Makin’ Stuff Up: “Change I Can Believe In”

“What has changed in the music business since you started your career?” This query – one of the FAQs I field on an almost-weekly basis – is deserving of a 100,000-word tome, for sure. Still, my standard reply nearly always begins with two succinct, quite contradictory words: “Everything …” and “nothing.” Elucidation to follow …

The first of these seemingly glib responses is far more obvious than the second. Music trends have nearly always been shaped by technological innovation. And, despite preponderate popular opinion, this phenomenon did not begin with the advent of the digital audio file. Gazing back through the foggy mists of music history, one might recall the harpsichord surrendering to the pianoforte. Only a few generations ago, the F-hole archtop with a DeArmon pick-up passed its torch to the solid-body Les Paul with a Humbucker, enabling teens to experience head-banging ecstasy by way of deafening power chords. However, regardless of its delivery system, the qualities that make a song great remain the same. It’s still a delicate interleaving of inspiration and craftsmanship, hitting heart after heart by way of universal messages, infectious rhythms, and memorable melodies.

The seismic events that led to the worldwide commercialization of music began in the latter half of the 19th Century, with the popularity of the parlor upright piano. A growing demographic needed songs to play at home. Voila! A new industry was born. Its product? Sheet music. Composers and lyricists became the first song pluggers, performing and hawking their tunes on street corners, in arcades, and at the stage doors of vaudeville theatres. Amazingly, very little has changed since then. We tunesmiths are still our own best advocates, doing whatever it takes to expose our original songs to potential customers. Even though we can now email an MP3 in seconds to another hemisphere, we are essentially no different than a 16th Century troubadour strolling down a dusty byway, plucking his lute, performing his tunes for anyone who will listen, in the hopes that someone will spare a few coins for his efforts.

At every turn, new music technology has been met with protest. Surely, when your great-great-great grandmother started sight reading “Camptown Races” from the pages of her Stephen Foster portfolio, the howl of professional musicians resounded: “Rank amateurs are butchering these songs!” When Edison introduced the first wax cylinder recordings, musicians’ protests must have grown even more strident: “This new-fangled device will be putting us all out of work!” Still, in spite of those fears, instead of driving folks out of business, nearly every new development served to exponentially increase the popularity of songs and the artists who perform them. End result: a multi-billion dollar cash cow. Then, along came the audio cassette. This wonderfully insidious innovation actually did pose a very real threat. Any pimply-faced teenager could make mix tapes of his favorite records and share them with his pals. A mandated kick back from tape manufacturers to record companies ameliorated that dilemma. That solution, however, turned out to be no more than a thumb in the dyke – because the digital flood, she was a comin’.

Back at the close of the ’60s, when I signed my first recording contract, major labels typically made multi-album commitments to new signees. Companies recognized the necessity to develop talent, while reasonably expecting each act to build its own audience steadily, through persistent touring. Artists started with modest recording budgets, expecting modest results, while labels provided tour support to subsidize road expenses. By the mid-80s, as more and more acts exploded multi-platinum out of the box, expectations had changed. With millions devoted to each release for record and video production and promotion, a newly signed artist had to break big from the get-go. Should that initial release fall short, they most likely found themselves dropped like yesterday’s news.

Through the remainder of the millennium, record companies thrived based upon new math. One Nirvana, they figured, would fund all the flops; one Garth Brooks would keep the corner offices lit up; one Alanis Morissette would ensure bottomless executive expense accounts. Drunk on massive profits, they blissfully ignored a stealthy, growing contagion – the evil MP3. Instead of figuring out a way to commoditize digital files, record companies tried to wack-a-mole those ornery, proliferating little buggers. Music fans, however, traded them willy-nilly. Still, major labels carried on business as usual, while sales plummeted. Suddenly, superstars could no longer sell 10, 20, even 30 million units. Three to four million album sales, a relatively routine achievement during the ‘80s and ‘90s, became not only rare, it was the new pinnacle of success. Record execs emerged from those corner offices to dodge sagebrush tumbling down corridors, powered by the frigid, whistling wind of doom.

So, what has actually changed since I started my career? When it comes to the music-delivery system, pretty much everything. However, for the performing songwriter, the exact same effort is required today as was then. To boot, realistic expectations have returned to where they were when I first enlisted in the rock and roll army. For us, precisely because everything changed, nothing has changed at all. Artists of today start out by writing the best songs possible and making inexpensive recordings in hopes of selling enough product to finance the next release. They find and grow a loyal audience by gigging anywhere and everywhere they can. No longer is it a realistic strategy to swing at the first pitch with all your might, aiming for the fences. Market-savvy contemporary acts play small ball, utilizing old-school fundamentals. The advantages we have now over those days of yore are in new, miraculous innovations: the Internet, cable TV, and independent film. And, here’s the bonus: we no longer have to live on food stamps while greedy record companies take all the money. If you’re talented, smart, focused, and perseverant, you can actually make a decent living as a performing songwriter. And, that’s a change an old dog like me can believe in.