Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Was Lars Ulrich Right?

Short answer: yes*

I had one of those music business epiphanies the other day while surfing YouTube. Someone posted a full-production Metallica concert recently—a live show from earlier this year in Las Vegas. I skipped through it, reminiscing the late ‘80s headbanger scene. They looked great, sounded great, and performed well. Still got it! But (and there’s always the but), the video was probably a serious copyright violation, and knowing Lars Ulrich’s litigious history in that arena, there was a smattering of guilt involved should I decide to sit and watch the whole thing. Sure, everyone does it. It wasn’t the first or last time I caught clips of the bands I dig. It made me think about the big picture though. Well, that combined with the quantum shift in music business.

source: Digital Music News

 I Ain’t Got No Money…

With the exception of the entrenched megastars, a few dozen label-manufactured pop artists, and a handful of true originals, hardly anyone is maintaining viable career as a recording/touring artist, let alone a journeyman professional. Compare today’s numbers with the ‘70s. Sales of recordings on the whole are dwindling, touring profits have dried up (even with reduced production), clubs with stages are closing, and youth interest is waning (a falsehood?). Who can blame the lack of interest if your best aspirations are akin the life and income of a transient carny? Let me get back to Metallica, though. The mess musicians are now experiencing is perhaps attributed to a problem that incited those infamous legal rants by its drummer—the silent guy sitting behind everyone else.


If you’re not familiar with Lars Ulrich, he’s Metallica’s founding drummer and a Thrash pioneer. Maybe not your cuppa, but I have respect for his honesty and statue as an influential drummer. Similarly to Keith Moon, Lars would be the first to tell you he’s no chopmaster, nor did he ever have aspirations to be a drummer’s drummer. He simply wanted to be Metallica’s drummer. Goal achieved. There is, however, the other side of Lars that most causal listeners might not be aware of: the business side. He is also known for moonlighting as their business manager. In the early days, that is. James Hetfield (lead singer and guitarist) once mentioned in an interview that part of the band’s success came from delegation of the many different jobs associated with a successful band to its member’s strengths. Lars’ acumen happens to be business. So…what happened with him?

Public the Ripper

*Rewind to late 1999. Napster. Remember them? They were a file sharing service that hosted copyrighted content on their own servers. D’oh! Metallica and several other artists filed lawsuits and, along with the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), they were shut down. All that did was legally define technology for file sharing, which was handily circumvented by the likes of Limewire’s peer-to-peer services (later busted) and now the raging torrents that rule illegal file sharing today.  The genie’s out of the bottle, certainly, so do you try putting it back in? That’s what Ulrich attempted, and he paid a hefty price with his fans. How could the anti-establishment become so greedy?

Greed? I think Lars nailed it with this statement: “People used the word ‘greed’ all the time, which was so bizarre. The whole thing was about one thing and one thing only – control. Not about the internet, not about money, not about file sharing, not about giving s— away for free or not, but about whose choice it was. If I wanna give my s— away for free, I’ll give it away for free. That choice was taken away from me.”

But… music should be free, right? Isn’t that what the public decrees? As it turns out, no, it should not.

The Price Paid

Check these 2014 STATS:

- According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 39,260 people in the United States classified as "Musicians and Singers."  This is down by 27% from 53,940 in 2002. (source: Digital Music News)

- According to the Nashville Songwriters Association International, the number of full-time songwriters in Nashville has dropped by 80% since 2000. This was a new low point since data started tracking in 1991. (source: Digital Music News)

Anecdotally, an acquaintance lamented across one of the local musician forums that he could no longer support himself—let alone his family—with his music profession. He’s now looking for another job. A consummate professional with a lengthy performance and instruction background? He plays as many dates as he can along with a thousand other professionals—all vying for gigs that are both disappearing and/or compensating less. Why? Older married couples don’t have the time for live music (“..been there…and what’s new, anyway?”) and the millennials generally aren’t interested real honest-to-God live music. Just ask any wedding planner. Many of these people value half-melted ice sculptures and uplighting more than a live band. (“Just download it and play it on a PA…it’s the same, right?”). Okay, that’s sort of tangential to the recording industry, but it trickles down to the little guys attempting to make a living off of people who value live performance. The previous example used a typical local club/wedding player. What about touring pros? I don’t know if there were other considerations (creative, personal, etc), but when Spock’s Beard’s longtime frontman, Nick D’Virgilio, quit in 2011—stating that he couldn’t support his family—that hit home hard. Here’s a guy with decent discography and plays globally in medium venues (1,000 to 2,500+ seats). He can’t scratch a decent living on that? Yikes! (He still records and tours occasionally, but his anchor is now a sales job at Sweetwater). Seriously, it’s discouraging.

Music Business?

It would appear that the entire industry is in a death spiral from lack of financial health to lack of entrepreneurial creativity.

