Monday, October 30, 2006

The Friday (Monday) Rant: Music Industry Crybabies Should Look Within

(Apologies for the late arrival of this (last) week's rant. This was held this until we had our filesharing figured out. I'll be back with my next rant on Friday.)

Over the past few years, it has been impossible to go very long without hearing record industry aficionados wailing and gnashing their teeth as they blame illegal music piracy for the decline of their sales, reduction in stock values, the hole in the ozone layer and for causing cancer. Starting in 2003, the recording industry has filed numerous lawsuits in an ill-fated attempt to curb file-sharing piracy. As someone who has purchased approximately 1000 CDs and who has downloaded his share of music, I would like to know when someone is going to counter-sue the recording industry for allowing today’s popular music culture to deteriorate into what is today – a directionless mess devoid of almost anything captivating, original or worth buying. I have spoken to lawyer friends about a potential suit against the recording industry for not providing me with anything really worth pirating - but they say I probably wouldn’t win. I wonder why I still find myself so tempted...

Today’s recording industry is in serious danger of being left behind by ever-evolving and ever-more-accessible technology, and a consumer base that has grown tired of the industry's limitations and short-sightedness. Technology has forced many industries to change the way they do business. The recording industry appears to be failing miserably at keeping up with the times. The filing of lawsuits against peer-to-peer networks, college students as well as Joannie and Chachie Q. Public does very little to curb the sharing of music online. It may scare some into downloading the music legitimately, and it may shut down the occasional host site, but for every successful shutdown there will always be scores in reserve ready and eager to take their places. Does online file sharing eat into record company profits? Yes. But so did the advent of blank cassette tapes.

Of the hundreds of CDs I own, I can count on my fingers how many I value for every track appearing on the “album”. With astronomical retail prices for CDs hovering in the $18.99 range, consumers are rightfully demanding more bang for their buck. Unless you are a diehard fan of an artist, are you going to shell out almost $20 to check out an album? Me neither. Record companies have premium priced their products well out of the range of those of us who would roll the dice to check out a new band. Heck, $18.99 almost buys you a half tank of gas!

Perhaps the recording industry should have its constituents take a good hard look at their respective catalogues. Maybe I am getting old, but the relentless spewing of mindless pap upon the American music consumer just might be another element contributing to declining music sales. Everything in popular music is about packaging. Content went out the window sometime during the mid-90’s. When is the last time you have seen an ugly pop star, or a heavy one that did not win a televised talent search? Some of the world’s best singers have historically been heavier, sturdier types. Are you trying to tell me that there are no big ugly artists out there with recording potential? How many great songs have been kept from the world by the recording industry because the artist couldn’t fit into a size 3? If today’s standards for what passes for a pop star were in place in the 60’s, we’d have never heard of the Mamas and the Mama Cass, Janis Joplin and the plethora of great artists from that era that didn’t fit the little nymph profile. Great music stands on its own against the test of time, regardless of what the artist looks like.

Where is the originality in today’s popular music, or pop culture in general? Has everything already been done? Is there such a thing as an original idea? Maybe we’ve exhausted all possibilities over the past 40 to 50 years. How else to explain the tidal wave of cover songs that have hit the airwaves like an audible plague? The movie industry is even worse than the recording industry as far as a lack of originality. Both entertainment generators apparently believe that the American public will sop up whatever mindless drivel they throw out there for us to consume. Movie remakes have been the rage, and forgive me for saying that most of them suck and should never have been made. Movie adaptations of TV shows, current adaptations of movies that aren’t even all that old and in no real need of redressing and sequels that producers pull out of their collective asses when the original unexpectedly does well (see The Matrix) is shameless and sad. The same goes for the bulk of today’s popular music covers.

It used to be a nice novelty. A current popular artist records an older song to either pay homage to the original artist or as a hidden-track bonus for their loyal album buyers. Now, it is the covers that are being presented as the flagship singles for scores of albums. I personally blame the band Smash Mouth for this phenomenon. Smash Mouth had a pretty decent debut, 1997’s Fush You Mang. There was some nice original material on the record, and the band appeared to have promise. However it was the cover of War’s "Why Can’t We Be Friends" that made its way onto movie soundtracks and set the table for the emergence of cover hell. I have always appreciated covers by bands that made changes to a given song to make it their own. In fact, some of my favorite covers have been done by punk and ska bands that have taken an old pop song and re-made it in a completely different format. Today’s artists are simply regurgitating great old songs and doing nothing original with them. One particularly homogenous send up is Uncle Kracker’s cover of the timeless Dobie Gray song, Drift Away. It is truly sickening. Hopefully the artists of the originals (or their estates) are being compensated enough to keep them from spinning like tops in their graves every time a radio station plays the new version of their classics. To paraphrase from the legendary punk outfit The Dead Milkmen’s Bad Party: if there is a God in heaven, I’m sure these bands will burn in hell. Hopefully there is a special place in pop star hell for the likes of Sheryl Crow (Sweet Child O' Mine), Jessica Simpson (These Boots Are Made For Walking) and Clay Aiken (his entire new album). Speaking of Clay Aiken, what ever happened to the system where a pop star actually had to establish themselves as an artist before pumping out covers? Clay Aiken has one, count ‘em – ONE, album of original material. Last month RCA released A Thousand Different Ways, the newest Clay Aiken album – featuring nothing but covers. Who in the hell does RCA think they have on their hands, Frank Sinatra? Clay Aiken can sing, but shouldn’t he be focusing on his own music at this early stage in his career, or has it already been deemed a lost cause? I heard Fergie's London Bridge on the radio a couple of weeks ago and thought it was pretty catchy. Then it dawned on me that if I were Fergie I'd avoid Missy Elliott at all costs, as she might be wanting to punch me in the face for shamelessly copying her style. Immitation may be the most sincere form of flattery, but in a lot of pop music cases, it should simply be called tired.

