Why isn’t the music business about music? | AspenTimes.com

Why isn’t the music business about music?

Elvis Costello, left, and Hubert Sumlin appear in "Before the Music Dies," a documentary about the music industry, showing Monday, March 19 at Belly Up Aspen. (Courtesy B-Side Entertainment)

ASPEN So often I hear the complaint, usually from people in the 40-60 age range: There’s no good music these days. Radio sucks. Things just ain’t what they used to be.It breaks my heart to hear such sentiments, not because it’s true – it isn’t, and if it were, that would truly be a sad, sad state of affairs – but something like the opposite. There’s plenty of phenomenal, visionary music out there; in making my point, I’ll keep my short list to Béla Fleck & the Flecktones, Wilco, Ghostface Killah, Fiona Apple, Gov’t Mule, Beck, Cassandra Wilson, TV on the Radio, Damian Marley, Drive-By Truckers, Medeski Martin & Wood, Michael Franti, Derek Trucks and the Del McCoury Band, for now.The problem is that, in this very upside-down corner of the universe known as the music business, all of the above exist, to some extent, in the margins. Most of them are not in heavy rotation on commercial radio, or, if they are, there’s a very good chance their next album won’t be. Most are happy to count their album sales in the tens of thousands, forget about gold or platinum.Wilco, easily one of the best and most innovative rock bands of the last 25 years, became famous for a failure: Their 2002 album, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” was rejected by their label, who didn’t hear a hit single in the record. No thanks, said the label, Reprise, who handed the master tapes back to the band. (For anyone who relishes just how screwed up the record industry is, the story has a fairy-tale ending. Wilco sold the album to another label, and “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” was instantly judged a masterpiece. It even sold reasonably well. And for the cherry on top, the label that ended up releasing it, Nonesuch, was owned by the same parent that owned Reprise, meaning the corporation paid twice for the record.)

“Before the Music Dies,” a documentary directed by Andrew Shapter, doesn’t include Wilco’s oft-repeated tale, but it well could have. The film indicts the music business for its core failing: it couldn’t care less about good music, while it spends millions and millions peddling disposable crap that doesn’t stand a chance of being passed from one generation to the next. While pop icons who don’t play instruments, don’t write music, may not even sing in key, but look good in tight clothes and know how to stir up controversy hit platinum sales (before their star inevitably fades, and the business is off to the next one), ambitious and accomplished artists are left to their own devices.This isn’t exactly news. Everyone knows the major labels have led a topsy-turvy existence for a decade or more. Now owned by huge conglomerates, and run by MBAs rather than music people, the majors are chasing hits and dollars, not artistry. (This will catch up to them in a few years when they start trying to sell the box sets of the Spice Girls and the like.) But Shapter, showing an accomplished hand in his first film, uses the artists themselves to tell how bad things are. Several of those testifying to the lameness of the record business have benefited greatly from major label associations: Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Erykah Badu, Dave Matthews. You know the curtain has been thrown aside when such top-sellers are tearing apart the machine. It is a lesser-known who sums it up best: “The 20 million people who buy a Britney Spears record aren’t music fans. They’re pop-culture fans,” said Michael Penn, who had a 1989 hit with the song “No Myth,” and now exists as an independent singer-songwriter. “If your vision is more about reaching the people who really respond to music – that’s a completely different business than the majors are in now. The majors used to be in that – but they weren’t majors then, they were record labels.”

“Before the Music Dies” is made dynamic with some well-utilized performance videos, Telling the in-depth story of Doyle Bramhall II, a talented bluesman who was dropped by his label, the film features Bramhall jamming in an intimate club with one of his champions, Clapton.The film contains occasional overboard comments. Nancy Giles, identified as a former New York disc jockey and a contributor to “CBS News Sunday Morning, decries the youth obsession witnessed on MTV and at the major labels. “I’d rather listen to somebody who’s in their 30s or 40s or 50s or 60s or 70s, that I know who has gone through some shit. I’d rather hear that than someone who’s 20. You haven’t lived.” So that would dismiss the 21-year-old Bob Dylan, who recorded “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down”; the 26-year-old Bob Marley, who made “Catch a Fire”; the 22-year-old Tupac Shakur, who released “Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z”; and the 27-year-old Derek Trucks, a member of the Allman Brothers Band and leader of his own, exceptional Derek Trucks Band, who currently on tour playing guitar with Clapton. If the record business started writing off youth, it would only be an extension of their follies.Giles makes one more puzzling statement that almost made me disengage from the film. “We’re mentally killing, culturally killing the generation that’s living now … because we’re not giving them the kind of options we had, the kind of music we could hear,” she says.

That’s patently false. Though commercial radio and major labels try to force-feed us dreck, listeners now have more ways of finding music than they ever did. Fortunately, “Before the Music Dies” seems to know that Giles misspoke. The second half of the film is devoted to those options, to the fact that a musician starting out doesn’t need – probably doesn’t even want – a contract with a major label. Music fans have podcasts and websites and YouTube to discover music that appeals to them, and while it might not be as simple as clicking on the radio, it isn’t as if the good stuff is locked away in a Sony-controlled vault somewhere.”Before the Music Dies,” then, ends on an upbeat. The music industry may have condemned itself to hell. But the music itself is in fine shape.”Before the Music Dies” shows Monday, March 19, at Belly Up Aspen. The screening will be followed by a performance by singer-songwriter Steve Poltz, who is featured in the film. Tickets are $5, doors open at 8 p.m. and show time is 9 p.m.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com

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