Friday, May 11, 2007

Talk Music Much?

How often do you talk about new music at work, as compared to movies, tv, or even those musty anachronisms called books? If you’re in the music business, you’re obviously disqualified. In my experience, I hardly have any water cooler conversations about music, except with those who know I write about it.

My argument is that the music industry has to acknowledge they are losing relevancy as cultural currency, despite the gossip and glamour surrounding their top acts. Again, when did you have a conversation in the elevator about a new CD or bundle of downloads? Conversely, how often have movies or the latest Harry Potter book come up? (To make a fine distinction, American Idol is a tv show. The music biz gets credit for the CDs. Heard anyone in the office buzzing about the grey-haired kid’s CD?)

There are reasons for this. The music industry does not help itself with its award shows. The top prizes tend to go to records that are already established bestsellers. There is usually a bump in sales after the Grammy Awards, but those extra sales could come from people already familiar the artists in question who might have bought them eventually anyway. Oscars tend to give at least some surprise awards to smaller pictures and the Pulitzers often put books the general public had not previously heard of on the bestseller lists for at least a few weeks. That is plus business that grows the pie.

While major motion pictures open wide, taking in grosses that dwarf indy films, box office reporting also includes per screen averages, which smaller films can claim as bragging rights over their giant studio competition. There is no analogous case to make for jazz, blues, or classical releases that are blitzed on Soundscan by current mega-junk pop. Indy bookstores love to hand-sell quirky, literary titles, but sadly there are far fewer indy music stores still in business to champion smaller releases.

Finally, it is hard to get around the issue of quality. There was a time when pop music was culturally important. Now many expect it to be brainless. When was the last time you heard serious cultural commentary about a major release? There was an attempt to hype Radiohead in such a way when OK Computer came out. There was a half-hearted attempt on behalf of Pearl Jam’s latest, but it quickly petered out. Springsteen’s The Rising was sort of the great hope of smart pop, but it was just too slow and dark for people to embrace. Norah Jones generated some excitement as the second coming of the singer-songwriter type, but I did not hear any anticipation for her third CD, even from fans of her first two.

There is plenty of great music being performed and recorded, particularly jazz, I would suggest. People are frankly missing out. Anyone who hears Gianluigi Trovesi’s latest CD, reviewed here this week, would be impressed by it (perhaps deeply so), but an Italian jazz artist covering Renaissance classical music and Jacques Brel is going to meet resistance from less adventurous listeners (although it is a completely accessible disk).

The music business is facing a problem more fundamental than downloading and distribution challenges. Despite people’s affection for bands like the Stones, music, particularly pop, is losing its prestige in American culture. At least that is the impression from my publishing office. If you disagree, send me a polite e-mail proclaiming the good news for the music business.

A good acid test might be starting a water cooler conversation on music and see if anyone picks up on it. At the risk of sounding Clintonesque maybe the industry needs to campaign for a national conversation on music. Of course, to talk about music, you need something to talk about, which returns us to the issue of quality and substance. Feel free to crib my Trovesi review.