Globalization & Music — The World Got Smaller, But Better?

One of the primary argument’s for globalization was that it would bring many aspects of the world closer. Be it political, economic or cultural, in essence, globalization would make the world “smaller”.

And yet, as recently as 20 years ago, the world seemed so big. Especially in the search for good music. Perhaps I am waxing nostalgic, but it seemed you had to work for it. And oh how delicious were the fruits of your labor! Or so it seemed.

It’s not that I long for those days, but I am pensive. 
Why pensive?

Well, I recently ran across this R.E.M. radio performance from 1983 (the support act for that show? The Replacements!). Listening to it reminded me that there was a time when discovering music was a journey.

Finding new music was akin to climbing Mt. Everest. You needed your supplies (let’s just say they were illegal back then) and you needed your sherpa’s: the radio, your friends, your favorite bands, album liner notes and Rolling Stone (there was a time when it was a decent music magazine, maybe Creem, sometimes Spin and the odd fanzine here and there). . . that was all you had.

If music was your sustenance, you know you had reached the summit when you discovered a new band or an artist you never explored before. Each time we unearthed new bands or artists that blew our minds (R.E.M., The Replacements, Metallica, etc.) and discovering forgotten gems (Blood on the Tracks) we would be left breathless.

These were the discoveries that gave life to the banal existence back then. Music was more than just a soundtrack to life, it was life.

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

The world got smaller . . . not necessarily better.

If a definitive history of the music business should ever be written it will be broken down like the bible. There will be the Old Testament (before Globalization) and the New Testament (after Globalization).

I’m not going to say that one is better than the other. I have better memories of one over the other but I’m thankful to have a deep knowledge of both.

But was the music any better? That’s subjective. However, I think there’s an argument to be made for that. Just a few year ago, the numbers weren’t lying, “. . . old songs were outselling new ones.

Nonetheless . . .

Before Globalization:

  • Local radio stations mattered (before the consolidation that the 1996 Telecommunications Act begat).
  • College radio stations mattered and actually broke acts (R.E.M., The Replacements, Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, etc.).
  • Radio station playlists had a regional component (because three companies didn’t own 90% of them as they do now).
  • You would read liner notes on albums and then CD’s.
  • You became familiar with producers, engineers and recording studios. You studied them, because they mattered.
  • Left of the dial meant something . . . and you knew what it meant.
  • You stayed up late listening to the entire album.
  • You found a sense of community based on your musical taste.

After Gloablization:

  • The recording industry imploded leaving just three major label groups (Universal, Sony and Warner).
  • Record labels, publishers and artists sued fans (Napster era).
  • Ticket prices skyrocketed thanks to artist greed and promoter monopolization (varies from city to city but +/- $90.00).
  • Degradation of audio quality (analog versus digital).
  • Streaming playlists/websites replace exploration and liner notes (artist websites are mostly vapid promotional tripe).
  • Taste polarization and siloing.
  • Your community is social media & Facebook.

Technology, the internet and globalization were supposed to shrink the world and make it better. it worked, the world did get smaller . . . not better, but smaller.

Five companies own and distribute about 90% of all content we watch (Comcast, Disney, AT&T, CBS and Viacom) three companies own the majority of the radio stations (iHeartMedia, Cumulus Media, Entercom), three record labels (Universal, Sony and Warner) own and distribute the lions share of all popular music and two live music promoting companies account for about 60% of all worldwide touring revenue (LiveNation and AEG Presents . . . although it seems local and regional promoters are growing).

As far as artists, it’s like a beer tap at a restaurant. You have your name brands like Beyonce’, Taylor Swift, and Drake and then your rotating taps like Cardi B. and Camilla Cabello. Maybe a handful songwriters and producers working with the artists (Max Martin, Sia, Metro Bommin, etc). Have you ever wondered why everyone and everything sounds so similar?

So in that sense, globalization worked again. The creators, artists, distributors and channels of distribution shrunk in quantity . . . not necessarily better, but smaller.

The sense of community you found with like-minded music fans is not entirely gone now, it’s just a little more abstract. Before globalization, you’d meet people at record stores (remember in store appearances?) or small concerts. Years ago there was an actual community that shared your tastes.

Now the community is Facebook? Twitter? Reddit?

I suppose those aren’t all bad, it’s just a little surreal. We humans are wired to connect and this “digital connection” is a little abstract. And I think we’re learning more that these “digital connections” aren’t all they’re all cracked up to be.

Globalization has also perverted the idea of taste-makers. It used to be that our taste-making sherpa’s were radio station Program Directors, the occasional disc jockey, your friends or journalists (could we have a Lester bangs today?). You trusted them. They guided you, “If you liked this, then you’ll like this”. Their words weren’t gospel, but they were close.

Now many of the sherpa’s are streaming playlists built by artists (supposedly) or playlists built by algorithms? The majority of radio stations are owned by three companies and, for all intents and purposes, they’ve been co-oped by the big three labels interests or Wall Street’s.

The bright note is that good music journalism does still exist. Although finding it can be as challenging as finding a good song on that Van Halen album with Gary Cherone. But it exists, good music journalism that is (MoJo, The Big Takeover), nothing good came from that incarnation of Van Halen.

Also, because there is so much visual content being produced (Netflix, broadcast and networks, commercials, corporate content, Amazon, Hulu, etc.) producers are always looking for new music. If for no other reason than legacy artists charge so much to use their music. Rumor has it legacy artists can charge anything from a human extremity to the soul of a small child to license their songs.

In this case, the globalization getting smaller hasn’t been all awful.

Look, globalization did what it set out to do. In many ways it did bring the world together (it is the world-wide web after all). It’s certainly been a boon for the corporations, and shareholders, that have used it as a disguise for the monopolization of industries. Media industries perhaps being the most visible.

With that said, I don’t think it’s been particularly good for the music industry. It certainly hasn’t been good for the music fan.

While globalization hasn’t made climbing the musical Mt. Everest impossible, it’s just made getting to the summit infinitely more challenging.

Globalization worked. The world got smaller . . . definitely not better, but smaller.