Berklee Today


Saving the Music Business

There's a magic and power in music just waiting for those with vision to discover it. However, we find ourselves in a world where record companies and, more lamentably, artists seem interested only in a quick buck.

Record producer Arif Mardin says, "We don't have a lot of creative record executives. In the old days, it was more for the music than the money. Record companies were run by music lovers who appreciated great voices. Today we have bean counters. So the whole business is in decline, and there will have to be some regrouping."

"Artists have less interest in making original sounds today," according to Ann Dudley. "They spend less time in the studio and more time doing photo sessions and practicing dance routines."

Bill Wyman says, "Many talented young people don't have a chance. Now it's completely closed to all but two or three kinds of music. If you don't play those, you don't get signed or played on the radio. The Stones would never make it now."

"The business has made itself so repugnant to me," said Joni Mitchell. "The willingness to do anything to stay in the news-that's the formula now. But no real artist has the stomach for that."

Is the jazz world any different? Jazz radio programming has become so rigid that any deviation from the "smooth" formula is not tolerated. And most artists have literally played along. Branford Marsalis '80 once told me, "When I was growing up, all musicians were directly exposed to great jazz in some way. Now they have no interest in going back to the source. When the greats started out, they had no idea how much money they were going to make. They wanted to play, and maybe they could get chicks. But kids today know about the money, and that's what attracts them: the money, the fame, and the limos; and the music is actually secondary from the get-go. No experimentation or love of music."

As a result, there are talented performers but few groundbreaking original emerging artists. Record companies have led us into a world of music without insight, without heart, without frailty or the spark of human individuality.

Most importantly, the very best commercial efforts of the finest A&R and marketing minds have led the business into the worst financial crisis it's ever seen. Worldwide record sales have plummeted approximately 10 percent annually since 1999, a 48 percent drop in five years. In 2002, singles sales in America fell 60.75 percent, and only 8.4 million units were shipped. That's down 92.8 percent from 117 million five years ago!

Why? Record companies usually bleat, "Digital piracy!" But this is a misleading excuse for two reasons. In its rush to capitalize on the lucrative "new" medium of CDs, the industry ignored repeated warnings of the dangers of selling digitally encoded music without the technology firmly in place to prohibit copying. Impatience is not a virtue, and record companies most certainly brought this problem on themselves. Furthermore, illegal copying was going on well before the CD was a shiny gleam in the inventor's eye. People used to copy vinyl albums onto reel-to-reel tape, and when cheap recordable cassettes and recorders hit the market, copying was universal. But consumers still bought records because they were items of value documenting unique artists and meaningful songs. Despite universal copying of videos, people are still buying popcorn and going out to the movies because directors are still making thought-provoking and entertaining films that the public wants to see.

Instead, the pop world offers attractive dancers who are indistinguishable from one another. The jazz world offers clones of David Sanborn, George Benson, or Kenny G. Black music and even the sacred cow of hip-hop is as bland as Wonder Bread. With such generic "product," the public is reacting to this onslaught of innocuousness with an avalanche of apathy.

A second reason for this apathy is the relatively new concept in marketing called American Idol (devised in Britain as Pop Idol). This "reality" rainbow provides an overflowing pot of gold to its makers by having the public pay for the privilege of phoning in its vote.
What's the problem? American Idol and other similar shows degrade the position of the artist in the public mind. Singers are not only criticized but also subjected to humiliating insults. This adds a perverse kink to what purports to be a talent contest. Instead of presenting singers as serious artists with important ideas, popular media present them as amateurs who it is altogether fitting to treat as such because they are amateurs. Can you imagine a Sinatra or Dylan or Lennon or Springsteen on one of these shows?

As one A&R man told me, "I can't sign a new act based on talent, or a commercial song or production. I need to know if they are from an already successful act. Are they on a reality TV show or a "soap"? Is there any scandal attached to them? Unless I get a yes answer to these questions, I can't sign it because I can't sell it. We're developing fewer artists than 10 years ago, and we drop anyone who doesn't get a hit with their first record."

TV friendliness demands attractive dancers, not singers. No problem. Auto-Tune is a computer program that can make even my tone-deaf mother sing in tune. With Vocal Line, I can record a funky session singer and then bring my mother's vocal into line with the groove of the pro. With another bit of digital wizardry I can sample the timbre of Aretha Franklin's voice and "inject" varying amounts of it into my mother's voice.
Clever, but my mom still can't sing! When I bought a record by the Stones, the Beatles, or Hendrix as a kid, I was getting their real voices-warts and all. The public subconsciously feels it is being ripped off whether they know these tricks are being used or not.
Is there a solution? I have a few suggestions.

  1. Record companies must return to hiring A&R staff who are successful artists, songwriters, arrangers, or producers. People who have talent recognize talent. Quincy Jones, George Martin, Arif Mardin, Jerry Wexler, and Glen Ballard discovered and developed artists because they knew how to work with music. A&R people from other backgrounds (marketing or management for example) keep their jobs by signing unoriginal, unimaginative artists and hiring a handful of producers to make cookie-cutter records. You wouldn't appoint an ambassador to Italy who didn't speak Italian and recognize a good pesto, would you?
  2. Revive the single. The first step most of us take in climbing the ladder of music collecting is currently a dying format. Lower pricing is essential. They say no one ever made money by overestimating the intelligence of their audience, but what sane kids will buy a single when, for a little more, they can get an album? They know how cheap CDs are to manufacture when they see them offered for free with cereal or fan mags.
    Next we can be really brave and stop chart "hyping," a concept that has to enter the minds of kids who can't fail to wonder how a record by an act no one has ever heard of appears on the chart at number four! Without this type of "promotion," imagine all the money that record labels would be able to put back into artist development!

    As a jazz broadcaster, I also strongly support the use of the single in jazz, which needs any promotional tool it can get. The jazz single would give radio-friendly tracks to programmers and include some bonus tracks for fans.

  3. A major asset lies is in the technology that the industry blames for its problems. Legal downloads such as Apple's iTunes, Pressplay, Roxio, Listen/Rhapsody, and Liquid Audio allow the consumer to buy individual tunes for around 99 cents. We must have a download chart and downloads must be factored into the official charts. Retailers are not against this providing there are promotional burning booths in stores. The Internet can give significant exposure to creative, innovative, unsigned acts (and independent labels) without major management or record-company hype behind them. Once again, fans would have the excitement of discovering an artist for themselves instead of being force-fed by the major label marketing machines.
  4. The press and broadcasters must seek out and support innovative talent instead of just promoting the CDs they get free, and they should be inspired by Robert Shelton's reviews in the New York Times which broke the careers of many new artists including Bob Dylan.
  5. Musicians have to fight the system. Don't play along, play to win. Go for passion, not fashion. Become proactive. Insist on making your music and find a way to be heard. Use the power of the Internet and the press. Create websites that have to be visited and stories journalists will beg to tell. Create gigs where there are none. Target local, independent, and college radio stations. By all means, believe in yourself enough to be yourself.

Richard Niles is a producer, composer, arranger, songwriter and guitarist based in London. He writes and broadcasts music documentaries for BBC Radio 2 including his series New Jazz Standards. Visit