What's wrong with the rock 'n' roll biz, you ask?

People are treated like ATM machines, that's what! Readers sound off on the music industry's woes.


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Salon Staff
July 20, 2001 11:44PM (UTC)

Eric's Boehlert's report on declining CD sales and concert-ticket sales struck a chord with readers, who responded -- unanimously -- with disdain for many industry practices. A selection of their comments appears below.

Boehlert's original story is here:

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What's wrong with the music biz? Napster's out of the picture, but for the first time in a decade, album sales are down -- and ticket sales are sagging too.

A complete list of his reporting on radio payola and industry behemoth Clear Channel can be found here:

Radio's Big Bully: The new "pay for play" and the rise of Clear Channel.

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CDs cost too much

Your article "What's wrong with the music biz?" mentioned the rise in concert prices as a possible reason behind the drop in concert attendance. What about the price of CDs? I think the record industry could do very well to look at their prices as a reason behind slacking sales.

I would personally be very interested to see average CD prices throughout the last few decades adjusted for inflation, because I bet that they have been rising in real money for quite some time. I know that a CD represents a rather substantial investment -- approximately 3 hours of work at minimum wage -- and many of us not-so-wealthy consumers are loath to shell out a lot of cash (relatively) for a product we're less than 100 percent certain of.

-- Mike DuBose

Horrors at a Stevie Nicks concert

I'll tell you what's wrong with the concert business. People are treated like ATM machines.

I recently attended a Stevie Nicks concert in Hartford, Conn., at a venue that shall remain nameless. My ticket, which of course was subject to "service charges" of almost $10 per ticket, boasted that the ticket provided me with free parking. Arriving at the venue, all of the "free" parking was naturally already filled as the venue does not provide anywhere near enough parking for the number of tickets it sells. So it relies on the neighboring businesses to provide parking, which charged me $10 to park at a show that told me I had free parking.

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So the price of my ticket was now in the range of $40, and still growing (and this is for the cheap lawn seats, up on a hill watching little "ants" perform on the stage). This venue, like so many that I have been to, does not allow outside food or beverages inside the gates, and they are gracious enough to rent out lawn chairs to people who don't want to sit on the ground and weren't allowed to bring in their own. So if you want to eat or drink anything, you are subject to the outrageous fees and inferior quality of the concession stands. I paid $7 for a warm beer (and they closed down the beer stands an hour before the show's encore).

Stevie played for approximately an hour and a half, but she was with Sheryl Crow, who performed two of her own songs. Between that and her multiple costume changes, I doubt if she was on the stage for an hour. And this from someone with a long music career and an enormous amount of material to pull from?

To top it all off, after the show ended, it took us about two hours just to get out of our parking space because the one road that led to and from the venue was jammed with unmoving traffic. There were no police or venue employees directing traffic. But then again, why should they? I was parked in a local car dealership, half a mile away from the venue, not in their dinky parking lot. When all was said and done, the concert cost me upward of $60, and I spent more time trying to get out of my parking space than I did seeing Stevie on stage. Not to mention that hour early I had to leave work because the show started at 7:30 on a Friday night. I rarely go to large venues to see shows anymore, and this concert made me remember why. Stop the insanity!!

-- Christopher Pace

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The good stuff under the radar

I read this article with malicious glee. For a while now, I have pissed and moaned to anyone who can tolerate it that mainstream music has become seriously boring, that most radio stinks now and that it's criminal how much you have to pay to go see someone people have heard of. It makes perfect sense to me that the music industry has just pushed consumers too far, shoving less-than-mediocre pap down their throats and making them pay through the nose for it. People are tired of it, and by God, they're hitting the mainstream music industry where it hurts. At last.

However, the article left me wondering whether people have cut back on album purchases and concerts, or just gone through other avenues to buy them -- avenues that SoundScan and Ticketmaster aren't picking up. For example, while I've been complaining to all my friends, I've been going to all kinds of concerts -- for less than $10 -- by foreign artists (and here let me heartily recommend Thomas Mapfumo from Zimbabwe, and Los Amigos Invisibles from Venezuela) and as often as not buying CDs either from the artists directly or ordering them through their labels. Do industry monitors account for such sales? It would be interesting to know if people are unable to buy music, just tired of buying the same old stuff or whether -- perhaps -- more people are turning to cheaper music and hearing all kinds of things they may not have heard otherwise. When Giants Stadium is empty, it's possible that the free concert in the park is packed to the treetops.