In essence here’s what happened: Before the golden age of record sales, live performances were the best way to hear a musical act. Once the fidelity of the recordings matched or bested the live listening experience, creating a new experience altogether, record labels spared no expense on promoting a tour to bolster those record sales. That’s when concerts became shows. Once file sharing took off, record sales plummeted along with corresponding profits, ergo less tour production budget. (You’ll notice the big pop acts selling tons of recordings still put on big productions). So now, the bands are simply gracing a stage to play their music—a concert with considerably less show. Touring is still the major component of a recording star’s income, but that is also on the downswing. Lack of interest?

The Lie—It’s About Access

I mentioned earlier that youth interest in music is waning. That’s a fib, actually. Well, sort of. The chart at the top of this article would have folks believe that file sharing and piracy were the major culprits in declining sales. Certainly, downloading and streaming have cut into traditional deliveries, but it’s the entitlement and access factors that I believe to be the major culprits. Sharing, piracy, and lethargic enforcement are the results. Cyclical doom.

Music has never been more popular across all demographics. It’s in everything we do, TV, apps, games, contests, school bands, garage bands, talent shows, cars, restaurants, theaters, toilets…list goes on. And consider that today's teenagers grew up in a completely plugged-in era (more on this below). The problem is the ECON 101. Large supply, large demand, little valuation. Musicians are everywhere. Good ones too. Recording studios are everywhere. Also good, and now quite cheap. You can make a quality recording in your bedroom or on the back of a bus! Don’t know how? Learn on YouTube. There’s no shortage of instructional videos for pretty much anything there. In fact, YouTube has become quite a valuable tool in almost every trade. And that brings me full circle to my opening quandary with copyrighted material so readily available on sites such as YouTube—sites that justify and defend themselves with endless legal disclaimers.

As much as I hate to be a Lars and say it, I think there exists a high degree of entitlement to free content stolen from artists. That entitlement devalues them. As much as YouTube and other exhibition sites hide behind lengthy terms of service statements—the extreme legalese nobody reads or largely understands—they are ultimately responsible for their users that violate copyrights. Problem is, for now, I just don’t see how they can police it without shutting down. Everyone loses. Okay, maybe not everybody. The websites make advertising money on the traffic, and well, I did see part of a Metallica concert I would not have seen unless I bought a ticket. I'm still a fan, but that doesn't pay Metallica's bills. For all the good that YouTube does, there is the dark side of it.

Overexposed Much?

A person can pretty much post anything on a social network until there’s an official complaint or public mandate. These are cases of “we’re responsible for what others post on our site, and we will remove it if there’s a problem.” So, they’ve become sites that copyright holders (content providers) must investigate regularly? I don’t believe that’s quality prevention from YouTube and many other sites, not that they are genuinely interested in prevention. They want as many attractors as legally possible, right? Whatever the tussle, it’s not fair to the artists who must now use expensive production time in fraud detection. Where’s the deterrent? Hmmm…. It seems nobody wants to be the bad guy, least of all the artists.

So, what’s to become of the music business?

My guess is that we’re at a time where consumer desires and lackluster sales transform the industry. I’m not exactly sure what direction the changes will take, but it must change. My personal fantasy has music returning to detailed conception and showmanship—acts improving their game by offering truly unique sonic experiences that can’t be downloaded or streamed in low-fi to be properly enjoyed. “You gotta see them!” Maybe the recordings themselves make return to high fidelity? “You gotta hear this!” What’s worth the price of my coin? If it sounds like it was made in a bedroom…well, you see my point. It may sound terrific on the tin cans of an iPhone, but what about a real listening room?

If you look at streaming stats, you might think it not important. Streaming now comprises about a third of all music sales, according to the RIAA. I’d like to think that streaming is actually an FM radio replacement for casual listeners, and not a preferred listening experience. Who’s to say? Quantity over Quality? Hmmm...

A Cult of Personality Problem or Poor Creativity?

Take a look at these links and see if any of it rings a bell:

In previous blogs, I’ve posted the gripes of other artists: Ian Anderson, Gene Simmons, Tony Bennett, etc. The list of malcontents is growing, but I have to wonder what they think of consumer demand. My guess is they would accuse today's youth of blissful ignorance, but my second guess would look at the average age of the complainers.

And what about file sharing and piracy? Maybe YouTube and other social outlets will get busy defending copyrighted material after a costly legal fight. Maybe a new detection and tracing technology scares the poo out of peer-to-peer file pirates. Or maybe a third-party solution such as Rightscorp is the way to go (similar to a bill collector). Or perhaps international laws become enforceable in prosecuting copyright and patent violators. Ha! That’s what it would take, but… It’s a long road.

Five Random Thoughts:

2) Gotye comes to mind as a modern networking success story, and perhaps Bruno Mars represents the traditional path. Bruno’s a hard-working performer who interested a major label because he’s good. There simply aren’t many of those going around these days. Those two artists might have The Police in common, and there’s an entire discussion there, but I would believe that it would culminate with familiarity—safe marketing as opposed to risk-taking A&R. The book industry has undergone the same transition. Safe bets on celebrity-derived tomes or impactful current affairs, that’s it. New novelists’ query letters reside en masse in the wastebaskets of Madison Avenue (where most of America’s publishing agents roost).

