NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo
In looking back over the past year, Apple Computers’ iTunes and Johnny Cash stand as the top music stories of 2003. Both will have major long-term impacts on music and musicians and music listeners. The passing of Cash and his longtime partner June Carter Cash had a profound influence on the country music world. And the overall effect of Apple’s finally breaking the logjam in providing an attractive, simple, workable and affordable method of legally downloading music is already changing the future of the music industry. And, ultimately, of music itself.
Apple’s iTunes service was the first to solve the problem of getting all of the major record labels to provide music to be available for legal downloading — which the record industry itself had been unable or unwilling to do. After Apple’s Steve Jobs solved that problem and iTunes went online, it very quickly made a major point: it proved that the majority of music listeners are honest customers who will do the right thing — once it’s offered to them. People flocked to iTunes. It was what users wanted: an easy to access, non-subscription service that was affordable and allowed multi-uses. It was available initially only to Mac users, who make up perhaps only 3 percent of the computer market, if that much. But the response was so strong that Apple soon made the service available to PC users as well.
Microsoft and Wal-Mart followed soon after with similar non-subscription music downloading services. It had to be a bitter pill for Microsoft’s Bill Gates to admit that archrival Apple and Steve Jobs had bested him and Microsoft.
The file-sharing issue soon began to spread beyond music coverage. Frank Rich wrote in his Dec. 21 New York Times column headlined “Napster Runs for President in ’04” that “Today the record business is in meltdown, and more Americans use file-sharing software than voted for Mr. Bush in the last presidential election.” Clearly nothing will ever be the same again for both politics and the record industry after this year of rapid Internet developments. Rich’s headline about Napster running for president refers of course to Howard Dean, who has become the Democratic frontrunner mainly on the basis of his Internet organizing and fundraising. Dean is, in effect, an alternate Internet download. His Internet apparatus has supplanted the traditional Democratic Party structure.
The three big Internet developments of 2003 have been legal music downloading, presidential politics and personal web logs or “blogs.” The latter two — politics and blogs — have been intersecting, but so far music hasn’t interacted substantially with them. That will likely change. I hear — via the Internet — that Willie Nelson has written a very strong protest song that he plans to perform at a Dennis Kucinich fundraising rally hosted by the Dave Matthews Band’s guitarist Tim Reynolds at the Austin Music Hall on Jan. 3. The song, titled “What Ever Happened to Peace on Earth,” is reportedly a broadside against President Bush’s handling of the Iraq war and its aftermath. That will likely reverberate on the Internet and on blogs in an enormous way.
Johnny Cash’s passing this year amounted to an enormous divide in country music, almost to the point of B.C. (before Cash) and A.D. (after death). The country music industry awoke this year to discover (how shocking!) that it had been neglecting and ignoring a musical titan for the past two decades. And Johnny Cash had been out there at his compound overlooking Old Hickory Lake in Hendersonville, Tenn., all along. It cannot be overstated enough that American Recordings’ Rick Rubin did the world and country music fans in particular an enormous favor in going to Johnny Cash — who had been discarded by Nashville — and simply telling him: pick up your guitar and sit down in front of this microphone and sing what you want to sing. What a stroke of genius. The music that followed will reverberate for generations.
Meanwhile, the record industry itself overlooked its own future — it was more interested in suing its own customers for illegal downloading than in offering an attractive downloading alternative. And the country music industry overlooked what it had sitting right in front of its nose — as record labels such as Columbia tossed away artists like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson as unwanted old artifacts.
Chickens do come home to roost.