Not Better But Smaller

The primary argument for globalization was that it was going to make the world “smaller.”

As recently as 16 years ago the world was big! In order to find good music, you had to work for it. Jay-sus, now I sound like that Dana Carvey “Grumpy Old Man” character, “That’s the way it was and we liked it.” I’m not entirely grumpy about it. Pensive is probably a better word.

Why pensive?

Well, I recently ran across this R.E.M. radio performance from 1983 (the support act for that show? The Replacements!) and it reminded me that there was a time when discovering music was a journey. In order to climb the Mt. Everest of music you needed your sherpa’s: the radio, your friends, your favorite bands, liner notes and Rolling Stone…that was about it. If you were a music fan, you know you had reached the summit when you discovered a new band, an artist you never explored before or an old band crushing a new album. Those discoveries were so much more rewarding and fulfilling than…well, than almost anything.

And we never seemed to fall short of reaching that summit each time we unearthed new bands that blew our minds (R.E.M., The Replacements, Metallica, etc) or older artists doing the same(Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks changed my life, really.)

What happened?
Did things change?
Yes, things changed.
Napster happened. 

When the history of the music business is written it will be broken down like the bible’s Old Testament and New Testament, except it will be Before Napster and After Napster.

I’m not going to say that one is/was better than the other. I have better memories of the Before Napster period, so I am clearly biased. But was the music any better? I think there is an argument to be made for that but I’ll let someone else argue it, like these guys; data may fib a little but it don’t lie “…old songs are now outselling new ones.”

Before Napster:

  • Local radio stations mattered (before the consolidation that the 1996 Telecommunications Act begat.)
  • College radio stations mattered.
  • Radio stations playlists were regional (because three companies didn’t own 90% of them…like now.) I grew up in the mid-west where classic rock was, and still is, de rigueur. 
  • You read liner notes (even those on bloated CD’s.)
  • You became familiar with Producers, Engineers and recording studios. You studied them because they mattered.
  • You stayed up late to listen to full albums and tape them (cassette).
  • You know what the King Biscuit Flour Hour was.
  • Left of the dial meant something…and you knew what it meant.
  • A sense of community where your musical taste helped define you and even if it was awful, you still could fit in.

After Napster:

  • Record Industry Implosion.
  • Massive layoffs.
  • Labels suing fans.
  • Ticket prices sky-rocket.
  • Degradation of audio quality.
  • Playlists.
  • Streaming services.
  • Taste polarization.
  • Your community is Facebook.

Technology, the Internet and Globalization were supposed to shrink the world and, indeed, the world got smaller…not better, just smaller.

Five companies own and distribute about 90% of all content we watch, three companies own the majority of the radio stations, there are really two monolithic record labels left (even your boutique labels are tied to either Sony or UMG), two live music promoting companies, a dozen artists dominating all of the above, a handful of Swedish songwriters and producers dominating the artists…and lions and tigers and bears oh my! (Thanks again President Clinton for the 1996 Telecommunications Act!)

So in that sense, the world got smaller…not better, smaller. 

Before Naptster, you could have legitimate arguments with friends about the latest release from (insert favorite artist here) without the risk of losing the friendship or having it spiral into a diatribe about their hate for universal health care, Muslims and/or Obama.

This After Naptster era has also seen the sense of “community” all but disappear. Where do we go to mourn the loss of ALL the artists we lost so far this year? (As of this writing, we lost Bernie Worrell and Ralph Stanley last week) Years ago when an artist died you had a community to share it with. Now the community is Facebook? Something about that just doesn’t ring real. 

Commiserating with like-minded people face to face or over the phone versus banging away on a keyboard and watching the dialog spiral into a silly and hate filled rant hardly seems like a fair trade-off. 

The After Napster era has made finding good music harder. Sure, things are consolidated, condensed…smaller but there is too much noise. Before Napster, we trusted our taste makers be they journalists or Program Directors. After Napster, our sherpa’s are either all gone or have been co-opted by corporate interests and finding that community where you can connect with like-minded music fans? Stay tuned…

Globalization worked. The world got smaller…not better, smaller.

Viva La Revolucion!