-- Brian Slattery

What about the recession?

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Why are CD sales down? It might be a combination of layoffs and the demise of Napster. For someone without a job, it's a bigger risk to buy a CD without trying it first.

-- Amita Guha

An inferior product at an inflated price

Is it really surprising that the music industry is declining? They offer an inferior product at a ridiculously inflated price, and expect the consumer not to notice. The decline in album sales has nothing to do with a flagging economy. It has everything to do with the labels' habit of signing mediocre, middle-of-the-road bands and forcing them to produce mediocre, middle-of-the-road albums.

-- Peter Gordon

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I hope the record companies crash

Music today, as presented by MTV and the radio, sucks. Finding good music today takes a lot of time and effort. A group like Portishead would get next to no air time today, while badly sung drivel from the latest blond Britney clone would spew endlessly out of the TV and corporate radio.

I hope the record companies crash and go bankrupt, allowing a brief period of good music to slip into the media before the tasteless bean counters take over yet again.

I love music, and I haven't bought a new CD in six months. My friends and I view all non-NPR radio channels as a wasteland. When the radio resumes playing music with some character and MTV and VH1 remember how to play music again, perhaps we will spend our money on music once again.

-- Stephen Cumblidge

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"Let them rot!"

So the music industry does everything they can to screw their customers, shutting down Napster, gouging us on tickets and forcing crap like Britney Spears and Destiny's Child down our throats and they wonder why we aren't buying?

Let them rot.

-- Robert Gruber

The middlemen

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I think the answer to the decline of music and concert sales is twofold, and also quite obvious. Problem 1 is the very high price of CDs and concert tickets. As the Napster Wars have brought out, most of the cost of a CD goes to various middlemen and large corporations, and music fans are getting tired of shelling out $18 to make some CEO even richer while the artist goes into debt to the label. This is especially true in the concert business, where tickets are priced well beyond the value of the service provided and out of reach of all but the most committed fans.

The second big problem in the industry is that nearly all the acts named in the article, and that are currently on the Billboard charts, suck mightily. The great majority of current acts are cynically put together commercial enterprises, not artists with real talent and a burning desire to express an artistic vision. The lack of any artistic core, or "soul" if you will, is what makes this music so forgettable.

And while you can fool some of the people all the time, it seems a lot more are wising up to this. So while the business tries to prop up the likes of Brittany Spears on the basis of her looks and lolita naughtiness, fans who want to hear actual musicians are going to check out the Magnetic Fields or Dar Williams or the host of other acts that care about music first, and image and commercialism second.

-- Greg Gulas

Napster: Free advertising

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Simple business 101: You don't piss off millions and millions of customers with blatant corporate greed. The Napster users' boycott is being felt. The last CD I bought had a survey asking what made me decide to buy this album. My answer was, I heard it on Napster and decided to get the album. They just killed the absolute best free advertising they could have hoped for.

-- Pete Kasten

A lousy product at a high price

The problems of the music industry don't take a rocket scientist to understand: A lousy product sold at a high price yields no sales. With a few exceptions, there is precious little musical originality or virtuosity coming from any of the current commercial acts, which rely on excess, hype and 13-year-olds to generate sales.

-- Doug Leins

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$300 for two Jimmy Buffett tix!

There are a couple of issues here that your article fails to mention. How about the quality (or lack of it) of the music that's coming from the industry today? The current crop of "artists" won't be around 10 years from now, let alone a year from now, since their music doesn't sell except to a select audience.

Another issue that was not discussed in your article was scalpers. Take a look on eBay some time and see what performers' tickets are really going for! The Washington, D.C., area has an entire industry of folks who make their living scalping tickets. People are just not gonna pay to go to a concert when the asking price is roughly three or four times the face price of the ticket. I wanted to see Jimmy Buffett a couple of years ago for my birthday and we ended up paying $300 for two in-house seats whose face value was $45 per ticket. I guess it all depends on whether a person wants to see an artist badly enough and just what the market will bear. Most people would prefer to purchase the CD than dish out a couple of days' salary to see their music favorites play on stage.

-- Adrienne Alexander

Profits über alles!

