ups, company consolidations, near-deranged executives stomping around expensive hallways with a false and exaggerated sense of self that would make Dick Cheney look like Mahatma Gandhi. And that was just in my first year as an Assistant.
In the 13 years that followed, I've watched the label business get shrunk to its core. To say that it’s a shadow of its former self is an understatement that can only be totally understood if you experienced major label life at the height of their power. As survivors (a badge not worn with honor, but more with a sense of numb mystification), we now spend our time taking bets on which major retail chain will be the next to go out of business. We do this mainly because betting on week 1 album Soundscan numbers lost its luster about a half decade ago. But I’m not here to talk about all that doom and gloom. There’s already enough of that to go around.
Feeling a little nostalgic, I’m here to reminisce about that magical time a decade ago when I spent most of my waking hours in my studio apartment glued to my computer downloading songs from Napster. On a 56K dial-up modem no less. Looking back it now, that moment in time had the same impact on me as my first CD purchase years before it. The album was Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut. I remember that day like it was yesterday. Figuring out how to get the wrapping off the blister pack…popping the disc in CD player and listening to the album for the first time in its entirety. I sat on an orange bean bag on the marble floor of our basement unable to move. And not because I was stoned, although that would have made it even better, but because the SOUND was so awe inspiring. And much like everyone else, I started re-buying the key album titles in my collection to try and re-capture that same moment. Over and over.
The Napster experience took it one step further. I now had access to everything. Dylan outtakes I’d only seen at Bleecker Records on expensive Italian bootlegs. They were now mine for the taking. All of them. Right away. Even on some studio recordings, it never occurred to me that the SOUND was many generations removed and that the files themselves were shitty compressed versions of their former selves. I didn’t care. And neither did anyone else outside of the hardcore sound geeks. Convenience trumped it all. And of course, this was in pre-iPod world.
In its own way, the infancy period of Napster was like going to a NYC strip club in the pre-Giuliani years and finding out that you COULD have sex in the champagne room if you could afford it. And not only could you afford it, you didn’t even have to be a Wall Street guy or a ball player. You actually walked out with the stripper’s real digits. And she returned your call! Silly analogies aside, in the years that followed, we now know that we (the record music biz) did everything mostly wrong. The list is too long and too painful to go over although for me, #1 with a bullet is still the RIAA’s idea of an attack campaign that essentially justified suing its own consumer base. Decision makers actually sat in a room, looked at each other and went “that’s a great idea!” And unbelievably so, some people even bought into it. A well-known manager (you won’t figure out who), once told me “The RIAA is doing a great job, they’re teaching kids a valuable lesson, because their parents aren’t telling them that what they’re doing is outright stealing.” My response back? “Hey do you know what kids in College dorms do if they have extra money? They buy a 500 gig drive. And fill it with content. Then another kid down the hall buys another external hard drive and they TRADE them…They don’t seem so scared to me…Maybe they’re scared anyone in their right mind would price a shitty album at $18.98 for 2 good songs. I mean shit; buy 5 of those suckers and you can get 40,000 songs in a box…for free!” The manager looked at me as if I’d just stolen his merch rights. But returning to the topic at hand, the actual reason for this missive isn’t actually so much about what we did wrong (and continue to do wrong) but about something else that indirectly ties into this mess we’ve found ourselves in for a decade now-- the death march of the album. Actually, forget about the march. It’s already buried. And believe me, I’m one to talk first hand; I own about 6,000 of them. CD’s that is.
The album experience in a pre-Napster world was a wonderful place indeed. Transformational works from Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Coltrane, Led Zeppelin, Public Enemy, Cash, Aretha, Miles, The Stones, Elton John, Nirvana changed the world. The list is long. But guess what…that world is now D.E.D. Finito. Over. Done. Will it come back? Maybe one day…but not anytime soon.
The album world has been a replaced by the record companies biggest fear—a world completely dominated by singles where the Digital Soundscan chart has literally replaced the Billboard Top 200 album chart as the chart to pay attention to. It’s probably the only chart left that actually has labels “oohing and ahhing” on Wednesday mornings when Flo-Rida or Eminem shatters a new digital single sales record. These #’s (400, 500, 600 thousand units sold) is precisely what the ALBUM chart used to be. Except for one minor detail…instead of building an $8, $10, or even $12 per unit business, we’re now surviving on a .60 cent per unit model.
