Before the Music Dies

4.5 stars out of five
by S. James Wegg
Publish Date: May 22, 2008
Music without the suits

There are two kinds of music: good and bad. In times past, the artists and their audience would decide what was liked and what was not. Sure, it could take months, weeks or occasionally years before the value of a style or song was realized, but somehow—like Felix Mendelssohn putting J.S. Bach back on the hit parade—excellence and genius would always find their place in the hallowed halls of human artistic greatness.

With the advent of recorded music, the ability to capture a particular performance and share it with anyone who had the playback equipment radically changed how music was both heard and appreciated. Once 45s and LPs found mass appeal, the music business was established in earnest. In the early days, record executives (notably the Artists and Repertoire positions) became the all important go-betweens for singers and songwriters. It was not unusual for the management team to have dabbled as players themselves.

But with the twin events of the arrival of the Internet and passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act by Congress (giving rise to mega broadcasters such as Clear Channel with hundreds of stations but one format), those running the show wanted quarterly profits rather than great product or the long-term development and care of their artists.

Director/co-writer—along with Joel Rasmussen—Andrew Shapter wisely lets the artists and former managers (interviews with the leaders of the money-machine corporations are noticeably absent) do the talking in this first-rate essay on the current state of pop music in the United States. With the likes of Erykah Badu (“Hip hop rules the world now.”), Les Paul (who wonders aloud if there is much heart in the factory tracks that populate commercial radio these days), The Roots’ Questlove (“We are the last black band with a major record company”) and Brantford Marsalis (“The middle man is one of the most useless jobs in the universe”; “My students [only wanting praise and unwilling to perfect their craft] are completely full of shit.”) speaking their minds, there’s little need to ply narrator Forest Whitaker with pithy comments or wry observations.

We learn early on how the over-commercialization of our most universal art—largely due to music videos, MTV et al—has made the visual frequently more valuable than the musical (imagine the career of Britney Spears if she was only heard on radio). Many video “artists” gain fame before ever appearing in a public concert; implants, long locks and stilettos are the new normal for fresh-face divas (advised to “do some horseshit” or “get naked early” to generate “interest” and feed both the tabloids and the charts). Can’t sing?—no worries: cosmetic tonal surgery is but a few clicks away in the digital operating theatre of sound.

Is there life after either a major label loses interest (literally, if the sales aren’t high enough) or because of the explosion of theft-by-download (gigabytes per day: the ultimate consumers’ revenge)? Don’t get mad, become your own management. Using ATO Records as a prime example, founder Dave Matthews explains the process and the coup of signing David Gray; former big-time VP of A&R, Bruce Flohr chronicles the fall and rise of Doyle Bramhall II; the notion that real fans will download the tracks AND buy the $38 twin-DVD with all of the otherwise unavailable extras is put forward; everyone agrees that success will only happen when it’s the personal love of the craft rather than fame and fortune that drives the process.

Interesting as the discourse is, it’s the concert clips, archive stills and Eric Clapton’s solo with Doyle that wordlessly make the case for the survival of music that deserves to be heard. Still, given the clout of the mainstream media, the “suits” who earn their outrageous salaries on the backs of the bewildered (on both the sides of the lens/microphone), corporate, musical America need only retool and wait for China to really Westernize to stay in the black.

For everyone else, the art will always survive—it just won’t be found in the usual places. JWR

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