Is The New Music Business Really The Old Music Business?
“ Even so, because those stores perceive this music as having a limited appeal, they won't put the music upfront on their sites, they don't create content that will drive users to purchasing downloads. ”
I was shopping online the other day for Archie Shepp's Attica Blues.
Back in the early 70s, when I was living in New York, I heard Shepp repeatedly at Slug's. His performances had an element of danger because the man himself is a dramatic, unpredictable original, a firebrand with a gentle soul. Attica Blues perfectly encapsulates those times, when there was great change in the air, and something called hope. Who could have predicted three decades later that America would become the The Kingdom of Fear.
A few years later, when I wrote for Down Beat, I interviewed Shepp when he was still teaching at the University of Mass., and found him to be a fiery, dynamic fellow, uncompromising yet tied, very profoundly, to his tribal elders, most notably his mentor, John Coltrane.
The All Music Guide writes that is " Attica Blues is one of Archie Shepp's most significant post-'60s statements, recorded just several months after authorities ended the Attica prison uprising by massacring 43 inmates and hostages. Perhaps because Shepp's musical interests were changing, Attica Blues isn't the all-out blast of rage one might expect; instead, it's a richly arranged album of mournful, quietly agonized blues and Ellingtonian swing, mixed with a couple of storming funk burners."
When I made the transition from LPs to CDs, this one got lost in the shuffle and I had to wait years for Impulse, a division of Verve, a division of the Universal Music Group, to finally re-release it. Living in Tucson, finding an Archie Shepp CD in a retail outlet is about as likely finding an honest politician (Arizona is ripe with tainted public officials and mendacious businessmen). Hence my online search for this recording.
Archie Shepp on Ebay?
When I shop on the web for a particular item and I know what I want, I usually jump right over to Froogle, and find the best price and if the merchant seems at all reputable, I'll buy it there. In this case, Froogle sent me to Ebay, the auction site, where the price of the CD was $7.50. That seemed like a good deal so I bid as part of an auction that would end an hour or so later. I turned out to be the only bidder because a couple of hours later, I got an email that I won the auction, and that the seller was the Universal Music Group.
Wait a minute!
The Universal Music Group is selling their CDs on Ebay, via bidding, auctions, etc.? I contacted a friend of mine over at Verve who confirmed that there is a division of the company dedicated doing exactly that. Obviously the new media people at Universal realize that Ebay is yet another venue that can be successfully utilized to sell their music. Why not?
In the 90s, when I did my Pariah thing on Bird Lives, I used to write impassioned diatribes decrying the injustices of the music business, particularly on the part of the major record labels.
Yes, it's true, the music business has never been a bastion of fairness and decency. And, judging from the music that's played on the radio and put up on a pedestal today, quality has still nothing to do with success in the music business either.
But, I no longer see major record labels as the enemy. Things just aren't that black and white.
Multi-national conglomerates do run the world, controlling the food we eat, the energy we consume, and the air we breathe, as well the choices that our tabloid based major media offers. And the remaining major record labels are, like it or not, part of that corporate ethos, yet the people who work there aren't about exploitation. They're about trying to get their music into as many places as possible. They want to sell their CDs. That's all.
And if they're in the Jazz departments of these corporations, they're usually dedicated to this music. It's that sense of urgency and belief in this remarkable art form that one needs in fighting the corporate number-crunchers, and the incredible competition that exists today (8,000 new Jazz CDs released last year).
What these remaining major labels still have are considerable resources. Not the same resources that go into the selling of pop idols and stars, but certainly more money than an individual artist, small or mid-size label would have at their disposal. In the case of Verve, they also have an incredible catalogue to sell and license. And groups of people to work in all facets of selling music online, from setting up a website to selling the music on E-bay.
The Changing Landscape
As the sale of digital downloads starts to build some momentum, we have several major entities involved: I-Tunes, Rhapsody, Microsoft, Napster, and Music-Match (just purchased by Yahoo). You'll find some Jazz on each of these "services," and Jazz downloads are legally sold here. That's a good thing.
But like any major entity, these companies, these digital download stores, are primarily interested in profits, just like any other business. They make a lot more money from Jay-Z than they do from Clifford Brown. So, that's the music they're most likely to feature, putting a thug on their home page instead than a dead trumpeter.
When users visit these stores, the first thing they see is the content (what little of it there really is), that's being featured. And that's what sells because they are, in essence, driving the traffic to that music. If and when I-Tunes chooses to feature a Jazz artist, then the sale of those downloads increases, dramatically.
But because Jazz is, and has been relegated to a "back of the bus" status in the marketplace, we're back to square one.
The distribution channels, before the Internet, were controlled by the major labels. The Net changed that, but at this point, the major labels have the major download stores all locked up. Where does that leave the rest of us?
Even so, because those stores perceive this music as having a limited appeal, they won't put the music upfront on their sites, they don't create content that will drive users to purchasing downloads.
There always have been, and always will be, the big guys and the little guys. In this case, the big guys have money, and are doing everything they can to market and sell the music using new media.
But are the little guys going to get lost in the shuffle, again???
No, and next time, I'll tell you why.