Mellencamp on the State of the Music Business

Few music stars have been as generous with their time for political candidates and causes as John Mellencamp. From Farm Aid to the 2004 Democratic National Convention to hitting the road for John Edwards in Iowa and elsewhere, he's one of the music community's most committed members.

Tonight he has a article at HuffPo on the death of the music industry as we knew it....and the dismal future ahead.

It's a long article in which John goes to considerable lengths to try and explain factors like BDS (Broadcast Data Systems) and SoundScan and other ways the corporate hold on music evolved. [More...]

He makes the excellent point that we shouldn't expect musicians to sell their own records. They are recording artists, not salespeople. And yet, that's what has been happening. Even worse, when some have made the decision to go with WalMart, the crticism flies, but no one bothers to point out the lack of viable alternatives by which artists can create new opportunities to reach an audience.

Unfortunately, John doesn't have a solution. I read all the way to the end, hoping for one. And, of course, I can't pretend to understand the last 20 years of the music industry based on one article.

I just assumed that iTunes took over the music business. As soon as I learn an artist I like has a new record out, I go to YouTube to watch a song and then to iTunes and buy it. I can't even remember the last time I bought an actual CD. I guess I also assumed the artists were paid the same they always were... with a percentage of the download fee.

I wouldn't be surprised if John Mellencamp spent days or more writing this article. I hope as many people as possible read it. I'm going to read it again...and again until I do understand it.

In the meantime, here's a video I made of John Mellencamp performing for John Edwards in Iowa. I got to stand with all the big camera folks from the networks on the sound podium, it really was an electric evening.

Update: Okay, I have an idea. One of the first times I got a close up look at huge flat screen tvs was several years ago in a Boulder superstore when I was shopping for something minor. I remember the screen was right at the entrance to the store. It was playing a concert performance by Mellencamp I had never seen. I was mesmerized. I'm sure I played his cd's more often in the car for weeks after that.

Why can't artists supply their videos for free directly to the tv megastores to play on their hundreds of sets, both in store and streaming online. I'd like to see an online ad for a tv that you can click and play a performance and see the actual picture if you want, rather than just stare at a blank set. In the stores, the employees could pick their favorite artists to showcase during their shifts ...kind of like bookstores with a shelf dedicated to employee favorite reads. Seems to me it could help everyone...it would sell more tv's and introduce the artists to more of the public. Maybe it's time to move past radio.

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    Mellencamp isn't only talking about (5.00 / 2) (#8)
    by eric on Mon Mar 23, 2009 at 10:06:30 AM EST
    selling music, he is talking, I think, about a change in the culture that is so profound that it has changed music in America.  As he writes,
    "There is no street for the music to rise up from. There is no time for the music to develop in a natural way that we can all embrace when it ripens and matures. That's why the general public doesn't really care. It's not that the people don't still love music; of course they do. It's just the way it is presented to them that ignores their humanity."

    This really sums it up for me.  It is true that there will always be those that create good music, but for how long will they keep at it without some support?  We have acts thrust upon us from above.  We even have tv shows that tell us who should be our next star.

    Of course, if you are interested enough, you can take a chance on a download or a show at a local venue, but will there ever be another band that starts up in a small club, tours, builds a fan base, and eventually achieves mainstream appeal?  I doubt it.

    Instead, a record company will create a "ready made" star for us to consume.  Sure, there is still the Indy scene and local music scenes, but how much of this will ever trickle up to the rest of us as it "ripens and matures".  None, I fear.  And to be clear, when Mellencamp talks about Dylan, he is talking about himself, too.  We would not know any of his music if he started playing under the current music regime.  Same with Springsteen.

    Trickle Up? (none / 0) (#9)
    by squeaky on Mon Mar 23, 2009 at 11:32:36 AM EST
    Sure, there is still the Indy scene and local music scenes, but how much of this will ever trickle up to the rest of us as it "ripens and matures".  None, I fear.

    How high up there are you that you don't see what is going on on the ground lever? Seems to me that there is plenty of young, middle age, and older folks playing music every day. I see not shortage of talent.

