Rap Coalition

A HOW-TO RESOURCE FOR RAP ARTISTS, PRODUCERS, & DJs. Since knowledge is power, here is your best defense to succeed in the urban music industry...

Wednesday, March 25, 2009



John Mellencamp

Musician and Activist
Posted March 22, 2009 | 08:18 PM (EST)

Over the last few years, we have all witnessed the decline of the
music business, highlighted by finger-pointing and blame directed
against record companies, artists, internet file sharing and any other
theories for which a case could be made. We've read and heard about
the "good old days" and how things used to be. People remember when
music existed as an art that motivated social movements. Artists and
their music flourished in back alleys, taverns and barns until, in
some cases, a popular groundswell propelled it far and wide. These
days, that possibility no longer seems to exist. After 35 years as an
artist in the recording business, I feel somehow compelled, not
inspired, to stand up for our fellow artists and tell that side of the
story as I perceive it. Had the industry not been decimated by a lack
of vision caused by corporate bean counters obsessed with the bottom
line, musicians would have been able to stick with creating music
rather than trying to market it as well.

During the late 80s and early 90s the industry underwent a
transformation and restructured, catalyzed by three distinct factors.
Record companies no longer viewed themselves as conduits for music,
but as functions of the manipulations of Wall Street. Companies were
acquired, conglomerated, bought and sold; public stock offerings
ensued, shareholders met. At this very same time, new Nielsen
monitoring systems -- BDS (Broadcast Data Systems) and SoundScan were
employed to document record sales and radio airplay. Prior to 1991,
the Billboard charts were done by manual research; radio stations and
record stores across the country were polled to determine what was on
their playlists and what the big sellers were. Thus, giving Oklahoma
City, for example, an equivalent voice to Chicago's in terms of
potential impact on the music scene. BDS keeps track of gross
impressions through an encoded system that counts the number of plays
or "spins" that a song receives. That number is, thereafter,
multiplied by the number of potential listeners. SoundScan was put in
place at retail centers to track sales by monitoring scanned barcodes
of units crossing the counter. A formula was devised whereby the
charts were based 20% on the SoundScan number and 80% on BDS results.
The system had changed from one that measured popularity to one that
was driven by population.

Record companies soon discovered that because of BDS, they only needed
to concentrate on about 12 radio stations; there was no longer a
business rationale for working secondary markets that were soon
forgotten -- despite the fact that these were the very places where
rock and roll was born and thrived. Why pay attention to Louisville --
worth a comparatively few potential listeners -- when the same one
spin in New York, Los Angeles or Atlanta, etc., was worth so many more
potential listeners? All of a sudden there were #1 records that few of
us had ever heard of. At the time we asked ourselves, "Am I out of
touch?" We didn't realize that this was the start of change that would
grow to kill, if not the whole of the music business, then most
certainly, the record companies.

Reagan's much-vaunted trickle-down theory said that wealth tricked
down to the masses from the elite at the top. Now we've found out that
this is patently untrue -- the current economic collapse reflects this
self-serving folly. The same holds for music. It doesn't trickle down;
it percolates up from the artists, from word of mouth, from the
streets and rises up to the general populace. Constrained by the
workings of SoundScan/BDS, music now came from the top and was rammed
down people's throats.

Early in my career, I wrote and recorded a song called "I Need A
Lover" that was only played on just one radio station in Washington,
DC the first week it came out. Through much work from local radio reps
at the record company, the song ended up on thousands of radio
stations. Sing the chorus of "I Need A Lover." It's not the best song
I ever wrote nor did it achieve more than much more than being a
mid-chart hit, but nevertheless, you can sing that chorus. Now sing
the chorus of even one Mariah Carey song. Nothing against Mariah,
she's a brilliantly gifted vocalist, but the point here is the way
that the songs were built -- mine from the ground up, hers from the
top down.

By 1997, consumers, now long uninvolved, grew passive, radio stations
had to change formats. Creative artistry and the artists, themselves,
were now of secondary importance, taking a back seat to Wall Street as
the record companies were going public. The artists were being sold
out by the record companies and forced to figuratively kiss the asses
of their corporate overlords at the time these record companies went
public. In essence, the artists were no longer the primary concern;
only keeping their stockholders fat and happy and "making the
quarterly numbers" mattered; the music was an afterthought.

Long-tenured employees of these companies were sacrificed in the name
of profitability and the culture of greed was burned into the brains
of even the most serious music lovers. It seemed that paying attention
sales, who had the #1 record from one week to next, and who fell or
rose on the charts was all that validated music.

