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George Graham's 2002 Year-end "Audio Essay"

(As broadcast on WVIA-FM January 1, 2003)

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Time once again for our annual jaundiced philippic, harangue, polemic, prolixity and general blathering about the world of music from our notably skewed perspective. And as usual, we'll also add a little verbal obfuscation about audio technology as well.

Two Thousand and Two seemed to be a year of extremes. One the one hand, there was a remarkable stream of excellent music being released mainly on the independent labels, good bluegrass music was reaching mainstream audiences, and a couple of bright young artists whose sound was actually based on musical quality rather than faddishness, enjoyed unexpected hits. But on the other side, the number one selling album for the year was definitely cause for discouragement, and millions of people tuned in to commercial television as the media mavens attempted to manufacture a pop star through the "American Idol" contest.

The big story of 2002 in the music biz, was that the multi-national major record labels saw their sales figures do about the same thing as the stock market. The bottom seems to have fallen out of what used to be considered a fairly safe cash cow. Last time we noted that the monetary value of music sales was down in 2001, though the number of CDs sold was up slightly. In 2002, unit sales dropped preciptiously. For the week ending December 8, 2002, year-to-date sales of CDs were reported to be down 8.8%, from 622 million to 568 million, and overall unit sales of all formats, including cassette, LP and singles were down 13% on the year. Anyway you look at it, that is a significant decline. (This however excludes sales at non-traditional stores and direct, independent sales, for example from artist to music fan.) Of course, the record companies immediately blamed downloading of music for all the loss of sales. And they did what you would expect large corporations to do -- file lawsuits. In 2001, they succeeded in shutting down Napster, then they did the same with Aimster, and recently, a judge in California took up the case of Kazaa, which whose technology is from an Australian company, and which as an entity is based on the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu.

Since 1994, I have been saying that the Internet had the potential to alter fundamentally the way music is distributed, making it possible to eliminate record companies, and distribute music directly from the artist to the music fan. Of course, not if the media companies have anything to do with it. I noted in our 2001 year-end commentary that after the excitement of the Internet, in 2001 it was like The Empire Strikes Back, with the huge multi-national media companies throwing their muscle around to try to stamp out anything that might do an end run around them.

In 2001, the record companies attempted to introduce a provision into the so-called USA Patriot Act, the anti-terrorism legislation that so many people now realize has seriously jeoparized civil liberties. That provision would have granted the legal right to record companies to hack into anybody's computer at will, and delete any files they didn't want you to have, or indeed to wipe out your hard drive if they thought you had what they call "pirated" files in your computer. Fortunately, that provision was stripped out. But it has been re-introduced, and the new Republican Congress is much more likely to look upon that kind of measure favorably.

In the meantime, the major record labels' attempt to capitalize on the Internet was almost laughable -- a couple of sites, Pressplay and MusicNet that at first would only essentially "rent" you music -- the files would become diasbled after a while, and you could not burn them to a CD, or transfer them to a portable player. And not only that, the music they did have available was very limited. Of course, only the record companies were blind enough to see that this was doomed to be an instant, dismal failure. So toward the end of 2002, for the first time, the record-label sponsored sites were offering music you could save on a CD, and were offering content from all the major labels, though as we shall point out later, that's a very limited musical universe.

But the fundamental problem is that the media companies seem to have forgotten the first lesson of Economics 101. In a capitalist economy, companies compete on the basis of price and qualty, and those who sell the best products at the lowest price are the ones who will succeed. Why are Wal-Mart and Southwest Airlines succeeding when some of their competitors are in bankruptcy? Very simple, they sell at a low price, and figured out how to make a profit.

Now the music business has always been an unusual combination of art and commerce. Ideally, and this is what it was like a few decades ago, the artists were allowed to create their music, and were generally protected from the market in that process by the record labels who were run by people who were basically music fans. Once the music was made, then the commerce aspect would kick in, and the records would be promoted and marketed, and rise and fall in the market on their own merit.

Today, the process is turned on its head. In most cases, on the major labels, the signing of artists, and the production of their music is very much a market-driven process, with focus groups, and other marketing tools applied to make music that is most likely to be sold to the particular targeted demographic group. But once the record is made, then the labels' allegiance to the free market disappears. Instead of pricing based on the market, they impose more or less uniform pricing, and come down hard on stores that sell their recordings for less. In other words, they seem to act like the old communist comisars who decided what the public wanted and what they ought to be paying, and let there be no competition.

So, if you as a business man were to look at slumping sales in a market where everyone was selling a roughly equivalent product, what would you do? Why, figure out a way to sell your product at a lower price than the competition. So what are the big media record companies doing? Raising their prices, of course. Now look at the larger market: You can buy a DVD of fairly recent Hollywood blockbusters, with full-surround sound, and perhaps two hours of playing time for less than the price of major-label CD of bad music with bad sound quality that plays for less than half the time. And isn't it ironic that it's some of the same media companies that are selling DVD's for less money than audio CDs.

