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End of the Century | The Nation

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End of the Century

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SHANNON STAPLETON/REUTERSAdvertising the final days of the Virgin Megastore, NYC, June 2009

About the Author

J. Gabriel Boylan
J. Gabriel Boylan is a freelance writer on music and art.

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For $79.99, the Sansa slotRadio can be yours. Around the size of a compact, it's an MP3 player preloaded with 1,000 songs from Billboard's rock, country, hip-hop/r&b and oldies charts. Thematic mixes like "workout" and "chillout" are available too. There's no software to install or discs to rip. Just stuff in your earbuds, press play and listen.

At 8 cents a tune, slotRadio is a bargain compared with what Jammie Thomas-Rasset was ordered to pay for the twenty-four songs she downloaded and shared on Kazaa, a file-sharing network. In 2006 she was sued for copyright infringement by Capitol Records, with legal support from the Recording Industry Association of America; when a federal court handed down a guilty verdict in June, the damages amounted to $1.92 million. That's $80,000 per song, including Gloria Estefan's "Rhythm Is Gonna Get You." Quite.

Ours is a time of fundamental shifts in the way music is made, sold and experienced, and music's value--as art and commodity--has never seemed more arbitrary and harder to assign. Thanks to the upswing in file-sharing and other ways of obtaining music in digital formats, album sales are measly and unreliable in terms of profit margin. Ten years ago Britney Spears's sophomore album Oops!... I Did It Again hit No. 1 with a record 1,319,193 units sold in the first week. Last year she hit No. 1 with her comeback album Circus, but first-week sales topped out at 505,000 units, nearly twice as much as the No. 1 spot sells most weeks yet nowhere near the debut of Oops!. As Charles Blow recently noted in the New York Times, a study conducted by PRS for Music, a nonprofit royalty collection agency, "found that of the 13 million songs for sale online [in 2008], 10 million never got a single buyer and 80 percent of all revenue came from about 52,000 songs. That's less than one percent of the songs." For slotRadio, the gold mine isn't the cache of songs on its MP3 player but the tiny device itself, a jumble of cheap wires and microchips that will inevitably need to be replaced. In this case, the music is advertising that draws ears to a piece of disposable technology.

Most of the artists and bands profiled by Greg Kot in Ripped earn their keep from touring, which seems to be the most trustworthy source of revenue available to small and even midlevel musicians now that file-sharing has decimated album sales. Kot's profiles range from the most newly minted stars of indie music (Dan Deacon) to the scene's elder statesmen and crossover successes (Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails). The more established bands he discusses are making creative use of the new marketplace--from Paul McCartney partnering with Starbucks to the direct-marketing and distribution models of Prince and, more recently, Radiohead and Trent Reznor. The latter two have embraced, to varying degrees, the practice of offering middling-quality downloads of songs at a low or even pay-what-you-want price and selling high-quality physical copies of albums later at set prices. Because Prince enjoys a massive and loyal fan base, he has been able to sever ties with major labels and corporate promotional networks, selling albums through his website and forging direct, albeit virtual, connections with fans. As for the fans Kot interviewed, many admitted to not paying for most of the music in their possession, with some wrestling with guilt and others proclaiming their defiance of "the man."

The pitch and scale of the tumult recalls the shift that occurred about a century ago when music was recorded for the first time, freed from its real-time shackles and engraved on wax cylinders. Yet over time, with this freedom came corporate control over popular recordings and corporate determination of what would be heard, and how, and on what sort of medium. There were fierce battles over what kind of music was worth recording and whether recording was killing musical "truth." Musicians, producers and fans quarreled over the value of "fidelity" and the exact reproduction of sounds in real time. Was it the zenith of recorded music or a distraction from improving sounds with studio modifications or fabricated new ones? Tape-recording technology simplified and democratized the capturing of sound, while advances in technology allowed for the fashioning of a whole new world of sounds unimaginable in the acoustic days. (In the past few decades, technological innovations have brought changes like pitch-correcting software that can make an American Idol reject sound blandly perfect.) But if abandoning the live performance was the big shift a century ago, and the move away from "fidelity" was the big shift fifty years later, the dramatic change of our time is the unmooring of music from the physical realm altogether. Music is now an ephemeral sequence of digitized information beamed about, played for a few seconds and then shuffled away into the ether of code.

