Coming Full Circle

Coming Full Circle
When the phonograph was invented in 1877, it changed the way we heard our music very much in the same way the written word changed the way we told our stories. Prior to Thomas Alva Edison’s remarkable invention, one had to be in the presence of a particular musician to enjoy his artistry. After…anyone with a record player or hanging out at a “phonograph parlor” could hear their favorite musicians without having any idea what they looked like.
Yet, performance was still paramount to the success of a musician’s career. Even with the invention of the radio, artists were expected to display their skills in front of an audience in a relatively entertaining way. Having your music pressed onto wax pretty much guaranteed that more people would hear you; and the more people that heard you, the more people would desire to see you perform live.
In the liner notes of 1970’s funk band Mandrill’s greatest hits album, it was stated (during their peak) “you had a slew of bands (Mandrill was a contemporary of bands like Earth, Wind, & Fire and Parliament Funkadelic) that took their stage work as a matter of life-and-death.” Essentially, recording albums was about promoting their talent and their value as performers. It was understood that record companies made the most of their money from the sale of albums, and artists made the bulk of their money from touring.
Almost as long as there has been recorded sound, there has been motion pictures, and even though it would be a while before talking pictures would be commercially produced, music and motion pictures where as synonymous as pancakes and syrup! Many of the oldest films were recordings of musicians performing. In some movie houses, the performance was displayed on a screen while a recording of the performance was played from a phonograph. Alas, the earliest music video!
Music videos began to gain popularity in the mid to late seventies, and then in the summer of 1981 came the launch of the Music Television Network (MTV), another great leap forward in the way we would enjoy our music and an artist’s ability to perform for a wider audience. As pronounced in 1979 by The Buggles, “Video Killed the Radio Star,” but what wasn’t stated was that video killed the live performer as well.
With the ability to see your favorite musician several times a day on cable, the weight of live performances lightened. Artists didn’t have to tour as heavily as they once had to be viewed and enjoyed by mass audiences. This distinction was also made in the Mandrill liner notes, saying that the emphasis had been taken off of live performance and placed on the music video. The greater the appeal of the video, the more times a day the video would be shown, and that affected record sales.
And who was the top winner throughout this entire process of change?
The record companies.
With their artists getting top spin on video networks, a record company’s need to send those artists out on promotional tours declined. That directly affected the attitudes of the artists as well. Throughout the 80’s and 90’s, we saw increased marketing budgets for music videos and a decrease in touring budgets. The quality of live performances by the more popular artists suffered as a result, as did the number of performances. Artistry was de-emphasized for imagery.
In the hip hop world, what is an MC if he isn’t Moving the Crowd?
And the music suffered too. Without the need to necessarily perform live, synthesized music (sans art) took over. Actual albums went from being 12 to 14 solid tracks, to having only 2 or 3 quality songs (those that became the hits that encouraged people to buy the albums in the first place). You could no longer listen to an album all the way through, but people kept buying them.
Soon, many artists became dependent on record sales to make the bulk of their money. Where they once might have been able to keep a little distance between what went into their pockets and what supplied the record company’s coffers, artists found themselves closely aligned with the record companies in order to eat. Artists began to tour in order to support the sales of their albums as opposed to making albums to support an artist’s ability to tour.
But with so much video and radio play, the market had become easily saturated with an artist’s work, and one-hit wonders became abundant. The shelf life of an artist, which was once sustained by his or her ability to tour and perform, decreased faster than the US President’s ability to articulate in a public debate.
Enter the Internet and Digital Media. After a century and a quarter of dominance, the recording industry finds itself on life support.
Regardless of the form of media – whether it was record albums, radio, America Band Stand, 8-track tape, cassette tapes, music video, or compact disc – the recording industry was in charge of what was being heard, and were heavily rewarded through this constant ability to maintain control…until now!
All of a sudden, P2P (person to person) file sharing programs were able to cut into that system of control the recording industry enjoyed for so long. Record companies got a small taste of that through street bootleggers, but nothing like what they are seeing today. According to the RIAA (The Recording Industry Association of America), the recording industry is now losing $4.2 billion per year to what they call “Music Piracy”. This includes Pirated Recordings and Online Piracy, as well as Counterfeit Recordings and Bootleg Recordings.
With the ability to download music for free through P2P sites or copy CDs for friends in the privacy of one’s own home, the need to purchase albums for $13 to $18 a pop has become passé. New strategies had to evolve to cover these sales. Sites like iTunes were created so that music could be bought legally, and songs could be purchased individually (no more being forced to buy fourteen songs just to listen to three good ones).
But the recording industry is taking a hit from another side, as well. Those traditional music video outlets have started to dry up. Gone are the days of twenty out of twenty-four hours of music videos. Such programming has been relegated to early morning time slots and daily top ten countdown shows; having been replaced by drama-filled reality television.
(Have you noticed how artists’ lives have become increasingly more dramatic in order to compete in the market place?)
Artists have been forced to suffer right along with their parent companies. If daddy isn’t bringing in any money for dinner, then baby isn’t eating either! Those extravagant marketing budgets for videos and promotion: Gone! Those massive million dollar contracts: Gone!
As a signed artist, your safety net has big holes in it! You HAVE TO make it on your own terms.
And artists are doing just that. Almost everyone who’s anyone has a “mixed-tape” that they release in anticipation of their major album release. That’s their way of both marketing the major album, as well as putting a little extra change in their own pockets.
Do you know how they are distributing these “mixed-tapes”? Independently through the internet and (drum roll please)…live performances. YES, the art of musical performance is being resurrected!!
Artists are beginning to see that the only people they can count on to look out for their careers are themselves. Many artists (e.g. Tamia, and Jean Baylor-formerly of Zhané) are leaving the traditional recording industry behind and taking to the ‘net and the road to promote their projects. Regardless of whether the music is being pirated or not, their music is being heard, and people still have a desire to see their favorite musicians. Artists have the opportunity to gain uncompromised exposure beyond the limitations placed on them by the record companies. The best way to take advantage of this opportunity is to bring it directly to the people. Give them that great performance!
With more artists following suit “as a matter of life-and-death”, this latest change in the way we experience music will create a renaissance of beautiful, live music.
All things come full circle, after all…
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