Well, maybe death is too strong a word, but the legendary business of music, as we all have known it, is in the ICU suffering the ravages of the digital domain.
Let me take you back to an ancient world lost in time and memory… lost and not forgotten for myself and a few million other surf bums.
The summer of 1965 was my watershed. I played my first job in a band, and it was a paying job. I was paid $10.00 to play 2 hours for a Catholic school formal mixer in my home town of Naperville, Illinois. I wore a suit, and I played a Sears Roebuck bass guitar through a Sears Roebuck bass amplifier that, in the concrete realm of the school’s basement, sounded like bursts of Hippo flatulence in the Great Gorge of China– a sound I’d actually love to hear again today. It was total vacuum-tube analog voices and guitars.
In those days there were no “PA systems”, each of us had an expensive ElectroVoice microphone that looked like the business end of a .357 Magnum, and we each plugged the mic into a second channel on the same amps we were running our guitars through. That was OK for everybody but me, because my reedy-white-boy voice was competing with the Hippo, and naturally, I came out sounding like an eerrie, presient, pre-cognitive demonic belch, made popular years later in “The Exorcist”. The Sisters watched me as I played, Holy Water held tightly inside their cloaks….I thought they would be busting kids for “pattie fingers”, but they mostly watched our band in expressions ranging from horror to outright nausea. Real live analog rock ‘n’ roll, for the WWII generation, was akin to standing beside an F-86 Sabre Jet in full turn ‘n’ burn take-off mode….gnashing of teeth, awe-blanched facial tics, tears and Turrett’s outbursts of protest. It was wonderful, boys danced with girls, girls watched the guys in the bands, boys hated guys in the bands and love affairs got started despite everything as Rock ‘n’ Roll held court in America in the summer of 1965.
Those were the days of the little plastic 45 RPM record–the thin, black disk with the strange grooved surface and the gaudy record company label spelling out the artist and the name of the song. My first record was the 45 of Shelley Faberes of “The Donna Reed Show” fame, singing “Johnny Angel”. I remind you now that I am a married father of 2 boys–Shelley sounded incredibly “sexy” ….cute….girlish……I imagined myself in her band, with my suit on, playing a huge Gibson Jazz guitar like Neal LeVang on the Lawrence Welk show…..I saw myself wink at Shelley when the song finished…the curtain closes, and she comes to me–yes……WELL–music was a powerful force for the boomer generation……Shelley notwithstanding, and then the Beatles hit.
The Beatles are a subject for a set of encyclopedias, but suffice to say, the 45 RPM ruled the world of the 60s. They cost anywhere from 50 cents to $1.50, and if you had a stack of them and an RCA or Silvertone record player, you had a party. The greatest music ever written and recorded were first heard enmasse on those 45s….and the assistant principals and teachers running the pep hops or sock hops at the high schools plugged a microphone into the gym’s PA system, and placed it by the speaker of a portable record player, and prowled the gym floor as hundreds of thousands of baby-boomers got their first touch, other than a kick or a sock in the jaw they had in elementary school, of the opposite sex. This was arguably the titular height of the American dream–just twenty or so years from WWII, at the apex of the country’s good fortune and culture….another subject for another time. Nobody in those high school gyms had any idea of the technology that went in to the recording of “Pretty Woman” or “Downtown”.
A nice old guy in Fullerton, CA, by the name of Leo Fender, started a sea-change by creating a relatively inexpensive line of great, durable and very racy looking electric guitars, and most notably, the first successful electric bass. Now, the guitar and bass guy could be heard over the drummer, and the drummer did not have to hold back. Surf music was born, and “Wipeout” became the quintessential knock-down drag out rock ‘n’ roll hit. The Ventures and the Beach Boys ran with the Fender wave, and all over America, boys bought Fender guitars and amplifiers, and pop music was suddenly very playable in a LIVE form. It was raunchy, loud, not always in tune, but infectious….live guitars, drums and singers won out over record players.
That is about when the madness started–the madness of the Music Business. Thousands of bands all over America wanted to “put out a record”, and went about that task with great FEV-or, creating a new industry–middle of the road record companies and discount recording studios. Many of the “One Hit Wonders” of the era were recorded at these little monaural studios, and the records were pressed by hole-in-the-wall companies that rolled the dice, and sometimes got very lucky. A record, if it was truly good, interesting, different and exciting, would be played by radio stations charging under the table for playtime, and the record would take-off big. The bigger companies like Columbia and RCA and Capitol Records would hear the buzz and buy the band completely from the smaller company. If it was a big enough song, the CEO of the little company would close it up and retire.
The problem for any of these bands, was getting the money to record. Most of the time somebody’s mommy and daddy came up with the cash, and time at a $25-$50 an hour studio would be booked. After that, the boys would take the demo to a local record company, and sometimes records would get pressed. If mommy and daddy had enough money for payola, the record would get played on a big-time station, examples of which I shall not name. If no payola could be afforded for the big stations, you could place your band on the top-ten chart of a 5,000 watt AM station in Rudabaugh, Indiana–for a week, no less, at yeoman’s cost. For 98% of the bands in America in the 60s and 70s, this was the story. Most of the bands never even made it as far as The Wonders in Tom Hank’s excellent film, “That Thing You Do”. Try Googling websites for 60s bands like www.thebeatgeneration.com, and get a look at a chapter in American culture that is at once, hilarious, touching and sad.