People buy music because they feel a connection with it. Fans support artists because of the bond that forms between performer and listener. Teen infatuation with their idols drives some record sales, but the bulk of American music fans are not going to shell out for a CD because the artist has great abs. Today’s pop music machine is celebrity-driven, not talent driven. Paris Hilton has a record contract. PARIS HILTON! Jennifer Lopez, a talented actress to be sure, but someone whose singing would drive me to slit my own wrists if I was subjected to it for more than five minutes, has put out multiple albums. Aren’t there ANY singer/songwriters out there that are more deserving of a record company’s attention and resources than this?

Traditional radio doesn’t help the popular music landscape at all. Payola continues to be the rage. Ever wonder why it always seemed that you heard the same songs over and over again whenever the radio was on? It is because of payola. Payola is simply a record company paying radio conglomerates to play their artists. Radio stations are no longer a place where one might hear anything interesting. Traditional radio has gone the way of the American politician – their air time and resources are available to the highest bidders. This practice has made traditional American radio as stagnant as the political system. What the people want no longer matters. All that matters is that the cash continues to flow in to the radio magnates from the record company “lobbyists”. Payola is not a new thing by any means. Examples have been well-documented as far back as the 1950s, but that doesn’t make it any easier to stomach.

The music industry needs to look within to find what truly ails it. The world has changed and the industry must change with it, or be left by the wayside. Artists need to put the effort in to producing a better overall product, or people will not buy their albums. Record companies should be looking for the next great recording artist rather than the next hot body. The domination of American airwaves by mega-corporations such as Clear Channel has stunted the growth and diversity of pop music. We hear what they want us to hear, and nothing more. This overbearing control of the airwaves will make traditional radio a dead medium sooner rather than later. Thankfully there is web “radio” to save the day. I believe record companies would see a resurgence in sales if they would make the rights and royalty fees more palatable for independent broadcasters. Instead of using litigation on their own customer bases, record companies should look at their business models and make the appropriate changes to keep up with the times. We are a short attention span culture, and the music industry today is singles-driven. Artists that can create a truly great album (System of a Down, Tool) are becoming rare. Record companies survived the generation dominated by “45’s”, and they can survive this swing as well. And lastly, we need to support the artists that are producing great new original music. We need to go to shows, buy their records and keep them going through this music industry rut. There is great music to be made out there, and to be heard. It just seems we have to work a lot harder than we should have to in order to find it. Thankfully, true music lovers (like Joe and Mike) are doing their best to make this happen.

Dead Milkmen - Life is Shit
Me First and The Gimme Gimmes - Take Me Home, Country Roads (John Denver cover)
Nancy Sinatra - These Boots Are Made For Walking



Anonymous August said...

I enjoyed your blog . Nice photo of Janis too .
Re: Clay Aiken . He had recorded 45-50 original songs by last Dec for the new album and they were rejected by Clive Davis . He was mandated to do covers by the boss . ...Shrugs... what's a guy to do ? There are originals on the album with writing credits by Aiken . Let's hope a new label is in his future 'cause he can sing .

Monday, October 30, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To paraphrase the Dead Milkmen as well...
"You know what, Vincent, I LIKE YOU. You're not like the other folks, here, in the trailer park."

I agree with you about the crap that passes for music on the pop scene these days. I can barely stomach the homogenized, brainless shite that's being played on most radio stations. I blame the American public for not demanding more from their music.When someone comes out and does something different or original, he or she risks alienating some portion of the listening (and potentially, purchasing) public. So this sets up a system where no risks equals higher record sales and more air time. It's sad, really.

That said, there are still some people/bands doing things that are worthy praise. There are people out there who are writing their own music - music that's good and interesting and intelligent. However, these people rarely make it onto the popular music scene. They are relegated to the "singer-songwriter" label, or fall under the indie or alternative category. Some examples that come to mind are Bright Eyes, The Arcade Fire, The White Stripes (though I know that Jack White rubs some people the wrong way), Imogen Heap, Aimee Mann, and others that I need to look at my i-Pod to list. And to tell you the truth, I'd rather they stay a little on the fringe. It seems that once something becomes popular, it gets more generic...either through pressure from record labels to maintain sales, through over playing on the radio, or through other less talented artists and bands pickking up and imitating the style. Think Green Day.

