UNMASK THE CONSPIRACY!This month, we'll be talking about our nation's music industry. The term itself is almost a paradox, with music supposedly being an art form, why then is industry manufacturing it, rather then artists? The reason is greedy business interests always step in to prey on the uninformed and unenlightened in this country. This article is an attempt to make YOU, dear reader, see how even you, or someone in your family, or a dear friend or neighbor are probably being manipulated by the music industry today.
Before there was radio or records to play, the publishers of "Tin Pan Alley" were the primary providers of the country's new music. Composers like George Gershwin or Irving Berlin would pen a new song, and it would be printed up as sheet music with a a decorative cover, and go out to be sold in all kinds of stores. Before the phonograph was invented you couldn't hear the song unless someone played it live, but that was the primary home entertainment. It was more common in those days to have someone at home who could play the piano, the symbol of culture and upward mobility. Local saloons often had a live piano player or a wind-up player piano, (in the 1920s, more then 360,000 pianos were made per year in the U.S) and there were regional theater venues or traveling vaudeville revues that came around all the time to bring new music to the masses. In those days, a "hit song" meant they'd sell many copies of the sheet music, sometimes into the millions. Once this industry was set up, the music publishers sought to corner the market and wipe out potential competition. They created an exclusive "society" and sadly, kept strict limits on who could have their songs printed and distributed through the existing marketing channels. But for a few notable exceptions, Blacks were excluded, and in this way, many forms of Jazz and blues were intentionally suppressed for decades, as were many types of hillbilly, ethnic and outsider music. Aspiring composers weren't given the privilege to publish until they had worked for a time as "song pluggers", getting the music of others played and heard, convincing, conniving or begging stage managers or local musicians to play their new material. Tin Pan Alley publishers would also pay bribes to theater owners to ensure their new songs were played immediately, a practice known as "pay for play". They paid popular stars handsome fees to get out and sing their songs onstage, Al Jolson being one example who effectively brought big results to the publishers.
So from the early 1900s, there was already a network in place, controlled by industry, to pick and choose the music the people of this country had access to. The style was formularized and predictable, and new and different sounds were frowned upon. As we've all experienced, music, no matter whether good or bad, has a tendency to stick in your head after a few listens. The Tin Pan Alley publishers, based on Broadway in New York City pushed their preferred picks out onto us, proving again and again the masses could be manipulated. From the very start of our mass media culture, it was not musicians but mostly businessmen with printing presses and distribution networks who chose what the average joe on the street would hear, and as business works, they had to generate new revenue constantly. This also means they continually want you to forget about their songs and buy their new ones.
In those days, there were few alternatives. But for John Lomax, there was nothing that would stop him from finding new and different types of music. Lomax was one of America's first musicologists, a dedicated music lover who physically traveled to where different music was happening, transcribing it himself into sheet music so it could be saved and shared with the rest of the world. As an outsider, he hadn't the access to the publishing channels of the "music industry", so he released these songs in book form. To Mr. Lomax we owe the debt of preserving songs like "Home on the Range" which would have been lost in history had it not been included in Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, published in 1910 with help from Harvard University and other grants. The oral tradition that was keeping this type of "folk" music alive was fading, as younger generations flocked to factory jobs in the growing cities and left no one for their parents to teach the songs to. Lomax, with son Alan and his other children, rescued some 4,000 songs from vanishing in this way. This was the original "alternative" music, as it was a rare source of original sounds which wasn't made by hack composers to fill that month's need for product. It was heartfelt music made for free by common working people for their own enjoyment, often it was the very poor with no other entertainment available - to share with their families and friends, to dance to or sing along, or to keep them going when they had to work in fields...or do time in prison.
Here we see an early difference in concept between a music lover and a music "pusher". Music made for it's own sake, with genuine appreciation, often carries that feeling over to its listeners. Often not as polished or flashy, it was in some cases made by people who had never heard other types of music. This was the gospel music sung in the churches, the work songs sung by chain gangs, the blues expressed by the forgotten classes, the barnyard jamborees held in vastly isolated areas, conceived and executed by the unpaid, unrecognized people who simply loved to create music. The greater population never knew anything like this existed until the proliferation of the sound recording. The record player was developed over a long period of time, in part by Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, though it was German immigrant Emile Berliner of Victor (the company with the little dog logo) who developed the flat disc, made from a metal stamper which for the first time enabled inexpensive duplication of many copies from a single master. Growing on sales of novelty songs, marches, waltzes, comedy skits, classical music and opera, sales of phonograph players and discs increased steadily. By 1909, there were more then 27 million recordings in circulation. But the record industry was growing very much at odds with the society of publishers, who wanted no part of this process in which their composers would not be paid - they claimed the record manufacturers were simply giving away their recordings and that these talking machines looked and sounded ridiculous. Opera star Enrico Caruso was the first artist to sign a royalty based recording contact in 1909, beginning a new era. That same year, copyright law was changed to enforce payment of royalties for every recording sold, as well as every live performance of a published song.
