JAIMIE VERNON – TIDAL WAVE

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During the 50 years preceding the collapse of the music industry – i.e. Before Napster – the music we knew and loved was carefully spooned out and fed to us proportionally by record companies who knew how much we’d consume and for how long. This was done via a sifting process controlled by radio.

Radio

Radio had a handle on listening habits and the attention spans of music listeners. Labels vetted a few dozen artists each year, and radio whittled that list even further based on the number of songs submitted by each of the major labels – Warner Brothers, Columbia/CBS, Capitol Records, RCA Records, MCA Records, etc. In Canada there was even a large range of releases from major independents like Attic, Daffodil, Axe, Red Leaf, et al.

CokeRadio was free to the listener because the stations made their revenue almost exclusively from advertising toothpaste, Coca-Cola or Brill Cream on air – either as 30 and 60 second commercial spots or by sponsored blocks of programming. The labels had a symbiotic relationship that allowed them to promote their product – the music – at no charge (though decades of scandalous kickbacks in the form of payola made some songs a bigger priority on air than others) as a means to luring listeners in to the eternal benefit of the sponsors. The labels also benefitted because those same listeners would run to the record shops and purchase the latest 7″ single by The Beatles or even a full-length LP.

ToothpasteSmart retailers like department stores and drug stores made the biggest killing because they could offer both the ‘White Album’ and a gleaming white smile during a one-stop shop. And all was good with the world. Record labels and radio stations had created a license to print money. And the makers of sundry comestibles did their Snoopy Dance of joy. Then two things happened to upset the idyllic formula of rampant greed: the early 1980’s global recession and MTV.

When the economy tanked on the eve of Ronald Reagan’s US presidency, the labels laid off an unheralded number of employees and closed ranks in an effort to keep the cost of cocaine affordable. They also deleted the 8-Track tape which allowed them to cut costs at the manufacturing MTVlevel. Radio wasn’t concerned because music was still being made and funneled to them. However, radio wasn’t paying attention to the media tide and were soon blindsided by the growth of a new bite-sized TV music video format. Music wasn’t just relegated to variety shows, late night performance concerts like The ‘Midnight Special’ and Jerry Lewis Telethons anymore. Television had become the new radio. MTV, VH1, MuchMusic and The Tube in the UK erupted overnight and systematically began stealing radio’s audience.

MuchmusicAdvertisers were creaming their jeans. They now had a larger reach. The music networks were National while most radio stations were still local market Mom & Pop entities. Radio was now competing for the same listeners…and the same music. Audiences were lured by the new shiny visuals that accompanied their favourite songs. It was like watching ‘Saturday Night Fever‘ or ‘Help‘ in 4 minute installments not to mention interview segments with the artists and real-time coverage of live concerts.

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Radio was in trouble. And once the 7″ single was killed off by labels in preparation for a new fangled shift to the compact disc, they unanimously dismantled the thing that had kept the machine rolling – and the ears tuned in – the Top 40 chart format. The labels were not amused. Labels now had a harder time manipulating what they had assumed was a secondary market for themselves. Radio saw the writing on the wall and pushed governments to de-regulate the rules on ownership so that they might salvage their sweat-and-blood legacies by building networks of radio stations in the biggest populated markets.

VinylThe problem was that nobody realized that not only had video killed the radio stars, but it was now eating itself. The music was less important than the visuals – and in turn audiences became both bored and lazy. They reacted with their wallets and, so, music corporate greed saw another crash by 1990. Not, coincidentally, at the same time that it was decided that we no longer needed the vinyl LP. Digital formats were now competing to wrestle control of the consumer market. DAT died. Mini-Disc died and radio stations sat on their hands until the dust settled. They would be forced to broadcast music from turntables and CD players simultaneously for years because the labels hadn’t yet figured out how to re-catalog their archives. And some artists like The Beatles, The Stones, Led Zeppelin and Queen wouldn’t allow it.

NapsterThe millennium was ushered in on the wings of a new savior – Napster. It was an illegal downloading site that sprung up through the internet’s shadowy backrooms by college students who were looking to share music online more conveniently then shipping CDs back and forth. It was free. It was accessible and it was an open door to fan-based playlists and trading. A swap meet for pirates. The response from the music industry was swift and punitive – smashing Napster into oblivion (BMG Music bought it and quietly shut it down because they couldn’t figure out how to monetize it) and suing people who would, on a normal day, be buying music otherwise.

CDs
However, the Jeanie was out of the bottle. The backlash was swift from the public. Labels had already attempted to limit the trading and copying of digital music using DMR – a software firewall that prevented a CD owner from copying the audio onto their own computers, never mind giving it to a friend. Consumers responded by boycotting such releases. The labels backed off and stopped encoding their most popular titles for fear of harming overall sales. The public, ever the wiser, believed that the labels were at it again and demanded better access to the music without having to pay ridiculous CD prices. And why the hell was the vinyl LP discontinued? The labels stood fast. Sales continued to plummet.

