Local Rhythms – Business May Suck, But Music Is Fine

As the New Year dawns, it’s safe to say that the music business is nursing a big 2007 hangover. 

It’s not just the declining compact disc market, which has dropped steadily since Napster arrived on the scene in 1999.  Nor is it simply the perceived cost of illegal downloading, which can’t be sued out of existence.

Even the concert business took it on the chin last year, down almost 17 percent from 2006.  This despite big tours by the Police, Justin Timberlake and Hannah Montana 

The industry, when it wasn’t launching lawsuits or layoffs, responded with a grudging acknowledgement of the inevitable.  EMI stripped copy protection from its iTunes songs, and last week Warner Brothers did the same with web partner Amazon.

Now even Led Zeppelin can be bought on the Net and played on any portable player – but it may be too little, too late. 

So the business is hurting – does that mean music itself is doomed?  Hardly.

Bands like Radiohead and the Eagles made headlines by taking business matters into their own hands, self-releasing albums or crafting lucrative independent deals.  But for every superstar like Madonna (who formed what may turn out to be a dubious alliance with promoter Live Nation) there were hundreds, if not thousands of artists bypassing the historic control of record companies to do it, by varying degrees, their way. 

All the while, they quietly and tenaciously reshaped the world.   With computers, music is easier to make; with the Internet it’s simpler to share.

As David Byrne points out in an excellent piece he wrote for this month’s Wired: “the future of music as a career is wide open.” 

To Byrne, who knows the business both as a performer (Talking Heads) and label honcho (Luka Bop), the record companies aren’t good for much more than up-front money.  Packaging, marketing, distribution and the overhead required to maintain them represent more than half the cost of a CD.

In these days of digital delivery, such services are unnecessary.  The businesses that provide them are worse than in trouble – they’re irrelevant.   

More to the point, with bands no longer paying for jewel cases, warehouses and shelf space, making music is cheap enough that giving it away isn’t crazy, it’s shrewd.

Case in point: many bands mentioned in Local Rhythms offer free songs on MySpace and the web. You listen and, curiosity piqued, go see them play live – no record label required.  

Here are just a few:

Thursday: Bang Camaro, Pickle Barrel – Winners of this year’s Boston Music Award for best band and song, this group strips away the excess from hard rock.  No, wait – they remove everything BUT the excess, and the results make Queen, Skid Row and G n’ R fans quiver.  Often accompanied by a 10-plus member “choir,” theirs is a big sound indeed – positively monstrous.  How ever will they cram themselves onto the tiny Killington stage? 

Friday: Jason Cann, Bistro Nouveau at Eastman – A talented troubadour with a fine collection of covers by the likes of James Taylor, Van Morrison and even Tracy Chapman (his surprising take of “Fast Car”).  I’m most impressed with his many original songs – none of which, alas, is posted on his web page.  If the world knew about Jason Cann’s talents, he’d be much more than a mainstay at local clubs like Elixir, Skunk Hollow and Bistro Nouveau.  Check him out.

Saturday: Squids, Salt Hill Two – Brian Kennell’s band of merry men (and women – vocalist Leslee Glidden) are the ultimate party band.   Every song they cue up is a favorite, and they play with love and affection.  That’s the reason anyone should make music, and it surely explains why Brian lends a hand with a few other area bands when he’s not thumping bass for the Squids.  Salt Hill Two, I should add, is a local treasure as well as a great bar. 

Sunday:  Fogey Mountain Boys, Canoe Club – When it comes to side projects, this one is definitely the topper.  Every musician in this outstanding roots/bluegrass band – Mike Gareau on fiddle, mandolin player John Currie, Pete Gould singing and playing guitar, bassist Lisa Rogak, Ford Daley on dobro & Steve Hennig picking the banjo – works solo or spends time with at least one (usually more) other area band.  We have a rich local music scene, and you owe it to yourself to check it out.  I love this stuff.

Wednesday: Mars Volta, Higher Ground – Pushing the musical envelope, this is not for those craving melodies.  They’re at times near industrial, reminiscent of Pere Ubu, Ministry and Nine Inch Nails, then veering off into a hybrid of speed metal and Captain Beefheart.  But what do I know?  Their uncompromising approach, which can be equally punishing and rewarding, has a huge, international following. 

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