During the 2004 Grammys, National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences CEO Michael Greene used his brief airtime to wag his finger at music consumers. Greene scolded us by saying, "No question the most insidious virus in our midst is the illegal downloading of music on the Net."
Greene then introduced a ludicrous commercial that showed a teenager downloading a song online as other kids danced in a club. The song finishes downloading, the lights and music go off in the disco and club patrons gaze around with the confused look of "Who did this to us!"
The ad was threatening, "If you download music illegally, music will cease to exist." That has stuck with me. The notion that everyone in the world would stop making music because they weren't making money seems completely absurd.
Perhaps it's the best scenario imaginable. If we all download music for free, we will weed out the people in it for money. I bet music would sound better. Music is about art and expression; if a musician doesn't get paid enough and gives up music to become an accountant, they probably shouldn't have been there in the first place.
Reading about Before the Music Dies, an award-winning documentary by filmmakers Andrew Shapter and Joel Rasmussen about the state of the music industry, the title immediately reminded me of that commercial. I knew the film had something to do with how corporations are destroying music and the title seemed to say, "If we keep going in this direction, music will cease to exist."
Same end result as Greene's postulation, but the gun is pointed in a different direction.
But the movie — which features live performance footage from well-known artists and unknowns, and interviews with musicians, music critics and fans — is much more than that. It's acutely provocative. It's kind of like being tossed into the middle of a lively debate (except "the other side" gets no say). I found myself arguing with the screen, disputing popular proclamations like the one about how Bob Dylan wouldn't get a record deal today.
Look, I am as grizzled and cynical as anyone. If there were a "Corporations Ruin Culture" fan club, I'd be a charter member. But I think the "end of music" panic, while well meaning, is occasionally misguided and ignores historical perspective. Perhaps it's because I listen to far more music from independent labels than major ones, but I look at the argument from this standpoint: "Major labels are fucking up the mainstream? Pop will eat itself. Who cares?" If the major-label system collapsed tomorrow and every radio station was shuttered, I wouldn't even notice.
I was put off by some of the premises of Before the Music Dies. They interview some kids outside of an Ashlee Simpson concert and we're supposed to scoff because the kids don't know who Dylan is! Or they love Ashlee's hair! It's like mocking an 8-year-old for playing with Barbies. And it's an interview that could have taken place in any era of music. You can hate plastic Pop music and ridicule the kids who like it, but don't pretend it's anything new.
Branford Marsalis then says, "Today, Ray Charles wouldn't get a shot. Stevie Wonder wouldn't get a shot. They're blind!"
This ties into the "Dylan would flounder in obscurity today!" argument. The kind of music Dylan and Charles made was popular back then. It's like in 60 years saying, "With all this Post-Pop Flippy Bloop music today, an actual musician like Britney Spears wouldn't have a shot!"
The film makes some great points about media consolidation and the stranglehold it has put on radio. Journalist Alan Light points out how radio is now programmed to fit this criteria: "Do you not dislike it enough to turn the channel." Focus groups decide what is played.
That's bad news for new artists. The voiceover by Forest Whitaker intones, "Is America missing out on some of their favorite artists because they don't fit the model?"
Will the Mozart or Hendrix of our time be overlooked, stuck in eternal obscurity? It's possible, but that's always been possible. There's probably more of a chance that an artist will be heard today, thanks to technological resources. Do artists need backing by Warner Brothers or Sony to truly become legendary and make the best music they can? Many in the film seem to think so, lamenting the death of the "career artist" on a major-label level.
Dave Matthews emerges as the hero of the film. His commentary is spot-on and he is presented as epitomizing the "right way" to do things. Besides starting ATO Records as a nurturing alternative to the majors, Matthews' music is an example of something that took time to catch on and didn't deliver a "quick hit." Obviously, the paced approach worked out very well for Matthews ... and his major-label backers, RCA.
But Matthews' best point is that true artists should think about the music more than anything. Matthews' band was already big before signing a deal and he says he was so consumed by just making music that when the big labels started calling, he told them what he wanted. If they said anything about interfering artistically, he told them to fuck off. How's that for a switch? The label has to admit they need the music-makers, not the other way around. Logic wins!
Matthews' advice for young musicians? "Find a way to do what you love to do ... then it doesn't really matter if you get paid to do it. Then you can spend your whole life wrapped around (music) and work in a coffeeshop. If (fame and money are your goals), don't do it."
Henny Penny-isms aside, Before the Music Dies is an engaging, smart film (the performance clips are visually stunning as well) that puts on record the frustrations of many musicians and music lovers. Think of it as a Fahrenheit 9/11 or An Inconvenient Truth for frustrated music die-hards.
But remember that music will never die; the music industry might. Great artists have to make their art. If there are no major labels and no radio stations, artists will start their own labels and put their music out themselves. In many ways, that ball is already rolling. If the music industry dies, consider the middleman cut out.
And what's so bad about that?
BEFORE THE MUSIC DIES screens Friday at 8 p.m. at the Carnegie in Covington. See thecarnegie.com for details.