Fixing the Mess We’re In

My world used to revolve around radio, music, and records. They were the inspiration and motivation that put me on the path to everything I have ever done on this spinning mudball. Why then, have these wonderful things become a point of contention and a pain in the ass for even those of us that woke up every morning wanting so badly to be a part of them. There have been hundreds of suggestions from people that address the ongoing problems that face music and radio and even live performances. We have all read these suggestions, agreeing with some and perplexed by others, but almost all of them have been met with the same responses…apathy, and downright hostility.

More energy is spent shouting down the ideas put forth than the amount of energy exerted to come up with potential solutions, whether good, bad, lame, or self-serving. How can this be? How can people whine and moan, and bitch about the state of their respective businesses, and then turn around and deride every single idea put forth, one of which could be a possible solution to their particular problem, or maybe lead to a solution down the line?

Regardless of the reaction, whether it be apathetic shoulder-shrugging, or out and out hostility, the ideas lay untried, shunted aside without so much as a glance, by people whose attitude simply doesn’t make any sense. Are they afraid to try anything for fear of losing their jobs? Is it fear of being wrong, and jeopardizing their (assumed) credibility? Are the ideas simply coming from the wrong source? Who knows? You can’t get a straight answer out of anyone. All you can hope for is listening to someone tell you that something won’t work. No one can tell you what will work.

That’s because no one knows what will work, and if they don’t start trying some of the ideas floating around out there, no one will ever know. All I DO know is this: People have been talking about what is wrong for well over a decade, but no one has DONE anything. It’s time to stop talking and start doing.

The Three Reasons everything is Fucked Up…

Failure to monetize Napster: The biggest mistake lawyers, managers, publishers, and record labels ever made. At a dime a download, everyone would have been happy. No warehousing, no shipping, no manufacturing, and catalogue gets a massive new life. Even then it would have been generating millions of dimes a month. Now, online downloading would be generating billions of dimes. That’s a lot of fucking dimes. The industry failed to understand that the consumer now had control. They still haven’t figured it out. Because of this massive misstep, Steve Jobs is able to overcharge for music, make it impossible to use without his hardware, and continues to lead the music industry around by the short hairs. The man is the purveyor of planned obsolescence, and will continue to dominate the music industry until they grow the grapes to dethrone him by monetizing their product on the internet with subscriptions, reasonable prices, and better releases.

The Homogenization of Radio through deregulation: As if shorter play lists, more commercials, and less musically qualified on-air hosts weren’t bad enough, radio found a way to chase more listeners away, and flat-out stop potential new listeners from ever coming onboard. Now one company can own multiple stations in the same market. The competition is now for advertising dollars, not listeners. Local music scenes are ignored in favour of what is selling nationally. On air personalities have not only a format to follow, but an over-all sound to adhere to as dictated by the corporations they work for. The history of the stations are ignored in favour of repositioning the station as the latest widget in that particular radio “family”, for that particular genre. Passion is professed, yet ignored and oft times the source of dismissal. Creativity is limited to approval by consultants and management. Voice tracking, syndicated DJ’s and programming are used in lieu of homegrown jocks and specialty shows, and all night programming is handled from afar. Whatever the genre, all stations coast to coast play basically the same tracks. Do you really have to ask why no one cares about terrestrial radio anymore? The last time I heard a conversation about contemporary radio was in the Dufferin Mall last week. It was about Justin Beiber. The girls discussing hearing him on the radio were 10 and 11. They did not know the name of the radio station they were talking about.

Greed: Concert tickets, parking, and refreshments for a top ten act costs way too much. For what it costs for high end tickets and the rest for two to one of these shows, you can get a top shelf call girl and a room at the Hyatt for less. You can get dinner for four at the Harbour 60 for less, and you can have an overnight stay at a spa for less. Hell, you could buy a brand new LCD 60 inch television for the price of 2 high end Bon Jovi tickets…and how long do you think Wayne and Garth will be willing to spend 30 dollars to park the Gremlin and 10 bucks for a beer on top of the 200 dollar nosebleed seats? Cancelled shows and tours, anyone? Whose fault is this? From what I gather on the intertoobz, it’s a combination of artist, manager, ticket seller, and venue owners, all trying to make more money. Being old enough to have bought albums for $2.99, Beatle tickets for $5.50, and popcorn for a dime and beer for 50 cents, I have to admit that what people pay today for the same things seems positively reckless to me. No wonder the unknown Indies and smarter bands are packing smaller venues for reasonable prices. How much longer will the general public and casual music fans put up with this nonsense? Even the Circus has decently priced tickets, parking, and refreshments, and isn’t that what all these mega-stars today are…a Circus?

