It’s best to begin at the end of “Before the Music Dies,” recently released on DVD, to understand the real point of this flawed but well-meaning documentary. The music business, or more importantly, the assumptions about making it in the music business, have changed irrevocably.
“We don’t need to panic,” says Dave Matthews, “we just need to teach our children well.”
This thought sits at odds with the dismal portrait painted during much of the film – radio stations with narrow playlists, record companies who commoditize music, and lobotomized fans who seemingly could care less.
The tension between the labor of art and the reward of celebrity, what Branford Marsalis terms “the massive state of delusion where the idea of what you are is more important than you actually being that,” is certainly a problem. Music, however, is fine.
“If your goal is money and fame, there’s a lot of easier ways to do it – go on Fear Factor,” says Matthews pithily. “If you want to play music, all you gotta do is play it.”
“Before the Music Dies” is full of performers like Correo Aereo, the Latin duo whose greatest success was getting a song in a movie soundtrack, or critic’s darling Doyle Bramhall II, who can’t sell records but gets to trade licks with Eric Clapton. “I’m in the best place I’ve ever been in my life,” says Bramhall.
Bruce Flohr was a VP at Geffen Records; he left after the label cut Bramhall loose, and now works for a smaller company. “I was in the record business, now I’m in the music business,” says Flohr.
Radio conglomerate Clear Channel is dutifully trotted out as the face of music’s problems, which reminded me of “Exploding,” Stan Cornyn’s excellent history of the Warner Music Group. WMG started out being run by music people and ended in the hands of people like David Geffen, who, said one colleague, “would dive into a barrel of pus to come up with a nickel in his teeth.”
Why, asked Cornyn, should the priorities of one business – radio – drive the actions of another – music? It’s something to consider before casting about for blame. While it’s true that, as “B4MD” points out, “the institutions that supported yesterday’s artist are gone,” it’s also a fact that “there are now more and better tools for making music, and more avenues for distribution than anyone ever imagined.”
“Don’t be fooled, be you,” says the surprisingly erudite Erykah Badu. “Don’t let anybody infiltrate your dream.”
Go out and make some noise. The record business may be tanking, but the market for music has never been better. Be sure to tell your kids – they’ll listen. My 21 year-old son is the reason I found out about “B4MD” – he gave it to me for Christmas (it’s a viral video on the college circuit). I’ve taught him well.
What can I teach you about live music in the coming days?
Thursday: Ed Robertson, Okemo Resort – Robertson’s band, Barenaked Ladies, is a prime example of music’s future. Fans could to purchase and remix tracks from their most recent project, also available in a multitude of formats. Tonight, the singer takes a break from the BNL tour – they sat in with the Boston Pops last month – for a solo après-ski party. The show’s free, though lift ticket holders get admission priority.
Friday: Al Alessi/Bill Wightman Duo, Sophie & Zeke’s – Al is the new heartthrob of Pleasant Street. With Bill on the piano, it’s a magical sound. The pair play an array of standards and modern pop classics; the sound’s a perfect complement to a good meal, or if you wait for the second set, an upbeat way to enjoy an aperitif, dessert, or one of the restaurant’s newfangled martinis (featuring ingredients like pomegranate liqueur and currant juice).
Saturday: A City Divide, Red Elephant – I got an email from this band recently that said, “all those other groups you write about are good, but we’re the future of music.” Or words to that effect. They cite the Cure and Smashing Pumpkins as influences; there’s two original songs on their MySpace page that are pretty sharp – wish I could print the URL. Red Elephant is a teens-only club in Opera House Square.
Sunday: Celia Sings Sinatra, Canoe Club – Phil Celia’s credible tribute to one of America’s finest musicians with superb accompaniment. Phil and the Bob Merrill Trio perform a repertoire of classic Sinatra from the 1960’s featuring arrangements by Nelson Riddle, Count Basie, and others from that period.
Tuesday: Irish Sessions, Salt Hill – Still one of the best ways to unwind after work. Dave Loney leads a revolving band of fiddlers, pickers and pennywhistlers. Their traditional sound wafts through the pub like the smell of good cooking (SHP has that, too).