The Lomaxes, now lugging heavy disc-cutting machines around to remote areas, documented the first Zydeco music, Appalachian music, as well as the heart wrenching blues sounds of Leadbelly and Muddy Waters and proto-jazz of Jelly Roll Morton. Due to such recordings making their way into little shops all over, ragtime music, a forerunner to Jazz started spreading and with it, various new dance crazes. Looking over their shoulder, Tin Pan Alley publishers started to incorporate elements of ragtime style into their popular music. It was successful, and so began the pattern of the white man co-opting Black music for great profit, though one could also say it was the privileged co-opting the music of the downtrodden. Try as they might, the pop songsters could never match that intangible element, the urgency and authenticity of African American music. By 1912, W.C. Handy, known as "The Father of the Blues" had published "Memphis Blues" a widely loved song that embodied much of early blues and Jazz and so finally, African American artists were allowed into the pantheon of Tin Pan Alley. The songs were most often covered by white singers though, giving rise to a white big band Jazz movement. The new popularity of dancing and nightclubs gave way to higher record sales, as people often liked to practice dancing the songs at home. With record sales on the rise, Tin Pan Alley interests officially formed ASCAP - The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers - to closely monitor sales of records and performances so their artists could be paid, although within this "society" payments were not made equally to all (African American composers were largely shunned. ASCAP had a virtual monopoly on who could publish, whose music got pushed and how much composers were paid. During the launch of AM radio after World War I, the government hand appointed which equipment manufacturers could make the sets, and which firms would have access to broadcast over public airwaves. Radio gradually took over as the dominant entertainment appliance, providing "free" music, news and entertainment content, initially with greatly reduced advertising to make radio a "pleasant and culturally elevating experience". When the Great Depression hit in the 30s, advertisers began to exert more leverage, pushing more ads on the public in exchange for keeping the shows on the air. When the economy recovered, neither the government nor the public called for the restoration of controls over advertising and big business, while making bigger profits, gained greater control over not only ads but programming. ASCAP's lock down meant musical broadcasts were mostly made by live orchestras, playing mostly ASCAP songs, as did most major Broadway stage productions. Then, starting with Al Jolson in "The Jazz Singer", ASCAP made firm inroads to secure placement of it's music in Hollywood films, and it was clear films helped sell publishing - by 1937 more then 65% of ASCAP's profits stemmed from Hollywood dealings.
While the saccharine-sunny music from "Pennies from Heaven" and "Puttin' on the Ritz" were dominating the musical mainstream, the "underground" sounds of blues, Jazz, country, spirituals and other styles such as "boogie woogie" were being explored in the world of records. Small record labels would record these small-time artists and sell to independent shops who would sell to these niche audiences. This raw, expressive music was often different in narrative from the commercial offerings of the day. "Popular" music was often written for large orchestras, and vocals were handed to attractive vocalists who crooned in top hat and tails, "acting" melodramatically to impart lyrics which elegantly spoke of poetic love and romantic longing. On the other end of the spectrum were the gritty front porch ho-downs of early Delta blues guitarists who sang of picking cotton under the unmerciful sun, cheating spouses, drinking wine and doing time. Here we see the division that exists today between the carrot-on-a-string fantasy of commerce-driven songs, and the honesty and reality of artist-inspired songs, the difference between music inspired by real life experience and manufactured imagery not too far off from the false promises we see in advertising. The artists who "lived the blues" for example, have a certain intangible element of their "soul" infused in the music which the discerning listener can share, the pain and toil which many in the real world, or working classes can identify with. These songs and stories were purposely hidden from society by the backroom decision makers at ASCAP, heads of radio networks, theater chains and Hollywood producers, though critics, collectors and many of the musicians themselves raved about the truth and emotion in the records.
