Mellencamp – Blame It On SoundScan

picture-261Writing in Huffington Post, John Mellencamp says that the music business’s problems began long before Napster.  Relying on Soundscan store reporting and BDS per-play radio reporting changed the game, he says, “from one that measured popularity to one that was driven by population” :

Record companies soon discovered that because of BDS, they only needed to concentrate on about 12 radio stations; there was no longer a business rationale for working secondary markets that were soon forgotten — despite the fact that these were the very places where rock and roll was born and thrived.

Combine that with songs midwifed by corporate boards focused on maximizing shareholder value. and art suffered:

Early in my career, I wrote and recorded a song called “I Need A Lover” that was only played on just one radio station in Washington, DC the first week it came out. Through much work from local radio reps at the record company, the song ended up on thousands of radio stations. Sing the chorus of “I Need A Lover.” It’s not the best song I ever wrote nor did it achieve more than much more than being a mid-chart hit, but nevertheless, you can sing that chorus. Now sing the chorus of even one Mariah Carey song. Nothing against Mariah, she’s a brilliantly gifted vocalist, but the point here is the way that the songs were built — mine from the ground up, hers from the top down.

One genre didn’t become a casualty, though, says Mellencamp:

During the time of the upheaval wrought by SoundScan, BDS and the “Wall Streeting” of the industry, country music seized the opportunity and tacitly claimed the traditional music business. Country has come to dominate the heartland of America, a landscape abandoned or ignored by the gatekeepers of rock and pop. Great new country music stars came from seemingly nowhere to grow to tremendous popularity; think Garth Brooks.

Mellencamp covers the other usual suspects – the CD as a greed engine, Napster’s ascent, and the present day sad state of the biz, where, sadly, “it’s really a matter of “every man for himself.” In terms of possibilities, we are but an echo of what we once were.”

This means more artists are also responsible for marketing themselves and seizing every opportunity that makes sense in a world of slimmer and slimmer pickings.  Once upon a time, this was the job of A&R folks at record companies.  Mellencamp takes a not-so-subtle swipe at gadflies like Bob Lefsetz, who fragged Mellencamp awhile back both for his alliance with Chevrolet, and for looking too young on the cover of his last album:

I’ve always found it amusing that a few people who have never made a record or written a song seem to know so much more about what an artist should be doing than the artist himself. If these pundits know so much, I’d suggest that make their own records and just leave us out of it.

It should be noted that this reprises Mellencamp’s earlier judicious dispatch of Lefsetz’s comments.

Read the whole thing here.

What’s Missing In Music

Via my favorite maven Bob Lefsetz comes a letter from Bob Ezrin that addresses the reasons why there’s so much commerce and so little art in music today. It’s not on Lefestz Letter yet, so I’ll quote rather than link.

Ezrin praises Trent Reznor for refusing to capitulate to his handlers’ demands over the years. Like Lefsetz, he sees this as the reason for Nine Inch Nails’ enduring success. Single minded vision defines true artists. By contrast, the business is now the enemy of art; it wasn’t always this way, Ezrin says:

Once upon a time, we had a business built by passionate amateurs who revered the artists and who became their protectors, advocates and promoters. These folks didn’t presume to tell their artists what to do. Oh, every once in a while, they might beg and plead for more or different to help them to do their job, but they NEVER imposed their creative will on the people they most admired in all the world. And so we had a landscape of determined individualists who made very individual music – lots of it. We all know who they were – and some still are. But now the biggest part of the business is run by cold hearted professionals whose reverence is for the bottom line first and last – and who think nothing of imposing their ideas and will on the people they sign. And most of those signings are not because they are enthralled by genius or art but because they smell “a hit” or know that someone else does and that they’d better get in there first.

We need a few more “passionate amateurs” – but really, there are many already. With a focus on blockbuster hits and conventional wisdom, we tend to miss the fact that there are a lot of artists who manage to be true to their vision. Everyone else is auditioning for American Idol, but who cares? Ezrin ends with a nod to the O.G. of music men, Ahmet Ertegun:

So, what’s the biggest lesson here? It is that, if we can all agree to do as Ahmet recommended and surround ourselves with brilliant people and help those people to develop their craft, their own voice, and become artists making things of real value, we might see our way into the next golden age of popular music.

I’m not saying that blockbusters aren’t “things of real value,” but there’s not much on the charts these days to convince me otherwise. Even today’s blockbusters are selling poorly compared to the last golden age – when Ezrin was unleashing Alice Cooper on the world and producing “The Wall” – so it seems that I’m not alone in my thinking.

Rock Legend Gives iTunes Music Store Black Eye

whalkooper.jpgAl Kooper isn’t merely a key figure in the history of rock, he’s also an astutely vociferous critic of the online music business. Recently, he weighed in at The Lefsetz Letter on the iTunes Music Store’s sorry state of affairs. Apple duly responded to Kooper’s complaints about format locking, nonexistent customer service and one of my pet peeves, their seeming inability to post a list of new music releases on Tuesday.