One of my best friends in life was Timothy White who had been the
editor of Crawdaddy, then Rolling Stone and, finally, Billboard. As a
music critic, he championed singers, songwriters and musicians of all
stripes. He was a music lover, beloved in the industry and by artists.
Timothy, as many of you know, died suddenly, at the age of 50, waiting
for an elevator at Billboard's office in New York. Artists including
Don Henley, Brian Wilson, Sheryl Crow, James Taylor, Jimmy Buffett,
Roger Waters, Sting and me thought so much of him that two sold-out
concerts -- one in Boston and one at Madison Square Garden -- were
produced to raise money to support his widow, Judy, and family that
includes their autistic son. Each of you, who care enough to read
this, should ask yourself if people would be there to celebrate your
life so lovingly as this.

In the early 90s, Tim started talking to me about the new service
called SoundScan. Then the editor of Billboard, he was leery about the
whole idea, realizing its potential to turn the record business upside
down. He was pressured by his boss, publisher Howard Lander, who had
warned that if Billboard didn't buy into SoundScan, its competitor,
Hits, would become the premier music industry trade magazine. I
remember performing at a City of Hope benefit dinner in 1996 where he
and I argued with Howard on the pitfalls of SoundScan and BDS and how
there would be consequences that would not be good for the music
business once it was embraced. It was a very unpleasant evening.

Let's pause here to note that the record business has always been
known for its colorful characters like Colonel Tom Parker, Ahmet
Ertegun, John Hammond, etc. The most important thing is that different
artists were able to express themselves in ways that were uniquely
original, expressing their hopes and disappointments. That kind of
artistic diversity and the embrace of eccentricity made the recording
business great. It also made the record business horrifying in some
ways. Look at what happened at Stax Records where financial finagling
and skullduggery brought a great enterprise to a screeching halt that
ended so many brilliant careers.

During the time of the upheaval wrought by SoundScan, BDS and the
"Wall Streeting" of the industry, country music seized the opportunity
and tacitly claimed the traditional music business. Country has come
to dominate the heartland of America, a landscape abandoned or ignored
by the gatekeepers of rock and pop. Great new country music stars came
from seemingly nowhere to grow to tremendous popularity; think Garth

While all this was going on, technology, just as it always does,
progressed. That which, by all rights, should have had a positive
impact for all of us -- better sound quality, accessibility, and
portability -- is now being blamed for many of the ills that beset the
music business. The captains of the industry it seemed, proved
themselves incapable of having a broader, more long-range view of what
this new technology offered. The music business is very complicated in
itself so it's understandable that these additional elements were not
dealt with coherently in light of the distractions that abound. Not
understanding the possibilities, they ignorantly turned it into a
nightmarish situation. The nightmare is the fact that they simply
didn't know how to make it work for us.

The CD, it should be noted, was born out of greed. It was devised to
prop up record sales on the expectation of people replenishing their
record collections with CDs of albums they had already purchased. They
used to call this "planned obsolesce" in the car business. Sound
quality was supposed to be one of the big selling points for CDs but,
as we know, it wasn't very good at all. It was just another con, a
get-rich-quick scheme, a monumental hoax perpetrated on the music
consuming public.

These days, some people suggest that it is up to the artist to create
avenues to sell the music of his own creation. In today's environment,
is it realistic to expect someone to be a songwriter, recording
artist, record company and the P.T. Barnum, so to speak, of his own
career? Of course not. I've always found it amusing that a few people
who have never made a record or written a song seem to know so much
more about what an artist should be doing than the artist himself. If
these pundits know so much, I'd suggest that make their own records
and just leave us out of it. Nora Guthrie, Woody's daughter, once told
me a story about a reception she was at where Bob Dylan was in
attendance. The business people there were quietly commenting on how
unsociable Dylan seemed to them, not what they imagined an encounter
with Dylan would be like. When that observation about Dylan's behavior
and disposition were mentioned to Nora, the response was very
profound. She said that Bob Dylan was not put on this earth to
participate in cocktail chatter with strangers. Bob Dylan's purpose in
life is to write great songs like "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times
They Are A' Changin'." This sort of sums it all up for me. The artist
is here to give the listener the opportunity to dream, a very profound
and special gift even if he's minimally successful. If the artist only
entertains you for three and a half minutes, it's something for which
thanks should be given. Consider how enriched all of our lives are
made by songs from "Like A Rolling Stone," a masterpiece, to "The
Monster Mash," a trifle by comparison.

