Monday, March 24, 2008

The Return Of Musical Regionalism

Recently I performed at Congress Hall at the Singer Songwriter Cape May convention. After my show I spoke with a few young musicians who wanted some advice about their musical careers. “We aren’t trying to be famous,” one said, “we’re just trying to make a little money to survive, and play our music.” That sounded sensible to me. With the empowerment of the Internet, there are more and more artists and writers choosing to pursue their art regardless of how much success it brings them. This seems healthy for the music. What we have once again is a decentralized industry consisting of the local scenes of dozens of major markets, and there's great music to be found in all of them.

This is a reactionary movement in some ways. The sterility and sameness of the product that has been mass promoted by the corporate labels has begun to seem just like those endless exits off the interstates staked out by Wendy's, Starbucks and Ruby Tuesday. They figure if you drive no more than a mile from the highway you'll never know you've left home. This is exactly the experience most people DON'T want when they travel. They yearn for some local color, a cool little diner or coffee shop, or a clean inexpensive motel where you can can see some of the indigenous culture. The same is true of the music. There's nothing better when I'm on the road than to catch some great local picking somewhere between Charleston West Virginia and Asheville North Carolina. Fortunately the recent explosion of the coffeehouse and listening room has enabled many regional performers to tour within a few hours of home, find plenty of fans, keep a low overhead, meet expenses, and in some cases eke out at least a supplemental income.

Interestingly enough, there’s a paradox here. As the Internet reaches more globally, the music is becoming more regional. This is in stark contrast to the traditional music industry, which ignored the Internet for years, thought globally, and brought us more and more homogenized soulless music.

Where does this leave the traditional music industry? As Trent Reznor admitted in a recent interview, it was good to have those major labels sometimes because it freed us up to make music rather than deal with the radio guy and the promotion guy. But we paid a premium for our dependence on record labels, and as it turns out, their jobs weren’t so damn hard. Most of us manage to make our music, update our My Space pages, book a few gigs, print up the posters, submit our CDs to indie radio, ship the CDs that sell on our websites, and still have time to write a blog, answer email, and get to sound check.

The big labels are missing the boat. If they were to partner with some of the more successful regional artists and be content to earn less off of more artists, their bottom line would go down and their profits would eventually rise. Why? Because there’d be no need to hire a bloated staff of people whose only job, it turns out, is pretending that promotion or inventory management is a full time gig. As those of us steadily pedaling down the indie highway can tell you, it ain’t. The truth is, the music business has had too many monkeys on it’s back for decades.

When you pay a record exec a hefty six figure salary, allow him to sign checks for $200,000 recording budgets, hire an overpaid staff of “niche experts”, and then only expect a success ratio of one in five acts, is it any wonder the company is in the red?

This weekend I was talking with my friend Ron Sowell, who has a humble but creatively rewarding steady gig as the musical director of the Mountain Stage public radio show. After I’d run through the litany of complaints and diatribes I’d heard around Music Row last week he said, “When ever I talk to someone in Nashville I hear the same thing. But, it seems to me that most musicians are just trying to create their art and make a little money in the process, too. That’s what people like me have been doing all along!”

I had to admit he was right. The mainstream music industry has operated with a sense of entitlement for the past three decades. Because they were able to throw piles of money at an act, they did, and they always assumed consumers would buy it if it was packaged right. But they've forgotten how important local entertainment and local promotion once was to the establishment of their empires. Where would RCA be without a kid named Elvis who was developed by a little Memphis label called Sun Records. These days the breeding ground for the major labels consists of "regional auditions" for American Idol, which, let's face it, isn't the same thing as taping into the rich local communities where bands, pickers and songwriters have honed their skills in bars, at festivals or revival meetings, on street corners, and in jam sessions for many years. The most talented people tend to shy away from shows like Idol anyway.

Fortunately the facts tell us that indie music sales are up, indie artists have fans who buy music as opposed to stealing it, and without the moronic cloning of cookie cutter artists, the indie labels have given us all of the best music of the past decade. Regional music rules again.

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt


tom said...

i'm all for it.

the people who are fueling this trend are the music geeks of the future - the people who still get up off their sofas to go to shows, who are emotionally available enough to be so moved by a piece of music that they heard somewhere that they're willing to plunk down money they could be spending on gasoline for CD's at shows and on CDBaby...who care enough about music to become personally involved in it in some form or fashion.

you and i have both seen evidence of this trend in our own careers, and (speaking for myself) i couldn't be happier to be witness to it.

hope your music city trip was to you soon. :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your blog and your take on the music business. I am a local musician in southwest virginia and I couldn't agree more with you on your outlook of the music business. I just had my first song recorded on someone else's bluegrass record and I'm thrilled about the fact someone else wanted my song! I'm sure it's not as thrilling for you considering you've written so many songs out there now. I have Pro Tools in my basement and guitar in hand and CDbaby and local venues at my disposal. I just need to hone my craft! Thanks and you are an inspiration!