A change finally came in 1939, when an alternative royalty collecting service, BMI, was formed by the Broadcasters union, representing about 600 station owners who were being shaken down by ASCAP who demanded huge hikes in royalty agreements and threatened a strike. All of the disgruntled songwriters who had been locked out, or were in ASCAP but treated poorly were encouraged to jump on board. ASCAP then spitefully announced they would double their fees, careless that the expense would trickle down to us. This led to BMI completely abandoning ASCAP music, and the public barely noticed. In 1941 Jazz, blues and other grassroots styles got on the air for the first time, when station owners banned ASCAP music for a 10 month period - this would eventually lead to the evolution of rock n'roll. Artists like Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson who had been quietly recorded by labels like Okeh, Vocalion, Victor and Columbia in the 20s and 30s were at last broadcast, and directly influenced newcomers like John Lee Hooker, B.B. King and Howlin' Wolf, who later influenced the British Invasion bands. The gospel sounds of sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Mahalia Jackson had a large influence on Little Richard. Hank Williams who influenced generations of musicians, was considered not only the father of county western music, but also a main source of the rockabilly style as later played by Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley, Roy Orbison and the "king", Elvis Presley. Speaking of heavy hitters, Hank Williams is also said to have influenced Chuck Berry, who was initially rejected for sounding too country for a Black artist. Some point out that Berry's seminal "Roll Over Beethoven" is compellingly similar in chord structure to Hank's earlier "Move It On Over", showing the link.
Eventually, ASCAP settled with the broadcasters, but the year 1948 was pivotal for the record industry as television wowed the nation, clearing all major radio networks of most of their talent, programming, and management. This left enormous holes in the schedules of radio stations the country over. Most local station owners did what seemed simple enough, just started playing records. Disc jockey jobs were created, with the simple formula of talking live to the audience while playing records. This led to rocketing record sales and labels like Capitol began gladly supplying deejays with records free. Then came an outcry by AFM, the American Federation of Musicians, who were now no longer needed to play live on the air. The AFM couldn't stop stations from playing records, but barred its member musicians from recording in an attempt to starve the stations of new music. Ironically, since vocalists were not musician union members, they were free to record and this period marked the rise of the solo vocalist and the decline of the big band. Quickly, deejays in many areas became influential power brokers. They could make a hit by heavy on-air rotation and praise. DJs like Alan Freed became so popular, record companies went out their way offering them every kind of gratuity imaginable, including, ultimately, money under the table. Freed had started out as a rebellious figure, one of the earliest to play hot jazz and R&B on his "MoonDog" show out of Cleveland, for the first time calling it rock n'roll. He brought rock n'roll and hundreds of black artists to the attention of white listeners, also organizing huge concerts which resulted in a few riots. This stigmatized Freed in the eyes of the conservative parents and authorities, but canonized him in the eyes of rebellious youth. With the combination of his shows and tours, he grew powerful, making demands from bands who he could make or break. But he was targeted by the government and conservative interests, convicted for bribery and fired, dying soon after, a broken man. In the same scandal, burgeoning music magnate Dick Clark slithered his way out of payola charges by reshuffling his business papers and hiring top lawyers, emerging unscathed to became one of the most powerful players in the business for the last 50 years, controlling who has appeared on American Bandstand, New Year's Rockin' Eve, the American Music Awards and thousands of hours of televised performances.
Payola, both legal and illegal continued to plague and corrupt both record companies and radio stations. Over the course of the rise and growth of FM radio over the last 30 plus years, the system by which songs are judged for air-worthiness has become so gladhanded and bastardized, that the public is left with almost no input as to what is played on major stations. Illegal payola has given way to legal consulting firms who dodge the rules by claiming payment does not guarantee results, but virtually no records see airplay in major market stations today without paying exorbitant sums of money. Much of the music is disposable, meant for a short life and is produced with so many studio tricks and effects, it sounds almost inhuman. The compression and overdubbed layers of added harmony are as obvious as a "pro" wrestler's takedown. The singers chosen for pop stardom are groomed for a combination of looks, charisma, and dancing ability and sing live only with the trickery of audio assistance. They are planted in the news by PR firms and their parent media companies have many divisions to cross-promote them, whether it's magazine spreads, coverage on entertainment "news" shows, appearances in awards shows, TV specials, videos, movies radio junkets, in-stores or even mall appearances, it's usually a safe bet that airtime and PR stunts are a sign that the act's image is being manufactured by the money machine and it's best to avoid. Time shows again and again that their music does not last the test of time, does not influence subsequent waves of musicians and does not warrant serious coverage in serious critical and journalistic circles. Yet a fresh new artist is foist upon the public each quarter, as it's record label looks for the profits from another blockbuster act. When they don't sell, they are dropped like dead weight to clear the way for the next quarter's releases.
