Evan Rowe is a local songwriter and performer best-known as Catalonia, a professor of political science and history at Broward College, and a small-d democratic strategist with no party affiliation. Each week, we surrender our space for his thoughts on the music industry and how they relate to our region. This week, what is the price of fame?
Modern musical fame is rooted in "branding," as the business community calls it. It is similar to many other things in our economy. The dominant players in a given market use monetary entry barriers to filter out competitors from participating in key parts of the economic space. Think of an aerospace company versus a T-shirt company. If you are building satellite-guided missiles, there is a certain entry price in order to produce in this market. T-shirts, on the other hand, is a business with much lower entry costs. The result is that far more people can enter the T-shirt production side than can enter the aerospace production business. But the music industry isn't the same type of production anymore.
In the 20th Century, the music model was built around mass production; i.e., you would mass-produce the commodities you would sell (recordings) and mark them up with fixed cartel-style pricing -- $9.99, $13.99, whatever it was. Money was exchanged at the point of selling a commodity. Without getting into the absurdities of the modern profit system (like marking up something that costs 20 cents to $15), there was at least some semblance of a marketplace.
But two major forces shifted the music industry. As Daniel Wolf points out that with "the mass introduction of cheap digital recording equipment and media as well as the widespread use of portable digital players... The old model of radio advertising paying royalties for recorded music which were licensed cheaply for broadcast with the idea that randomly-heard broadcasts of songs were advertisements for the purchase of albums -- which allowed the listener to select particular songs on their own -- pretty much collapsed at that point in time." So what you end up with is a cost structure that brings the cost to produce content that falls to near zero.
There are obvious qualitative differences in recording quality, but they are less significant than the amount of space any given artist or their pushers can purchase. And that is the core reality of the modern music economy: The artists who are famous are famous because they have purchased what is required to subtly create the perception of fame. This feeds on itself. The more fame you buy, the more famous you seem. So Lady Gaga is spun repeatedly on corporate radio because the money behind her purchases the airtime through whatever name they are currently calling what used to be called payola but is now an everyday accepted practice. Because they use middlemen? I have no idea why. Perhaps it's just typical post-Reagan era pro-business insanity.
Money buys advertising; it buys spins, reviews, billboards, etc. Above all, the purpose of spending all of this money is to take up as much valuable mental real estate in the aggregate audience. That is what advertising is about: It's the mental real estate business. So this is the process that determines what is (and is not) "mainstream," a term I do not use as a pejorative (cough, hipsters). There is nothing inherently or qualitatively mainstream or indie or whatever term we want to use for the styles of music today. There is no difference between Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Kanye West, and Pitbull compared to the Arcade Fire or Raffa and Rainer or Stonefox (or whatever they end up calling themselves) other than the fact that the former have purchased more space and created the perception and the latter have not.
Mental real estate is purchased. And having a system where money drives who gets the most mental real estate is part of our right wing, power-mad society, and the music is nothing more than a reflection of that state of affairs. The "mainstream" of 1980 was different from the one in 1960, and so on.
Audiences, when exposed to higher-quality content, have the same malleable neurology today as they did when the Beatles were big. The difference is that audiences only know what they are exposed to. It is easy to understand why a misguided public does not know what it's missing -- what's hard is crashing a bad system into the ground and replacing it with something more vibrant so that this can be demonstrated. Within some limits, pop music is simply whatever we hear that we know other people are hearing too. The business monkeys that are running the country and music system are a big part of the problem -- but the technology has also splintered the audience. It's getting harder and harder to share common cultural icons with the proliferation of channels and content. To solve this will require overhaul-type thinking.
1. Take over radio as laid out in my earlier piece; install a two-pronged electoral system. Pay for this with taxes -- artists will suddenly have small but viable incomes to sustain local economies for musical equipment, shows, etc.
2. Open up content to float free and not try to sell something in a make-believe marketplace that has an infinite supply. There have been a few experiments in this regard, but if we allow it to float, the accounting will become much easier because instead of policing the consumers for piracy, we can police a much smaller producer system. You want to reward what is socially desired by the audiences. Without the forced feeding, it is all but certain that the quality of the content will radically change within two years or less.