Saturday, March 13, 2004

In search of the Purple Cow
This past week's column.

Lil' Johnny v. Men in slacks: The music industry is headed for a label-less future -- unless it's not
Monday, March 8, 2004
Aaron Wherry - National Post

With Edgar Bronfman's purchase of the company signed and sealed, Warner Music laid off 1,000 employees -- 20% of its global work force -- last week. All because Lil' Johnny downloaded the last Kid Rock album and burned copies for all his friends. Truly a sad, horrible day, etc. for the music business. Another sign of an industry in "crisis." Right?

Well, maybe. Then again, maybe not.

A couple of nights later, upstairs at Toronto's Top o' the Senator, local jazz luminaries Kollage, featuring Cuban piano prodigy David Virelles, were still swinging through a week long engagement. There was, to my eyes at least, little crying, moping and/or whining for the state of their beleaguered industry. Just periodic kibitzing with the 15 or so of us in attendance.

There was a distinct lack of mourning the next night at the Phoenix as Shawn Hewitt, Graph Nobel, Tangiers and Metric laid bare the never-ending potential of Toronto's limitless music scene as part of Canadian Music Week festivities.

Not even Lil' Johnny was feeling all that guilty last week. Because a few weeks ago he flipped open Rolling Stone and read that Lyor Cohen, the man who will lead this new, "nimble" (as Billboard put it) Warner will make at least (AT LEAST!) US$10-million this year. Then this week Lil' Johnny was skimming through Rolling Stone's latest Richest Rock Star List and noticed that Metallica, they of the stridently anti-downloading Lars Ulrich, had managed, despite the scourge of online piracy, to scrape together a little over US$39-million last year (in between lighting his hand-rolled Cuban cigars with hundred-dollar bills, Ulrich advised that the band was still welcoming charitable donations).

And there had only been optimism that Thursday morning, during CMW's State of the Industry panel discussion. Except when there was pessimism. And periodically, profound bewilderment.

One industry official had the temerity to say the label downsizing of late was, in fact, a "good" thing. Another argued that all was well because the industry was on the verge of finding its "Purple Cow." Whatever that means.

Strangely coloured bovine or no strangely coloured bovine, the music industry, we were told (by "experts" who seemed to derive all their knowledge of the consumer from the spending habits of their respective 10-year-old daughters), had simply to realize one thing -- CDs cost too much. Unless, others argued, they don't cost enough.

In which case, online subscription services are the answer. Unless they're not.

Either way, parents need to educate their children about the moral evils of illegal downloading. But then again, maybe we can't ask parents to do that. Maybe the dinner table should be saved for important discussions. Like, "What did you do at school today, dear?" or "Daddy, why does President Bush hate gay people?"

So maybe video games are the problem. Or, maybe not. Wait, it's that the records have too much filler. Or, maybe they don't have enough. Actually, we just need artists to make more albums. Or, maybe less.

If nothing else, we know one thing for sure -- illegal downloading is killing the music industry. And if the music industry collapses, there won't be anyone to make more music. Unless all of that too is a load of something that Purple Cow might leave behind.

This last argument -- that music's general creation is somehow tied to the industry's continued existence -- is, quite obviously, a flimsy one at best. That Kollage or the Tangiers would be silenced by the continued demise of the record business is to suggest that were Nike and Reebok to cease production, we would have nothing to wear on our feet. Everything else though is up for grabs. And if anybody tells you they have an answer, they are, in fact, most likely trying to sell you something.

Consider that of the three most-talked-about albums of the still young 2004, only one (Norah Jones' Feels Like Home) could be considered a bona fide major-label success story -- and even there her continued popularity has as much to do with small-label nurturing and the mystical appeal of pop music as it has to do with any kind of mass promotion or distribution.

The other two records -- Kanye West's The College Dropout and Danger Mouse's The Grey Album -- derived much of their success in direction contradiction of major-label wishes. Anticipation only heightened by an early leak of the album and West's stature on the bootleg mixed-tape scene, The College Dropout roared onto the Billboard charts upon debut, bested only be the aforementioned Miss Jones.

Meanwhile, EMI's cease-and-desist letter to Danger Mouse, the DJ who blended Jay-Z's Black Album and the Beatles' White Album to periodically brilliant effect, launched his illegal bootleg to global infamy and spurred a rebellious bunch of Internet geeks to launch Grey Tuesday, a 24-hour orgy of piracy that saw the album downloaded 100,000 times from approximately 170 participating sites (note: both organizers' claims).

These are indeed strange days. But for both sides; the cluelessness is equally shared. For as confused as those record executives revealed themselves to be Thursday morning, so too are the self-styled freedom fighters and Internet revolutionaries who perceive themselves to be bringing down the monolithic beast that is the music industry.

Last February, Wired magazine heralded a "post-label world" in a Charles C. Mann-penned obituary entitled "The Year the Music Dies." It was their cover story, complete with a picture of the Hindenburg disaster to illustrate the coming apocalypse.

More than a year later, the major labels, though consolidated, downsized and forever scrabbling for answers, still exist. And they show little sign of going gently into the good night.

Will they continue to adapt to a changing marketplace? Will indies thrive under a less-structured system? Will 12-year-old Lil' Johnny ignore the threat of lawsuit and continue to download with near impunity? Will iTunes be the answer? On all accounts: a definite maybe.

This much we know for sure: There is nothing more soul-crushing than sitting in a hotel ballroom, listening to a middle-aged white man in dress slacks discuss music in terms of "value proposition."

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