James Talley

The Future of Music in Our Time...

As a singer and songwriter, I have traveled a long and winding road to where I reside today. I have determinedly pursued my dreams, and kept faith in my vision; which I feel is what an artist is supposed to do. Some of you who read this will be familiar with my name and my work, and some of you will not; for even after thirty years of writing and recording, I am far from a household name. I was an artist on both Atlantic Records and Capitol Records in the 1970s. In 1976, I invited B. B. King to his first recording session in Nashville, where he played lead guitar on my third Capitol album, Blackjack Choir. We brought the Chicago blues to country music. I performed twice at the White House for president Jimmy Carter, and I have played in concerts, festivals, little clubs and roadhouses all over America and Europe. I have had my songs recorded by Johnny Cash, Gene Clark, Alan Jackson, Johnny Paycheck, Moby and other artists. For almost thirty years, I have been a participant in, and an observer of, an industry we call the music business. At one time or another I have touched every aspect of it: songwriting, record production, publishing, contracts, performing rights, publicity, radio promotion, booking, touring, marketing, sales and distribution. I don't hold myself out as any kind of authority or expert; I have simply, by the nature of my relationship with the industry, seen and observed a lot. I will soon be releasing my fourth album on my own label, Cimarron Records, which is the twelfth album of my career. Over the years I have shared my thoughts about this industry in letters and emails to friends and associates. Some of them have urged me to share my thoughts with the general public; so here for the record, and your consideration, are some of my observations and insights on life and the music business, in the time in which we live.

There is a struggle going on today against tremendous odds, by dedicated artists and small business people trying to preserve music that is diverse, that has feeling, that respects tradition, that is not formulaic -- music that is "from the heart." Is it not the function of art to move people -- to help them feel, to cry, to laugh, to think, to inspire-- and to recognize and touch their uniqueness, as well as their common humanity? I think that is the magic of great music and art. The face-off against this struggle is the growing dominance and control of corporate America, where profits trump art, and decisions are made on the basis of commerce, not artistry.

Corporations, using the supercharged play money of Wall Street, and not the hard-earned real money of Main Street, can amass huge sums of capital. This permits corporations to undertake all manner of enterprises that individuals could never afford or consider. In order to induce people to invest and buy stock, corporations have been granted limited liability under the law. Their CEOs, presidents, and executives are not personally accountable or responsible for their actions. Their only requirement is to make a profit for the corporation and bolster the stock price. Whether it is destroying the environment, robbing the public through some offshore accounting loophole, or eliminating diversity, taste and quality in music, their actions are shielded. Woody Guthrie called this robbing people with a fountain pen. But I'm sure these corporate executives don't see themselves as bad people. Most of them probably feel they are pillars of their communities and guardians of the American Way. Most music executives, in fact, since we are speaking of that industry, originally gravitated to a music career because of a sincere love for music. But unfortunately, they quickly learn -- if they want to keep their jobs and expense accounts -- not to rock the boat, not to take risks, and to keep a close watch on the quarterly sales numbers. It is corporate marketing and selling; it has nothing to do with music or art. Music is just the product. It could just as easily be soft drinks, beer, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, or any other consumer product. Some of these executives have confessed to me that they personally do not believe in, or even like a lot of the music they promote, some of the decisions and choices they have to make, and their methods of carrying them out. They are trapped in a corporate system, with families and home mortgages, as slaves to the company. Maybe they were once free men; but now they are just doing the job they were hired to do -- sell a product and make a profit.

Corporate capitalism also relies on creating predictable programmed consumers. Corporate America hates the individual; it hates your uniqueness -- no matter what the banking commercials may try to tell you about having it your way, or how much they "care" and want a "relationship" with you. Corporate America wants everything reduced to a cookie-cutter formula; from the clothes you wear, to the home in which you live, to the entertainment that you watch or listen to -- make it simple, make it uniform. Hold the public's attention; don't ask people to think too much, and don't give them too much information. There is risk associated with individualism, uniqueness, and knowledge; it is not always predictable. Corporate America yearns for stability, predictability and dominance; it hates risk and risk-takers. Yet, to create something unique, anything, you must take risks. You must take the solitary path, the one less traveled. It is this quality in great art that moves us, for the human soul yearns for freedom.

In the not too distant past, there was no music industry, no music business. The musicians and the storytellers performed music as part of their religious rituals, or as a release from their day-to-day exigencies -- after the plowing, or the roundup, or after the day's work was done. Lewis and Clark, in the 1804 Corps of Discovery, had a member of the expedition who played the fiddle, the Frenchman, Pierre Cruzatte. That wasn't his job; it was simply an added benefit he brought along on the journey. People worked at other occupations, and played their music at Saturday night get-togethers, around the campfire, in primitive churches on Sunday mornings, or on their front porch late at night. Some of the best, most honest, and heartfelt music in the world came to us in this fashion.