Now that the carnage in this industry is so deep you can hardly wade
through it, it's open season for criticizing artists, present company
included, for making a misstep or trying to create new opportunities
to reach an audience, i.e., Springsteen releasing an album at Wal-Mart
and, yes, we all know what Wal-Mart is about. The old rules and
constraints that had governed what was once considered a legitimate
artist are no longer valid. When you think about it, you must conclude
that there really is no legitimate business; there is no game left.

Sadly, these days, it's really a matter of "every man for himself." In
terms of possibilities, we are but an echo of what we once were. Of
course, the artist does not want to "sell out to The Man." Left with
no real choice except that business model of greed and the bean
counting mentality that Reagan propagated and the country embraced,
there is only "The Man" to deal with. There is no street for the music
to rise up from. There is no time for the music to develop in a
natural way that we can all embrace when it ripens and matures. That's
why the general public doesn't really care. It's not that the people
don't still love music; of course they do. It's just the way it is
presented to them that ignores their humanity.

If we have any hope for survival of the music that we all love,
compassion must replace name-calling, fairness must replace greed and
we need to come together as a musical community and try to understand
each other's problems. I once suggested to Don Henley, many years ago
after I had left Polygram, that we should form an artist-driven record
label, much like Charlie Chaplin did with the movies when he, more
than 90 years ago, joined forces with Mary Pickford and Douglas
Fairbanks to form United Artists. Don's response was correct. He said
that trying to get artists and business people together to work for
the common good of everyone involved is akin to herding cats. When all
is said and done, unfortunately, it's not really about the music or
the artist. It's about you and your perception of yourself and how you
think things ought to be. And we all know that this very rarely
intersects with what actually is. Just because you think this is how
it should be only makes it just that: what you think; it doesn't make
it true. So let's try to put our best foot forward and remember that
anyone can stand in the back of a dark hall and yell obscenities but
if you want a better world it starts with you and the things you say
and do.


Reading Mellencamp on the music business is like listening to Fred Silverman or another legendary network programmer lamenting the advent of cable, which decimated dominant television shows from the big three. Mellencamp wants us all to bury our heads in the sand and jet back to 1972, or at least 1982, when he became a superstar, and live in a world of darkness, where shady characters playing a Mafia-esque game had a tight grip on music production and distribution.


To criticize SoundScan is to demonize statistics. It's bad to know how many people pursue an activity, it's bad to quantify behavior. No, the problem is what people do with this information! Which Mellencamp does detail, but his points about record companies and stock prices in the nineties? Didn't most record companies go corporate in the sixties and seventies? Isn't that when Elektra and Atlantic sold out? And weren't MCA and RCA and PolyGram always part of the big bad corporate machine? As for laying off employees, that happened after Napster, not before the year 2000. The record companies were fat in the waning days of the last century.

You've only got to check statistics. Which Mellencamp has not seemed to have done here. Just because he rewrites history in his head, that does not make it true.

And blaming BDS for bad radio is like blaming baseball statistics for bad Yankee teams. The real crisis in radio can be traced to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which allowed radio consolidation, and the homogenization of playlists.

We can argue about history, but what bugs me about Mellencamp's diatribe the most is how he has a problem with the present.

Let's look at the present.

The major label hegemony has been broken. No longer is the musical landscape dominated by fat cat gatekeepers who get to control what America hears. You can write and record your own music, and release it too. Will anybody buy it? Probably not if it's bad, but you no longer have to get permission to play, and that's great!

And you can get paid! Make a deal with TuneCore, and you won't get any lying on your statements. I've never met a musician who's audited a record label and found out he's been overpaid. The label recoups recording costs not based on actual dollars spent, but your record royalty, and then screws you if a profit has been made. This is the system we're trying to prop up? Which was originated by the original shysters, um, legends? We've entered an era of transparency, where data can tell you exactly what has transpired. Tell me an artist has never employed SoundScan to tell the label it was owed money. More information is good for the artists, not bad!

You can choose your own business model! You don't have to be beholden to the major label game of selling physical product! If you want to give away your music online to drive concert attendance, great! Furthermore, at least you've got a chance of being heard, unlike in the days where you had to pay off the radio programmer to play your record. And you can sell your own merchandise, which you can order as needed, just in time, online.

The tools available to the musician are staggering. From the production to the exhibition of music. Yes, you can use eventful.com and tour where people want to see you, and you can make money.

