The state of music: today & beyond

    Where does the world of music stand these days?

    The simple answer is that the music industry is standing on shaky ground.

    Music genres are blurring into each other. Music is starting to sound the same, and the same 20 songs are played on the radio over and over again. The record industry is force-feeding listeners generic music. Albums are too expensive and, consequently, album sales are down. And why bother purchasing an album with only a few good songs for $18.99 when you can simply download the tracks you want on your music downloading program of choice? Ticket prices for concerts are getting to be ridiculously expensive, while Ticketmaster and Clear Channel Entertainment rake in the money from ticket service charges.

    The music industry is caught in a seemingly endless cycle of music production. The next big thing is captured, recreated a few times and marketed until kingdom come, or until the value of the artist is exhausted — then on to the next big thing.

    This endless cycle is driving the music industry into the ground.

    The radio industry and the music industry

    There is an image in my head that comes from the movie “”Good Morning Vietnam”” Robin Willams. In one frantic scene, Williams — the DJ of a morning radio show — is rushing around the studio and picking out records to play on the air.

    Those days are long gone. Turn on any radio station and it is almost guaranteed that the DJ is not picking out songs he thinks should be played. The idea that the radio industry is an independent force that can control the success of a song or an artist does not hold true today.

    Today, the record label pays radio rock and Top 40-format radio stations to play certain songs. Independent record promoters pay radio stations to add certain songs to the playlist, and then these promoters get paid by the record label. And with thousands of radio stations across the country being consolidated under the mighty Clear Channel corporation, the fees that record labels have to pay to independent record promoters can skyrocket.

    The concept should be frightening.

    Unless you have a surefire hit on your hands, the record label that can afford to pay the money to get a song on the playlist of a Clear Channel radio station benefits from the exposure and, hopefully, from record sales. This results in major labels relasing songs that are no doubt a simple recylcing of the latest trend in pop music. Smaller record labels may have quality music, but suffer from fighting an uphill battle for airplay.

    How is this legal?

    Record companies will say that they are merely paying the independent record promoters to promote their songs, while independent record promoters say that they are merely helping market a radio station. But in reality, the record companies are getting their music on the airwaves and the independent record promoters are getting paid.

    If subscription XM Radio seems to be the perfect alternative, think again. Not only are you paying subscription fees for music that you should be able to hear for free on broadcast radio, but you limit your overall scope of music. XM Radio provides seemingly convenient genre-specific radio stations, but the average listener cannot experience new music if all they listen to is one genre of music. The continual need to fit music into specific genres will only split the music and the culture of music listeners into small factions who may become unaware of other forms of music.

    It sounds a bit extreme, but we need to be wary of the fact that media outlets continually fragment their audience according to desirable and easily targeted demographics?

    We are thieves

    If you are reading this article online, you might be downloaindg music right now on some reincarnation of Napster: Morpheus, KaZaA or Audiogalaxy, to name a few.

    You little thief.

    At least, that’s what Michael Greene — head of National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences — thinks. During the Grammys earlier this year, Greene ranted about the supposed evils of downloading MP3s. Apparently, fans who download music only serve to cripple the entertainment industry. Today, entertainment industry executives want to shut down file-sharing programs like Napster. In the long run, they’re calling for new copy-protection technology on computers and CDs.

    Record labels have already started to add anti-pirating technology to CDs to prevent them from being “”ripped”” into MP3 format. Apparently, with all the theives stealing music and profits from under the noses of record labels, the record labels are losing money.

    I have little sympathy for the big record companies.

    Record labels are losing money because they pay artists such as Mariah Carrey $80 million to sign with a label and then spend $28 million to get her to leave the label. Record labels are losing money because they are paying to get songs played on the radio. Record lables are losing money because they are pumping millions of dollars into trendy pop acts that are bound to lose luster after a few albums.

    Record labels are losing money because people are not going to pay $18.99 for an album that has two songs that are worth anything — no wonder only five percent of major releases ever turn a profit. In fact, why pay $18.99 for an album when you can take the same amount of money and purchase the, “”NOW That’s What I Call Music”” series, which has a wide collection of songs to whet your apetite. It seems as if listeners are already doing just that — “”NOW, Vol. 9″” is at No. 9 on the Billboard 200.

    Recently, blank CDs have been outselling pre-recorded CDs. Many people have downloaded more music within the past year than have purchased music. Moby reportedly has a 14-year-old cousin who has never purchased a CD in his life.

    More and more people are starting to view music as something that is free. That is the look of the future until fans are given a good reason to actually purchase an album from a record store.

    What now?

    Record labels are paying for their songs to be put on the airwaves, and the result is that big record labels are captializing on the latest trends. Therefore, record labels pump millions of dollars into similar-sounding projects that ultimately flood the airwaves with songs that sound the same.

