Thursday, January 20, 2005

Kat's Korner: Why Does Music Suck So Bad, Part I

Why does music suck so damn bad?

I can't tell you how many e-mails come in asking that question.

We all know about the glorification of the Disney Kids. And the consolidation and the corporation that has left us largely as one nation, one radio station isn't exactly news to any of us.

There are two other issues. The first has to do with us and I'm going to address that because we have the power to change it.

Cedric e-mailed me that he went to the barbershop this weekend and what does he get? You probably think I'm asking you to figure out how he wears his hair. I'm not. He walks in and there on the TV is Coach Carter. It's Saturday morning and they're playing a bootleg DVD of a film that opened the day before (Friday).

Cedric writes, "I tried to do the right thing, I walked out."

What's the right thing to do?

I don't know. I do know that if more people see Coach Carter on bootleg DVDs than at the movies, don't whine later on if studios look at the box office returns and decide Samuel L. Jackson is "unbankable."

I mentioned Cedric's quandry to my friend Latrice who said, "That's so disgusting. Our grandparents turned out in droves not just for a film starring Sidney Poitier, but for anything that even had a strong supporting part by a black actor. We have not come far enough that we can start stealing freebies. Halle Berry may have won an Oscar, Denzel may have as well, but if you think about it, there have been only three black stars of the box office since Sidney, Richard Pryor in the seventies, Eddie Murphy in the eighties and Will Smith in the nineties. Are we going to see anyone in this decade? Not if we're buying bootlegs at flea markets and gas stations instead of buying tickets to movies. I could care less if megaconglomerate like AOL Time Warner CNN Disney ABC loses money. I do care when we're ripping off our own futures."

I think we have all ripped off our own musical futures. We didn't mean to. It was there, it was free, we are short on cash, why not grab that download?

I mean aren't the Rolling Stones rich enough? After all these years of huge sales, isn't it greedy for EMI/Capitol to keep charging the same price for Abbey Road (or any Beatles album) as they do for a new release?

The labels are greedy. They are also liars. They told us CDs would bring down the cost of albums as the format became more popular. And that really hasn't happened. So I could care less that they've lost any money.

But if you're living on burned copies, I don't know that you've got any right to complain that music sucks. Forget legality and morality for a moment and just focus on the fact that the album you listen to over and over, that one you put on when you're tired or feeling good, you didn't show any support for it. The label has no record of a purchase and this band that you think it is the greatest thing in the world got one less "vote" because you weren't willing to fork over the almost 20 bucks the labels are asking for.

This isn't boo-hoo for the labels. Like most people I know, I bought the stripped down version of U2's How to Build an Atomic Bomb. The label offered various versions with "bonuses." Bonuses? I could pay an extra ten bucks for some remixes and videos. Pay extra for "bonuses?"
Shouldn't an extra, a bonus, be given freely? I think the labels need to rethink that. If they want to give a bonus (give being the operative word), then they might try enclosing a coupon for a few bucks off your next purchase of a CD on that label. They want to give a bonus? How about an instant saving on these over priced CDs?

But we need to take a long hard look at ourselves as well. A friend of mine has a kid brother who is a total metal head. Carlos loves his Incubus, Slipknot and Rancid. Every album he has by those groups is a burned CD. And it's really hard for me to work up any sympathy for Carlos about labels gouging the customers when I look through his collection and find he's paid for three Shanai Twain albums and for a Britney Spears and a Justin Timberlake among others.

When Carlos can't get a hold of an album and burn it, he will go out and buy it. And what does he pay for? Prepackaged crap.

Carlos is 17 and his biggest beef is that he can't listen to the radio these days because it sucks. It does suck. And who helps it suck, Carlos? You do.

The only time Carlos' music interests registered with the labels were when he bought crap. Incubus, he says, is his favorite band. He brags about having every CD they've ever released. But he didn't buy any of them.

He can only open the wallet for the likes of Twain, Britty and Justy. So when he's complaining that Jessica Simpson is on the radio, he needs to shut his damn pie hole. It's people like Carlos that ensure the labels go looking for the next Britty or Justy. When he's griping that his "rock" radio station won't play Slipknot but will play Faith Hill, he needs to look in his own damn mirror and see what his greed has allowed.

I'm not shedding tears for the labels. All five of them. (Or is four now? Three?) The bootlegging has done one thing positive, it's made Wall Street nervous. If Wall Street gets nervous enough, maybe some of the larger labels will break up and return to be being owned by individuals and not conglomerations? Maybe we could see a Jerry Moss or a Herb Albert making decisions about what music to put out based upon what they actually like as opposed to some demographic study about what will have the best chances of a BK tie in?

Who knows?

And I'm not trying to make anyone feel guilty about what they've done in the past.
But if you're someone who says ___ is my favorite group and you can look through your CD collection and see nothing but burned bootlegs of ____ then I think starting today you need to start putting some economic power behind your support of ____.