While most live events gouge the consumer with exorbitant prices, radio fires people in the name of cutting costs, downsizes its sales staffs, and then adds more commercials to already overloaded stop sets. Record companies (and what’s left of retailers) overcharge for CD’s that contain one hit and a pile of filler.

All of this is done in the name of maintaining the status quo…the money that these industries used to generate back when the music, the shows, and the radio were worth what you paid for them. Now, the record companies want a piece of the live action and want radio (who advertise the label’s product by playing it) to pay for the privilege of playing the music they produce and manufacture. That’s absurd.

Everybody needs to lower their expectations and start dealing quality to the consumer. It is what they will gladly pay for. As much as I dislike the underbelly of what Steve Jobs has done, I do respect the quality of his products, and so do the millions of people who buy his wares. When the batteries are replaceable, the upgrades are free, and he adds at least a USB port to the iPad, I may even buy an Apple product at some point, but not yet.

Forcing change…

The music industries have been dragging their feet for years when it comes to implementing changes that could reverse their fortunes. Maybe it’s time for the powers that be to step up and do something instead of forming committees, stone-walling suggestions, and working hard to get a larger slice of the diminishing pie…

I want a radio station. The one I keep hoping I’ll hear on the air, but am beginning to realize I never will. The one that is rooted in the greatness of the past with an eye (and ear) to the future. The one I can listen to without wincing, changing the channel, or shaking my head in disbelief. So get out your chequebooks and read on…

A music industry lawyer, a record company president, a rock star, and a venue operator are having lunch on a sun drenched patio one afternoon. “You see that fine, fine woman over there?” says the lawyer. “Yes!” the others shout in a chorus. “She comes to my shows” says the rock star, “She comes to my venue” says the operator, “Look, she’s got my number one artist’s new CD in her hand” says the president.  “Well, I’m fucking her.” says the lawyer proudly. The others look at him and say, “So what? We all are.”

Yeah, I know. It’s an old joke rewritten to make a point about what we’re discussing here. If I may yank out another old chestnut, it would be the axiom, “Many a truth is said in jest.” Ya gotta love the old cliches.

No one in the music business is evil. It may be easier to think of them that way, but the truth is, they’re just trying to protect the status quo, their jobs, and keep their stockholders and owners happy.

They are all doing what they think is right. Unfortunately, it seems the only people left out of the equation when they make the decisions they think will keep their boats afloat, are the music lovers and the public in general, the very source of every penny they have ever made.

The Record Companies…

My biggest question, the one that remains unanswered, is this: How can the entertainment industry continue to ignore the hundreds of millions of people who are online every day, who want access to all the music, television and movies on demand, and have proven they are willing to pay a reasonable fee for the privilege? eMusic, Spotify, Netflix, Hulu, Mp3shake, (a suspicious but awesome site based in Russia), all have subscribers and even some advertisers. You can find pretty much everything you’re looking for on the internet, and although Netflix (coming to Canadabefore the end of the year) offers most of the available movie/DVD releases, finding music is much more difficult. You have to browse multiple sites to find access to the music you are looking for. The biggest reason there is no easy and reasonably priced way to find, pay for, and download music legally is because the labels can’t seem to agree on anything, some going here, others going there, prices are mostly too high and tend to encourage illegal downloading rather than curb it. I get dizzy thinking about the incredible amount of money being left on the table because the record industry won’t admit that they dropped the ball when it came to adapting to the new distribution pipeline, and then gave the control of their product over to Steve Jobs and Apple, who simply charges too much money for the files, digitized at a low end kps rate and barely AM radio quality. Then there are the artists, managers, lawyers, publishers, and peripheral music bussiness middlemen who want a piece of the action. Trouble is, they want to make the same amount of money they used to, even though once the music is digitized and stored, there is virtually no cost or overhead fees for them to worry about…and frankly, just how many times do they expect us to pay for a song, anyway? Why would anyone feel bad about “illegally” downloading a song they have bought as a single, an album cut, and a CD over the years?

The other major problem musos and nostalgists have with the Major Labels is their refusal to make ALL of their back catalogues available on the internet. They seem not to care that there are millions of people out there who want music that never saw daylight in the Billboard top 40, or receive massive amounts of airplay. Every music lover I know, myself included, will spend months, even years, looking for a track or artists that we hold dear, and if we do find what we’re looking for, you can bet it will be on Limewire (which will cease to exist in its current form sometime next year) or another free site, and not on iTunes or from any other ‘reputable’ internet music source. Spotify, who seem to have come closest to a workable solution, is being kept out of North American hands, and I can only blame the foot-dragging practices of the record industry and publishers who still don’t realize the war is over and they lost, and that continuing to refuse to monetize the net is not the answer to their problems. Didn’t it occur to them they may be approaching the problem with the wrong attitude when the RIAA spent US$64 million dollars to collect US$1.3 million dollars by suing ‘illegal’ downloaders? How the hell did they spin that to their stockholders? Don’t Believe Me?

