How the recording industry killed popular music

SAM SMITH, PROGRESSIVE REVIEW – No one in the major media or at RIAA is going to admit it, but the remarkable decline in music buying provides more evidence that when you turn a creative task over to a bunch of lawyers and greedy executives, everyone loses.

The music industry has been killing itself for sometime. And not just by the RIAA suing pre-teens for illegal downloading. The entire environment for music has been overwhelmed by restrictions that have undermined the way music has spread since the beginning of time: namely by sharing it.

Although I can’t find any data on this, it seems clear, for example, that ordinary people just don’t sing as much as they used to. And when they do, they don’t have as many people who know what they’re singing. One reason for this is undoubtedly the compartmentalizing of the music industry so punk rock fans don’t care about country and vice versa, but it seems that a major part of the problem is also that it is hard to find the music to share. For example, the juke box – with its implicit assertion of containing the 50 best tunes – peaked in the mid-sixties. In the late 1940s three quarters of all records made in the U.S. were for juke boxes. But by the 1980s, audience selected music had largely been replaced by computer driven selection.

Musicians today also write their own music to a much greater degree than in the past, in part to avoid copyright problems.

The term “cover” – used to describe the playing of something someone else recorded – helps to explain the problem.

Writes Wikipedia: “In popular music, a cover version, or simply cover, is a new rendition (performance or recording) of a previously recorded, commercially released song or popular song. In its current use, it can sometimes have a pejorative meaning-implying that the original recording should be regarded as the definitive version, usually in the sense of an “authentic” rendition, and all others are merely lesser competitors, alternatives or tributes (no matter how popular). However, Billboard-and other magazines recording the popularity of the musical artists and hit tunes-originally measured the sales success of the published tune, not just recordings of it, or later the airplay that it also managed to achieve. In that context, the greater the number of cover versions, the more successful the song.”

In other words, we are literally disparaging the thing that made popular music popular. After all, without covers we have little in common.

The term “cover version” wasn’t even coined until 1966.

Noted Wiki: “Prior to the mid-20th century the notion of an original version of a popular tune would, of course, have seemed slightly odd – the production of musical entertainment being seen essentially as a live event, even if one that was reproduced at home via a copy of the sheet music, learned by heart, or captured on a shellac recording disc.”

There may be some legal reasons for this. For example, a bar that doesn’t play cover tunes is less likely be attacked by the attorneys for the industry corporados, another way in which lawyers are killing popular music.

Before the 1960s, a musician dropped by a local music store, handed over 25 bucks, and got an under the counter ‘fake book’ that contained the chords, melody and lyrics of all the tunes a musician was meant to know. One effect of this was to contribute to a common culture of music that has now largely disappeared.

People just don’t react to music the way a lot recording executives, lawyers and even musicians think they do. For example, as late as 2002, an ABC poll found that 38% of Americans considered Elvis Presley the greatest rock star ever. Jimi Hendrix came in second at four percent and Michael Jackson tied Lennon, Jagger, Springsteen, McCartney, and Clapton at 2%. In all, pollees list 128 different names. Even among 18-34 year olds, Presley beat Hendrix 2 to 1, albeit getting only 19% of the votes.

In other words, we love what the industry considers the past. One reason: it is something we can, as a culture, share.

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