By KATE SULLIVAN
Steve Jones: Punk with a bubblegum heart On Christmas Eve, I had a fever of 103. In a state of half-waking delirium, I was visited by an angel calling itself the Ghost of Music Yet to Come. He chain-smoked and wore white jeans. His wings were beautiful.
In this fever-dream, I was allowed to glimpse what life would be like — what music would be like — if only I were in charge. In this dream, I was the All-Being Master of Rock and the Universe.
When I awoke on Christmas morning, I found the following manifesto — scribbled in my own hand — on the sleeve of a Stylistics record.
• AS ALL-BEING MASTER of Rock and the Universe (AB Master), with unlimited power to reshape the music world, my actions will be swift, sure and brutal.
It may seem cruel and undemocratic, but the first thing I’ll do as AB Master is eliminate 55 percent of all new music currently available (including music on major labels, indies and homemade demos thrown up on MySpace).
I will not force anyone to actually quit making music, recording or playing live. I will merely forbid them from putting it out in accessible, recorded form.
The reason is plain. There are simply too many records being released these days. All of us who love music are overwhelmed by the quantity — and underwhelmed by the quality — of records today.
Only 10 years ago, I was shocked to learn that more than 30,000 albums were released on an annual basis. It seemed outlandishly daunting: How could any single person keep track of even a fraction of it?
Since then, that figure has skyrocketed. What does this mean? Well, it means many things, but partly it means that too many people seem to think their music is worthy of our dollars and ears. At both major and indie labels, too many raw, young talents are being given too much exposure too soon, with too little quality control — and then tossed aside when their albums fail to ignite the planet. Too many undeveloped talents are being forced to compete against one another, and most of ’em end up bloodied and broken. And broke, to boot.
Missy Elliot: Pioneer woman It will benefit artists as much as listeners when 55 percent of all music currently being made is — after thorough quality-control evaluation — denied release. This will be administered by the Council of Twelve, a pop-musical star chamber that will initially include Jesus Christ, Steve Jones, Sarah Vaughan, OutKast, Dick Clark, John Peel, Stevie Wonder, Missy Elliott & Timbaland, Frank Sinatra, and Lennon-McCartney. Note: Production values will not necessarily be a barrier. Four-tracks will qualify, if brilliant.
Say what you will about Motown founder Berry Gordy, but he did know something about quality control from his days at Ford. Gordy forced artists to test their songs against a panel of savvy musical judges every Friday. And the standards were do-or-die shit, like: If you had a dollar, would you buy this record or a sandwich?
Everyone at Motown felt the sting of rejection from their peers at times. Yeah, it sucked. But it sucked a lot less than if they’d been expected to somehow sell a million records on their own, with no real creative support, and were then tossed aside after their first flop (or three) — which is what happens at major labels every day.
Almost as bad is today’s indie-label situation, where, often, labels are hardly more than glorified distributors for bands who are expected to do all their own marketing, promotion and “artist development.” (I have to use quotation marks, because real artist development hardly exists anymore.)
Under this new law, fewer artists will be able to put out records. Then again, we’ll be saving thousands from premature failure, both commercial and artistic.
Of course, even with all the quality control in the world, some perfectly wonderful records just don’t hit, and no one ever knows why. (Just ask the Temptations or the Supremes, who both flopped pretty hard in their early years.) But in such cases, it is spiritually preferable for the artist to be able to move forward with a fine record in hand — if not a gold one. History will absolve them.
• MY SECOND ACT AS AB MASTER will be to call an immediate halt to the use of most pop music in advertising. Artists will be free to write product jingles, of course, as they always have (from Jeff Barry to Mark Mothersbaugh to Jack White). In very rare cases, an older hit song may be reworked for jingle purposes if the results are particularly rad (e.g., “Whip It/Swiff It”). But this too will be subject to thorough evaluation by the Council of Twelve, who will test the proposed ad for sufficient whimsy, charm and That Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi.
Initially, this new ban will hurt up-and-coming bands who can sometimes pay rent for a few months after getting their music placed in a TV ad. Then again, it will level the playing field for those who don’t have such industry connections. And, in the long run, it will shake out to the greater good. Consider the benefits:
A. Our most treasured musical heirlooms will be allowed to age with some dignity, rather than whoring for Cadillac.
B. The sudden paucity of identifiable rock & roll, hip-hop and all other pop in ads will restore the sense that this music is special.