Unlike the introduction of the compact disc, which was developed by major labels and music retailers, as well as Phillips and Sony, the current tumult was unplanned and unforeseen. Digital technology has put far more power in the hands of ordinary consumers to wrest music from its gatekeepers. But crashing the gates has caused the music economy to dip down between cheap and free; people are storing more music on their hard drives than they're likely to listen to in the next decade, yet major labels, music retailers and even jukebox manufacturers are spiraling toward obsolescence. Offbeat and invaluable aspects of the mass music experience are slipping away as well, from the cranky exclusivity of the niche record shop to the tastemaking role of college radio to the music press itself.

The conventional, romantic view of the history of popular music is one of pure eras and movements reaching a creative peak before being co-opted, oversold or otherwise spoiled by runaway commercialism. Ragtime enthusiasts, rockabilly fans and punk proselytizers all claim that the early days of their favorite pet sounds were the best, most revolutionary and purest. The only truly lucky genres are those nobody ever liked--at least they were able to fade away honorably. The history of the popular music industry is often told in the same way, from its quirky, tentative beginnings through its benign, if greedy, golden age, when big labels could be handmaiden to terrific music reaching the masses. The cause of the industry's demise, the story goes, was avarice: the labels prized dastardly strategies for persuading music fans to part with as much cash as possible. The result, then, is the current mess. The potential chaos of a future where music is unprotected and unsellable (that is, an unviable profit center for labels or artists) might be worrying, but it's a prospect the industry created. Kot, a music critic at the Chicago Tribune, is excited about the new ways that bands are selling their music and trying honorably not to fade away. He is pleased that digital technology allows music to live and breathe beyond the grip of the record industry, which he thinks doesn't deserve any sympathy, since its response to the digital revolution has been not bold ideas about marketing or distribution but lots of lawsuits.

With Selling Sounds, David Suisman kicks the legs out from the romantic account of the music industry's innocent start and slow move to commercial heartlessness. Suisman investigates the early decades of the popular music industry, from 1880 to 1930, and his descriptions of the upstart crews of scrappy entrepreneurs who hawked sheet music in the old days call to mind the corporate suits at major labels plugging the next Disney-spawned tween star or mall punk band. Put it in a pretty package and the kids will go ape for it. For Suisman popular music has always been heavily commercialized (songs, albums and artists are just more widgets to be peddled), and his book leaves one wondering whether the history of commercial music resembles the aesthetics of the pop song: the pattern has little variation but has proved to be endlessly repeatable, and mostly profitable. How did we get here? In some ways we've always been here.

Suisman begins his narrative with the birth of the popular song at the tail end of the minstrel era and then explains how the advent of Tin Pan Alley, that hive of songwriting and music publishing, allowed for the possibility of a truly popular--that is, portable--song. Dozens of companies hired songwriters to bash out potential hits, while printers, distributors and a fierce national marketing network moved copies of the sheet music from coast to coast. As would happen with radio and happens now with the Internet, jobbers fanned across the country, slipping song scores and money to bandleaders to boost songs. Meanwhile guerrilla marketing existed in the form of "pluggers," who, as Suisman explains, made "every gathering, from a football game to a prom, a potential commercial audience, and every space, from a commuter train to a prison, a potential site of commercial performance." Pluggers were charged with getting tunes into the hands of working bands, vaudeville theaters, community events, schools, department stores (which built elaborate and vast performance spaces and organs to draw their own customers, and provided counters selling the selfsame sheet music) and anyplace else where the grooves could turn infectious.

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