I get that the music business (the record business expecially) is struggling and may be at a loss in how to deal with their challenges. I'm not an apologist for the record business. I could write a long list of mistakes I believe they've made and others I think they continue to. But I am so exhausted reading the theories of techies and futurists who know very, very little about the real world of music.
Last night I came across a blog post by a guy named Albert Wenger. Wenger is partner at Union Square Ventures, a New York based venture capital firm. In his post titled, “A Coming Paradigm Shift In (Online) Music,” Wenger recaps the familiar shifts in the music business over the course of the past decade, and then writes of three companies/services that he sees as possible paradigm shifters. I’m not familiar with the services so I can’t comment. But what got my attention and raised my ire were the following sentences in his final paragraph:
Of course one immediate question about such a new paradigm is how artists will make money. I think it would be a grave mistake to be caught up in that question. For starters, it seems to me that over the course of history very little of what we now think of as great music was produced specifically because the people making it were concerned about making the music a commercial success (I was reminded of that this morning listening to “Breakfast with the Beatles”). (Bold and italics are mine - BL)
Really? Tell that to Motown founder Berry Gordy, who specifically designed Motown to be a commercial proposition, tailoring its sound at all times to the perceived desires of the marketplace - "The Sound Of Young America." Motown was not founded on the pure self-expression of the Artiste. Its production model was the automotive assembly line. Each single was created expressly to be a hit - and writers and producers were ordered to continue to use a musical style until it fell out of favor on the charts.
Mr. Wenger mentioned the Beatles in his post, so let’s write of the Beatles. While the Beatles clearly had a true passion for music, to say that they weren’t concerned with commercial success is utter hogwash. Paul McCartney once said, “When John and I used to get together to write, sometimes we’d say, ‘Let’s write a swimming pool today.’” And John Lennon was never more authentic when he sang, “Money (That’s What I Want).”
Great independent labels from the 50’s and 60’s like Chess and Atlantic were founded not just on a great feel for the black music market – they were founded on a desire to make a lot of money in the process. The men who ran these companies were not patrons of the arts - they were hustlers who loved the music, and loved the money they could make selling it. James Brown, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin…all of these great artists had their commercial considerations right alongside their artistic ones. One never negated the other.
The myth that art and commerce are separate – that “true” or “great” art has nothing to do with the desire for commercial success or financial reward is the cause of more inauthentic behavior amongst artists than anything I’ve ever encountered in the music business. I’ve met so many left of center, independently minded artists who either claim (or feel they need to claim) that they’re above commercial considerations, when the truth is the opposite. (And in my experience, those are the artists that are the most expensive to sign - when they say they don't care about money, that's when you have to hold on to your wallet.)
There’s nothing wrong with caring about commercial and financial goals. Yes, I believe that the art should lead, and that compromising the essence of your principles for a buck is what we call selling out. But when artists try to pretend they don't care for or desire money or commercial success - well, that's when things get phony. It's the worst way to try to attain credibility as it has nothing to do with true authenticity.
Because the music industry is so challenged at the moment, there are a ton of thinkers from outside of music who theorize and opine about what changes need to be made to the music business. That’s fine. But when these non-music people create theories that are on top of an utter ignorance of music, musicians and music history, well then something needs to be said. Theories and ideas are great – as long as people reading the theories get that there’s a gap between theory and the real world. A very big gap indeed.