Another simple lesson of economics that seems to have escaped the major labels is the need to treat one's customers well, and give them what they want. The major labels have taken a concerted course of action to phase out the single, thinking that it would cause people to buy more full-length recordings. It's little wonder that people have turned to the Internet when there is one specific song that is wanted. So when music fans do that, the record labels treat their customers, or now former customers, like thieves. They somehow feel they have the divine right to the undivided loyalty of music fans, and if record sales fall off, it's the fault of the impudent customers, and has nothing to do with their lousy product sold at an excessive price, or their failure to adapt to new technology or the changing overall entertainment landscape.

If the record companies were making cars, they would try to sell you a car that was all style but barely functional, one that you would come to hate after about two months, but would cost $120,000 with no discounts, and you would have to sign a contract that stated that no one else in your family would be allowed to drive that car. Any other driver would have to buy his own highly-overpriced car. And if anything went wrong with the car, there would be no service whatsoever.

Of course, all this might make a bit of sense if maintaining certain level of pricing were to protect the artists, but that is hardly the case. In California, there is a provision in the labor law that sayd that personal contracts cannot exceed seven years in length. There is only one exception, music recording contracts, which can go on essentially forever. Artists have been trying to get that provision repealed for years, and the record labels have again turned their lawyers and lobbyists loose. At last report, there may be some kind of compromise. Also there have been numerous lawsuits filed on behalf of artists demanding an accurate independent accounting and auditing of sales of their records for the purposes of determining if they are receiving all their royalties, something that labels have again strongly resisted.

So as much as I am a music fan, and know that over the years the major labels have indeed released much of the music that has become part of our culture, I feel very little sympathy for today's major record companies in their current tailspin. One sees the record executives riding around in limousines, hob-nobbing with their alleged "stars," giving each other awards, and constantly shooting themselves in the foot. With less than 10% of our Mixed Bag "Best of 2002" CDs released by the major labels, those dinosaurs of commercial music are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the provision of worthwhile music.

On now on to the music itself. While there seemed to be a major disconnect between what is on the commercial pop music scene and what is really happening in terms of creative music, this was a year of a lot of very good music, though you would never had known it if you just looked at big media companies and the programming on the likes of MTV. But, there appeared to be some occasional cracks in the Berlin Wall of musical mediochrity. In 2002, the acoustic bluegrass and old-timey soundtrack to the film O Brother Where Art Thou remained on the charts and reached number 6 on the Billboard cumulative annual charts, despite virtually no commercial radio airplay. And unlike previous years, in addition to the O Brother soundtrack, there were actually four CDs on the Billboard top 50 for the year that we featured on Mixed Bag, including debut releases by Nora Jones and John Mayer, plus established hit artists Bruce Springsteen and Jewel, both of whom had worthwhile releases during the year. On the other hand, the top-selling album of the year was Eminem's The Eminem Show, hardly cause for rejoicing at the rise of fine art.

But the success of O Brother Where Art Thou brought about an almost unprecedented rise in interest in one of the great uniquely American forms of music, bluegrass. Performers ranging from the remarkable young group Nickel Creek to veterans of many decades like Ralph Stanley and Del McCoury have seen a wonderful revival in their careers. The "Down from the Mountain" national tour, which brought many fine bluegrass artists together performing to audiences who might not have seen bluegrass before, was a great succcess. Some commercial country radio even gave Nickel Creek a little airplay.

2002 also saw a raft of bluegrass covers of rock songs. Dolly Parton did a bluegrass version of Led Zeppelin's epic of tedium, Stairway to Heaven, there were a number of bluegrass anthologies of cover songs, and a fun, very tongue-in-cheek project by group called Hayseed Dixie doing heavy rock tunes from the likes of Ted Nugent and Bad Company, in bluegrass style. There was also a bumper crop of fine albums by bluegrass bands from very eclectic to traditional, and a notable bluegrass album from a rock veteran, Jorma Kakonen of the Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna.

The musical companion to bluegrass, the mostly instrumental New Acoustic scene brought forth fine releases by Phillips, Grier and Flinner, Dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas, and a wonderful acoustic guitar album by Tony McManus.

On the other side of the coin, some of the teen pop bands and performers seemed to be losing their lustre as cash cows. There were somewhat fewer hits by such groups, and Britney Spears, I understand, is taking time off to reassess her career, after her CD did reach #8 on the Billboard annual cumulative charts.

Now on to some of the styles we deal with on Mixed Bag, and in which 2002 was a good year. Jam band releases were certainly proliferating, with worthwhile recordings by The String Cheese Incident, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Soulive, the Derek Trucks Band, Entrain, Psychedelic Breakfast, Keller Williams, and a reunited Phish.