Apple’s response proved that it’s possible to put your foot in your mouth and shoot it at the same time:

New release day is Tuesday at iTunes. We turn the store at midnight eastern every Monday night. All the new releases delivered by the labels are up at that time except for the very few where there are problems with the delivery, which is usually on the label end, sometimes on ours, but we try to correct those delivery errors as soon as possible. By 2 or 3am eastern all the new releases and new catalog titles are available for purchase.

They missed Kooper’s point, which wasn’t that new releases weren’t available for purchase, but that there was no top-level information on what they were:

They have a page that’s accessible from the homepage if you click on “See All.” This takes you to a page that has 5 vertical rows listing the new releases of the last five weeks including the current one. At first, when they failed to get the new releases uploaded on Tuesday, they would push ahead the releases they had listed so that September 22nd releases from last week, were now labeled September 29th, so the average Joe would think they were on time. They wouldn’t make any announcement that the new releases were going to be uploaded two days later and you couldn’t write in and tell them they sucked for doing this.

Seems clear enough. What’s missing form Al’s post is information on iTunes 7. Now, there’s not even a list, no past lists, just a three screen view of album cover clip art, 6 discs per screen. Today’s included at least two reissues. For contrast, Rhapsody features 1136 total releases for September 19. On iTunes, it’s possible to drill down by genre. But the previous week’s lists are now gone from view, meaning that Apple is actually moving backwards. (Note: I checked this again on Friday, September 22, and the lists had returned.  Probably an ITMS bug, if anyone knows please comment)

Most of Apple’s reply to Kooper amounted to insulting him for alleged cluelessness and chiding him like a sputtering child. Al had wondered why Apple couldn’t add any value to the songs on ITMS beyond DRM and cover art. Says the company:

I also don’t believe that Al can walk into a store and get a CD booklet if he doesn’t buy the entire album. Last I checked I cannot walk into a Best Buy, purchase two tracks off an album to see if I will like the rest of it and get the CD booklet to go with those two tracks. That would be great though, wouldn’t it?

Ah, but you CAN purchase two tracks off an album at iTunes, it’s pretty much the whole point of the store, and ITMS COULD, if they chose, provide rich content. Rhapsody does,and Microsoft’s Zune, for all it’s problems, holds out the promise of wireless up-to-the-minute content (I’m hoping that comes to pass). All Apple can offer is a snarky non-defense of a 20th century paradigm. This after curtly dismissing him at the outset:

Giving him the benefit of the doubt, i’ll assume he doesn’t know any better as opposed to being a grumpy old man.

Kooper fired back at Apple’s attempt to characterize him:

If you bothered to check my account before you chastised me for my “grumpiness” you would have seen that I have downloaded approximately three thousand, three hundred, and thirty six tunes from iTunes (3,336) since its inception a few years ago. I thought it was a fair answer to Napster, and I remember buying 45 RPM singles in the 1950’s for $.99 each. I LOVED iTunes when it first started.

Oops. Now, what started as a good natured pissing contest between Lefsetz and Kooper is evolving into a bit of a public relations snafu for Apple. Kooper continues:

Gotta go. The Wall Street Journal wants to interview ME about what I think about all this Apple stuff – Me? A grumpy old man who should know better ? Funniest thing – You haven’t heard the last of me but hopefully I have heard the last of you.

Can’t wait for that Wall Street Journal story.

Lefsetz’s Sonos Mea Culpa – Maybe

lefsetz.jpgFor those among us who hang on every word uttered by music biz uber insider Bob Lefsetz, it’s shocking to hear him praise the virtues of Rhapsody. I thought it was his opinion that only idiots and clueless record company execs believed in rental, but here’s the man himself as he sees the light:

I’ve spent eons downloading, STEALING, so much of this stuff. But now all you have to do is lay down ten bucks a month, and you can hear it EVERYWHERE!

Granted, he’s waxing Rhapsodic about the new (and outrageously priced, but Bob gets it free) Sonos player, an Internet radio that doesn’t require a computer, only a broadband connection. From the sound of Bob’s post, it’s also the greatest remote control ever devised.

But I gotta say, Mr. Lefsetz sounds like Sam I Am finally digging the green eggs and ham. I’m glad he’s beginning to understand that the ability to call any song, from anywhere, at the touch of a button is worth ten bucks a month. The instant gratifaction factor alone sold me a long time ago.

I get it on my PC, like most proles unwilling or unable to lay out nearly a grand for the latest gee-whiz gadgetry. It bypasses Windows, though, and that’s a good thing.

But causiing a cranky rental holdout like Lefsetz to grudgingly depart the P2P pulpit – that’s priceless.

Welcome to the club, Bob.