What happened to all the good music?

Much is being said these days about the huge changes in the record industry. Future business and marketing models have been endlessly discussed. Music piracy, the drop in CD sales and the bloated overhead of an industry built on an international hit-driven model. The industry sustained itself for years getting consumers to replace their LP collections with CDs rather than focusing on developing innovative music.

What I’m not hearing about is the lack of compelling new music coming from the major labels. Even if the record business is able to adapt its practices, it is an industry based on imitation, not innovation. Without compelling music the most brilliant business models will still have nothing to sell.

There is a huge amount of great music popping up everywhere. The challenge is to filter and refine talent in a world where technology has made creative expression easy and accessible.

The enduring successes in the music industry have not been driven by ‘what was a hit last week’, but by recognizing and developing real artistry over the long haul. I hope that the upheavals in the record industry will lead to a reevaluation of what music means to us in the first place. Let’s not lose site of the prize in all this commotion.

John Prine

From Eddie Harris to John Prine…Well, there’s the Chicago connection. Are you detecting a theme? I’ve been a huge fan since Mr. Prine traded his mailman hat for a spot on the stage at The Earl of Oldtown in the late 1960s. He has mastered the art of distilling universal moments of humanity into emotionally direct pictures. His best songs stick to you, and his folksy, off-the-cuff delivery, and wry sense of humor, make him that much more endearing. I’ve been listening to his 2005 release, ‘Fair and Square’ occasionally for the last couple of years. ‘Other Side of Town’, ‘Some Humans Ain’t Human’, ‘Crazy As a Loon’, and ‘She Is My Everything’ are wonderful songs, but the one that stays with me is ‘The Glory of True Love’. I am always amazed that he comes up with these enduring melodies, from such a simple musical palette….Somehow, those particular colors have never been mixed in quite that combination. His lyrics and performance are always perfectly balanced. A wonderful songwriter with much to say about life on this earth.

Thinking of Eddie

Lately I’ve been thinking quite a bit about Eddie Harris, the late tenor saxophonist. Maybe it’s my Chicago roots, I don’t know. ‘Listen Here’ with it’s simple 2-chord vamp captures the minimalist essence of everything that feels right to me about jazz. During his career Mr. Harris was considered jazz-funk and fell somewhere in the shadow of John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, etc. Although his recorded output was uneven, his voice was completely original. His tone was rich, and his experiments with electronics were ahead of their time. His simple riff-based style reminds me of something John Mayer said about Stevie Ray Vaughn (I paraphrase); “…he was always playing rhythm guitar…”. I particularly loved Eddie’s trademark technique of anchoring his solos with a simple repeated lick, jumping back and forth between registers. In my writing I have long pursued that mysterious space between simple, direct, groove and the more sophisticated elements of harmony and rhythm. Whenever I try to visit that place, I’m pulled back to Eddie Harris, and wonder if there is anything to explore he hasn’t already said.

US Copyright Board Ruling

The recent ruling by the US Copyright Royalty Board creates a dire situation for small, independent purveyors of streaming Internet music. I am a composer myself and certainly want to be compensated for my work but I believe this decision is not in the best interest of artists, record labels, or the audience.

The music industry has become so centralized in recent years that the opportunities for new music discovery are shrinking daily. Internet radio has opened an array of new possibilities. It is a medium that is in its infancy and could provide a powerful balance to the corporate forces of the music industry. Unfortunately, this ruling will most likely be the end of the independent Internet radio provider. This is a bad thing.

I happen to believe that people who are not musicians or hard-care music fans have a much broader appreciation of music than the record industry thinks. The public is starving for access to diverse, high quality music. Eclectic music programming like that provided by Santa Monica based KCRW is an oasis in the desert to many of us.

New music discovery is key not only to the growth of the audience but also to the industry itself. The record business has become so large and cumbersome, and so philosophically driven by the sound-alike hit mentality, that there are no longer viable business models that distribute music and provide discovery tools (such as radio and Internet radio) for anything on a scale less than gargantuan. This bloated reality has created the decline the industry is currently suffering. Without discovering and nurturing new talent, the industry will die. Artists like Patty Larkin, Bill Frisell and Oliver Mtukudzi will probably never go platinum, but they will create high quality art for decades and their audiences are fiercely loyal. We desperately need business models that will support an eclectic array of new music.

Radio has traditionally functioned as the key marketing arm for the record industry. Internet radio and music discovery systems like Pandora provide the general public information that is available nowhere else. Streaming radio creates the possibility of distributing eclectic music programming from sources such as KCRW, beyond the local market. For the struggling record industry, the long-term potential benefits of streaming Internet music are huge. It would be a shame to see this opportunity destroyed by short-term thinking. The losers will be not only the Internet radio providers, but also more importantly, independent artists and the fans who love their music.