Crap will always sell. There's always some great aunt or uncle who'll dash into Target at Christmas time and ask a clerk, "What are the kids listening to? Is it clean or dirty?" and buy it for you based on that. But if you're tired of all the crap from Britty and Justy and Vegas-adult- contemporary passing itself off as country music, quit burning and start buying.

To the labels, all they know of someone like Carlos is that he buys Twain, Timberlake and Twatty, er Britty. Those three "artists" sold. They're going to be looking for other "artists" like those three so they can sell more CDs. The days when an independent label could be a player in the industry are long gone. Now everyone's been absorbed and has a board to answer to. The decisions are not being based on music on any level. There's no Jac Holzman pushing a group that might sell eventually. It's "Did they sell? No, well drop 'em and tell me what did sell? Okay, get me twenty more artists like Britney!"

Today, I doubt Warner Bros., for instance, would carry a Bonnie Raitt as long as they once did. (I believe they dropped her in 1984 when they dropped a number of acts. I'm speaking of the time they carried her when the only "hit" she had was "Runaway.") In the current climate, that drop would have been the end of Raitt. There wouldn't have been a Nine Lives or any of the other Grammy award winning work she went on to do.

If you're reading this and feeling real smug, don't. Maybe you don't burn off copies of your favorite band or musician. Good for you. But that's not where it ends. I was sleeping with a guy I called Silicone Toby and one morning he asks if he can take one of my PJ Harvey CDs to work. Sure, why not?

That evening, he's so proud of himself and thinks I'm going to be thrilled. He's downloaded it to the hard drive of his computer at work and he "probably burned 15 copies today." Silicone Toby pulled down five figures, he and his coworkers could damn well afford to go out and buy an album by PJ Harvey. But music didn't matter, other things mattered. I broke it up with him. (A good call because this so-called Dem later tried to hit up my friends for donations to Ahnuld's campaign.)

So just because you're rightly opposed to burning off copies doesn't mean you have any right to be smug unless you're making sure others aren't copying your CDs. As irritating as Maggie can be with her "borrowing" of CDs (if she borrows from you, she never gives it back, you have to wait until she's drunk off her ass and then liberate it yourself), at least someone like that isn't destroying the sales of real music.

I've got nothing against a mix CD. (Or a bootleg of a concert, but that's another issue.) A mix CD can highlight various artists and various songs and motivate you to go out and buy some music. But if someone gives you a burned copy of a complete album, what does that mean? Are you going to say, "Well I don't have the booklet, so I'll go out and buy it just for the booklet."

Most people won't. And if you're getting this as a gift, you might want to ask yourself how cheap is this giver? She or he gave you a "gift" that basically cost them nothing. What's the Bette Davis line? "I'll admit I may have seen better days . . . but I'm still not to be had for the price of a cocktail, like a salted peanut."

Even a mix CD takes some thought and work. Bootlegging a whole album? Why don't you just steal me some flowers as you pass a grave yard while you're at it?

If you're reading this and you truly have no money, I'm not speaking to you. I'm talking to the people who could pick up a check but are grabbing free meals instead.

Music, like therapy, means more when you pay for it. A pushy little Kimberly e-mailed me about the list of albums saying, "I can't believe you didn't put Sheryl Crow on the list! She's taking stands! She's being counted! Her greatest hits album is great that I can't stop burning it for friends! How dare you leave her off!"

Well, Kimberly, there were no greatest hits or best of collections on the list. But if you feel Sheryl Crow is standing up and "being counted" why are you stripping her of potential sales by burning off copies for your friends? I don't know how much the album costs today but I do know it was part of a program by that label to make CDs available at a lower cost. I can go to any music store and find it for less than fifteen bucks. Sheryl Crow's so lucky to have a fan like you who takes time away from burning copies of her albums to dash off an e-mail griping at me about a list.

Out of curiousity, I e-mailed Kimberly (no, I don't respond to most of the e-mail). Exactly how many friends have you "shared" the music of Sheryl Crow with? Kimberly boasted of over fifty.
Kimberly, if there are ten other people like you, that's 500 copies of the album that didn't sell.
If there are a hundred other people like you, that's 5,000 copies. If there are a thousand people like you, that's 50,000. Ten thousand would provide us with 500,000 copies out there that didn't sell.

Get the point, Kimberly? "My" list didn't include best ofs (and no one nominated Sheryl Crow at either party). "My" list didn't provide free copies of her album. "My" list didn't cut into her sales. Maybe none of Kimberly's friends would have bought the album if they'd had to pay for it. But we'll never know. But you can be sure that if the sales didn't meet expectations, someone's in an office somewhere using her as an example to try to persuade some other act to speak out.

People, we gotta draw a line.