Number Crunchers Killed Goose

Who killed the goose that laid the gold records -- the music business? There are many suspects.

File sharing gets its fair share of the blame, but it's merely the vulture picking at a corpse that missed the high-tech transfusion of digital delivery that could have given the industry new life. And one could indict the major labels and their bully boy, the Recording Industry Association of America, for their recent policy of waging war on their consumers. But that's just a near-sighted business showing its stupidity by nailing its own coffin top down.

There are other factors that helped dig the grave. Cable television and video games offered other enticements for consumer interest and funds. Narrowing radio formats and industry consolidation also certainly wounded a business that for far too long let radio be the tail that wagged its dog. And I like to hum the tune of "Video Killed The Radio Song," noting how the once saving grace of music videos -- which boosted the business when MTV emerged in the early 1980s -- actually hurt music by accenting visual style over musical substance.

One could even point to the record companies themselves and their antiquated and inefficient accent on blockbusters over career artists that might keep customers returning to the well, albeit for smaller sips over a longer time. And that's just the most evident mistake that the business itself made in its arrogance and lack of vision.

The signs that the industry is in decline are all around us, and surrounding it are enough reasons to make up a murderous mob. Record retailers are dropping right and left, and certainly share the blame in the death. As I write this, Vivendi is hawking its entertainment division to buyers, offering up the largest music company, Universal Music, as a sacrifice to pay its debts. And it appears that soon the five major label groups could become only four as merger rumors abound.

But all of that might only be the death throes of an industry that took a fatal bullet long ago. Because I believe that the record business was killed by Wall Street some two decades ago.

My highly significant other told me the other day that I am financially naive in my disdain for the markets, and yes, she has a point. I've never been at the place where I might explore its opportunities for my own personal gain, and even if I ever am, I remain personally and philosophically wary. In my naivete, I believe that serving the consumer rather than the money men is better for business, silly me.

Yet I believe I witnessed the killer blows when Wall Street finally stopped ignoring the music business and smelled fresh blood in an industry it had once dismissed as too small and chaotic to deserve its attention. It came during the late '70s and early '80s, when sales of single albums leaped from gold (half a million) and platinum (a million) leaped into the multi-millions with albums like Michael Jackson's Thriller. Prior to that, the record industry wasn't raking in the cash in such numbers as to merit Wall Street's attention, and was pretty much left to its devices, however inefficient as they might have been. But once the financial sharks smelled blood, it was the beginning of the end.

The man to possibly blame for this is also, ironically, a corporate takeover king who nonetheless understood how to keep the record business vital -- the late Steve Ross, the man who built Warner Communications out of the Kinney Corporation's collection of parking lots and funeral parlors. When Ross acquired Warner Bros./Reprise, Atlantic and Elektra Records, he tipped off the dice-throwers on the Street to fresh meat.

Yet Ross also understood the importance of keeping the music men at the helm of those companies. But once he passed away, the Warner Music empire he built on the talents of creative types was destroyed by the machinations and ambitions of those obsessed with finance over art.

It's all laid out quite entertainingly in the recent book Exploding: The Highs, Hits, Hype, Heroes, and Hustlers of the Warner Music Group. Written by longtime Warner/Reprise creative exec Stan Cornyn, it traces a line over Cornyn's 34 years with Warners that begins on the street where records were hustled and ends on Wall Street with numbers being crunched.

Yes, there will always be some form of a recorded music business, although the form it will take remains in question. But the shift from art to product that now finds that business in crisis came some two decades ago. And those of us who love music for its own sake can now only mourn how something so vital to the human experience -- the music itself -- has become secondary to the money.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

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