3) Should part-timers like me quit? Nah. Adapt, adapt, adapt! (and wait for the legal solution to materialize)

4) What’s the next popular genre? If there’s one constant, it’s that popular music is constantly redefined by the young, and the other age groups stick to what they knew when they were young. But…

5) I was given a ray of hope this past year, overhearing not one, but two separate conversations involving teenagers stating that, with a few exceptions, today’s music is junk; “my parents collection is much better” (referencing the 1970s and ‘80s). Agreed!


I just don’t know how Volkswagen will survive it. If you’ve read some of my earlier posts, you might know that I am, or was, sort of a fan of the company’s products. The diesel fuel consumption figures and available options lauded in Europe, I mean, were simply outstanding. Now, I fathom that those figures are in fact questionable due to the consideration that they might have been achieved by onboard computers easing the restriction on carbon emissions. Yikes. All those customers—millions of them worldwide—deceived by a company preaching the Green. Unreal.

Damages? I suppose the first order will be to reprogram (flash) or replace the onboard engine management computers. That likely means less performance, so now it means that VW sold products which don’t meet the advertised performance figures. Many won’t like that. I wouldn’t. The cars will certainly be devalued, and the owners might be stuck with them. VW can’t afford to buy them all back. What to do?

There Will Be Lawsuits

Unbelievable lawsuits. We’re talking multiple class actions from consumers all over the planet, not to mention gargantuan fines from the many offended governments with needy treasuries. Yes, VW must pay and pay dearly. But to what extent? Should it be dissolved and thousands of jobs tossed? I suppose the other car manufacturers won't mind the loss of a major competitor, but what about the consumers? What about the workers with families to support? Should they be made to suffer for the actions of a few dozen? Hundreds? How many knew?

No Golden Parachutes.  Give Them Iron!

I’ve known a few sociologists who simply don’t believe in deterrents. I believe in deterrents, wholeheartedly. Why should ex-VW CEO Martin Winterkorn escape with a fat severance package when he should instead face prison? Is that the preferred modus in modern society? It shouldn’t be. Well…>IF< he knew about the emissions avoidance.  My guess is: he’ll face a grueling interrogation for the cameras, then disappear to some whitewashed Greek idyll. Nice deterrent. He should start a file sharing site.

Now What?

It’s tough to say how or if VW will survive. My guess is they will somehow gloss this over with slick damage control, promising to right the wrongs and play nice with the consumers’ damages. Congressional hearings will ensue—public anger management by finger waving representatives.  “Shame on you Volkswagen!” BP comes to mind, here. Thing is, did any of them see the inside of a prison?

To the many VW owners affected by this egregious fraud, I hope you’re compensated properly. Not just an apology and a recall, but a punitive award that covers your anger and your pocketbook.

As for me, no more serenades for VW efficiency. Fool me once…

Snap Out of Depression, Baby

A personal congratulations to new author Ray B. Rogers on the recent publishing of Depression Baby! Some may perceive no shortage in the anthropological and colloquial documentation of Appalachian life—from the time of colonization through today—but there can be simply be no less weight given to a mountain man (note: not hillbilly!) born to a long-gone era who took the time to put official ink to paper. Who else could (or would!) relate historically relevant anecdotes ranging from applied macroeconomics of Depression-era federal policies and their effects on mountain civics, to the hardships of familial mountain life—farm chores and technologies, the ways they passed time, the foods (including the adhesive qualities of pressure-detonated rice!), the architecture, the horticulture… the list goes on and on. Ray does a fabulous job of voicing his book as though he’s sitting across from you at the breakfast table, slathering a wood oven-baked buttermilk biscuit with his favorite apple butter. You can almost smell it in the pages he wrote.

Thank you for writing it, Mr. Rogers. Without folks like you taking the time and effort, our finer history might be lost.

Check out Depression Baby on AMAZON’s Kindle, or grab a collectable hardcover on LULU. If you want the real personal touch, order an autographed hardback directly from Ray himself at www.RayBRogers.com.  And don’t forget to follow him on social media!

A Parting Thought…

I caught an interview with Buzz Aldrin recently. I think it was Gear Knob presenter James May that conducted it a few years ago. Nice piece. It reminded me of the late 1960s—early ‘70s when I was just a hopeful lad. One of Aldrin’s lines was “…a time where anything was possible.” I still want to believe that we still live in a time where anything is possible. Certainly, it is, but lately one gets the sense that we are missing a certain level of optimism. When asked about returning to the moon, so many seem to say “meh” instead of “cool!” Maybe they deserve an Aldrin Knuckle Sammich, too.

Thank God for folks like Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson—those inspired to TRY for greatness. More of them, please!


T. Nelson Taylor | Official Site | DusT | Bolita