Music, Audio, and Other Illnesses

We All Shine On, Redux

49 years ago, in the first international worldwide television broadcast, John Lennon sang to us, “There’s nothing you can do but you can learn how to play the game – it’s easy. All you need is love.” It was an invitation that opened doors through which millions flowed. Many years later Nelson Mandela suggested that what frightens us most is not the possible darkness inside us, but how unbearably bright we might shine.

We perform all our actions along a scale that exists between our purest state, love, and our most perfect state of resisting that love: fear. You can see that in so many of our endeavors, and very much so in the world of music and its interaction with business. Music is one of the purest expressions of human souls, the language of love, the voice of longing for God. It’s seemingly part of the nature of many people in business to be fearful, to be conservative (in the sense of conserving). We can all easily understand and empathize with the impulse to hold on to what we already have. But no innovation, no strides, have ever been made through that sort of conservative behavior. It’s always fallen to those in pursuit of a vision to take the risks and reap the rewards. (For example, the mere survival, let alone the triumph, in the present moment of Apple Computer in an environment, which a Darwinian perspective on business suggests would have eradicated it, proves the strength of individual vision, of the determination to deliver something better. Apple existed for some time not out of acting on fear, but out of acting on the vision of a few men’s vision).

The explosive flowering of music 50 years ago came not from business but from people, from hearts and minds opening across the culture — and the existing industry responded, often in the same understanding spirit (e.g. Warner Bros./Reprise’s reputation for being nurturing and artist-friendly). Music lovers ran the labels. But of course, things have changed, as our friend Bob Zimmerman says. The current state of business in our society is deeply mired in fear. There is a prevailing sense that things are getting worse and are going to get even worse, and that if you’re going to get what you can get, you better get it now.

My brother Peter Schwartz (then of Global Business Network), writing with collaborators, put forth an idea in Wired magazine in 1997 that they called “the Long Boom,” specifically to counter the fear that runs through those concerned with the state of economics in the West. His premise was that whatever the ups and down, we were in the midst of an overall rising tide, and that there is only reason for optimism when one takes the long view. (Steven Pinker makes a similar, although more convincing, argument about violence in the world). The bursting of the tech bubble appears to run counter to this idea and disprove it — perhaps it does. But if one looks at real estate (and note the word “real”) the irregular dips and peaks in home values are seen in a steadily rising line, even in places that are currently enduring the more conventional real estate bubble. When the world of speculation disappoints, people put their trust in the real, the tangible. We come back to our essential values, the things we know, and the intrinsically human. Like music — one of the essential human expressions.

The remains of the music business as it exists today aren’t in any condition to nurture this value; the functionaries who seek employment in it, and what’s worse, seek desperately to hold on to that employment out of fear, have demonstrated no ability to promote the well-being of the very life blood of the industry they’ve invaded. We got here the same way we got to this state in many other industries: by democracy. The responsibility of corporate officers to produce shareholder value may work in some industries to keep behavior within the company in line (though we should ask – in line with what? This is one of the essential questions asked in the American business world today, as we all recognize).

But we should also ask, does it necessarily mean that such industries need to work out of fear? In the music business, greed alone hasn’t been the over-riding concern: it’s been the increasing fearfulness for more than 40 years. And since international conglomerates took over the industry in the early 90s, it’s been fear of not meeting those quarterly expectations. This is by its very nature opposed to risk-taking; opposed to acting out of vision, opposed to acting out of love. Protecting market share has nothing to do with music. It led to a monolithic culture. It’s indeed hard to imagine how much more narrow the permissible range of music might become, but the permissible range of music-making has been reduced to one method – a computer manipulated hallucination of “perfection.”

And, regrettably, as the visionary musician and record-producer Brian Eno has stated, “musicians have shrunk to fit” this demand. Producers in their 30’s now complain (to me) that the bands they produce that are their age or younger can no longer play through a song in the studio but can only perform a brief part of a song once – they expect the technical staff to simply “loop” it in their computers to simulate performance.

In the meantime, those who came of age and entered music as their life at Lennon’s invitation have been shoved aside. Those who can write, who can sing, who can perform without the aid of computer crutches are deemed un-market-worthy. This makes perfect sense. They are older. Wider. Grayer. They have less hair. They might not look so good on YouTube or in a Calvin Klein underwear ad, which make them less useful for marketing synergy. But they are now deeper, more experienced human beings and they know how to make MUSIC. And the industry, so obsessed with its terror of failure, won’t let them in. The engineers who know the skill of recording a group of musicians playing together are aging and their skills aren’t being passed on. Today’s starting engineers know only how to plug in computer cables. They can’t set up microphones for a drum kit or a string quartet. These days, in the rare moments when an older musician gets hired to play on something new, they have to teach the engineer how to record their instrument. Long ago, I took control of getting my sound recorded.

The irony of this situation — which has become a tragedy — is that the remaining labels primary value is in back catalog, in the ownership of recordings by musicians who are no longer allowed in, recorded with methods that are considered outmoded. Older, imperfect and very human recordings are and remain these corporations’ strongest sellers year to year and yet the companies fear to find and release such music now. This is short-sightedness to a suicidal degree.

In 2001 a band that broke up 31 years before was the number one band in the country — with recordings all made between 1963 and 1970. Pop and rock music of 40 and 50 years ago is our new classical music. And I fear we are stuck in a semi-permanent loop of nostalgia.

The recording industry is and always has been about preserving magical moments in time. The worrisome part is that, in recording at least, there seem to be so few new magical moments.