Rock Lit Revisited

Just back from MIDEM where I had the chance to talk to lots of people about how the music industry “ain’t what it used to be”. Definitely interesting conversations, but I guess I’m wondering what days we’re wishing for…

I just finished The Mansion on The Hill (authored in 1998), which I should have read years ago but I’m glad I didn’t, it’s really interesting in the context of the bell curve the music industry is experiencing now. A key passage:

…During the years between Born to Run and Darkness on The Edge of Town, the record industry had experienced the greatest growth in its history. In 1975, Born to Run became the first album certified “platinum” for sales of one million copies. Within three years, rock albums by The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, and Peter Frampton would each sell over ten million copies. And, like the labels, the concert business also grew in size and sophistication until it bore little resemblance to he psychedelic ballroom circuit of the late sixties. As early as 1971, rock’s shifting economics had led to the shuttering of many of the smaller rock venues like the Tea Party and the Fillmore East and West. And where they survived, they were no longer the apex of the circuit. The goal was now to play sports arenas.

The changes were particularly obvious in Boston, where Ray Riepen’s protege and successor, Don Law, had grown wealthy by transforming the loose underground scene into a legitimate, structured business. In 1971, he parlayed his job at the Tea Party and relationship with Frank Barsalona into the Don Law Company, which staged its first show at the 15,500-seat Boston Garden. By the end of the decade, Law’s dominance of the New England concert market was beyond challenge. From 1977 to 1980, the Garden presented seventy-six pop and rock concerts, and Law promoted all but three of them. Over the same period, he produced all but one of the forty-five pop shows at the 7,200-seat Cape Cod Coliseum. By 1981, his hegemony was such that the Massachusettes attorney general charged four of Law’s companies with violating the state’s antitrust act. Without admitting guilt, Law paid $20,000 and signed a five-year decree agreeing not to engage in what the Commonwealth characterized as monopolistic practices.

For the performers, the financial rewards were just as apparent and irresistible. In 1968, Premier had charged the Tea Party $1,250 for its first booking, a three-night stand by Procol Harum. Just eight years later, Premier’s top act, Peter Frampton, was paid $250,000 for one stadium show in Philadelphia.

Monetarily, the marriage of the music and the business was an extraordinary success. But artistically and socially, it was a complete reversal of the values that had spawned the music. The underground scene started in earnest when rock assumed the mantle of meaning and intent from folk music, and it was founded on a search for authenticity and an explicit rejection of consumerism and mainstream values. But the resonance and appeal of that message had proven broad enough to supply the impetus for a new business — and that business had taken on a life of its own. When Frank Barsalona and Dee Anthony preach professionalism and a respect for show business homilies, they nurtured a commercial star system that had nothing to do with the underground ideal. By the late seventies, they — the record companies — had succeeded to such an extent that the modern rock scene became the antithesis of what it had originally aspired to be. Jon Landau was correct in recognizing that rock was a business. The problem was that the music no longer drove the business, the business drove the music.

Now I’m sure I’ll get comments accusing me of being a romantic, aging independent music fan (guilty) and the book of hyperbole, but I ask you this: when were your favorite records from the 70s made, before or after the first platinum record in 1975? Ziggy Stardust and There’s A Riot Goin’ On or Frampton Comes Alive and Saturday Night Fever?

Rock N Roll Is Here To Pay

So now I’ve moved on to 1978’s Rock N Roll Is Here To Pay (recommended to me years ago by Jay Babcock but it’s unfortunately sat on my shelf unread until now) to try to get the POV from the middle of the late 70s boom. From the preface:

Rock music is the most important cultural expression in the United States today. For this generation it serves the funtion TV did for the last as the primary source of entertainment and values. Rock music, which accounts for more than 80 percent of all records and tapes sold, is also the core of a $2 billion business that dwarfs other entertainment industries. It is bigger business than the $600 million made in 1974 in professional sports, or the $1.6 billion in movie revenues.

The music industry is interwoven into the fabric of American business. Through their directorates and primary stockholders, record companies are linked into other corporations. Many record companies are directly owned by outside firms, or they are subsidiaries of large corporate conglomorates. The Allman Brothers, for example, are million-selling artists on the Capricorn label, distributed by Warner Brothers, which is part of the record division of Warner Communications. John Denver records for RCA Records, one division of a multinational corporation that markets more than 60,000 products and is tied to the United States military establishment, with more than several hundred million in defense contracts annually.

Keep that $2B number in mind as you lament the decline of the music business. Inflation-adjusted that’s about $6B, the estimated size of the digital music market in 2009.

Just fun for perspective, IMHO. I’m not really drawing any conclusions from it.

Speaking of, I’ve also been listening to all the Australian configurations of the early AC/DC records Brian Frank lent me (after we nerded out on our love for Bon Scott for two straight hours at a Topspin meetup one night, bumming out every other person who tried to talk to us that night). So rad. Thanks, Brian. “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock N Roll)”, “Ain’t No Fun” (waitin round to be a millionaire), and Rock N Roll Singer are pretty perfect soundtracks to this reading.

Next up on the bed stand: Our Band Could Be Your Life… Other suggestions?

ian