    Is Mellencamp lamenting that less of these talented people will get rich, or support themselves only on their music? Seems to me that is the way it always has been. Very few make it a successful business, and that does not always have to do with talent.


    It is a complex subject (none / 0) (#10)
    by eric on Mon Mar 23, 2009 at 11:50:18 AM EST
    but I think I agree with Mellencamp that there is value in a quality act that can achieve some mainstream success from below.  Regular folks who don't have a whole lot of interest in music, (for good reason, as Mellencamp suggests) are simply not exposed to anything that isn't a pure creation of the music industry.  There is no alternative.

    Lazy, Uninterested, Passive (none / 0) (#11)
    by squeaky on Mon Mar 23, 2009 at 12:01:47 PM EST
    I do not understand the problem. If someone is uninterested in music, it is certainly not because there is a shortage of talent out there, it is because they are spoiled or do not want or need music in their life. And if anything there is too much product (recordings) and an abundance of live musicians playing at any given time.

    Is Mellencamp arguing for nursing home residents that are bed-bound? Or is he arguing that his lifestyle is not as guilded as it used to be?

    Nostalgia? I simply do not understand his problem. Seems like a typical generation gap thing maybe. Laments about change.


    Big Deal (none / 0) (#1)
    by squeaky on Sun Mar 22, 2009 at 09:16:54 PM EST
    Nothing is going to stop musicians from playing, inventing and loving music. Getting rich is another thing all together. I don't know Mellencamp, and am sure that he is sincere, but quite frankly I have no idea what he is complaining about.

    But then again I do not like listening to records. Freezing a song and pressing it on a disc so that it can be repeated over and over like a robot seems particularly unmusical to me.

    While it may be bad... (none / 0) (#2)
    by bocajeff on Sun Mar 22, 2009 at 09:31:41 PM EST
    for the musicians paychecks, new media will actually make music much more accessible to the average listener. With a larger variety of outlets to hear music and the cheaper way of purchasing (song by song instead of an entire album for one or two good songs) means the average listener will benefit rather than large corporations and rich musicians. Not to mention that the artists still make a good penny touring

    and we should all be writing here in (none / 0) (#3)
    by DFLer on Sun Mar 22, 2009 at 09:32:23 PM EST
    disappearing invisible ink, so as not to be robotic and read over and over again!

    Hmmm (none / 0) (#4)
    by squeaky on Sun Mar 22, 2009 at 09:44:11 PM EST
    Do you think writing here is analogous to recording music? I don't.  

    I liked your post (none / 0) (#5)
    by Mikeb302000 on Mon Mar 23, 2009 at 03:42:04 AM EST
    Jeralyn.  I've bought a few things on line, enough to realize that a whole generation of kids already considers that the only way to do it.  My memory goes back to the 60s, however, when vinyl LPs were purchased in the record store and they were so cool, you couldn't have enough of 'em.

    Thanks for the heads up on the Mellencamp article.  I'll read it.

    Employer/Employee (none / 0) (#7)
    by jnicola on Mon Mar 23, 2009 at 05:37:19 AM EST
    He makes the excellent point that we shouldn't expect musicians to sell their own records. They are recording artists, not salespeople.

    And I'm not a plumber, nor am I a lawyer. But a pipe started leaking the other day, and my company had a commercial dispute, so I employed one of each. There's no reason why musicians shouldn't employ salesmen, publicists, marketing experts, advisors...

    It would be a far more normal business model, and I'm fairly sure that's what will happen. It'll also mean that musicians will probably start coming to public attention when they're a bit older and have jobs/income that allows them to pay the necessary support staff. I don't think that's a bad thing at all.

    And people will still pay for music somehow. Most of the money won't come from recorded versions - iTunes does work the way you think it does, but the single song sale model means it's far less profitable for the music industry, and in any case, most digital music is ripped from CD's, swapped and shared over the Web without payment coming into it. However, the records will and are already becoming a loss leader; they're simply a way of getting attention drawn to a musician in order to sell something else - a T-shirt, a concert ticket, a club night, a lifestyle...the cost of each of which, particularly concerts, has gone up hugely.