Record companies used to search high and low for different, compelling artists. Now, they rely mainly on producers and a stable of writers to provide the ‘hits’, the artists that deliver them seem to be mostly interchangeable and easily replaced.

In another attempt to cadge more money, the record companies want radio to pay to play their artists music. Radio paying record companies to play their records is absurd…records are commercials for CD’s and live shows. The record companies owe most of their profit to radio exposing their product to the casual listener, tweens, and fans of disposable music. Might as well ask radio to pay for ALL the commercials they play.

The Radio Conglomerates…

What has radio done to address the changes that the Internet has wrought? Well, not much. The biggest problem goes back decades.

Radio was a wonderful thing on so many different levels. The biggest reason it became so powerful in the first place, was because it provided entertainment for the masses for free. From live drama, comedy, and variety shows, to recorded music, news, and sports, radio provided everything for everyone who had a radio receiver. When radio switched to recorded music in the 40’s (due to escalating costs for in-house musicians, writers, actors, and support staff) people were suddenly aware of records and the artists who made them to a degree unheard of prior to radio’s involvement. When publisher giant ASCAP asked for more money for their well known writers, radio began to play ‘race’ records and independents who previously had no traction on the airwaves. Upstart labels and artists found themselves becoming popular beyond their wildest dreams. By the time the mid-fifties rolled around and the first ‘teenage’ social upheaval occurred, radio found and catered to this new audience, and held sway over them for the next 3 decades.

There were no play lists, music directors, or consultants. The disc jockeys, all music lovers to a man, played not only what the kids were asking for, but went out of their way to discover and promote new music and artists on their shows. Radio became not only the source of music for a generation, it also became the gatekeeper for music discovery, a tastemaker and a trendsetter, always listening to their audience, always putting the music first. Radio was exciting, cutting edge, and trustworthy, and connected to its audience in ways no other medium ever had. You could talk to your favourite jocks, make requests, dedications, and vote for or against new records the jocks would present.

Radio…was interactive. Radio is no longer connected to the street or the music that made them successful in the first place. People haven’t changed…radio has changed.

What was radio’s reaction to the internet? At first, they didn’t react at all. It took years before radio put up web pages and streamed their stations over the internet. Unfortunately, by then they had chased away a good chunk of their listeners who, realizing the internet stations and P2P sites had far more music to offer, turned instead to alternative sources for their music jones, and radio joined the record companies in the slide into secondary stature when it came to music. Radio was no longer the gatekeeper to music discovery and local artists. They had become a format driven, highly homogenized purveyor of popular music that springs full blown from the record companies and comes complete with image, marketing strategies, big money support, and an easily replaceable singer/group, most of whom have a very limited and finite career path. No longer interested in the music being made, or the people who had depended on radio as their portal to new and interesting music and artists, radio instead focused on the casual listener who is more interested in famous people they had seen on TV, heard about from Perez Hilton or TMZ, and who will easily go from one construct to the next without batting an eye. When that audience grows up and moves on, radio simply caters to the next load of Tweens and nostalgists that come through the door. New product for the youngsters to consume on one hand, the same old ‘classic’ rock names and songs on the other. If radio was water, it would be a stagnant pond, rather than the raging river it once was.

Now radio says they are getting more listeners than ever, thanks to a device called a PPM. That’s Personal People Meter or Portable People Meter, depending on who you talk to. The statement is questionable at best.

The little device simply picks up a signal broadcast on participating radio stations and logs the information. The problem with this is that it will pick up a station it hears whether you are listening to it or not. A passing car, background in a store, a station someone else has on but is not listening to, etc. Yes, there may be a lot of radios on, but that doesn’t mean anyone is listening to them. Nevertheless, radio clings to the idea that the station is actually being paid attention to, but there is no way to know if this is true.

Live performances…

From a previous DBAWIS column: (My cousin) Phid took me to see the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars show at the Stockton Civic as a present for my birthday. The tickets cost just US$2.00. 14 acts, a couple of songs each, and I had seen them all on TV and listened to all their records, thanks to Phid’s sterling collection of 45’s. I HAD to do that. I HAD to play the rock and roll. I HAD to play the Stockton Civic.”

