Musicians (and Fans) Must Take Responsibility

March 31, 2012
by Ric Albano

This is a response to Chris Nelson’s article on local music. Although I do agree with much of the sentiment of his article, I have to point out some of the glaring points Mr. Nelson has seemed to miss.

First, let’s look at where Chris and I agree. He is correct in pointing out the absurdity of the mainstream music industry in general, the fact that they are “youth” obsessed, and that they do, in fact peddle crap in most instances. No doubt the “industry” trumps the “music” in most cases and this has been the fact for a long time.

The reason the industry is so youth obsessed is because the young have the greatest appetite for identity and new music is a great tool to identify oneself, hence young people are much more likely to purchase new music. I’m not making excuses for them (no one hates the music industry more than I do) but the bottom line is their first, middle, and last concern.

Now before I get into my points of disagreement with Mr. Nelson, I’d like to reveal something that has become ever more clear to me lately. For the past 15 months or so, I’ve been doing reviews of classic rock albums at my site Classic Rock Review. During this period, I’ve really honed my listening skills and, in contrast, discovered how weak these skills had been in the past (even though I thought of myself as a great appreciator of music). And here I’ve discovered the sharp distinction between LISTENING to music and HEARING music.

Most people HEAR music but don’t have the slightest clue how to LISTEN to music. A prime example of this can be found in a recent blog by Hannah Bingman, an incredibly talented artist who has not yet quite reached much of a “mature” age. Hannah speaks of someone questioning what “type” of music she plays after just hearing her play – many people (of any age) have no idea how to LISTEN to music and make up their own mind, they need to be spoon-fed through radio stations and peer validation to determine which music they “like”. And the music industry feeds off this fact and strives to “peddle” crap for people to hear, without much concern for the select few who actually listen to music.

But I think where Chris Nelson’s argument fails is not in his correct scorn against the music industry but in his neglect to address the culpability of the two other major actors in this triumvirate – the music consumers and the musical artists themselves. And, although it may be a less popular argument, this is where the bulk of the blame lies.

Let’s start with the musical audience. Chris states that average age of a folk music fan is 44, but these 44-year-olds are not buying music. The truth is young people are more dedicated fans, and are more willing to spend money on music, where more “mature” audiences are apt to dwell on nostalgia and won’t take chances on newer “fads”. Check out our article from a few years back – Views from Behind the Merchandising Table – where we point how absurd it was that people would browse the many CDs while holding a $10 drink, but thought $10 was too steep to purchase a CD by artists they were enjoying at that very moment.

For an even more vibrant distinction, let’s look at Bruce Springsteen. We all love the boss but anyone with an ounce of intellectual honesty would admit that the 20-something Springsteen of the early 1970s was a far superior musical artist than the 62-year-old version of today. Yet, people are paying absurd amounts to see his current tour (check this out) from about 50 yards away in a large arena, while the bulk of these same fanatics would’ve been hesitant to dole out 5 bucks to see the far superior younger version of Springsteen from a few feet away in a bar in Asbury Park back in the day. Sure, there is something to be said for a 40-year track record and the shared experience but that’s kind of the point – most people are scared shitless of taking chances when it comes to music and other forms of art and they rely on the validation of their peers and the comfort of mainstream radio to decide if something is “good” or not.

Finally we get to the musicians themselves, and here may be where I disagree with Mr. Nelson most sharply. He uses the clichéd “1%” term to compare the commercial music industry to “Wall Street” but fails to see the irony in his own argument. Each and every one of those in the “OWS” movement who bitch about the 1%, would join their ranks in a second if such an opportunity arose. Just look at how many people bought “mega millions” lottery tickets for the drawing last night – all these people dreamed of being part of the “1%” by some magical stroke of luck, while many scorn those who may have actually played a part in earning their way into that elite group. The music industry is even more pronounced in that earning one’s way has even less to do with success, it is more based on a grand lottery by an even more select group.

Mr. Nelson is correct in calling for musician communities to band to together, but what he fails to recognize is that the most successful of these artists will abandon the “local” community the second they are admitted into the clique of mainstream success. I wish this were not the fact, but it clearly is true that the vast amount of musicians are dreamers with their heads tilted upwards.

I’m not a total cynic here, I do believe there are some things that can be done if artists band together. There are historical examples are musical scenes coalescing and assisting each other in reaching the heights – California in the 1960s, London in the late 1970s, and Seattle in early 1990s – but, unfortunately, these are the vast exceptions and not the rule.

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Ric Albano is the editor of Modern Rock Review, who also a life-long musician and the owner of 33 Dimensions LLC.

This article is a direct response to Chris Nelson’s Now Is the Time for All Musicians to Come to the Aid of Their Artform with a related third article, Moving Forward, added by Karyn Albano.