It was only after Ralph Peer recorded Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family in Bristol, Tennessee in 1927, using Thomas Edison's new phonographic technology, and another new technology, radio, became a medium for distributing it to the masses, that popular music became a business. That evolution, and people's need for music in their lives, has of course led to the bloated excesses that today, in the pursuit of commerce, are passed off as art. The music we are offered in our lives today, like everything else, has been taken over and standardized by corporate America. A few giant corporations, for instance, now own most of the strong radio signals in the nation. The music played offers little diversity and little choice. The play lists are limited, and the desperate major music labels, which are trapped in this relationship with radio, lack the courage to challenge them. They continue to play the game, mass marketing the lowest common denominator of taste.

Radio, of course, is a business. It is there to make a profit also. It is not there to take chances, or promote art. As an example, Gaylord Entertainment in Nashville, the owners of the country flagship, 50,000 watt, clear-channel WSM-AM, which has broadcast the seminal Grand Ole Opry program every Saturday night since the earliest days of radio, announced about a year or so ago that they were losing money, and were considering switching the format at WSM to an ESPN Sports talk radio station. (Sports have also become a big business in American. Like music, it gives people another release from the pressures of modern life. It provides them with a degree of personal identity with their respective team, where there is little else to fill that need in their lives. Look at any National Football League game, and see the costumes, the getups, and the personal expressive efforts that people exert in being fans and celebrating their uniqueness.) There was a public outcry in Nashville over WSM's potential plans, and this has not yet come to pass, but it is certainly still a possibility.

The National Life and Accident Insurance Company founded WSM in the 1930s as a vehicle to promote their life insurance products to rural Americans through hillbilly music. WSM -- "We Shield Millions." From the beginning, radio was seen as a selling vehicle, not as a medium for art. We live in a capitalist economy, which has survived as the only viable economic system in the world, because it is the only system that is predicated on human nature -- people's innate greed, ambition, and self-interest. People simply were never good enough to be socialists or communists, and those systems failed. People really don't like to share, and they don't all have the same ambition. Somewhere in the back of the mind there is a "survival of the fittest" gene. But by nature capitalism is also rampant with inequality. That's why it works; the inefficient gives way to the efficient. American business is about profit -- and there is nothing wrong with making a profit. In any business, if you don't make a profit, you eventually cease to exist; which unfortunately is about where we are in the music business today. It reminds us once again, going back to radio, that radio programming is simply something to hold the audience's attention between commercial breaks. The songs played on corporate radio today are themselves like the commercials, for that is what they have been reduced to -- jingles approved by marketing gurus and consumer focus groups. And where is the individual artistic freedom and solitary inspiration in that? As the late Waylon Jennings once said, "I don't think Hank done it this-a-way." But does radio really have any responsibility to distribute art or music? If music is no longer profitable, then corporate radio will change to another format -- news, talk, sports, weather --whatever will turn a profit. Tradition, history, or art mean little to capitalism; it never will. Those are the values of individuals, not corporations. Capitalism and corporations are dedicated to profits, period. If people need music in their lives -- which they do -- they will have to find it elsewhere.

Today we are also at a technological crossroads, determining how music can effectively be distributed to the people. The rules are changing along with the technological changes in our modern world. It is a time when even the major music imprints are struggling, albeit for various reasons -- bloated overhead, overpaid top executives, old business models, lack of leadership, digital piracy, and simply producing bad music which no one wants. Nonetheless, it is a tough and difficult time. Distributors and retailers are going broke, and dodging bankruptcy. Digital media has made it easy to clone, not just copy, any musical composition in the format. In the old days of vinyl recordings, one could make a tape copy of a vinyl disc to play in the car; but it was never quite that satisfactory sonically. It had the pops and scratches of the vinyl, as well as the magnetic tape hiss of the analog recording process, and it wore out rather quickly. If you wanted a truly good quality recording of something you liked, you had to buy your own copy.

With the advent of digital media and the Internet, there has also arrived a whole new class of young people, who seem to feel that it is their God-given right to copy or pirate anything -- music should be free! They have little understanding or care as to what went into its creation or how those who devoted their time and talent to producing and distributing it will make a living. The ultimate result of all the piracy is that musical creativity can dry up. People who create and market the music will be forced to change their format, the same as the radio station. People cannot devote their time and talent to something at which they cannot make a living. Music companies, large or small, cannot invest their capital to manufacture and distribute music where there is no return, and no profit. How can these companies continue to spend thousands, and millions of dollars, and then simply give their product away?

Without the ability to make a profit, new music could cease to exist, except in the most local and entrepreneurial forms. Perhaps music will once again become simply a hobby, and we will be left only with a trove of old music on Internet swap sites? We will also miss the beauty of a good presentation. No longer will we have the artwork and notes and photographs, explaining what we are listening to and how it came to be. The concept of an "album" -- a collection of related songs and ideas that someone has taken the effort to create, record, and sequence properly to the ear will be history. Technology gave us access to recorded music; and now, perhaps, technology is taking it away. Ask any music executive today where he thinks the business is headed, and he will scratch his head and say he doesn't honestly know. He simply knows it's not good and it is getting worse. But if the major music labels do not take the leadership, and move to some form of encryption, they will all be broke within a few years. How long could the Ford Motor Company survive if out of every ten cars it made, it sold one and gave nine away? The music companies have lost control of their product. They can merge with one another and consolidate costs all they want, but it will not save them. Of course, the more difficult it becomes for them and the retailers, the less risk they can afford to take, and the less diverse the music will become. It is a downward death spiral.