    Ja Rule has found himself collaborating with almost everyone, and his voice can be heard many times an hour. The immense popularity of Britney Spears has helped spearhead the careers of sound-alikes such as Jessica Simpson and Mandy Moore. Boy bands such as 98 Degrees, LFO, The Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC have dominated the the pop charts with their sugary pop songs. Rap-metal rockers such as Korn gave way to the likes of Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock and Linkin Park. Of course, the listeners also have to share some of the blame for perpetuating the trend, but then again, it’s the record labels who beat these trends to death.

    This vicious cycle will continue as long as these major record labels and massive corporations keep a firm grasp on the music industry. The big record labels are attempting to shape the future of music by manufacturing and force-feeding music down our throats with millions of dollars invested in marketing on artists whose talents are as thin as the paper their contracts are printed on.

    The future is the Internet.

    People will continue to download music, share files and burn CDs until there is an incentive do actually purchase an album. Perhaps the answer isn’t in attempting to preserve albums the way we know them now.

    Digital technology is here to stay, and the record labels must be prepared to deal with its presence. Record labels such as Universal Music have aggressively pursued anti-pirating technology. Tracks ripped from these CDs have loud clicks throughout the music, which basically leaves the MP3 unlistenable. People will inevitably avoid these copy-protected CDs because they will be unable to create MP3s to burn on to CDs or their MP3 players. Music fans will be forced to look for copies of CDs elsewhere — copies that can be ripped.

    Entertainment technology will always push forward. The fear record companies exhibit over digital technology is similar to the fear over radio, television, VCRs, cassette tapes and CDs. None of those products spelled disaster for the entertainment industry. Technology will move on and the music industry, along with others, are sure to follow. Some record companies have already tried to capitalize on the MP3 era: Media conglomerate Vivendi, who owns Universal Music, acquired Napster and

    With more and more music being found as files on our computers rather than CDs purchased from a record store, the possiblity of how albums are created are endless.

    As CD burners become as common as portable CD players or television sets, artists can take full advantage of the Internet by releasing albums online and having their fans burn them to CDs or download tracks to their MP3 players. The entire concept of the album can change drastically if the record labels choose to embrace MP3 formats.

    An album does not have to have 13 tracks released at once. Musicians can release songs one by one as they are completed and put them on their Web site for fans to purchase. Fans can click on the title of the song to reveal lyrics and production notes. In fact, the titles of the songs can be mere pictures or animated graphics that fans can click on to download the music. Not only is this a new concept for the album itself, it is a new way for artists to think about how to create and release music. Songs could be released much quicker and could reflect current events and trends. Each track can also have an accompanying music video or slide show that fans can watch on their computers.

    Many music connoisseurs complain about the relatively small album covers that give artists little room for artwork. Albums that are released online have as much as space as the size of your monitor allows for interactive or animated artwork. An artist can potentially have an album Web site with detailed artwork, hidden links to songs and information for fans to discover. Artists can release a set of songs and allow their fans to arrange the tracks in their preferred order and burn them on to a CD. This idea offers a unique way for fans to have a part in the music of their favorite musicians. With the structure of albums being transformed, artists can prefer to have their track in specfic order or without any order at all. Artists could be as open or mytserious as they would like to be if they were online. There is a sense of liberation on the Internet, where songs, photos, sleeve notes and art work can be fluid.

    The record labels should salivate over the idea of online albums. By saving money on the physical production and distribution of CDs, record companies can invest more on finding and developing innovative artists who are talented and unique enough to last for a long time without becoming stale. Albums can be released fairly inexpensively online, and they can be accessed by fans worldwide almost instantaneously when completed songs are uploaded onto the Web site. Press kits can come in the form of e-mails with links to a specific site, not to mention the fact that tons of paper can be saved.

    Fans would pay a small fee to purchase the rights to download the songs on to their computers. If the concept of online albums were embraced, there would be motivation to improve upon the sound quality of MP3s.

    For fans of music outside of their home country, one can hope that pesky import taxes will be greatly reduced or eliminated because songs would become available on the World Wide Web. With the speed at which technology is moving, record companies should continue to look to the future of how music can be released.

    The technology development will happen faster and these far-fetched ideas are a lot closer than we think. We are only limited by a narrow creative vision.

    Meanwhile, the role of the listener is to embrace new styles of music. There are many local musicians that deserve attention and there are many different styles of music all around the world that can be embraced. Fans of music should also look to embrace the music that influenced their favorite modern-day artists. You may find yourself surprised at how much today’s music is influenced by the past. The successful musicians and performers are those who can take an old trick and make it look new. Past forms of music always influence the music that follows it. The key is to add a modern-day twist that makes the old, familiar sound fresh and new. The key is to find out who does it right.

    It is ultimately up to the consumers of the music because they can direct the way music — not to mention the way we listen to music — moves. We must attempt to push the quality of music, and the way we listen to and get our music, pushed in a forward direction. We must refuse to run in place. We can keep the major record labels being complacent and keep them running along with us.

    If they can’t beat us, they’ll have to join us.

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