And there are a few who have made the transition to popularity while still maintaining some element of originality, like Outkast, and more marginally, The Killers. This gives me hope that while the American musical pallete may be accustomed to the bland, perhaps it can be trained to appreciate more.


Monday, October 30, 2006  
Blogger Reel Fanatic said...

Now that's what I call a rant ... You're definitely right about the amount of crap that's out there, but there is still plenty of good stuff too .. it's just that because of the concentration of radio stations in very few hands, which has been allowed to pretty much continue without restrictions, good music is harder to find now than it has ever been before

Monday, October 30, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you need to do your homework.
First of all, if you saw Clay's press release, and his many apperances to promote his new cd, you would have known that the "cover" concept was Clive Davis' idea. This is not so hard to believe considering 2 other artists under his thumb have also just released cover cds - Rod Stewart & Barry Manilow. Clay's fans were well aware that he had recorded many, many songs of new material, and Clive Davis was the one who ordered the switch. You can't exactly say NO the CEO of RCA.

Now, if you actually looked at the cd, let alone listened to it, you would have also known that it was NOT ALL COVERS. The tracks A Thousand Days, Lonely No More (Co-written by Aiken), Everything I Have, and These Open Arms are not covers. Another thing to note is that some of the covers have totally new arrangements - most notably Broken Wings & Here You Come again.
They are very different than the originals. Given the situtation, Clay did an amazing job on this cd.
His vocals are exquisite & the arrangements are top notch.

Lastly, there was a bonus song (probably the best song of them all) called "Lover All Alone" - Lyrics by Aiken & music by David Foster. It is a hauntingly beautiful song, that is only available when you download the full album from Itunes. There are already a few Youtube videos that are using this song. There's one for Grey's Anatomy & one for Gilmore Girls.

I do understand where you were coming from as far as the covers go.
Most of Clay's fans feel that it was not his choice to do a covers heavy album. We beleive this because at concerts we heard previews of the some of the songs he said would be on the next album, and he also had said that he had recorded enough new material for 4 albums. He sang one of the songs - "Back For More" on GMA in the summer of 2005. It was very catchy & radio friendly. Then a few months later, we heard he was back in the studio recording covers.
So, before you go & pass judgement on someone or something, you should have your facts straight.

Maybe you may want to check out the video to get a sample of what Clay Aiken is capable of when he's not being controlled by RCA.

Links (copy & paste) to Youtube videos.

Gilmore Girls:

Grey's Anatomy:

Monday, October 30, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The first step toward any kind of breakthrough would be for Clive Davis to choke on his own vomit asap. Did you know that Clay Aiken submitted not one but 2 CDs of originals before ole Clive, in his megalomaniacal wisdom mandated that Aiken record covers? Did you know that Clay has 4 songs on that CD and a bonus song that are NOT covers, 2 of which Aiken wrote?

The problem in part is that these old farts that make these decisions are going for the quick money instead of nurturing the artists. They are looking for disposable pap to catch the fickle teen market and the real talent can't get a song on the bloody radio.

Then we see articles that blame the artist for the label's stupid decisions.

Monday, October 30, 2006  
Blogger Vince said...

I must apologize for the innaccuracy of my "nothing but covers" quip concerning Clay Aiken's latest release. And as I said in the original post, I do respect Mr. Aiken's singing ability. If the covers idea was that of Clive Davis, then shame on him. Mr. Davis, his long list of success aside, would seem to epitomize the stagnant nature of today's pop music pond.

As an aside, Clay Aiken made an apperance on Jimmy Kimmel Live a few weeks ago and I remember waking up and groggily thinking that whatever song Clay was belting out on the show was actually pretty good. What did he perform that night?

See, I am not an Aiken hater...

Tuesday, October 31, 2006  
Anonymous yaystlouis said...

Thank you Vince for apologizing about your erroneous info on Clay, AND to do it quickly. As any celebrity writer should know, when you write about Clay in any way you need to make sure you get the facts right. Or else you'll feel the full wrath of the Claymates. As for Clive Davis, I hope he rots in hell.

The new song he performed on Kimmel was A Thousand Days.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006  
Blogger judy said...

The Kimmel appearance song was "A Thousand Days" one of the originals from his current cd you reviewed. It, along with other Aiken songs, doesn't get radio play either. Why can't they give him some recognition?

Tuesday, October 31, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

damn, people love clay aiken!!!

Tuesday, October 31, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


First of all, I don;t think you're a Clay hater. You were being honest, but were a little misinformed.
I appreciate you owning up to your inaccurate information about Clay Aiken's cd. Usually, I wouldn't bother responding, but I can tell based on your comments about the state of the music industry, you seem to be a very reasonable person.

You comments about "why would RCA have him do covers" is also something that remains a mystery to his fans.

Most cover cd's usually don't come close to the quality of the originals, however, many of the songs on Clay's cd are superior.
At least he made an effort to change them up, and not do a Karaoke version.

Thursday, November 02, 2006  

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