At the same time these technological changes are raging around us, the major music labels have been in demographic denial. It is a fact, that today there is one person turning fifty years old in the United States every eight seconds. This goes on, without stop, for the next twenty years! This is the first generation of fifty year olds raised on hi-fidelity sound. Music was and remains an important part of their lives. Yet the major imprints still cling to the youth market, where monolithic peer group pressure can create multi-million sellers; but this is also the demographic where piracy and friend-to-friend "file-sharing" -- another word for theft -- is the most rampant. The profits in this sector are heading south. As people age, they become more educated and informed. They don't care what their peers are listening to; they want what they like, what moves them. Their tastes are splintered. They may prefer blues or jazz, or they may like country, classical, or bluegrass. Most likely, they are into smatterings of it all, so long as it's good. Good music crosses the boundaries, as we know. But how do you reach those audiences; each is its own niche? The music labels in Nashville, New York and Los Angeles, and throughout the world, as well as the many trade organizations, like the Country Music Association, which was established to promote country music around the world, struggle with this daily. As well they should, for the blockbuster days are over; there will not be another Garth Brooks any time soon. The demographics that produced his audience have moved on, and there are not the numbers behind them to replace them. These demographic shifts, coupled with the changes wrought by new technology, will produce even more economic pain and cutbacks in an industry that is still in denial and still lacks leadership.

On the supply side of the industry, advances in new recording technologies are permitting recording costs to shrink. You don't need an expensive studio filled with a million dollars worth of equipment any longer to make a quality recording today. All one needs is a computer, some software, and a room full of good microphones. Anyone can now afford to have a website on the Internet, and anyone can now afford to make a CD -- and there is a plethora of bad music being recorded and issued because of this. The supply is increasing, while the demand is shrinking. In economic terms that means the price of the oversupplied product must decrease. But what do you do once you make the recording? How do you exploit it; how do you let people know it exists? The key is still marketing and promotion, and that takes lots of capital, and/or years of touring and starving as an artist. The major music labels are still -- at least for a while -- the "Citibanks" of the industry. They have vast catalogs of proven sellers, and they are the only ones with the deep (though dwindling) pockets necessary to develop and exploit talent to the masses on a grand scale. But they are no longer run by free men; they are run by slaves, who are trapped by the no-risk rules of corporate America, and the quarterly "bottom line"; and they are hostages of corporate radio with its soulless jingles for songs. Besides, if the masses are splintered into various niches, how do you reach them on a grand scale? The major labels desperately need to once again become engaged in artist-development -- supporting dedicated, talented acts over a number of releases, and not just counting on a lightning blockbuster. This is like research and development for a pharmaceutical company; it takes time, and the return may be down the road five, ten, or twenty years, and not in the next two economic quarters. To work this way their capital will have to become much more patient, and their stock price may suffer.

Consider Bob Dylan's career. The late John Hammond, Sr., Columbia Records legendary staff producer -- who was one of my early champions, and introduced me to, and helped me secure my first recording contract with Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records -- told me once, when I was with him in New York, that those who ran Columbia at the time wanted to drop Dylan from the label after his first couple of albums. He couldn't sing, and he wasn't selling! Hammond, who signed Dylan and was his mentor, said, "I told them over my dead body; the young man's a poet, a songwriting genius!" How many recordings was Dylan selling then, and how many is he selling today? How long did it take him to get where he is today -- an entire lifetime, a forty-year career! John Hammond's vision, however, is still generating profits for Columbia (now Sony) decades after his death. Where are the label executives with that vision and patience today?

Developing artists takes time, and niches can eventually expand, but that also takes time, as was the case with Dylan. First the majors must solve the piracy problem, which is going to require some form of encryption, plain and simple. Once they take control of their product again, then they will have to begin working the niches, the same as the small independents are forced to do. They will have to trim their bloated overhead and adjust their recording budgets to reflect the economy and added productivity of the new technology. Instead of having a few expensive acts that are selling multi-millions, perhaps they will have to have a hundred acts, which are selling 10,000 to 100,000 copies.

The problem with corporations, as I have said, however, is that by their very nature, they cannot be run by patient men. Their jobs depend on the bottom line for the next few of quarters. Remember, this is capitalism. Capitalism is not patient. But this will have to change from the top down in the music business, or they will all cease to exist. For one thing is certain, technology will not stop, and the demographic curve is cast.

The other certainty, which may well be our salvation, is that the need for music will never disappear from the human heart. It is part of the rhythm of the stars and the universe. People will seek it out, as they must. People need the stories, people need the beat, and people need the inspiration. The structure of the business may change; the delivery system may change; and many people may go broke in the process. But when all the dust settles, the drummers will drum and the singers will sing, whether they are paid or not. That's the magic. I am living proof! Time will tell, as it always does. So my friends, as my compadre Peter Guralnick has always reminded me, keep the faith!

by James Talley
January 2004