The music industry is a complete mess. Illegal downloads continue to eclipse legal ones, and most artists’ recordings are Trojan horses for live shows. These tours, especially the arena ones, are now the money train of the music business. According to Pollstar, veteran rockers mostly rule this concert scene – many do not even bother to release new material before, during, or after a tour. The old paradigm of doing live shows to support albums and songs (aka the music) has now been flip-flopped – music has taken a back seat as it is all about the artist’s “brand.” The net result is that this music part of the music business has lost its wheels and careened way off the track.
What was once a vibrant “business” of song and artists full of competing companies run by impresarios who often discovered and nurtured talent? There was the support of a Brill Building that developed songwriters while serving up hit after hit – and the backbone of a radio network that played them (sometimes greased by a few under-the-table sawbucks). It wasn’t pretty, but it worked and produced a heck of a lot of great songs. Now it seems this business has become a largely fractured mess that can’t figure out who it is or what it is doing.
The once great and diverse record companies have either been acquired or dissolved into the “big four” record companies (Sony BMG, Universal, EMI, and Warner Music Group). These companies increasingly rely on their publishing arms and the electronic licensing of their vast catalogs. This has proved good business as it is far more profitable to license an established hit for commercial use than to develop a new artist who may never produce any hits.
Is it any wonder that the most prominent venues for music today are TV shows, movies, and commercials? American Idol and Glee have become the most important platforms for the music industry today. Jimmy Iovine, the record executive, most frequently mentioned by Grammy winners Sunday night, has linked himself to Idol this year. The point is that both these shows pedal mostly old catalogs that, when rerecorded and sold on iTunes, are double winners for the label companies – generating both licensing and sales revenues.
Once the true vanguard for exposing new music (let us not forget Yo! MTV raps and Headbangers Ball), MTV is now more concerned with discovering the next Snooki on the Jersey Shore rather than the next “boss.” With no Ed Sullivan show (or modern-day equivalent) to regularly showcase new musical talent for the masses, the music business peddles the familiar or the outrageous. For the normal, the song is the thing. For the disgraceful, the image is everything.
Through this lens, one needs to view this year’s Grammy telecast.
This is how you explain a 20-minute meandering tribute to the Queen of Soul, Lady Gaga being birthed from an egg, teen-idol Justin Bieber performing with what looked like Cirque du Solei, the Muppets backing up Ce-Lo Green singing his nominated song “F@*% You!”, and a mumbling/dancing Bob Dylan performing “Maggie’s Farm” in front of a dozen acoustic guitars! It was absolute chaos. Maybe this is why Eminem looked so pissed off – he had to sit through this array of a show that presented Glee guest star – actress Gweneth Paltrow – as a legitimate singer. At least the pace was brisk. The show kept moving along in its winding way from one genre to another.
As for the awards and speeches, who cares, really, anyway? It seems Grammy doesn’t, as they only broadcast 11 presentations of the over 50 trophies awarded in 2011. Most speeches were the typical rattling of names unfamiliar and meaningless to millions of viewers. Lady Gaga’s shout-out to Whitney Houston and Train’s mention of Howard Stern came straight out of the left field without context or relevance. Will someone please coach these people? I recognize this is the norm for these award shows – poorly prepared speeches – and the implicit disrespect for the millions around the globe viewing that the winners fail to acknowledge. Take some time, people and put a few words together, will you?
I suppose Lady Antebellum was the big winner, winning song of the year – although I am still unsure what value winning a Grammy brings to the artist. The Grammy’s have been so notoriously wrong about their nominees and winners that Dick Clark started his own rival American Music Awards, which often does better in the ratings.
The big loser might have been teen sensation Bieber – thought to be a shoo-in for the new artist Grammy. Not only did he lose the award, but he was upstaged by Jaden Smith and mentor Usher during his over-the-top performance of his forgettable new single “Never Say Never.” All that theatrical bombast can’t compensate for the lack of melody and lyrics.
Hip-hop had a good night with an outstanding performance by Rhianna and Eminem and won for his terrific “Recovery” album. There were also two grammies for what is sure to become the iconic “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z and Alicia Keyes. Why is there no performance of that one?
But then there was the surprise win for The Suburbs for Album of the Year by independently producing Arcade Fire. This win over favorites Lady Gaga and Eminem was, in many ways, a good sign for the music business. Now three albums into a career, Arcade Fire is a real band. They are not a conglomerate of producers and guest stars who need costume changes between songs. They play guitars and sing songs – I know, sounds crazy -that will never work, you say! Plus, they are not jazz, country, or hip-hop. Kind of crazy for them to win. I am sure Grammy prognosticator Paul Green missed this one.
The ratings for the show were up to a ten-year high; one assumes driven by the fan base and curiosity for Gaga and Bieber. Still, this is merely 20% of last week’s super bowl audience. The Grammy Awards show still has a ways to go, but maybe at least the music is getting there.
And oh, nice of Mick Jagger to finally show everyone how to be a lead!