John Mellencamp on Huffington Post earlier this week strummed out an oldest-living-music-biz-veteran-tells-all lament about how it wouldn't be so easy to top the charts with a song like "I Need A Lover" nowadays–among lots of random complaints about the diminishing importance of "local markets" in driving the biz in a SoundScanned age when men who are waiting there to sell plastic ware decide the fate of poor guitar men from Amsterdam to Paris, how we need more compassion and fairness, and a general inchoate dislike of, combined with a yearning dependence on, big biz interests to help steer the industry.
Music biz insider gadfly Bob Lefsetz calls straw man on the author of "Rain on the Scarecrow," noting that music goes on, long after Mr. Mellencamp's thrill of selling records is gone. The real difference between the then Mellencamp misses and now, Lefsetz argues, is real consumer and performer choice, and power. Some highlights from Lefsetz:
The major label hegemony has been broken. No longer is the musical landscape dominated by fat cat gatekeepers who get to control what America hears. You can write and record your own music, and release it too. Will anybody buy it? Probably not if it's bad, but you no longer have to get permission to play, and that's great!
And you can get paid! Make a deal with TuneCore, and you won't get any lying on your statements. I've never met a musician who's audited a record label and found out he's been overpaid….
You can choose your own business model! You don't have to be beholden to the major label game of selling physical product! If you want to give away your music online to drive concert attendance, great! Furthermore, at least you've got a chance of being heard, unlike in the days where you had to pay off the radio programmer to play your record…..
The tools available to the musician are staggering. From the production to the exhibition of music. Yes, you can use eventful.com and tour where people want to see you, and you can make money.
The act has more power than ever before and this is a problem?…..
Well, aspects of the new system of increased autonomy, tools, and choice do seem to hurt Mr. Mellencamp, and not so good, as Lefsetz notes:
No, the problem for John seems to be that you can't plug into a giant machine that will spit out a million dollar lifestyle. The problem is not record companies or radio, but America in the twenty first century. In today's world, where people use Google to search for exactly what they want, where ads are targeted to their exact desires, do you truly expect everyone to listen to the same damn music?….
The old systems have broken down. Because they don't comport with the new reality. Are we at the final destination yet? Not even close. But to lament the loss of the past is to miss the point.
Sure, if you want to make a lot of money overnight, you can sell out to a major corporation. But even they don't have that much money or reach anymore. And playing the Super Bowl didn't make Bruce's new album a hit. No, in today's world, first and foremost you're a musician, not a star…..
Hey Mellencamp! You're talented, you've written some great songs, but you're not entitled to live your life and guide your career the same way you did twenty years ago. There's no longer guaranteed employment at the corporation and you have to go through career changes, just like the rest of the American population. Why should you be different, just because you're a musician?
I wrote back in Reason magazine's March 2004 issue about the eternal survival of music even as the technologies and business models of selling it shift and mutate.