Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Art For Sale

As music and business become more tightly interwoven, we have to learn to pull them apart

By Bill Friskics-Warren

FEBRUARY 15, 1999:  Nashville MC Count Bass-D sums up the misfortunes of many modern-day pop musicians on his new CD, Art for Sale. "Art for sale (My record company is jerking me)/Art for sale (In a million ways that I can't see)," he quips, alluding to his ill-fated deal with Sony/Columbia several years ago. In 1995, the multinational corporation released the Count's critically acclaimed debut, Pre-Life Crisis, only to drop him before giving the record a shot with radio and retailers. Presumably, execs there didn't think it would sell. Whose crystal ball told them this is anyone's guess.

"Art for Sale" is an autobiographical sketch and, as such, offers only a micro-level look at the music industry. But the sentiments expressed in the song also strike at the heart of a much larger issue--that of corporate control and commodification of pop culture. This has been going on, to some degree, since the inception of motion pictures and the phonograph record. But recently, nowhere has it manifested itself as ominously as in the massive restructuring of the Seagrams-owned Universal Music Group.

In December, Seagrams acquired PolyGram for $10.4 billion, after which it merged Universal and PolyGram to form the world's largest music conglomerate. In the process, the music industry's "Big Six" companies dwindled to a mere handful (Sony, Warner, BMG, EMI, and Universal), further squeezing a market in which conditions were already tantamount to oligopoly.

The liquor giant now has its tentacles around 25 percent of the $15 billion U.S. record trade, as well as 23 percent of the $50 billion global market. In Nashville--where Seagrams merged Mercury and MCA, shutting down the latter's Decca imprint and purging most of its roster--Universal now commands 29 percent of the country market, nearly 10 percent more than its closest competitors, EMI Distribution (Capitol) and WEA (Warner, Reprise, Curb, Atlantic, Giant).

Such heedless growth might offend more modest sensibilities, but shareholders can't seem to get enough of it. Convinced that bigger is better, they believe that mergers and other "synergies" give their investments more visibility and clout, and thus higher returns. As the driving force behind the recent rise in stock prices, M and A (merger and acquisition) is a hit with record company CEOs as well. Such moves offer the potential for greater economies of scale, greater efficiency, and wider profit margins.

More than just a trend, then, conglomerate ownership of record companies is the way major labels now do business. In fact, it's how most giant corporations operate: Citicorp, one of the nation's largest banks, just bought the Travelers Group, one of America's biggest securities brokerage and insurance companies. And as this goes to press, Exxon is closing a deal to buy Mobil Corp.--a move that would merge two of the largest international oil companies. The weight of these deals far exceeds anything that's happened in the music business.

Of course, most of us don't give a shit about the economics of the record industry so long as we can the find the latest Beck or Boyz II Men CDs at Blockbuster. But maybe it's time we did. Corporate maneuvering has a huge impact on what music we do and don't get to hear.

Despite the glut of product on the market today, consolidation effectively gives us fewer choices. Rather than taking risks on new, distinctive performers, big conglomerates would prefer to cultivate "cookie-cutter" acts in hopes of replicating the multi-platinum successes of Garth, Jewel, and Brandy. The result is that most records are "dumbed down" to reach the broadest possible demographic. And once a major sinks a half-million dollars into a Jewel-clone's record, and another half-million into promoting it, there's little capital left to develop mid-level or alternative acts.

This, in turn, creates a false consensus, the illusion that the cream rises to the top--that insipid acts like 311 and Puff Daddy are not only the people's choice, but also the best music out there. The irony is that these prepackaged best-sellers are the creation of accountant-entrepreneurs who manufacture, as opposed to earn, this consent.

It's no wonder that more and more fans pine for the days when music wasn't so homogenized, when locally owned independents such as Sun Records in Memphis, King in Cincinnati, and Chess in Chicago developed on their own terms. Sure, these imprints were money-driven, and, yes, they exploited their artists--rumor has it that Chess still hasn't paid Bo Diddley--but their records were often the products of instinct and whim, not of spreadsheets and focus-group reports. You can hear this immediacy in the music they made--in King Records' decision to throw hillbilly singer Moon Mullican into the studio with black R&B musicians, or in Elvis' transformation of "Milkcow Blues Boogie" as he halted the take and said, "Let's get real, real gone for a change."

Alas, nostalgia will get us nowhere. Record-making in the '90s is a market-driven economy, and it isn't about to change. But that doesn't mean we have to buy it. If you don't like it, commodify your dissent. A friend of mine doesn't eat fast food or drink Coke. It's a quixotic gesture, to be sure, and one that seemingly can't have far-reaching implications. And yet who'd have thought that an upstart like Starbuck's would cut into Maxwell House's market share and spawn a multimillion-dollar specialty-coffee trade?

Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe label is doing much the same thing in the music industry--calling its own shots and making money to boot. So is John Prine's Nashville-based Oh Boy Records. And hopefully, now that they've gotten out from under the thumb of Time-Warner, Steve Earle, Jack Emerson, and their E-Squared label will do so as well.

There are plenty of indie labels out there. Historically, they've served an important purpose, and no doubt, they'll continue to do so. While major labels dictate the terms of the marketplace, smaller companies focus on the issues germane to music fans: originality, aesthetic value, the simple exchange of ideas. And nowadays individuals like Victoria Williams and Mark Olson are starting to cut the "middle-man" completely out of the picture, rendering an unobstructed connection between artist and consumer. Doubtless, we'll see more of this as direct marketing and retail on the Internet become the forces that prognosticators have long said they would be.

Art is, and likely always will be, for sale. The commodification of truth and beauty--those things we once believed to be the fruit of inspiration--is part of life at the end of the 20th century. "Why change the methods?" Count Bass-D asks with resignation on his new CD. "It's selling records." Conditions in the marketplace indeed seem irreversible, and if we don't like it, our only option is resistance, even if that simply means buying indie records instead of major-label product. If, in the process, a player like Ani DiFranco emerges as the music-industry equivalent of Starbuck's, so be it: She has as much right to live the American dream as Capitol Records' Pat Quigley does.

And consumers obviously have the right to choose what they purchase. But when they shell out 17 bucks for the latest Garth Brooks CD, they should know whose pockets they're lining.

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