Take The Money & Run:
Reflections On The Current State
Of The Music Business

by Evan Chase

Years before I ever became serious about being a professional music journalist,
a wiser, older, musician friend told me this hard, plain truth,
which at the time, I took only somewhat to heart.

What he said point-blank was, “The music business is full of shysters, dreamers and con men.”

Stunned as I was to hear that seldom if ever spoken truth said outright, and by a musician to boot, after the initial shock of recognition at its partial or total truth based upon what little I’d already seen in the indie rock world of the mid-1990’s, mostly in and around Cambridge, MA and Washington, DC, I think somewhere along the line I made a concerted effort to pretend I hadn’t heard it at all.

Denial, I think the kids call it. It’s not a river in Egypt, as through my own personal experience
in the rock biz in the last seven to eight years I’ve come to find out.

It should be pretty obvious to anyone who’s even remotely paying attention that the music business
was set up a certain way to benefit most only a small, insular percentage of the many, many people
who work so damn hard to both propel it and to insure its survival.

I came to the music biz party, so to speak, through the seemingly most natural of ways:
I’ve loved music, and particularly new wave and indie music since
I was just a teenager, the time when music probably has the most profound
impact on us, during our so-called Formative Years.

Then, after years and years of being a die-hard, unrepentant fan and occasional
groupie/hanger-on/sycophant, I took the leap of faith into the journalism side of things.

I decided to take a tip from the masters and write about what you know. What I know,
most of all, out of all possible subject matter under the big black sun, strangely enough,
is new wave and alternative rock n’ roll.

Far out. So I wrote.

And wrote and wrote and wrote.

And surprise, surprise (to borrow from that classic X song
from "See How We Are"),
no one besides
the occasional online indie magazine
wanted to publish my work.

At all. For years.

Or, rarely, I’d get published
and not get paid,
which is even worse.

Then came my Big Break,
when an old friend of mine who works
in the music biz helped me
to set up an interview
with Red Hot Chili Peppers’
firebrand songwriter-guitarist
John Frusciante,
and the rest,
as they say, is history.

I’ve interviewed six semi-famous musicians
since then, 2004, and nice
as it was to have met most of them,
it’s largely been a case of diminishing returns financially
and even far as getting these interviews into print.

Which leads me to ask,
have we finally lost interest in our rock stars/heroes
of college/alternative rock of yesteryear?

Or, out of sight, out of mind, perhaps?

Most of the artists who came of age
in the MTV-laden 1980's
are still playing,
if not making, great music
in moderately small venues
in cities all over the United States and in Europe.

So what’s up?
I simply have to ask the heavens,
the publishers and everyone else who claims
to have a vested interest in the music business industry.

What can we, as journalists and editors
of music magazines and websites, do to fix this?

There has to be an answer here
if we’re all willing to work together
and engage in dialogue regarding positive,
forward-thinking change
for the music business in the 21st century.

Have all the bands, or modern rock in toto,
jumped the shark, so to speak?

Has their ever-presence on college and rock radio
and constant use in films/whoring out
to Hollywood movie soundtracks
(John Hughes been the guiltiest of all in aiding and abetting
this phenomena)  oversaturated the market
to the tipping point where we can’t be bothered
to care about the actual people responsible
for the making of the music, the individuals
whose talent, blood, sweat and tears (ha ha),
went into the making of this now,
for want of a better term, classic modern rock music?

Is it just because they’re getting old that we’re turning
a deaf eye and ear in the magazine industry
toward the modern rock stars of yesteryear?
Does it represent a failure on the part
of our shared goodwill or imagination,
or is rock just and simply, as
Steve Kilbey of The Church assured me,
a young man’s business?
And when you’re no longer young,
you’re out of luck,
and it’s time to go away.

I, for one, have become
a believer in the idea
that older is better,
and many of these hard- working,
hard living musicians are
living proof of the ability to endure
and stay vital in their creativity over the years.