I know this chapter intimately–my band was The Vynes from Naperville, Illinois, and we had a 45 on Athon Records, a tiny company run by a sweet man, a piano player, who worked days as an upholsterer in a factory. A very famous radio station wanted $250 ‘under the table’ to play the record…..it never happened. But that sweet little man paid $50 and we were on the TOP TEN CHART of a lost station in the cornfields of Indiana.
I still remember the thrill of the recording studio. I got home from the session and stayed up all night, unable to sleep. It was in a strip mall in Berwyn, Illinois….Balkan Studios……they specialized in recording polka bands. Slavco Hlad, our engineer, was surly, rude and incompetent…..he hated guitars and drums…he hated rock ‘n’ roll, and he let us know. It was a mono studio, one track, and we had to sing and play the songs live–no overdubs….we had to turn down so low that I played the entire session unable to hear my bass……our drummer was hammered into submission by Slavco, who must been in the KGB at some point in his life, and he complained the entire session that we were “ruinink my mick-rofones”. The record sounded like it was recorded through a punctured tomato……all the instruments and vocals were there….but it sounded like we were down the block at Holga’s Potato Surprise Club. We did not realize these truths until months later,and we vowed to go to back to Chicago PROPER and rent time at A REAL STUDIO.
Those studios cost anywhere from $100-$700 an hour. Recording was just not a reality for most bands. If by some miracle a BIG RECORD COMPANY GUY heard you, or was turned on to your band, somehow, or was given….uh….er…gratuities of some sort, from Mommy and Daddy or some greaseball in a Pacer, to pay attention to your band, AND, then, if he signed the band….WELL….the record company would pay for the sessions, they would pay for the cover artwork and printing, they would pay for the record pressing and they would distribute the record to all the big stores…AND they would pay off the DJs at the big radio stations. That was the music biz, in the daze of my youth.
Then….Come the Revolution……The digital domain’s first foray into music was the compact disc….the players and the discs were very expensive. Tape purists like Neil Young chided their lack of “warmth”….what…EVER, Neil….. The fact was that cd music sounded wonderful…clean, full fidelity with an almost 3D effect in stereo. The world embraced cds slowly, mainly because the players were so expensive. Businesses started up that transcribed tape to cd…prices began to drop.
In the big cities, the first digital recording systems were set up, pristine in their quality and requiring major sacrifices of appendages and children to pay for recording time. The situation for in-the-trenches musicians actually got worse. Naturally all the big record companies could pay the high recording fees, AND the transition to cd for mass marketing. Alternative strategies involving strapping bombs to one’s chest, and kidnapping record execs became seriously considered by artists convinced of their own genius. Lending out a girlfriend or two was NOT unheard of, and gifts of baggies with magic white powder became calling cards that got a band past the heavily fortified front gates of the record palaces. All of this was true–that was the way it was.
The seminal events that changed this sleazy situation forever was the development of the inexpensive cd burner and auxiliary sound card that would fit into the case of a typical consumer PC, along with the attendant software that gave a musician a virtual, almost unlimited number of tracks recording studio, complete with drop down menus for equalization, reverb, echo, chorus effects and even amplifier modeling. All of this became available for under $400.00. At the same time, great companies like Teac, Sony, Roland and Yamaha introduced standalone portable digital recorders with all of that software built in. These machines were in a price range any band or artist could afford.
What was earth-shaking, and what eventually killed the BIG TIME RECORDING INDUSTRY was the fact that these systems sound as good as, if not better than the flagship recording studios in LA, Chicago and New York. Better, because, freed from the stress of watching the clock, band members could experiment with miking, mixing, using different effects and hardware…..they could do anything they wanted on their own time. The final mixed product sounded as good as anything produced elsewhere–most of the time it was better…more inspired.
Businesses sprouted up that would take a bands’ master cd, print labels and cover art, and reproduce it in quantities for much less expense than pressing vinyl. The bands and artist now have on-line access to the government copyright website, and software that will even allow them to produce and print their own cover art and cd labels.
The final bomb was the mp3 file option, that took the cd wave files, compressed them, and made them completely transportable by web site download or email.
Today, a band can write their songs, record and master them, produce their artwork, copyright the songs, set up a website that allows downloading on the internet, charge money for the downloads, find a fulfillment house to print quantities of their cd, and sell them at live performances, keeping all proceeds, save for the fulfilment company fees, and generally live a viable career for awhile, possibly becoming wealthy entreprenuers. This is America–finally arriving for the skinny, pale boys that prowl the night with guitars and drums. No more greasy, primped-out A & R reps, no more long-haired has-beens with baseball hats covering their bald pates charging $500 an hour for recording, no more sales and accounting dweebs showing up at gigs in their leased Mercedes and BMWs, built by companies that made tanks and warplanes for a country that started and LOST two world wars. There…I said it.
The only stick in the eye nowadays is…..you still have to have real talent….you still have to excite an audience….you still have to write good songs. Even the schlumps out there who can barely play “Louie, Louie” have access to this technology, and the downside is that a bunch of crap is out there to be downloaded. The consumers will now rule the waves, or mp3s if you prefer…..cut to Jean Luc-Picard in red jumpsuit, mincing to Number One….”Let’s see what’s out there…..”