If we were to educate our sons and daughters, our friends and family, our fellow man as to how to be better consumers, the industry would have no choice but to take note. There is good music being made today, and there always has been. By good, I don't mean my by my own opinion or standards. Though I do my damnedest to recommend sources for my own favorite songs, bands and streams to others, (see http://vonghouls.com/gogo) I know it is impossible to dictate personal taste. By "good" I mean the music that is 1) studied, replicated and built upon by other musicians, 2) hailed by a plurality of unbiased, un-bought critics as being superior in artistry, originality and execution, and lastly, 3) long term staying power. For many, it is a patient process of trial and error to get to the good stuff, but in this age of specialization, keyword searches, online reviews and word-of-mouth in niche communities it's easier then ever. Many people feel so strongly about the music that they love, that they will evangelize it to others. Some choose to write reviews or articles for publication in print or online blogs. Some will book and promote live shows themselves, some will start small record labels, some become part of a band's "street team". Some make fan websites, t-shirts or other homemade goodies. Some start a tribute band! Others just listen to the music and it is enough. But we should never allow ourselves or others to be so lazy as to follow the trends of the masses or the dictates of the record companies. We should encourage one another to find diverse acts on small labels, to listen to small, independent radio shows and share online sources for streaming music. Email bands you like, ask them questions, get to know them on a grassroots level and support them by buying merchandise direct from them. Encourage intelligent discourse on the subject of bands. Don't just recommend a band, explain why you think they are worth seeing. Ask those in your family, friends and neighbors if they can express what makes a song good and discuss it to see if they can see through packaging, hype and recording studio tricks. Ask about true honesty, energy and inspiration in performances and song subjects. Point out when new artists are doing covers and share the original versions. It's fun and interesting to trace influences from older artists to newer ones to see how the music developed. Differences in taste shouldn't be challenged, but we can raise one other's awareness of how we are conned in to constantly buy music made by uninspired media conglomerates.
For my part, I'd like to recommend the following bands who are great (despite little media attention) to anyone who feels they may like to branch out a little. In no particular order: The Botswanas (Sleek garage-pop-punk like Blondie or The Pretenders), The 5,6,7,8's (primitive all girl garage-a-billy from Japan), Menace ('77 Brit punk), The Muffs (my fave band), The Knights of the New Crusade (garage rock with an intensively controversial Christian message), Sweet Tee (rap's first girl?), The Mad (obscure psych-punk), Nathaniel Mayer (James Brown-ish Northern Soul artist ), Anna Waronker (Sweet, melodic post punk girl pop), The Pink Fairies (70s garage psych rock from England), The Luv'd Ones (Lost girl garage from '68 ), The Avengers (first girl-fronted punk band in '77), The Embrooks (pysch garage with an amazing chick drummer), Gore Gore Girls (all girl garage), The Saints ('77 punk from Australia), Sahara Hotnights (all girl garage pop from Sweden), The Gits (Seattle punk band with growling fem vocals), The Hellacopters (great 90s garage punk from Sweden), The Paybacks (garage rock n'roll from Detroit), The Stray (UK heavy psych rock), and also Satan's Pilgrims, The Distillers, Muck & The Mires, Blowfly, The Reigning Sound, The Charms, Teengenerate, The Mummies, The Rockin' Vickers, The Cynics, Man or Astroman, The Pandoras, The Misteriosos, Roky Erickson, She, Kill Cheerleader, The Neptunas, Thee Minks, Mask Man, Sharon Tandy, The Little Killers, The Downbeat 5, The Undertones, Mad Monster Party, The Bamboo Kids, The Original Sins, The Anabolics, The Go, The Star Spangles, The Dickies, The Woggles, and thousands more in every city and town with more heart and soul then anything on the radio.
Jake is a tireless supporter of freeing the arts from commercial control and is a member of the garage punk band The Von Ghouls.