In the words of ex-Chairman of the Federal Reserve Paul Volker: "I don't remember any time, maybe even the Great Depression, when things went down quite so fast." He was speaking of the “global financial meltdown.” Strong words coming from the guy who is supposed to keep the American people sold on free market capitalism.
My question is: what will happen to the music when the harsh reality of the global economic collapse finally reaches the front porches of all Americans, not just us broke musicians who have been in a “depression” for far too long, but EVERYONE. Let me be clear when I say my question is not necessarily about the musicians, it is about the music. What will happen to the music?
In order to answer that question, we need to take a little trip back to the last Depression, that nasty time during the 1930s. On one hand we had boundary breaking, style creating merchants of swing like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Fletcher Henderson, as well as the famous white bands led by Tommy Dorsey (the “ghost band” of which I have myself played in) and Benny Goodman, among others. And then on the other hand, you had the radical leftist folk singers hitting the road in support of labor unions and the growing Socialist alternative, headed up by none other than the great Woody Guthrie.
The 1920s was a boom time for big band music, often referred to as the “big band era”. It was also the beginning of the film industry and at that time music was expected to play a central role in every film. Bands, primarily big bands, often provided the soundtracks live.
So, we go from the “roaring twenties”, where both Black and White musicians could find decent paying work in the north, either in the mainstream clubs or on the underground, to the devastating crash of 1929. That’s when it all changed. But, how exactly it changed is up for debate. Clearly, musicians and artists of all kinds dealt with the brunt of the economic hardships of those first few years of the Depression. But again, I ask what happened to the music? I mean, everyone was immediately broke. Sure, there were a few robber barons that had most of the money, just like any other time in American history, but for the most part everyone was in the same leaky boat, financially.
When the Depression hit hard at the end of the 1920s, going into the 1930s, there was a dramatic decrease in the amount of paid work any musician could find, much less Black musicians. The really popular bands, like Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington and the like could still stay afloat, because they could pack the big auditoriums and clubs in Harlem and across the country. For the smaller, lesser known bands, it was a very different reality. But I would argue that the music itself became stronger than ever as a result of the massive and sudden reality check that everyone was put into. It simply had to become all about the music; only the best was going to get booked anywhere. Of course, this was the case because the actual musical talent of a particular artist or band was in the forefront of the decision to promote them. That has definitely changed in the mainstream music business in recent decades.
The record business was hit really hard too. Record sales went down from the high of 104 million in 1927 to just 6 million in 1932. Add to that the reality that young people, definitely making up the bulk of album sales, were not going out to shows in an effort to save money; you’ve got quite a cocktail of disaster for an industry that was laced in gold for the previous ten years. But here’s the silver lining: Radio stepped up to save the day. Radio was the first free form of entertainment the country had ever seen!
Radio was no saint of course. Many jazz musicians in these days claimed that the commercialization of jazz was going to kill the art form. There are many who still hold that opinion. And let’s face it; much of the best music of the Depression didn’t make the radio, just like it doesn’t make the radio today. All that considered though, music via radio did actually find a way to get out there to the public at large without musicians having to find a way to pedal it across the country, one live show at a time. Still, many musicians who went on the radio claimed they did so out of desperation and/or starvation. The same could be said today about the need to get into licensing one’s music for mainstream television and radio spots. It’s not what we would really want to do, but it’s damn near the only other way to make real money. Now hold on, I’m leading somewhere with this!
Here we are in the year 2009. We are on the verge of not just an American, but a global economic meltdown, something many – including the above cited Paul Volker – say could be worse than the Great Depression. That is not only scary as hell because of the visions of bread lines, government cheese, and the overwhelming amount of under-educated and frightened people who own guns in this country, but because radio sucks terribly, nobody sees the need to buy CD’s anymore, and the over-commercialization of music is so ingrained in the American psyche that we all have to fear what the traditional thinkers in the music industry might have up their sleeve.
All that said, there still is the music, and there is a conundrum at hand. That is, while CD sales have been taking a steady dive for quite some time, partially as a result of the many free forms of musical access via the Internet – legally and otherwise – and partially as a result of CD’s just kind being a sucky form of physical distribution by historical standards, sales of vinyl have gone up dramatically! Furthermore, as a percentage of money earned by musicians, the live performance has now far surpassed that of record sales of any kind. This has rarely been the case in past decades.
So, as the member of a band that has just signed a recording contract, albeit a very small one, I ask a simple question: What will happen to the music when the music is all we have? I mean, clearly, when the shit really hits the fan, buying a CD – which you are just going to dump onto your computer and ultimately your iPod or some such device – is going to be the last thing on my mind, and I am a damn musician! How can I expect the fans of the band I play with to think any different?
Let me just cut to the chase. When the Great Depression hit, it took with it a whole lot of bullshit, dig? A lot of music that had no business being recorded in the first place was wiped off the planet and out of people’s conscience. Sure, it was damn hard for musicians to make a living, but life has always been hard for musicians, because we don’t do something that has real market value, unless our music is attached to something that does. That brings me to the point: Bring on the collapse! Why do I say that? I say it because there is so much shit out there, totally unworthy of crossing the path of anyone’s ears that it will be a welcomed change to see it suddenly disappear from the radio, the television and so on. Let the good music prevail I say! But let’s be real about this. If we, the musicians and the public that respects them, want good music to prevail, we have to be willing to rebuild the music world; to revolutionize it from the inside out by making decision that make sense.
During times of economic depression, money doesn’t only become scarcer, it becomes more precious. This is both a blessing and a curse. People have less of it to spend on things like music and the live shows that ought to come along with it. But, when people do spend it on music, they tend to want to really get what they pay for, as they should right?
So, with the looming collapse haunting our thoughts, I ask you, the listener, the musician, the critic, the whatever: What do you think will happen to the music? Will it get better because there will simply be less of it dumped into the public’s lap? Or will it suffer because of lack of financial interest from the purveyors of American uber-capitalism? It’s something we should watch closely, and we should do everything we can to inform the monsters of the recording industry that in times like these, they better bring us some damn good music if they want us to pay for it.
What we buy with the dollar is much more important than the dollar itself, and for that very reason, we must move away from the notion that the quality of music can be derived from the amount of money it fetches on the rabid free market.
- Christopher Robin Cox