Listening to one of my favorite podcasts this morning, and one of the hosts stated that the music industry is dead. Not “dying”, but all out “dead”. Funny thing is, as a longtime fan of hip-hop, I have read countless articles and songs where the “hip-hop is dead” slogan has become a once-every-five-years mantra. Same with “rock’n’roll is dead”. The Who said it, so did Lenny Kravitz. Yet at its best, or at its worse, it’s all marketing. Then again, so is the industry of selling music, isn’t it? Yet this comment was like a kick to the gut. It felt weird, because the truth is while there is still a sense of industry out there, it is maybe less than 5 percent of what it was.
I never wanted to be a police officer, astronaut, or fireman. Rock star was #1. Then it was “work at a record company”. The benefit of a lack of a backbone in the existing industry is that it puts the tasks of the artist into their own hands. You want it that badly? Do it yourself. The industry has and does serve a purpose, and there is a hell of a lot of good and bad involved. Much of what an artist can do on their own was rooted in the hard work of those in the industry, including thousands of people who were never mentioned because they were not celebrated.
Going back to the podcast comment. I don’t quite remember what the topic was at the time I heard it, but as soon as it was said, it was a swift mental hit. I then bring up the photo I’ve posted here of a listening booth. These types of booths were before my time, but when my mom was becoming a music fan (and record collector), it was normal to go into these booths and “test” out the records. That might sound like having to test drive a car before it was purchased, but in many ways that’s exactly what it was. They were also called “audition rooms”, and the idea was that if you wanted to buy a record, be it an album or a 45 rpm single, you’d take a few into the room and play them. If the album was good, you’d put it on the side and wait to pay for them at the counter. If not, you’d put them back in the racks. There was a time in 33 1/3 rpm history where full albums were not sealed, you could just take the records out at the store and check out those other songs to see if it’s worth spending $2.99 to $4.99. 45 rpm singles were always sold open with the picture sleeve or generic sleeve, which made them easy to damage by people who were careless. But, listen for free, then buy the record, take it home. Yours for life (or the life of the record). Technology has changed. It was then cool to get a cassette recorder and record songs off the radio. You could have the song for “free”. Then CD recorders came, and you could preserve your songs that way. Even when the first CD recorders hit the market, the cassette was king. As music fans battled between cassettes and CD’s, here came the MP3 in 1995. Free music, slow as hell but it meant free. Now you could burn your own CD’s on a computer: rip audio off a CD, make a compilation you want and sell the CD back to the store. Everybody is happy. Then MP3’s could convert to being playable on a CD. MP3’s could then be played off of a CD-R. By the late 90’s, the music industry was at the point of no return, but little did it know how “bad” it would get.
In the digital era, the music industry is as strong as ever but not as powerful or dominant as it once was. What’s hot now is streaming websites, or online stations where you can tune in to what you want with the quality you desire. We have moved from being a curious lot who listened to music in audition boots as a means of novelty, to simply listening as the norm. Consumers? They’re buying less music and more into the image and persona of an artist. If they are buying something tangible, it has nothing to do with the actual music. The music used to be the lure to bring people into a concert venue, now a song is what makes people buy perfume, diapers, eyeliner, baby wipes, and ear swabs.
Then again, are people really listening or are they just hearing? If music fans were truly listening, they would stand up for themselves and demand more. No, what exists is a hearing generation that may be interrupted by everything else in the room, very few are truly in tune with the music and it’s the music itself that gets the raw end of the deal, the swift kick in the nuts.
Then again, if you are only listening to music that’s on radio, TV, and on YouTube, maybe you only deserve to hear music. Whatever exists as an industry today could care less if you are a listener or a “hearer”, but if you’ll buy into the bullshit they serve up, they’ll be more than happy to take your savings away if it benefits them. This is why artists can do it themselves and make a killing if they know how to do their shit. Do it, but also keep on making damn good music. You want people to do more than hear you, you want them to listen. Or do you not care about the difference, as long as you get paid?
From listening booths to Spotify splendor: bad in its own way, but great in another.
(SIDENOTE: I do remember some listening booths at a record store in Ala Moana Shopping Center, and it seemed to be used primarily by people who loved Hawaiian music. At least, when I saw people at the booths, it was people who would play whatever new Hawaiian records were released that week. That’s not to say that rock, country, or classical audiences didn’t go to the booths, but by observation, it seemed rock fans were more than willing to take a risk and just take it home. If it wasn’t as good, some fans would warm up to it.
In many ways, MTV was the greatest listening booth of all, and that was our norm from 1981 to 1996. MTV existed after 1996 of course, but it would be equal to a “snippet tape”, where you’d only hear highlights on Total Request Live. It wasn’t selling you the song, you only got to hear the good parts. Then it went downhill.
Bottom-line, some of us are going to be music junkies for life, I am. I love the benefits of the marketplace today, but if I’m already sounding crabby now, I can’t imagine what I’ll be like in 10 to 20 years.)