Art Before Commerce

We’ve all heard it said how Hollywood/the move-making business and the music business are pretty much or only about the money, and there’s considerable proof of that.

Maybe I’m just too personally invested in the idea of art over commerce. For years, friends and I have argued over a similar issue relating to the business side of things. “It’s not art if you can’t sell it/make money off it” is the concept an old friend has consistently tried to sell me. Now that I’ve seen a little of what goes on in the music industry, I can more easily see his point of view, though I doubt I’ll ever wholly concede this too-easy notion, because in order to do so, part of what I love most about music would have to die. And yet somehow I’ve still had to reconcile with these less-than-easily-answered questions, and try and move forward as a music journalist and, in a sense, my role as a professional fan.

The Big Bad Wolf: Point The Finger At The Labels

The current state of the music business, through the lens through which I’m lately seeing it, sucks, for a few obvious and fairly compelling reasons. The way things have traditionally been run, say since the 1950’s I imagine, is that the record label and band management take the lion’s share of the profits, leaving too many artists in a difficult position. For further proof that things haven’t changed much, read Steve Albini’s brilliant “The Problem With Music”, first published in The Baffler ‘zine in 1992.

Well, we do control the means of production, after all, is probably their bottom-line thought, if there be any genuine thought at all among label-industry bigwigs. Make as much as you can as fast as you can probably says it all as well. Take the money and run, as the old Steve Miller song goes.

Follow The Money

It’s safe to say that somebody’s still getting rich off music, right? So who, besides Steve Jobs and Itunes, Emusic and other pay music sites is it? As mentioned before, most of it must be divided among the key players, those being the bands themselves, the bands’ management, and the twin unholy machines of record labels and giant chain retail music stores like Best Buy, Target, etc. And don’t forget all the money that changes hands at the arenas and smaller venues many of the bands consistently play. Without the ability to see the actual numbers, and it’s safe to say this information is kept from the, ha ha, general public, in order to keep the shady business ‘safe’ for the labels/industry fatcats, it’s therefore impossible for any journalist or curious layperson to see just how rich we’re actually making each of the above-mentioned players in the game. It’s safe to say it’s a lucrative endeavor all the way around, otherwise why would anyone continue to do it? If the artists weren’t making enough scratch from cd and dvd sales, concert tickets, and heavy merchandising then they’d be the first to jump ship, fold up their circus tents and call it a career. With no artists to represent, band management and record labels would soon be out of business too. The industry of rock & roll as we’ve heretofore known it, largely based out of the USA, would die out like the top-heavy Paleolithic dinosaur it’s now proving itself to be. And no one can wholly convince me, based upon what I’ve personally seen as an ‘industry insider’ (how sick that phrase makes me), that that end would be a horrible thing. Maybe we’d get on with the business of being a little more attentive to the music of our hearts, (cliché though it be), the spheres, and maybe even one another.

I have another friend who says we all get dirty here in one way or another, and I’m tempted to agree. We all shill for somebody, or as Dylan so aptly sang, You gotta serve somebody/It may be the Devil, and it may be the Lord/ But you’re gonna have to serve somebody. The music business may be dirty, but occasionally it can be lucrative, and even, at times, damn fun. There’s drugs and chicks, to be sure, for those who want them, and sober musicians aplenty happily playing music they love to people who appreciate the hell out of them.
Not a bad gig, in the end, I imagine, for those lucky few who can make a living at it.
It still remains to be seen if I’ll be one of them.

I’ll close with a few wise words to a music written by Indie Agent Provocateur, Steve Albini. “Out here in the world, we have to pay for our records, and we get taken advantage of by the music industry, using stooges like you to manipulate us. We harbor a notion of music as a thing of value, and methodology as an equal, if not supreme component of an artist's aesthetic. You don't "get" it because you're supported
by an industry that gains nothing when artists exist happily outside it,
or when people buy records they like rather than the ones they're told to.” –Steve Albini

Back To Homepage