But my major complaint is Mellencamp's misguided concept that musicians have to do it all by their lonesome, that they've got to be "songwriter, recording artist, record company and the P.T. Barnum, so to speak, of his own career". Uh, John... Isn't this the way it's always been, when an act was starting out? The singer may have written the songs, but the drummer was making fliers and calling clubs and... Hell, bands have always done almost everything themselves until they've broken through. The same is true today. The only difference is, once you've gotten traction, you don't have to play by the old man's rules, you can invent your own!

If you've got any traction, a plethora of people will track you down and try to make deals with you. Labels still exist, agents are more powerful than ever and every successful act needs a manager. Doesn't matter whether you've got a record deal or they're playing your track on the radio, that doesn't mean you don't have a handler, who takes care of the business for you. Even nascent bands have managers, who sometimes stay with the acts beyond their breakthroughs.

The act has more power than ever before and this is a problem?

No, the problem for John seems to be that you can't plug into a giant machine that will spit out a million dollar lifestyle. The problem is not record companies or radio, but America in the twenty first century. In today's world, where people use Google to search for exactly what they want, where ads are targeted to their exact desires, do you truly expect everyone to listen to the same damn music?

I too lament the lack of melody on Top Forty radio, but to get pissed about that is like bitching about the quality of play at a minor league ballpark. It's a backwater! Top Forty radio is not dominant because there are so many options! Why listen to radio with umpteen commercials when you've got an iPod, when you've got satellite radio and over 100 stations? If broadcasting were the future, network television ratings would be going up! But they're tanking, to the point where many people believe the network model is dead, with shows being launched on cable outlets, to the point where Starz is now airing original programming!

You've got to pay for Starz, it's not even basic cable, it's a pay channel! But it makes economic sense for the outlet to make shows to satiate its subscribers. Just like a band you've never heard of can be profitable, playing to its audience. This is a bad thing?

Sure, it's hard to know what's good, hard to find the good stuff. But that's only because a filtering system akin to MTV has not emerged online. But be sure, when it does, it won't be limited to forty clips, it might be limited to forty genres! I had to listen to Louis Armstrong on WABC to get to the Beatles, sure I now know "Hello Dolly", but thank god I don't ever have to listen to the music of Mariah Carey that Mellencamp derides, because I've got options!

The old systems have broken down. Because they don't comport with the new reality. Are we at the final destination yet? Not even close. But to lament the loss of the past is to miss the point.

Sure, if you want to make a lot of money overnight, you can sell out to a major corporation. But even they don't have that much money or reach anymore. And playing the Super Bowl didn't make Bruce's new album a hit. No, in today's world, first and foremost you're a musician, not a star. Can you make a living? Sure! But you might struggle mightily along the way and not end up flying in a private jet. Why should musicians be immune, when the financial industry is crumbling, when the veil has been lifted on the shenanigans of corporations?

Sure, the major labels made mistakes. But the artists played into their hands. By compromising, trying to make it. Now these compromises yield limited results. Now you've got to rely on the fundamentals. And that all comes down to the music. That's a bad thing?

As for Mellencamp's statement that "I've always found it amusing that a few people who have never made a record or written a song seem to know so much more about what an artist should be doing than the artist himself. If these pundits know so much, I'd suggest that make their own records and just leave us out of it.", I guess a football coach needs to have played on a Super Bowl team, or an auto titan needs to have won the Indianapolis 500. Isn't this the exact thought process that got the major labels in trouble to begin with? That a nineteen year old college student couldn't possibly come up with a better concept of music distribution than they could?

If you think you've got to be a musician or record producer to know anything about the music business, then I guess you never wanted to be managed by David Geffen or Irving Azoff, neither of whom has twirled a knob in the studio. And Cliff Burnstein, who's steered Metallica to the top, is first and foremost a fan, not an artist.

Hey Mellencamp! You're talented, you've written some great songs, but you're not entitled to live your life and guide your career the same way you did twenty years ago. There's no longer guaranteed employment at the corporation and you have to go through career changes, just like the rest of the American population. Why should you be different, just because you're a musician?

Create a great track. If it's truly good, it will reach its audience. But you won't sell ten million albums, no one can! And you probably won't play stadiums, maybe not even arenas. Because so many of those Mariah Carey fans hate your music, and don't want to see you!

And that's a good thing. As Devo sang, "freedom of choice".

The musicians now control their own destinies. The listeners have more music at their fingertips than ever before. It's a brave new world. And it's good. As your buddy Don Henley sang, get over it!


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