Talk radioRadio, meanwhile, saw their share of music broadcasting evaporate. They began closing stations and reformatting by genre. Soon stations were ghettoizing by style of music and cloning these stations in every city. A corporate branding became the norm and you’d find the network had a Talk Radio, Sports Radio, Classic Rock, Adult Contemporary and Country station in every city all broadcasting identical programming and playlists. The homogenization and blanding of radio was at hand. Labels were effectively locked out except where pop formats were concerned – the continued bastion of what used to be Top 40 radio. They had lost their footing in driving radio on nothing but the music. People weren’t listening. They were downloading and they were streaming.

On air

Streaming was a new response to the old problem of stale radio narrowcasting. Audiences didn’t take long to become sick of radio’s ‘Best of the Best’ and ‘Classic Hits’ stations. AM became a Talk Radio wasteland. FM became a repetitive deluge of hit-after-repetitive-hit. Some decided to create 24 hour music services you could listen to on your computer. Usually for free as well. Others began creating paid subscription services where the listener could program their own playlists and never have to suffer the vacuous drone of on-air DJs ever again.

The pay model has now taken precedent. And no one is happy except the streaming companies themselves. Streaming doesn’t pay the type of royalties to songwriters that traditional terrestrial radio once did – a fact that traditional broadcasters, rightfully, have been fighting for years. Why do digital services get exempted from the royalty tariff that has been a monkey on the backs of terrestrial radio for over 50 years?

itunesBecause legislation and rules regarding the internet are slow to react. The new cowboys have swooped in, as Napster had done before, and staked claims where no rules yet exist. The music industry is in a conundrum. When it looked like they were about to lose all revenue streams from illegal digital downloads, Apple walked in with the iTunes model and leveled the playing field. The labels were unhappy to have the cost of the retail sale fixed at $0.99 per download (and later amended to $1.29 for new product) but they realized that SOME money was better than no money.

SpotifyAnd so the labels have reluctantly begun fondling the nipples of the streaming services like Pandora and Spotify in hopes of sniffing at least a piece of the streaming pie – as little as it would be. But the artists have not been so quick to get sodomized. Taylor Swift jumped off the Spotify ship minutes before her ‘1989’ album dropped last year. She was going to control how and where her music could be accessed. YouTube, a video streaming service and the descendant of the MTV and MuchMusic video model, pays more – so she went there.

Pharrell Williams went public at the end of 2014 with revelations that he had made $2700 on tens of millions of streamed performances of his global hit “Happy”. His label had sold him out just to get ears tuned into Spotify. It was looking more and more like the labels were returning to their radio-days partnerships. Pharrell’s complaint wasn’t a case of a lone wolf bitching in the night.
tidalThe disturbance in the force did not stop there. Behind the scenes the most prolific, and rich, music and entertainment artists were plotting. Plotting a monumental revenge. While Irving Azoff gathered 47 of the biggest classic rock and pop artists and yanked streaming videos from YouTube in an effort to force a royalty renegotiation, Jay-Z and Kanye West and Madonna, Rihanna, Beyonce, Daft Punk, Deadmau5, Alicia Keyes, Coldplay and a raft of other modern taste makers created their own streaming site.

Press conference TIDAL was launched last week with a unified manifesto that free streaming services were harming artists – well, it was harming THESE artists. It’s yet to be established whether this new corporate 1% – battling the OLD corporate 1% – will make the service available to struggling indies or smaller labels, but the battle lines have been drawn. TIDAL wants to charge $20 a month to access a, currently, very limited catalog of music.

headphonesSadly, the loser in all this corporate one-upmanship is the listener. No one asked the listener what they want. And so, the listener will continue to swap, trade, illegally download and ignore streaming services and paid download sites like iTunes because it isn’t what the public wants. Ask us what we want. We’ll tell you. Build your model based on that. Not on your presumption of entitlement as corporations or as artists. Without the listener you are nothing.

Send your CDs for review to this address: Jaimie Vernon, 4003 Ellesmere Road, Toronto, ON M1C 1J3 CANADA

=JV=

Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

DBAWIS ButtonJaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at Amazon.comhttp://gwntertainment.wix.com/jaimievernon

3 Responses to “JAIMIE VERNON – TIDAL WAVE”

  1. Well….I certainly learned something today….a better understanding of how truly fucked up the music business really is, and apparently it’s getting worse, not better. Thanks for the insight Jamie. You’ve laid it out in terms a neophyte can understand…. and it’s very sad…. as for TIDAL…. not on your life. … and I want my vinyl back.

  2. VonRiesling Says:

    An excellent big brush take on the history and state of the industry, leaving out the infamous pay to play shenanigans. Come to think of it, “industry” is a shitty way to refer to music making.

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