Cry Like an Eagle


On Tuesday, the Eagles' Don Henley published an analysis of the state of contemporary music in The Washington Post. Titled "Killing the Music," it's filled with more boys of summer nostalgia than a hit single and its super-earnest, from-on-high tone will remind older readers that the shut-the-fuck-up/DIY ethos of punk exploded in part as a reaction to the posturing of self-important mainstream bands like the Eagles:

When I started in the music business, music was important and vital to our culture. Artists connected with their fans. Record labels signed cutting-edge artists, and FM radio offered an incredible variety of music. Music touched fans in a unique and personal way. Our culture was enriched and the music business was healthy and strong.

Whole thing here.

It's arguable that the music business is in trouble–certainly, they've clearly been at a loss as to how to shift from CDs to the next mass recording medium. But pace Henley, the record industry has always been an industry (see the Byrds' "So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star," the anti-commerical tune that's been covered for decades by disgruntled rockers) and radio has always been a relatively restrictive venue (even in the brief era of free-form FM stations).

When Henley bleats, "Labels no longer take risks by signing unique and important new artists," he's studiously ignoring the contemporary music scene, where even major acts (pick your own favorites) bely his argument. What does it possibly mean to suggest that music is no longer "vital" to our culture? Now more than ever, we're drenched in a wall of sound that fills every minute of every day.

More important–and I say this as someone who thinks the big labels (and other big media copyright holders) have been acting badly, stupidly, and counterproductively regarding culture–Henley misses the enormous freedom of expression and distribution that music makers and (more important) music fans have now. However shitty most contracts are today, they're certainly no worse than they used to be–and there are more options in terms of boutique labels, do-it-yourself outlets, and potential income from touring.

But what's most impressive about today's scene is not that Clear Channel owns every radio station in America or that the RIAA is suing music fans. It's that you can get an ever-increasing amount and variety of music from an ever-increasing number of sources in an ever-increasing number of settings. When the Eagles started releasing records, most cars didn't even cassette players in them. Now, between the Internet and any number of other gadgets, you can stream music of all kinds anywhere. You can program whatever playlist you want and it's easy to even meld different songs together for something completely new. For no more than a couple of thousand dollars, you can create a professional-sounding studio in your bedroom.

Indeed, I think it's precisely the fact that the fan has been relatively empowered over the past 25 years or so that is really sticking in Henley's craw. "Simply put," he writes, "artists must regain control, as much as possible, over their music." In an age of cultural proliferation, in which end users are able to do what they well, that's just never going to happen.