Once again, there was a cornucopia of enjoyable releases by singer-songwriters, including a superb album by Susan Werner, live recordings from Richard Shindell and David Wilcox, plus releases from Indigo Girls, Kenny White, Linda Thompson, Terri Hendrix, Steve Earle, Guy Clark and others. Stylistically, they ranged from acoustic and folky to electric and rocky.

Like so many other aspects of popular culture, 2002 was a year for a spate of retro-sounding recordings. There was a revival of the best aspects of 1970s funk with releases by Liquid Soul, Karl Denson's Tiny Universe and Les McCann. Progressive or Art rock made a bit of a comeback with CDs from the Ohio based band Guest, and an impressive album by those founders of the whole movement, Yes. There was the revival of Cabaret music through two different CDs releases by Paris Combo in 2002. There was also a spate of CDs that harkened to the melodic Beatles-influenced pop of the 1960s, by groups like the Kennedys and Swan Dive.

The spring of 2002 saw a little flurry of a cappella vocal releases, specifically three of them -- two outstanding compilations, one of varous college a cappella bands, and one of Beatle covers. The other was by the long-running Canadian mostly a cappella band the Nylons. Meanwhile, a cappella virtuoso Bobby McFerrin released a recording featuring instrumental backing.

In Celtic music, the key word in 2002 was eclecticism, with most recordings mixing Celtic influence with other, often very disparate sounds. Panamanian salsa artist Ruben Blades mixed some Celtic into his latest release Mundo. Celtic sensation band Solas released a recording in 2002 that had not one traditional piece on it, but still was outstanding. Mouth Music again mixed Celtic with techno, and there was the unlikely blend of Celtic and cowboy music though the release by David Wilkie and his band Cowboy Celtic. In the meantime, Sinead O'Connor released an album of traditional Celtic tunes served up in an odd quirky vocal style.

The Blues was another area where there seemed to be something of a disconnect between the stream of worthwhile music being issued and the music sales charts. Billboard has been compiling a blues chart for a few years now, and the 2002 cumulative chart was again topped by the late Steve Ray Vaughan in a live double CD recorded in the 1980s. B.B. King held down the second spot with a Christmas album. The third slot went to the 2000 joint album B.B. King and Eric Clapton, Riding with the King. However off the charts, 2002 was a good year for up-and-coming women in the blues, with fine recordings by Shamekia Copeland and Deborah Coleman, along with a fascinating bluesy, jazzy, folky album by Cassandra Wilson called Belly of the Sun.

The jazz-rock fusion scene received a shot in the arm with a superb new album by the Pat Metheny Group, plus notable recordings by Dave Weckl, CAB, featuring Brian Auger, and a funky release by guitarist John Scofield, called Uberjam.

And finally to mainstream jazz where again the difference between the music on the sales charts and the creative complexion of the scene was pronounced. Diana Krall, and her somewhat disappointingly over-orchestrated release The Look of Love was the best-selling jazz album for the year, though Ms. Krall made up for it with a fine, swinging live release called Live in Paris toward the end of 2002. On the Billboard cumulative top 10 jazz charts for the year, every entry was a vocal recording, in a field where 90% of the music is instrumental. On a recent week, of the top 25 jazz albums, only four were by living instrumentalists. All the rest were either by singers or were historical recordings by Duke Ellington, John Coltrane and others. And looking at the number of jazz releases during the year, it seemed as if every other one was either a female vocalist or an organ combo. The Ken Burns jazz series on PBS early in 2001 certainly helped to raise the awareness of jazz, but unfortunately, it had the effect of treating jazz as a historical music, when if you are a regular listener to our jazz programs here on WVIA, you'll know that jazz is very much alive and well as 21st Century instrumental music. Let's hope that the public's understanding for the great American music form widens.

One final note. For all my trashing of the quality of the music on the major record labels, I should point out that among independent releases, there was probably even more bad music to be found by groups who think they can play, whose friends tell them to put out a CD, and then make a CD that proves their definite lack of talent. Once again this year, in an effort to find the interesting new music in which Mixed Bag specializes, I waded through a constant stream of bad rock bands with underwhelming musicianship, dumb material, and off-key vocals; singer-songwriters who are competent at neither, new age artists who think that if they turn on the automatic sequencer and play a few chords on their synthesizer that they have created art, and people who think that cueing up a turntable and stealing bits of recordings from other people's records is somehow creative.

And now on to our annual audio technology rant. Two Thousand and Two was also a year of contrasts. New, higher quality audio formats were coming to market, while the quality of many CD releases continues to decline due to the fad of excessive compression to make them as loud as possible all of the time.