10 years since the beginnings of Napster, the album has turned into the type of dead animal that you seeing rotting on the side of the road. It’s the type of cadaver that you want to slow the car down for just to get a good look at the corpse. What’s replaced it? A never-ending series of playlists - the modern day version of cassette mixtapes. And you know what; I’ve made my peace with it. I’ve found closure. Because at the end of the day, I’ve come to realize that I LOVE the idea of singles. And not necessarily singles per se, but individual, stand alone tracks. I don’t need ALL of Give ‘Em Enough Rope by The Clash. No really, I don’t. And I love the idea of p. Songs that you wouldn’t have DREAMT of putting side by side can now peacefully co-exist. And nobody has to know. And because the worldwide domination of the iPod has made music more insular than ever, we have no problem lining up artists and songs that really have no place being on the same set list so to speak, let along in the same iPod!
In a pre Napster world, no one would have dared to play certain songs out loud from fear of being made fun of or possibly humiliated. But now, it doesn’t matter. The idea of being ironic by including song X next to Y in your computer or digital player is no longer an issue. If anything, it’s become practical. The shame is gone. Because as it turns out…you actually LIKED those songs! You can now breathe easier and let go of that repressed feeling of “what would so and so think of me if they actually knew I was listening to a Loverboy song?”
Think I’m kidding? Check this out. Among the playlists I’ve created, I have one that I particularly love called AOR AND OTHER?! It includes 72 songs (some with commonality, some not) including tracks from April Wine, Visage(!), Asia, Plastic Bertrand (because time has been kind to “Ca Plane Pour Moi”, turns out it’s actually minor pop punk gem), Red Rider (“Lunatic Fringe”), Shooting Star (a mid-west minor league band who had 1 radio hit with “Hang On For Your Life”), Frida (from Abba) old Saxon, Genesis’ “Paperlate” (great pop song), R.E.O. Speedwagon (if Daughtry wrote a song like “Time for Me To Fly” people would shit themselves with excitement), Survivor (pre-“Eye Of The Tiger”) and the list goes on and on. Not to sound like Bill Clinton but let me just be perfectly clear about this…I find zero irony in any of these songs. I wouldn’t make devil horns to any of them. Not even to the colossal live version of “2 Minutes To Midnight”—as near to a Pop song as Maiden will ever get.
So what the fuck is my point? These songs make me feel good. Together, they create some type of retarded schizophrenic panoramic collection that no Razor & Tie compilation could have cooked up (love those too btw, so no diss here). Some of these songs could easily exist on a Kansas City classic rock station or on L.A.’s Jack FM. Some are just here because they’re insta memories. Wait, “No One Like You” from the Scorpions just came on.
Do I miss the album? Every once in a while. But not as much as I thought as I would. My modern-day version of the album has morphed into something different. It’s been replaced by digital bootlegs of outtakes/live albums and B-sides that I’ve amassed over the years. Those too have also been turned into variety of playlists or folders containing deeper playlists. Music, much like life itself has morphed into an A.D.D. blog-tastic type world where attention spans are rolled in 90 second sound bites. And trust me when I tell you that music networks (or what’s left of them) do research on this type of thing. It’s a proven fact. Because they’re not even so much competing with each other anymore, they’re competing with YouTube. And here again, that’s why playlists have become what they are. No one pays attention to anything anymore. We’re so completely messaged and devoid of patience that by compiling dozens and sometimes hundreds of songs into one continuous running order, we have the option to quickly skim through all of them. Just like we skim through a radio stations on a car stereo.
I should be bummed that my business has turned into the quagmire that it’s in, but who’s got the time? Not when I can make another New Wave Of British Heavy Metal playlist!
Trying To Get To You
Tuesday, March 03, 2009
A friend and contributor writes:
Posted by Ben Lazar at 3/03/2009 10:51:00 AM