Tuesday, November 13, 2007


Today on the way home from work i was listening to the Alan Handleman Show. Unless you live in central NC, you can't hear the show, AFAIK. He does have a syndicated shown on Sunday nights, but that's more music-oriented than his daily show on 101.1. His topic was a new move by record companies to make radio stations pay a significant fee for every song they play on the air. This could easily put a lot of smaller stations--or stations of any size with a narrow profit margin--out of the music business.

There's one very obvious problem here. Record companies have, for decades, greatly benefited from their product being played on the radio. How else would a mass audience hear it? The first tape (yes, tape) i ever bought with my own allowance/yard-mowin' money was "King of Rock" by Run DMC. I bought it because i'd heard a couple of the songs on the radio. Without 97 Jams wafting westward from Memphis, i never would have heard how the sucka MCs call them sire. Ditto with the Prince and Whodini cassettes that came later. (The Greatest American Hero and Hill Street Blues theme song single records were a different story, of course.) So why would record companies want to essentially run many of their advertisers out of business?

It's because they're scared. Being scared is not a bad thing if you respond to it well. Without fear we'd all get hurt a lot more often. But a poor reaction to fear can cause many more problems.

The way the music companies are responding to their decreased profits is anti-entrepreneurial, maybe anti-capitalist. What does a normal business do when sales are down? They have a sale. They repackage products. They add give-aways. They stay open extra hours. They do something to make their product more appealing or more valuable, so that people will choose to buy it. The record companies are not doing this. They aren't lowering prices on CDs. They aren't adding value to them--like, with more songs, or multimedia features. Instead, they're simply demanding more money from anybody and everybody they do business with. If a store in your town took that approach, how would you respond? That's how we're all going to continue to respond to the record industry.

I assume that they are lobbying Congress to pass laws that will force radio stations to pay these fees. That's even more disgusting. When they can't get people to willing pay prices higher than the market will bear, they lobby (i.e., pay off) the government to use its coercive power to force people to pay them. That's not entrepreneurship. That's not capitalism. That's mercantilism of the colonial and medieval eras, when kings would give the right of trade to whichever party paid the most for it.

There's a weird contrast here. Our current technology enables a vast variety of music to be produced and distributed on a large scale more cheaply than ever before. Yet the traditional channel by which people have heard music for the better part of the last hundred years, radio, has become less diverse than at any point in its history. While the technology brings more possiblities, the radio industry actively shuns them in favor of the narrowest, supposedly safest approach.

But, onto a positive possibility. Let's say this plan becomes reality. Lots of radio stations can no longer afford to play music from the record companies. Here's an awesome idea that a few different callers to Handleman's show suggested: the stations could play local and independent music instead. I would LOVE that. One of my longtime daydream-enterprizes is a radio station that plays just that kind of music, including live performances from local venues and festivals. There is a ton of great music out there that most peole never hear. IMO it would be hugely positive in all kinds of ways if this world of more diverse, more genuine music replaced the tiny, repetitious playlist of revolting garbage that oozes out with banal malevolence from most radio stations.

Here's a musical recommendation. I just listened to a CD by a group called Scythian, whom i heard at the Grassroots Festival at Shakori Hills a few weeks ago. Their music is a mixture of various traditions, from Celtic to Klezmer, with modern elements as well. All of them, i believe, are trained in either classical or jazz, as well. The drummer has definitely studied jazz drumming. They were my favorite band out of many that i heard at Grassroots Fest.

There are other Grassroots Festivals in other parts of the country. I don't know if it's some kind of touring enterprise, or if it's just a common name adopted by similar but independent fests. Anyway, if the others are anything like the one held at Shakori Hills, they are well worth attending. Go out and enjoy some live music!

One more music recommendation: American Aquarium, whom i heard at The Garage in Winston-Salem (a very cool venue, btw). They remind me a bit of the Wallflowers, but i like them more; they feel more focused and less miasmic. Here is their myspace page, which has a few songs.