According to MeasuringWorth, that 2 dollars would be the equivalent of US$14.60 cents in 2008, maybe a little more today. Those $5.50 Beatle tickets in 1965 would cost you US$37.50 today. A .50 cent beer? $3.40 these days. Parking? $6.80. Hot dog? $1.70. A band that made US$5000.00 back in 1965 would be making US$34,000.00 today. So how does it come to pass that current prices for live shows are far higher than this? Simple. Every part of the food chain involved in live shows have become used to the bloated revenue from their respective contributions. From the ticket sellers, and concession owners, right up through the artists themselves, everyone has succumbed to the lure of big bucks instead of just making a comfortable living. It’s no longer enough to be in it for the excitement and the love of music, and to be able to make a nice living doing something you love, it has all become about fame, fortune, and Greed. When the music business started making huge amounts of money, a lot of the people who were responsible for the profits soaring were forced (or bought) out by business people whose main interest was the money, not the music or creativity, or passion that fueled what had made the music business so attractive to them in the first place. As the quality and creativity was replaced by profit margins and market share concerns, the industries eventually had to turn to cost cutting and belt tightening and charging higher prices in order to survive. The bloated salaries and bonuses of the owners and operators, however, remained unscathed, and artists, spending more and more on their live shows, liked the money they could now make on the road, a much bigger slice of the pie than they received for their recordings. As far as the live business is concerned, one of the biggest complaints from music fans are all the hidden costs in purchasing a ticket for a show. There doesn’t seem to be any relief in that department on the horizon, but this may be a step in the right direction. This is from Bob Lefsetz’ highly readable and informed newsletter: Ticket Master’s full disclosure pricing.

Turning Apathy into Action…

So what is it going to take to get all these problems addressed and start an active search for workable solutions to the problems these industries (and the public) face? How can the best of the existing suggestions and ideas to solve these problems be put into practice, at least long enough to ascertain their possible impact, be implemented and tested until the right fixes are found. Will forward thinking leaders of the industries step up and take some initiative and chances…or will they have to be forced into action by either public outcry or government intervention? Does it have to come down to being told they have to make changes in order to continue doing business, or are governing bodies like the FCC and CRTC and other agencies toothless in this instance? More to the point, are the agencies just as interested in maintaining the status quo and trying to rebuild a landscape that has been forever changed by the internet and the consumer’s inability to pay for what he or she wants the way they want, because no one can agree on how to make that possible? The first thing that has to happen is to admit that things have changed, and that the money is going to be made a different way, and it may take a while for the numbers to satisfy the participants. The second thing that needs to happen is actually doing something about the current, untenable, situation. Will the current honchos come to realize that they may be the wrong people to run the radio business successfully without making less money, and start selling stations to those who would not only be thrilled to do so, but would leap at the chance? Will record companies use the music fans and internet to pursue music and artists that could sustain a long and prosperous career? Will artists and those associated with tours and live shows be willing to make the changes necessary to stop having to cancel shows and tours? Am I the only one who is fed up with all the whining from both the industry and the consumer?

Originally posted in August, 2010 @ FYIMusic.

Next: A Brand New Column on Friday!

Those of you who wish to continue to receive the Don’t Believe a Word I Say columns, The Monday Morning MailbagThe Rock Files, and The Weekend Roundup, can email me at segarini@rogers.com to let me know, and I will email the columns new URL directly to you.

Bob “The Iceman” Segarini was in the bands The Family Tree, Roxy, The Wackers, The Dudes, The Segarini Band, and Cats And Dogs, and was nominated for a Juno Award  for production in 1978. He also hosted “Late Great Movies” on CITY TV, was a producer of Much Music, and an on-air personality on CHUM FM, Q107, SIRIUS Sat/Rad’s Iceberg 95, (now 85), Along with the love of his life, Jade (Pie) Dunlop,  continues to write, make music, and record.

One Response to “Fixing the Mess We’re In”

  1. Steve Jobs did what the record labels were unwilling and too short-sighted to do. I don’t agree that iTunes overcharges – or at least – I DIDN’T agree (99c per track when they first started – reasonable in my book). It’s the labels that forced iTunes to hike their prices (in exchange iTunes got the right to drop DRM on its music files, which is why tracks you buy off iTunes are now unprotected AAC @ 320kbps (or 256, not 100% sure off the top of my head). Even when iTunes had DRM, it was fair and for most people meant you could buy a track once and listen to it, for example, on all your machines and all your iPods.

    As for planned obsolescence – well; because of the above, I can buy a track from iTunes and play it on any player now, not just iPods, open it up in Ableton Live and mash it up, etc, etc. As far as I can tell, iTunes Music is a net win for the consumer.

    Like you, I love music and just don’t understand the technophobia of the industry at all. I’m quite willing to buy the tracks I use (and do so); it’s been many years since I ‘downloaded’ music or even ripped an audio CD for that matter.

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