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Two related factors are probably contributing to the obvious and rapid decline in the music biz: industry concentration and foreign ownership. Labels are part of entertainment companies now, meaning the sort of artists they promote are not musicians or singers per se but telegenic dance puppets who look good but don't have to sound good (since the voice can be synthesized and sync'ed). They are looking for the next Britney or Christina; they don't care about the next Dave Matthews.

Also, several labels are now foreign-owned, meaning they know little or nothing about the U.S. musical tradition and care nothing about developing new artists. Bottom line: The industry's current masters are not in the business of making music, but making money. If performance, professionalism and creativity "need" to be sacrificed in order to integrate what remains of the U.S. musical tradition into the relentless commercial behemoth of mass-trash, profit-über-alles instant-gratification culture, why should they care?

The Germans at BMG might shrink from prostituting their own musical tradition before the shamelessly low taste of U.S. bottom-feeding consumers, but they probably have little regard for our tradition, so why waste a pfennig on maintaining its health and growth? Manipulating the public with cheap, mindless entertainment, though, brings diminishing returns over time.

I doubt the "music industry," separate from the entertainment industry, will survive for very long.

-- Lindsey Eck

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The current songs all stink!

I really appreciated your article on the current music biz downturn. I find it interesting that almost as fast as Napster disappeared as a popular force, the record industry sales began to suffer.

I could be wrong, of course, but it seems logical that in the face of tighter and tighter controls on how music gets exposed, with fewer opportunities for the public to hear new artists, it becomes much more difficult for the industry to respond to public dissatisfaction with the current crop of big names. Napster filled that gap, making available in an easily digestible and understandable form the ability to sample every new name that a listener might encounter.

The industry thought they were dealing with theft of the never-ending magic carpet ride of the current hits. Instead, they were putting out of business the best hope they had of exposing new artists to the ravenous public. Yeah, some of those people were abandoning buying CDs; these people are the ones moving on to the more complicated but still usable substitutes for Napster we've all heard about but can't remember. The rest of the public is just getting by without anything new in their lives, waiting to be dazzled, but thinking the current songs all stink.

-- Steve Pick

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A wake-up call

Lagging music sales makes perfect sense to me. The quality is gone. There was a day you could buy a CD and have 10 good songs. Recently CDs have two songs worth listening to, the rest filler. To ask me to pay $17 for this is crazy. What's worse is the single song that costs you $8.

Another major issue is the lack of variety with music. Personal taste aside, the diversity of music has taken a beating. Everybody has been banking on a few megastars to make them money, and those megastars are worn out. The latest Mariah Carey sounds like the last two, the latest Britney sounds like her last three, and the same as eight other single 18-year-old girls. This formula worked when it was new. When 'N Sync was new, and the sound was unique it works. Forty songs of the same thing later, people are bored with it. Three artists shouldn't be relied upon to make 80 percent of your profits.

Radio stations play the same tiny set of songs all day long. On the rare occasion MTV actually shows a video, it's the same one they showed yesterday. How many videos are made that never get shown? How many artists never make it on the radio?

This is not a crisis, but a wake-up call. This is the consumer's power. The power not to buy.

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-- Tony Kovschak

What about Radiohead?

How could you not mention Radiohead in your summation that the music biz is in trouble? In covering CD sales, you failed to mention their last album, "Kid A," premiered at No. 1 in late 2000 and their latest album, "Amnesiac," premiered at No. 2 -- despite selling more first-week units than "Kid A"! (Staind's album - whom you did mention - kept them from No. 1.)

Then, when covering slipping concert ticket sales, you fail to mention that their wildly successful and critically lauded current U.S. tour is not only putting on great shows -- but is sold out!

Was Radiohead not mentioned because it goes against the article (although you mentioned others that went against the main thought of the article) or simply as an oversight? The latter would be a shame of an excuse for someone writing as an expert in the "music biz."

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-- (Name Withdrawn)

No Mentos allowed!

God Bless Eric Boehlert. His tenacity in pursuing the havoc being wreaked on American popular music by Clear Channel Communications should earn him a Pulitzer (or the online equivalent). Who isn't tired of hearing the same cruddy music on the radio? Who isn't fed up with the fascism of attending shows at these so-called festival arenas. Who isn't sick of hack musicians who are stars thanks only to constant airplay at company-owned stations?

