NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Music Industry’s Future Parallels That of Newspapers

Both Face Hard Choices Ahead, With Great Audience Impact

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

There are current parallels between the dilemmas facing both the newspaper industry and the music industry. Recent articles by Clay Shirky and Frank Rich on newspapers’ dilemma show that print journalism’s days of anything resembling its present form are likely numbered.

Both depend on the public to pay their way, and both have been unashamedly subservient with the establishments they should not be serving.

Both journalism and music have reacted in amazingly similar ways. Upper management of both were initially in denial. And then both were outraged. And then both looked to blame others, someone, for this deplorable treatment. (In one reaction, the music industry sued its own customers.) And both were, for the most part, not actively pursuing and exploring ways of making the new paradigm work for them and providing new methods of income — or enhanced revenue streams, as they’re so fond of saying.

Newspapers have been wrecked by the spread of tabloid journalism and by news on the Internet. Pop music was wrecked by downloading at a time when upper management did not acknowledge that it was happening and was a potential major threat — until it became one. Country music has been eroded by radio, and radio has been eroded by consolidation. And greed may end up wrecking the whole structure forever.

In journalism, as I see this, it has been government that initially led to what has become a widespread lack of editorial credibility. Ostensibly, it is journalism’s job to scrutinize, observe and watch on government doings. Not be an obedient stenographer. You say there’s WMD? That’s good enough for us. You say the SEC can ignore Bernie Madoff’s unrealistic investment returns year after year without scrutiny? Good enough for us.

In music’s case, it is radio and advertising that have been the tail wagging the dog. In country music’s case, it has been dramatically obvious. Any newcomer to Nashville learns the ropes pretty quickly.

Songwriters write songs that the record labels want. Artists record songs that the record labels want. Record labels record songs that radio wants. Radio plays songs that the advertisers approve of — i.e. the songs that keep listeners not necessarily engaged, just not tuning out.

The first time a radio consultant walked me through a focus group many years ago, I was amazed. He explained that the songs that radio wants will hold a listener’s interest — especially during the first few critical seconds of play. Then, radio wants the song to not make the listener change stations or turn off the radio. Because, if the listener leaves, radio loses precious ear time for its advertisements. And supposedly, the artists and the label lose a chance to make a fan, a fan who will buy the CD and attend the concerts. That’s why most radio music was pitched to women in the prime consumer age range of 35-54 or so. That was the primary country audience.

Radio wants to create a homogenous aural zone, one without spikes up or down. Nice and even.

There are all sorts of complicated and supposedly scientific ways that all of this is measured and quantified. And it all has worked — for radio.

Up until fairly recently, that is. That’s when many listeners decided they could find music they actually liked and could listen to without having to endure sitting through commercials. And they could download and buy tracks they liked and wanted without having to shell out the cost of a whole CD.

This started turning everything upside down. Radio, heavily leveraged and over-merged and in debt, found its thin profit margins becoming ever-more razor-thin.

Record labels quit selling CDs in such huge quantities. And the labels began dropping artists or paying them much less while reaching for a share of artists’ touring and merchandise revenue because that area of the industry has remained relatively healthy. Music fans want to see artists they like and hear the music they like. Just on their own terms.

Artists need radio hits to drive concert sales. Music labels need radio hits to drive CD sales. Radio needs hits to lure advertising dollars.

If that circle is broken somewhere, then chaos ensues.

Radio is not making new stars or creating hits. It’s playing what audience research says will work. TV can still create stars, as American Idol and other shows have proven. And the Internet obviously does. But country radio no longer is a star-maker because it’s unwilling to gamble a valuable air slot on an unknown artist.

So. What to do with newspapers and the music industry?

In music today, power is going to the managers, who control the talent. And the artists are now the coin of the realm. Live performance is the new revenue stream. Music is being given away purely to attract fans, to get them to concerts. But that’s a subject for its own future column.

Record labels have to become reputable providers of quality music to survive long-term. At one time, major record labels were respected and looked to for their taste in new music. John Hammond at Columbia Records signed a young Bob Dylan, a young Bruce Springsteen and a young Stevie Ray Vaughan. Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler at Atlantic delivered the likes of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Led Zeppelin. At the indies, Sam Phillips of Sun Records had the foresight to see that a hybrid of R&B and country music — as sung by a dazzling young Southerner — could be the future of popular music. It can be done.

Country radio? Bankruptcy looms largely in its future. Only after that dust settles out can the survivors map a future.

Perhaps the same could be said for newspapers, but no one in that game has an answer. Certainly, no one has yet found a way to make people want to pay for news online. I was searching in the news today for a comprehensive update of the swine flu, which only about two weeks ago was going to surely kill us all, newspapers and tabloid TV assured us. What I found instead was mainly headline after headline about Miss California and all the supposed “scandals” swirling around her.

You know, two junior reporters at the Washington Post, by dint of hard work, once brought down an entire corrupt administration in this nation. Yet these days, a Madoff can slide by for years unexamined and untouched.

The central issue is this: In this country, both music and news have become so devalued that they are bordering on meaninglessness. A whole generation of music executives and news executives has been asleep at the switch.

The solution I can see is for the buying public to demand better, to demand substance and quality and meaning. Purchasing power has real clout. But only if it’s exercised.

Sometimes, institutions need to blow up or implode or completely fail before they can be rebuilt. Or replaced.

A note: Scott Siman, a well-known manager, wrote to correctly remind me that I had neglected to mention artist managers in last week’s Nashville Skyline column headlined “How to Fix Country Music.” Here is Scott’s advice for managers:

1. Take control.

2. Find real artists that have a story or a point of view beyond a voice or a look. It’s not just about a song, as painful as that is to folks on Music Row.

3. Tell the truth.

4. Never let someone else tell you what is good – you either believe or you don’t – and if you don’t, manage someone else.