Who Fights for the Music? Who Speaks for the Songs?

19 06 2008


At an insurance conference last week, I saw a 10-foot video screen in one of the exhibitors’ booths. It showed one of those video games where you can pretend to be a musician even if you can’t play.

A famous legal brief in the 1970s called “Should Trees Have Standing?” argued that living things should have legal representation. It pointed out that other nonhuman entities, especially corporations, already had that right, and suggested it be extended to the voiceless creations of the environment.

Why shouldn’t songs have “standing,” too?  Why shouldn’t we be able to fight for great records – especially the records of the future – because they have a right to exist? There are groups to represent record companies, artists, and composers – but who speaks for the music?

We need to rebuild a conducive environment for creating great pop music, if we can. That means doing all sorts of things: Lobbying, researching, promoting, dreaming, envisioning, wishing, hoping, praying … Great records don’t necessarily have the same needs as record companies or even recording artists. Who’ll speak for them?

I know, I know. This is a watershed election, a turning point in political history. The fate of nations and of the planet itself is at stake. But I can’t stop myself from worrying about … pop music. It’s not looking good out there, people.

Great pop records don’t just happen. They’re the products of outside conditions: society, history, culture, and an economic structure that provides the right incentives. Those conditions are disappearing.

Three young broker or consultant types – two guys and a woman – were gyrating with toy guitars and hammering at drum kits as “rock god” versions of themselves danced on the big screen.

Now people can act like “rock stars” without even learning an instrument. I’m a pretty high-tech cat, if I say so myself – but virtual reality doesn’t lead to real virtue, and Second Life doesn’t beat Get a Life.

We were all just morons trying to look cool back then, but we had to pick up instruments to do it. A talented few broke away from the rest of us and made great pop music. That pop Darwinism may die out in the ecology of video games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero.

The RIAA speaks for record companies. This isn’t an anti-RIAA rant, although I think they should’ve been more than a lobbying group. They should’ve pioneered online distribution and prevented this catastrophe – but what’s done is done.

That said, they didn’t show much foresight by hiring GOP operative Mitch Bainwol to run the place after Hillary Rosen left in ’03. When you need vision, you don’t necessarily hire Bill Frist’s former chief of staff. I’m sure Mitch is a nice guy. But his Republican connections are decreasing in value, and he won’t help the industry unless he retools his organization into a think tank.

I hope he does.  That would be good for the music, too.

My fiftysomething suit-and-tie self concealed a past life gigging in rock and roll clubs and country/western dives. People couldn’t always play well back then, but the songs were everything.

Then there’s the Recording Artists’ Coalition led by Don Henley.   It’s a good idea.  Artists haven’t had a seat at the table.  I hope they bring in some new thinking.

The fans, especially free file-sharing advocates, are highly active and very vocal. They’re well-represented on the Internet. And BMI and ASCAP work for composers, but they haven’t taken a leadership role in music’s future. They collect royalties as sales shrink.

In other words:  They’re chasing “mechanicals” in a digital universe.

But who’ll build the next Brill Building? Who’ll create the next Atlantic Records? Who’ll make the great two minute pop records of tomorrow?

Sure, there have been a few great pop songs in recent years, the kind that bring groups of people together in a sort of “cultural commons”: “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley. “Hey Ya!” by Outkast. “Alcohol” by Brad Paisley. But they used to be common, and now they’re getting more and more rare. That’s not an accident.

Hey, pop music helped bring down Communism!  I know … I was there.  Pop music is a national security issue!

Gary Hart writes about America’s now-battered “Fourth Power” – the international power of our principles. Let’s make pop music the “Fifth Power.” Then we can divert some of that Halliburton loot toward making great records again.

I couldn’t resist saying  – with a smile – “Thanks for providing irrefutable evidence that rock and roll is dead.”

The woman at the “drums” tugged at her navy blazer and laughed. But the clean-cut guy with the plastic guitar – it had buttons instead of strings – said, “No way, dude! We’re bringing it back!

Somebody’s going to tell me how many new acts are out there on MySpace writing and recording great tunes. Could be, although I’ve missed most of them. But great tunes don’t become great pop records unless they occupy that cultural commons.  And Auto-Tune?  Don’t ask.

Am I missing something? Probably. That’s the great thing about the Internet, though. Somebody will tell me what it is, and we’ll all hopefully be smarter as a result.

Of myself, I am nothing.  The Hive Mind doeth the works.

We’re bringing it back … What can you say?

“Good luck with that.”

Why did I divide these paragraphs up with lines? So that it wouldn’t take more than 2 minutes and fifty seconds to read each one, even for slower readers.

2:50 is the optimum length for a great pop record.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: