Thursday, July 1, 2004

Summer music doldrums

There was some pretty big news in the music world last week when the very popular Lollapalooza tour for this summer scrapped the entire tour just a few days after tickets went on sale.

The announcement came as a surprise because this year's tour looked like one of the stronger lineups in the last few years, even if the bands scheduled to play were not multi-platinum artists. Morrissey, alt-rockers The Flaming Lips, the art noise band Sonic Youth, and the delightful Polyphonic Spree were all scheduled to play during the 16-city tour. The tour also planned to have a second stage - powered entirely on solar energy - and was sponsoring a voter registration drive.

Everyone in the music business was shocked by the cancellation which made national news. But, after a little analysis, it isn't that surprising that this tour - and others - have been cancelled. The music business is going through some serious changes and most have nothing to do with the file sharing controversy.

The most obvious culprit is a bad economy which is taking a toll on middle class folks who might take in a concert or two during the summer. If you think about it, the recent rise in gas prices weekly are about the cost of a concert ticket.

Other priorities in life also change the way the buying public spends its money. Most of the bands slated for Lollapalooza were "Generation X" bands. As we all know, we X-ers are getting older, buying homes, and raising families. Sure, we still might still hope to see a band or two, but the summers where we are out all week drinking and seeing bands are long behind us.

Another problem is the ticket price itself which some industry experts say has doubled over the last eight years. Recent Madonna tickets were priced as high as $300. Who is going to pay that? You really have to be a "material girl" to afford those tickets. The Lollapalooza tickets, however, seemed reasonably priced, around $30 for an all day show. It also doesn't help that a handful of companies now controls all of the ticket sales and concert promotions for the entire country, charging exorbitant fees and surcharges.

Personally, I have sworn off the big stadium concerts and my reasons go beyond the high ticket prices. Some readers may recall a column I wrote about seeing The Who at the Tweeter Center two years ago and how disturbing it was waiting in line for so long, being herded around like cattle and then frisked like I was a terrorist or something. Sorry, I'll wait for the live concert DVD, pay less money, and enjoy the concert repeatedly on my very loud stereo.

But the biggest problem of all is the music business itself and how wretched it has become. In some ways - I can't believe I am saying this, I sound like an old-timer - I miss the good old days of rock 'n' roll when a song became part of your life at the first moment you heard it. I long for the day when musical artists cared more about their art and less about their financial portfolios. In some ways, it isn't the artist's fault. There have always been crappy bands, signed by accountants masquerading as music lovers. A lot of these record company execs even ripped off artists - and continue to do so - with bad recording contracts that offer fewer rights than migrant workers have. Most artists make their money from touring and T-shirt sales. With tours tanking in the marketplace one has to wonder what some of these people are going to do to put food on the table.

Then, there is radio, which has been in a steady decline both in listenership and quality.

Radio has also been so formatted that very hard to find something fresh and new. Sure, college and community radio stations still challenge the listener. But their signals can be so small that unless you live right on top of the station, you can't pick it up. It is hard to imagine that just two decades ago the modern rock format was born out of the boredom of what has now become classic rock. Most of the bands were groundbreaking and some went on to become very popular.

But along the way, record companies wrecked this music too, by bombarding the listener with mediocre copycat bands with similar styles to those who made the "new wave." Instead of putting in the time and effort to find unique bands, record labels just turned on the cookie-cutter machine and everything started to sound the same. As one artist put it, a band like The Doors would never get signed in a million years because of their originality.

Over the last few years, alternative switched gears and basically became re-treaded metal - driving listeners away in droves. At the same time, Top 40 radio stations no longer air pop songs, preferring to pummel their audiences with grunts, samples, and screeching disguised as music.

Then, there are the pathetic stunts musicians pull to keep themselves in the limelight. Some are just plain silly, like lesbian kissing scenes on national television. Others are downright embarrassing.

Take INXS, one of my favorite bands, which now has a new reality TV series recently picked up by CBS. The band will try out aspiring singers, ala "American Idol," with the finalists living in Hollywood together until a winner is chosen. The winner then gets to go on tour with the band next year. It's pretty sad that a group of good musicians has to stoop this low just to make a comeback. Somewhere, their mate, the late singer Michael Hutchence, an amazing performer and songwriter who cared about his craft, is spinning in his grave.

Something has to give and hopefully, changes can be made. A good start would be musicians worrying less about the business aspect of the industry and embracing the art and joy of music again. That was originally the point, wasn't it? Record labels could also help by nurturing an artist instead of worrying about the quarterly spreadsheets. With the state of the music business now, nothing can hurt.

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