[inspired by musings from musings from last week from my good friend Andy Burt’s blog, Snobbin’: Beautiful Trash of the Indie Gutter, a blog i am pleased to commend to you for semi-regular musings on quality music and the occasional cultural whatnot. –b.]
I can’t help myself from snickering when I hear or read someone complain about corporate control of media, while getting their information from a channel only available through a major corporation’s television service or Internet services, which were entirely subsidized for by corporate interests and advertising, railing against Wall Street while searching information on Google from their Apple MacBook whilst listening to iTunes or Spotify.
It’s the arena where the latter two are situated where I focus today, music. Though we’ve been well-entrenched in it for some time, I’d like to formally welcome you to the era of macro radio, or macradio.
It wasn’t that much of a long time ago that the predominant way of discovering new music was to fire up the radio and scan the AM airwaves for far-off stations. In Martin Scorcese’s documentary on Bob Dylan No Direction Home, Dylan recalls staying up at night, trying to pull in stations from his boyhood home in Minnesota. He would pick up Memphis and New Orleans, both major radio catalysts for new music in their respective times. In one of the seminal works on blues history, Deep Blues, Robert Palmer (no, not that one) mentions Memphis radio as being instrumental in launching the careers of a considerable number of blues singers; then later responsible for launching rock and roll. As recently recalled in 2009’s Pirate Radio, when England restricted radio airplay, a station began broadcasting from the North Sea. Burt, as well as yours truly, recalls laying in bed at night, searching for AM radio stations, though by that point, the music had long abandoned the AM band in favor of news radio.
In the years between the dominance of radio and this era of macradio, we swapped vinyl, cassettes, CDs. Then Napster and a slew of imitators p2p services popped up. Then the government stepped in, with the corporate clout and financing of the Recording Industry Association of America, and shut down or castrated most of them. Of course, these services still exist, just in different iterations: when the law says something is wrong, it does not solve the problem, but only pushes the problem further underground. After all, necessity is the mother of invention, which is precisely why entrenched institutions and interests–public and private alike–feel no compunction or need to change. Why change when you can just sue the pants off the upstart competition, or call a senator whose campaign was more than sufficiently greased by contributions and sic the regulators on ’em?
Now, radio is sterile, most stations merely piping in content from a satellite feed. iTunes and other reverse payola online services force you to pay for what ends up being lending music which doesn’t have intermittent squeals or beeps on them. Amazon can go into your Kindle account (and their cloud service) and delete anything it wishes. Music, a bastion of rebellious innovation and counter-culture, has been tamed. Have you turned off your satellite radio subscription or iPod and scanned the FM dial lately? For most people, there wouldn’t be much a difference, which is to say that there isn’t anything much worth listening to.
And while the interwebs have provided us the ability to go out and discover new music, it also provides us bittersweet access to find, well, just about whatever it is we want. I was turned onto Jazz artist Sidney Bechet a few years ago, and sought to find some of his catalog. I found exactly what I wanted on eBay in less than a minute. In a few more days, I had the record. And I felt horrible about it! We used to have to go scour crates and musty old record shops to unearth a treasure, now we just plug it into a search field (I refrain from the google-plex as much as I can, and recommend DuckDuckGo) and can click our way to it.
Gone from our culture is the sense of adventure which accompanied each trip to a flea market, record store or estate sale. There are some of us left, but the economy has sapped many of us of our disposable income. What used to go toward a stack of wax now goes into our gas tanks. The radio rebels have disappeared in favor of stations which are nothing less than media libraries on shuffle, the disc jockey replaced by gossip mavens and endless commercials for the same three things, two of which are usually insurance scams and thinly-veiled ads for penis enlargement. Too bad few the balls to do real radio anymore.
I further suspect that as the spirit of radio has died, so has the desire for true artistic and musical endeavor. When I’ve listened to a genre station on my internet radio provider of choice, I’m shocked at how homogenized supposedly independent artists have become. The underground has become pop radio with acoustic guitars or Les Pauls, beards and skinny jeans. The electronic artists are samey, as well.
Everything is corporate and lifeless now. Production qualities are about clean, sterile sound now. The cracks and pops of well-seasoned vinyl, the hum of a slightly shorted stereo system, the static of that AM radio station that’s just out of reach on a clear winter’s night, they’re just not to be endured. And those who would stand with me championing my cause would complain about corporate media because they heard something glib and witty from Jon Stewart last night. You know Jon Stewart, whose ad space is bought by major corporations on a television channel which can only be accessed by paying a major corporation to provide the channel (along with 12893475923495 other ones you’re never going to watch) on a television manufactured by a major corporation powered by the electricity provided by a major corporation. Either accept the fact that just about everything, including your music, is macro, or go join the Stone Age. Sorry, friends, but you’re as complicit as anyone else. Rebellion is the new conformity.
And the industry wonders why people like me don’t buy many new records anymore. We’d fund the record companies bleeding cash if they provided us artists whose product is worth buying. People steal or pirate (or borrow, depending on how you look at it) what they ultimately don’t care about. Short-sighted industry moguls are more interested in a potential starlet’s cup size than her singing ability or instrumental proficiency. (Saith movie mogul Jack Woltz, courtesy The Godfather: “…I’ll be even more frank, just to show you that I’m not a hard-hearted man, that it wasn’t just dollars and cents. She was beautiful, she was young, she was innocent! She was greatest piece of ass I’ve ever had and I’ve had them all over the world!” And that was set in post-World War II. At least there was a pretense of decency, even if it was all an inside joke then and now downright laughable.)
Give us a reason to buy a record and we’ll buy it. Force us to listen to the same 17 songs in two hours and expect more ethically-questionable activities. Macradio ultimately cannot sustain itself, but what has been opened is a Pandora’s Box: in there isn’t a single mixtape to be found.