After a few years of development and a fair amount of delay, DVD Audio was introduced a year or so ago. It would use the greater digital storage capacity of the DVD, which is usually squandered on video, for high-bit-rate audio capable of a much wider dynamic range and accuracy. But as the format was introduced a few manufacturers, Sony, apparently still smarting from losing the VHS-Beta wars introduced SACD, or Super-Audio CDs, which is a completely incompatible system. SACD does have the advantage of being conditionally compatible with existing CD players, but with two competing formats vying to replace the CD, there is little incentive for music fans to buy new gear, and replace their whole CD collection. And there is probably even less incentive given the huge popularity of DVD video players, few of which are capable of playing the high-resolution DVD-Audio discs properly. But on the positive side, the proliferation of home-theater systems has induced video fans to invest in surround-sound audio systems some of which can sound quite good with music on a well-engineered audio CD. So there might be an opening for DVD-audio there.

By the way, my own rule for any video system is that the screen should never be larger than your smallest speaker.

I expect that a higher-quality audio medium is going to be a hard sell to the public, which has become used to bad sound -- heavily compressed and intentionally distorted pop CDs, mangled sound on on most commercial radio and TV stations, and the really horrible sound of most mp3s downloaded from the Internet. If this is what many people think is normal, then a medium offering higher quality than the conventional CD, whose fidelity capabilities are grossly underutilitzed in today's loudness wars, is not likely to be induce most people to make the substantial investment for the new technology.

In 2002 there were a couple of significant developments in the world's most important medium, radio. Subscription satellite radio services are on the air, and are being heavily promoted, but sales have been disappointing, and one of the two services is running out of cash and may have to shut down next year if more financing is not found. The auto manufacturers announced plans to offer the receivers in their new cars. Perhaps that may catch on if enough cars with the receivers are sold, that is if the whole venture doesn't fail in the meantime. National Public Radio had become involved with one of the services to provide programming, but has pulled back, given the shaky condition of the companies. The multi-channel services offer a number of styles of music and other programming, but there is no local presence, and the $120 to $150 annual fee is much better spent on a membership in public radio whose service is available anywhere, and not just from special receivers.

And speaking of special receivers, 2002 was the year that digital broadcast radio finally came to technical fruition, with the approval of technical standards for a system to bring digital quality sound on conventional FM and even AM radio frequencies. The system originally called IBOC, for In-Band-On Channel, now renamed High Definition Radio, as its original name implies, used regular radio frequencies to deliver digital sound, free from fading, static and other interference, in a manner compatible with existing radios. But brings us to another chicken-and-egg situation with receiver manufacturers reluctant to make radios without many stations on the air, and most commercial broadcasters reluctant to invest the money for the technology, which is likely to be fairly expensive for the stations, without enough listeners with receivers. It may take a mandate, such as the Federal Communications Commission did with digital television, setting a date for the old technology to sign off, for the system to catch on. But digital broadcast radio does have a great deal of potential.

On the other hand, one potentially promising avenue of delivering radio to people, the Internet has pretty much been choked off, thanks again to the legal efforts of the big-media controlled record companies. Through the efforts of industry lobbyists, the most recent revision of the copyright act contains a provision for collecting royalties to pay to record companies for Internet broadcast of their material. In theory it seems fair, though it should have been written for the royalties to be paid directly to artists, not labels. The cost, though small for individual songs, per Internet site visit, quickly adds up to thousands of dollars a year over time and with more people visiting the website. There were many small independent webcasters who simply could not afford the cost and shut down. Most over-the-air commercial radio stations also discontinued webcasting to avoid the cost of something that would not likely generate any additional ad revenue.

So, to update the old expression, "If you can't beat em, sue 'em and shut 'em down."

In the meantime, computers have an essential audio component. Many young people and especially college students use their PCs to play CDs, and of course, to the chagrin of the record companies, to distribute music. From personal experience, almost every time I go into an electronics or computer store, the one thing I overhear most from other customers is a desire to be able to make their own CDs. The industry expects that blank CD sales will total six billion during 2002. People very much like assembing their own music CDs, and having backup copies to use in their cars, and the like. Record labels say they expect to move more aggressively into copy-proof CDs in the coming year, but what makes them copy-proof is that they won't play on a computer drive, and if your customers can't play the CDs on their principal music player, it will be yet another example of the labels shooting themselves in the foot and alienating their customers instead of being creative.

One more audio development that has impressed me, though it's not really something for people to go out and buy. Digital sonic restoration technology has really improved in the last couple of years, to the point that some historical recordings originally on 78 rpm records have really been given a new sonic life. The past year's Charlie Christian boxed set released through Columbia records is an impressive example.

Well, that's how I look at things. I know, I should get out into the real world more. Stay tuned as we bring you our annual edition of the musical obituaries.

(c) Copyright 2003 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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