Different, somehow, than normal, everyday bullshit.
I tell you this: If Jesus were a musician today, instead of yelling at the moneychangers in the temple, he’d be screaming at the dumbfucks who’ve sold our musical soul to advertising — the suits and the artists.
C. As pop music becomes less ubiquitous in mass media, and more special, fans will become more likely to pay for it. Kids really do like to save up for stuff they want. That’s part of the fun, and always will be. Anybody can download an MP3 — but that can’t compare to the Total Fun of going to the record store to buy an album.
• MY THIRD ACT AS AB MASTER will be to ordain that all albums be sold in record stores for $11.25. Just a little more than anyone wants to pay, but just a little less than what anyone would pay for something special.
iTunes sells albums for about $10, but that’s basically just the songs and the odd video or PDF. People should pay a little extra for the packaging, and they will — for $11.25. As we all know, the reason kids first turned to Napster was because CD prices exploded in the late ’90s, for no apparent reason, topping out (ridiculously) at nearly $20. A return to a reasonable sticker price would draw people back to brick-and-mortar shops, which is where they really want to be anyway, in the long run. Believe me, no 15-year-old is going to wax nostalgic in 20 years about that day, alone in his room, when he downloaded his first illegal MP3 off Limewire. (I happen to love Limewire — but it’s just not gonna happen.)
• MY FOURTH ACT AS AB MASTER will be to save radio. I will do this by restoring government regulation of broadcast ownership to something near its pre-Reagan conditions. Media companies will be allowed to own a total of two radio stations per market (one AM and one FM), and one TV station.
Initially, this will hurt all the Wall Street investors who’ve helped to make commercial radio what it is today: fucking weak. The stations’ actual owners won’t be too happy either. Then again, in the long run, they may be grateful.
After my laws take effect, the playing field will be leveled, once again. Hundreds of different companies will own stations, instead of a handful. Because of this, the profit potential in radio will be slashed. The real gold diggers will move on to greener fields, like pharmaceuticals, and the mom-and-pop radio owners will creep back, little by little. And they’ll be crass and competitive and cheap too — but they’ll be local, and they’ll by necessity figure out ways to keep the music more interesting. Best of all, everyone in commercial radio will be relieved of the inhuman pressure to constantly, exponentially expand profits. (I will never forget the time Mel Karmazin, former Viacom honcho, bragged that he expected KROQ to turn a 20 percent increase in annual profits. [“We think that’s cool,” he told me in 2001.] No stable, ethical, quality business demands that kind of growth of its staff on an ongoing basis. That’s just not real life.)
As AB Master, I will single-handedly turn radio into a slow-growth business, instead of a cash cow. By doing this, I will help to return our most magical medium to its original purpose. Upon its development in the early 20th century, radio was intended to be a public resource to be shared and used for the collective good of the people, not of those few who can afford to invest in Viacom.
And to help stations fulfill that role, I will offer incentives for more adventurous, thoughtful music programming. I will decree that the DJ is allowed to play one song of his or her own choice every hour, as was the policy at KROQ in its heyday. (“Jock’s choice,” it was called.) It may not sound like much, but even this incremental change will radically improve the sound of our music on the radio.
• FOR MY FIFTH ACT . . . I’m still deciding, but I might choose to eliminate iPods. Or . . .
I might demand that commercial radio play more music overall, with a wider catalog, and present more local-music concerts.
I might demand that public radio fulfill its mission as public radio — not merely white, male, yuppie radio.
I might call for a return to eccentric, stylish, rhythmic, comic, non-elitist brilliance in music criticism.
I might demand an end to whiny emo vocals.
Instead, though, I think I’m done. We needn’t eliminate downloading, legal or il-. We needn’t villainize the Pitchforkers. We needn’t even villainize major labels. None of these forces, however undesirable, can ruin music and musical culture as long as we reinstate genuine quality control — call it curatorship, if you prefer — at radio, record labels and online outlets. The laws I have established will save American popular music, and serve us for decades to come.
See you at the record shop!