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Spiked Hair and Cowboy Boots
By Jerry Flattum - 10/20/2003 - 09:54 PM EDT

The record industry is in the midst of a revolutionÖbut this is nothing new. The revolution actually began when music went digital, circa early 90ís. Today, the affects of this revolution are starting to take hold with a major assault by the recent RIAA war declared on file sharing pirates.

But the revolution goes much deeper than new business models, economics, digital distribution networks, or even major labels versus independent labels. All of those factors are significant. At a deeper level, the revolution is radically changing the way artists/songwriters think about genre.

In a recent New York Times article (10.12.2003) called "What Price Music?" Amy Harmon sums up brilliantly the current state of the music industry.

Although the article does not address songwriters directly, it does allude to an entirely new way of thinking about genre and how this will affect the kinds of songs songwriters will write in the future.

For many writers--and artists--nothing is more aggravating than being pigeon-holed by an industry that is hell-bent on placing songs into one style of music and one style only. The rule is well known: Never submit a demo that includes a country tune, an R&B tune and a metal tune.

Sure, there is crossover. And occasionally a new artist/new song finds success on multiple Billboard charts at the same time, ironically, to the delight of label execs who are normally market-monogamous. Witness to date, the latest Sheryl Crow/Kid Rock tune, "Picture," has riled various country die hards because the song charted on Billboard's country charts.

Some writers are content to write within one style. Others are not. Some songs defy categorization all together, being a blend of many different styles in one.

From the NY Times article:
"An important feature of these new services is the ability to not only share files (paid for) but also playlists. Rhapsody subscribers can e-mail each other their playlists. And eMusic subscribers gather at the www.mymixedtapes.com site to post thematic lists of the songs they have downloaded, which can in turn be downloaded by others. (Among the current selection: "Songs to Hallucinate By: 63 minutes of sound that your girlfriend will hate" and "The Beatles Get Soul," featuring Beatles covers by blues and R&B artists.)"

The ability to create playlists based on moods or other eclectic categories seriously threatens standard genre classifications. The affect on writers is mind boggling. Instead of writing a country tune, a writer will be thinking about writing for a mood market, or a lover's market, or gay, or republican, or songs mother would like.

Following is an enumerated list of issues that have strong bearing on shifting genres:

1. Napster and iTunes: The new Napster and Apple's iTunes are but two online stores set to offer individual tracks for $.99 (some for less). Napster will offer a whopping 500,000-plus tracks with more than half courtesy of independent labels (Billboard).

2. Digital Rights Agency (DRA): DRA has recently formed licensing arrangements between 35 plus independent labels and digital music services like Napster, Rhapsody, Musicmatch and others.

3. Stock and Roll: Billing itself as "A superior alternative to the music industry," Stock and Roll is offering investment opportunities where fans can buy $10 shares of stock in its artists.

4. Some critics don't believe the new songs-for-a-buck will be a viable alternative to illegal file sharing. In turn, it is possible that the sheer act of file sharing could implode on itself and destroy the copyright system. It's fair to assume that by now, nearly every song ever recorded is available as an illegal download. The copyright system is the basis for how writers earn an income. Without it, there is no financial incentive to create new songs.

An extreme alternative--one based solely on conjecture--would be to compensate for the loss of revenue due to file sharing by exorbitantly increasing the price of tickets for live shows.

5. Direct-to-consumer: Independent labels, artists and writers do not need to be dependent on genre-specific radio playlists or major label marketing strategies to reach consumers.

6. Following this, major labels--as gatekeepers--cannot prevent new music from emerging. It's important to note that the process of selecting and filtering one artist over another is not necessarily an evil one. Labels can produce, market and distribute only within the constraints of limited resources.

7. One of the reasons for filtering is because a major label does not feel an artist/song has the commercial potential to compete with its current roster of talent. And yes, the bottom line for that current roster is the ability to generate profit. Underlying commerciality is the ability to target a market, or, in some cases, create one. If your music does not fit within a set genre, it becomes increasingly difficult to sell you.

8. Clearly, by traditional standards, crossover is extremely difficult to achieve. Most country acts stay within the country genre. It goes for metal, jazz, punk, new age and alt rock. In many cases, itís not hard to figure out where an artist or song belongs. It would take a musicologist of extraordinary perception to extol the country roots of rap, and only a magician could find rap elements in country.

9. Genre-bending has become an art in itself. Despite criticisms of programmed playlists, major label or media conglomerate control, and accusations of payola, the radio still provides diversity, just by the turn of a knob. But, the Internet provides access to music rarely if ever heard on radio.

10. Drilling down deeper, it is the ability to be influenced by unrestrained access to music on a global scale. The Internet promised to destroy geographical barriers and did so. The only filtering going on is an individual's own preference.

11. The selection process was further constrained by physical media. Compilation CDís offered an alternative to the single artist CD, but was still limited to 12 cuts or so. Next came 650 MB CD-ROMs followed by various configurations in the DVD format. The Nomad Jukebox mp3 player offers 60 GB of space and boasts storage of up to 16,000 audio files (.wma or mp3 with files on average of 4 minutes). At that level, who's counting?

12. For anyone who is genre-monogamous, 16,000 files just about cover the entire history of any particular genre (There's no point in arguing actual figures, which may be in the millions). The point is there are no limits by access, major label filtering or storage capacity. With a portable mp3 player and satellite radio in your car, the entire spectrum of music is available.

13. Let's assume that because of such access to global music and any music beyond major label offerings, both artists and consumers will explore more. One could argue that just based on radio access alone, such access has not influenced genre-monogamous listeners. There are other kinds of music, but who cares? There are those who will scream, "Don't touch that dial!"

14. What consumers choose to listen to might not have bearing on what writer's write. Writer's become capable of writing in many different genres regardless of consumer choice. Most session musicians are highly trained in many different styles of music, whether they favor one over another or not.

15. In the cover band world, the proliferation of Top 40 bands is a testament to multiple influences. A Top 40 band has a much better chance of landing gigs than a band with a set list exclusively made up of country tunes or dance tunes. Wedding bands, often doubling as Top 40 bands, are called upon to play everything from Sinatra to Elvis, Indigo Girls to Shania Twain.

16. Price: Price was always a restraint on music selection. With online subscription services, consumers have access to a 1/2 million tracks for $10 a month. Or, they can buy a track for a buck ($.99). Websites pick up where cover art and liner notes leave off. Artist/Band/Song information can be stored on a hard drive or DVD.

14. More on access: Obscure recordings are difficult to find in the terrestrial realm. Online, they are as accessible as the latest hits. Pricing wars might make current hits more expensive, or the other way around, depending on various marketing ploys. And such access not only means a disintegration of geographical boundaries but also time lines. When it is as easy to download a Bing Crosby tune as it is a Norah Jones tune, then exposure to music increases exponentially and genre barriers begin to disintegrate.

15. Some of the online retail services are adding artists without record deals. This means a shift in power away from the five major labels.

16. The Internet destroys age barriers as well as geographical and time line barriers. Older listeners have the same access and influence as young listeners.

In summary, the entire spectrum of music is available in one online store. CD collections rarely include only one genre. Because of the proliferation of new online marketing strategies, writers are not confined to one genre. Greater access to global music means a greater exploration in musical styles.

An artist with spiked hair, wearing cowboy boats and rapping to bhangra music just might be on the new cultural horizon.

Jerry Flattum

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