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Why Music Has Lost Its Charms

Howard Tullman wrote . . . . . . . . .

I’ve always believed that good music has a magic all its own. It can inspire and excite. It can bridge gaps and unite. And it can comfort and console. In a matter of minutes, music quickly takes us somewhere else for a moment in time and it can stay with us for a lifetime. Magical music never leaves the memory.

Music is a mystical form of transportation, whether you are cruising in a car or sitting in your bedroom or up on the roof, and, much earlier in my life, it was inescapable. Virtually every week, there’d be a new song or album, a new singer or group, or a new movie with a killer soundtrack featuring tunes that we couldn’t stop singing. The music factories in New York, L.A., Nashville, and Motown were constantly cranking out hits and A&R guys were prowling the country in an unending search for new talent.

But that was then. Now there’s less and less new music being funded and produced commercially and, more important, the world seems to be mainly interested in listening to oldies but goodies. The streaming services and cloud-connected listening devices have given us levels of detail and precision never available before, which has revealed that most of the music that matters these days — more than 70 percent of what’s being streamed for example — is older stuff. Whether that reflects some nostalgic search for comfort and security or just a desire to have lyrics that are meaningful, intelligible, and not obscene, the fact is that a constantly growing number of consumers of all ages are listening almost exclusively to old music (catalog, in the parlance) rather than current material.

One reason for sure is that so much of the new music is just more of the same “hit it and forget it” junk, which is both a disappointing and a frightening phenomenon. These aren’t the instant classics of our youth. As Bob Seger would say, the music today just doesn’t have the same old soul. Screaming and swearing about booty and bling, guns and gangbangers, isn’t quite the same level of storytelling that we still love to listen to from James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Jackson Browne, Otis Redding, or the Eagles.

Creative is certainly one of main reasons that most of today’s tunes don’t have the same staying power as earlier hits. Paul McCartney’s masterpiece “Yesterday” has been offered in more than 3,000 cover versions since its release in 1965 and performed well over seven million times. Gotta wonder how many folks will be covering “WAP,” especially once all the stupid liberal suburban parents figure out what kind of lyrics their teenage kids are TikTok-ing and twerking to.

You can usually tell pretty easily what sounds suck, but no one really knows (apologies to Clive Davis) what makes a lifelong hit until the customers decide. As we used to say at Tunes.com, there’s a fine line between a single and a jingle and there’s no accounting for taste. We know for sure that the song doesn’t have to be fancy, flawless, or fashionable. It doesn’t have to be sung by a star, be the theme of a great movie, or be the 11 p.m. highlight of a Broadway play. And the fact that a song was initially immensely popular for a fleeting moment and readily available and accessible (i.e., commercial, and right for radio) doesn’t mean that its staying power is either assured or diminished. Carole King’s great chart topper “It’s Too Late” started out as the B side of “I Feel the Earth Move,” which never even charted.

Music industry old timers like to blame technology for their problems. Digital music files (MP3s) did drastically lower the bar of what passed for acceptable sound. Consumers sacrificed audio quality for compression and portability and have never really looked back. No one is whining for vinyl these days, so people stopped paying attention to, and paying for, the costly niceties of quality production. Other technologies like the old Napster made the music “free” — albeit stolen — and provided digital or pirated versions of the most popular hits that you could readily share with your friends, even if listening to a song on computer speakers was a lot like taking a bath with your socks on.

The reality today is that the music industry makes money off of everything other than the music, if it makes money at all. Concert tickets, tour revenue, product tie-ins and licenses, and swag at all the events are the real money makers. The corporate suits and conglomerate clowns who came to own and operate the major music businesses were not only musically deaf and dumb, but also greedy, lazy, and unwilling to change.

The music business has always been about the business first and the music as an afterthought, but the industry didn’t really take care of either one for many years. The music execs made three main mistakes, which are just as likely to cause problems in your business if you’re not careful.

First, much like the movie business — with its franchises and tentpole films — the labels constantly pushed the talent for more and more of the same. Looking to build off of, and repeat, their past successes and sales, they didn’t want to see anything edgy, challenging, or different because they were perfectly content to rest on their past laurels and glories and sell merch, concert tickets, and fancy boxed sets of the same old material. They were stuck in a short-term, prosperous past, but by failing to develop and invest in new formats, styles, or talent, they were mortgaging their future prospects. The moral of this story is simple — the world never waits for you and if you aren’t willing to change, it will pass you by. Change before you have no choice.

Second, the head honchos were completely risk averse and unwilling to invest in anything other than the very sure thing that their current catalog of music represented. New delivery methods, new production technologies, new channels to reach their users were all available, but none of the old-line traditional players stepped up. Instead, they left the field wide open for Apple and other tech companies to develop innovative and attractive new solutions. The demands and desires of every consumer in every field have a single defining characteristic: They are progressive, and the customer is always looking for more. Standing still is the best way to be left behind. You can change or you can die.

And finally, with the emergence of streaming and fixed algorithmic systems for radio play, the industry bean counters discovered a fundamental truth: They were being paid exactly the same amount per song whether the song was brand new or 50 years old. They quickly concluded that if their customers (stations and streamers) were indifferent to the age of the content and the end users were actually looking for the older music, there was little or no reason to rock the boat and push for new material. Investing in new talent turned out to be an incremental cost which they chose to avoid.

But even best and oldest wines age out eventually and, at the moment, there’s not much new growth to fill the pipeline. What new music activity there is, interestingly enough, is happening away from, independently of, and frankly trying to avoid having anything to do with the big labels. Things aren’t going to get better any time soon.

Change is always expensive — whether you pay upfront to make the necessary changes or you pay later for not having made the changes in a timely fashion. But it’s also inevitable and a certainty. Music itself is never going to disappear, but I wouldn’t bet a nickel on the likely long-term survival of the major record labels.

Contentment is the smother of invention.


Source : Inc.

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