I am a 43-year-old woman who still enjoys the thrill of listening to good tunes on the radio. When I am fortunate enough to be in an area with an independent station it is pure bliss to be surprised by the potpourri of musical offerings sent my way by quality, knowledgeable deejays. I don't mind hearing the Backstreet Boys now and again, but I also want to hear Lucinda Williams, Old '97s, Wilco, India Arie and a slew of other great musicians who never get airplay.

I'm just waiting for the next technological advance so I can pick up radio stations via the Internet in my car so I never have to listen to a predictable narrowcast station again.

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As far as attending any shows at an SFX venue, I'm not a big enough sucker to pony up for an already overpriced ticket, incur the ever-increasing service charges and then suffer the indignity of $4.50 bottled water. I was at the Paul Simon/Brian Wilson show (comp ticket), which by the way was great, and the security force actually made the woman in front of me hand over her pack of Mentos because "you can't bring candy in to the concert."

Music used to be so much fun; thanks to Clear Channel and its subsidiaries much of the joy has been diffused. At least there are still lots of wonderful artists and club owners that know how to do music right. And there are still college radio stations. Great music can be found, it just takes a whole lot more effort.

-- Molly Reynolds

All crap

What's wrong with the music business? Hmmm, could it be that most of the struggling acts you mentioned -- Mariah Carey, Puff Daddy, Destiny's Child -- are all crap? Here in San Francisco where Clear Channel has a stranglehold on all major concert venues and tickets average $25 a show, I've found it much more rewarding to spend my dollars at the local level supporting the indie unknowns in the smaller clubs.

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-- Mark Jerome

Pull your head out of your nether regions!

Ultimately, the real reason for this rapid decline of record and ticket sales is the fact that popular music has become stagnant. No longer is artistic merit, originality or a sense of vision part of the artist's makeup. Whether bands or solo artists, they've grown stale, recycling the same old impotent melodies and vacuous lyrics, which seem like nothing but nonsensical filler to stick on top of the prosaic music. I mean, C'mon, where are the Bob Dylans, the Neil Youngs, the Peter Gabriels of today? Where's the talent with vision, freshness and something substantial to say. Who? Sugar Ray? With that dim-witted chorus of "I Just Wanna Fly": "Watchu want, watchu want ..."

Please, Sugar Ray, just fly away to a planet of nothing but pubescent teenage girls whose estrogen overload makes you feel like a legitimate artist. That's where you belong. And while you're there send out some homing signals to bring the likes of 'N Sync, Backstreet Boys, 98°, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and all the other cookie-cutter numbskulls, back to your planet of the chronically lame. The Mayan priests claimed that all life was sung into being by disincarnate spirits. Well, today the only thing being sung into being is the wholesale decline of music-industry standards. The industry and its artists aren't giving life -- they need to get a life! Please, if there's but one music industry executive out there with a single shred of insight or intelligence, pull your head out of your nether regions, and look beyond your accountant's ledger, and recruit some real artists back into the biz. Until then, my stereo's in storage. Good day!

-- Stephen Goldfinger

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All hail the new musical machine!

So record sales are down, huh? Blame Napster? Get real.

The truth is that record company execs have once again lost sight of what the public wants. Instead of spending their time engineering wonderment for us (i.e., 'N Sync, et al.), they could be combing the nation for actual talent. However, that may be tough to come by at a time when the bumper crop of new musicians largely reflects the absence of any solid musical force in the last five years.

The same execs who cannot fathom the benefits of Internet-based music are also responsible for defanging popular music in the mid-'90s. Social issues are no longer present in most music, and the biting edge of metal, punk and rap has been watered down so much that it all fits quite well into Muzak formats. Without any innovation or risk, why would anyone listen to the same bland crap over and over again.

Back catalog sales are sagging? No wonder. These same managerial masterminds have their radio stations anchored to playlists that play the same 12 songs ad nauseam. Without exposure to further tracks from back catalog albums, there is no incentive for consumers to go out and buy older material. Further, those same playlists prevent DJs from exposing people to new material that comes in from other, noncorporate outlets.

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Finally, there's the problem of service charges on concert tickets. Can anyone do anything about it? Doubtful. Pearl Jam went all the way to Congress about the problem, and nothing happened. Actually, that's not true. Once the entertainment conglomerates saw that Congress had no interest in restraining them, charges soared.

All hail the new musical machine!

-- Paul D. Addis


Salon Staff

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