On the the State of the Music Business and the End of Mass Taste

The Wall Street Journal said yesterday that compact disc sales dropped 20
per cent in the first quarter. As usual, the decline was attributed mainly
to teenage kids, who stole approximately one billion songs on file sharing
sites between January and March, according to recent estimates. And as is
customary in business pieces about the state of the music industry, no one seemed to consider the possibility that its own executives might be
partially to blame for its current troubles.

Four months ago, I wrote an article about a young rap artist named Lupe
Fiasco. Fiasco is a 24-year-old skateboarding Muslim from Chicago who raps
about his distaste for the rampant materialism currently dominating hip hop
and his desire to bring the troops home from Iraq.

Though he received Grammy nominations in prestigious categories like Rap
Album of the Year and Rap Single of the Year as well as rave reviews in
practically every publication that is supposed to count, he has not even
gone gold.

While I was doing the piece, I called up Tom Silverman, the head of Tommy
Boy Records, which was responsible for launching the careers of De La Soul
and Queen Latifah. He said that while he thought Fiasco was a formidable
talent, the current state of the market made it all but impossible for him
to succeed.

"It's great that someone's taking a chance on a socially conscious hip-hop
artist like Lupe but the economics are not as good as they once were," he
told me. According to Silverman (as well as several other people I spoke to)
the problem is not so much file sharing (which has been vastly inflated) as
it is the consolidation of radio (which has largely gone ignored.)

To back this up, Silverman explained to me that even though people are
spending as much time in their cars as they used to, consumers have been
turning off music stations in droves. 27 per cent since 2001, I believe,
about on par with the declines of CD sales.

You would think this means people are just listening to stolen music played
on their Ipod Nanos, but consider this: Sales from independent labels are
actually holding steady.

To oversimplify things just a little, this indicates that the labels have
been putting out a steady stream of prepackaged junk in an effort to appease
the radio programmers and that consumers have been rejecting it.

Of course, it's analogous to what happened in the film world, but then
people like Harvey Weinstein and Bob Berney figured out that there was a
consumer who wanted to see smarter movies. And so they made them (or bought
them) and distributed them. And they got rich. And life was good again.

Then consumers got bored with what the networks had to offer, so HBO, F/X,
Showtime, Bravo!, and Comedy Central stepped in with shows like the
Sopranos, Nip/Tuck, The Daily Show, South Park, The Colbert Report, and
Project Runway. And they too got rich. And life was again good.

But this being the music industry, where the closest thing to a boldface
maverick is Edgar Bronfman Jr, panic masquerades as ingenuity. So the A&R
guys develop an endless series of facsimiles of what were robots to begin
with. Here comes Ciara: The Crunk Beyonce! Next up, Rihanna: the Caribbean
Beyonce! Don't like her? How about Cassie: The minimalist Beyonce! Or try
Stephanie Edwards: The Beyonce of American Idol.

Oh, wait. She got clipped last night. Perhaps that's why.

Meanwhile, the original robots (See: Britney, Mariah, and Whitney) begin to
combust. They marry losers and develop drug problems. They have nervous
breakdowns. It turns out they don't like being robots so much, after all. "I
feel like I've been missin' out," Spears told her soon-to-be-ex-husband,
shortly before she went off the "deep end."

With these tried and trued manufactured divas cracking up (or literally
cracked out) the labels have no choice but to hire lawyers and sue the kids
who are "stealing" their music. What else can they do? They are not going to
bite the hand that feeds them and go up against Clear Channel. They are not
going to fire themselves. But they are merely fending off the inevitable.
Their time has come.