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Saturday, April 14, 2007
Que pasa cuando no vale la pena?

All across America, and increasingly, the world, people stand in line at their local Starbuck’s and happily pay anywhere from $1.70 for a shot of espresso to four bucks for the more complex caramel frappawhatever thingies. It’s not uncommon to fork out fifty bucks a month for high speed internet access, and around the same amount for cable TV. People pay four bucks to rent a new release DVD at the local Blockbuster or Hollywood Video. A pack of cigarettes can go anywhere from four to nine dollars, depending on where you live.

Yet, increasingly, no one wants to pay for music, especially the recorded kind. CDs are quickly becoming relics destined to join cassettes, eight-tracks and vinyl in the tech museum. I don’t listen to CDs much anymore, my iPod is much easier; everything is already there, ready to listen to on the slightest whim.

The big labels are reporting a 20 percent drop in sales this year. New artists are being asked to give up a percentage of their total revenue, including concert sales, merchandising, licensing fees, publishing, you name it. Just making records isn’t paying the bills these days. A major Latin label just signed a famous Argentinean chef to the company. No, he doesn’t sing. They are going to sell his recipes, maybe they plan to offer them as text messages to your cell phone, I don’t know, but does anyone besides me find it disturbing that a music company thinks that marketing a chef could be more lucrative than a music act?

Right now in Venezuela, there are no more record stores. Pirates ran them out of business. In Mexico, many top draw acts have been quietly dropped from artist rosters, because the companies could not recoup what they spent making the records. These acts still fill huge halls, and will still do well sell ing CDs at their concerts for awhile, but the alarming thing is that now extremely popular artists are not making money for the companies that put up the money for the recordings.

Here in the States, Tower records has gone belly up. They were once the leading record retailer in the States. The local Wherehouse has disappeared, I don’t know if the whole chain died, but it’s surely another sign of decline.

Top name acts still sell out big concert venues, and scalpers make big bucks selling tickets for sold-out events at exhorbatant prices. Clearly, people still want to see their favorite acts live, and place a value on the experience, shelling out a couple of hundred bucks to see the Stones or Elton John. That’s a good thing. But why is it that people don’t value the recordings that made these acts famous? Clearly, the big labels bear much of the blame, as CD prices can be ridiculous. But people show reluctance to pay 99 cents for a track on iTunes.

“Music should be free!,” is a common refrain voiced on the internet, and there is a movement to change the very laws that protect intellectual property and reward composers and artists for their efforts. The EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) and the popular blog Boing Boing wage a tireless campaign against copyrights, including a boycott against the heavy-handed tactics of the RIAA. I’m not going to try to defend what the RIAA has done in suing little kids and grandmothers, but at what point do we stop and recognize that music has a value, that it isn’t free to create recordings, and that it is, after all, a business?

Why are people so reluctant to spend a little money for music when they don’t think twice about spending two bucks for a bran muffin? No one argues that bran muffins want to be free. No expects that they should be. Clearly, someone has to pay for the ingredients, the labor to bake them, and the rent on the store where you buy them. Music is not created for free, instruments cost money, musicians expect to be paid to their work in the studio, as do the engineers and the owners of the studio. The arrangers want to be paid, the mastering engineer and the manufacturing facility. This is their job, and if they are any good at their jobs, they deserve to be paid, and paid well.

My music biz attorney and longtime mentor Johannan Vigoda told me way back in the eighties that the music business was the hardest in the world. Why? Because the goal is to get someone to buy something that they’ve already had for free. Back then, of course, he was talking about radio. You’ve heard the song, you’ve got to love it a lot to get off the couch and drive down to the record store to buy yourself a copy. Multiply that by about a billion these days. File sharing, CD burners, pirates selling two dollar copies of best selling artists have changed the equation drastically. The industry attempts to hamper copying (DRM, or Digital Rights Management) have been an utter failure, and have only poured fuel on the fire and made their products less useful.

What’s to be done? I predict that DRM will be a bad memory in a year or so, but then what? Why is that song you love worth less than a corn dog at Am-Pm Mini-Mart? The digital cat is out of the bag, and there is no putting it back, and the record industry is scrambling to find new ways to make a buck. It is, after all, the music business. If, at the end of the day, you are just losing money, it’s time to find a new way to make money.

Another trend is to ditch the musician or artist altogther in this narcissistic web 2.0 world of reality shows. The public wants to be the star now, and every computer is capable of creating music from loops with a few clicks of a mouse. People create “mash-ups” of two or three artists, they can amuse themselves to no end pushing around snippets of recorded music without needing any knowledge whatsoever of music itself. One of the most popular new video games is Guitar Hero. All you need is a guitar-like controller, and an Xbox, or Playstation, and you can pretend to be Eddie Van Halen without having to tune all those pesky strings, or bother with lessons.

One would think that considering all of this, that people are losing interest in music. That doesn’t seem to be the case. Who wants to live without music? And who wants to pay for something that you can get for free? How much of the music on your iPod did you actually pay for?

I have no solutions whatsoever. But as a record producer, it is increasingly disturbing to see that this sort of work has less intrinsic value everyday. Will the industry be turned over completely to hobbyists working with Garageband in their garage? I love the fact that recording technology have become more accessible to the general public, but will it be possible to make a living doing this?

Clearly, there will always be successful pop acts. But the niche markets are the ones most severely affected by turbulent times like this. Labels are reluctant to put money into any kind of music that has a limited audience when they are having trouble making money with the big names. Just marketing and distribution cost just as much if not more than the actual recordings, and that’s going to result in fewer professional recordings in genres other than pop to choose from.

In the end, to me, it isn’t all about money. It’s just not a good feeling to know that your work is not valued on the same level as a bottle of water. Music makes people feel good, but they no longer want to pay for it, while they still pay for many other products that serve to make day to day life a little easier to bear, whether it’s a good cup of coffee, or a sixpack., or something stronger. Turn off your iPod for a day or two, and think about it. Or not.

"Without music, life would be a mistake."
-- Friedrich Nietzsche

Mamborama news and the world of Cuban music, accompanied by occasional self-indulgence.

Extensive Cuba trip report now online.

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August 2003 / September 2003 / October 2003 / November 2003 / December 2003 / January 2004 / February 2004 / March 2004 / April 2004 / May 2004 / June 2004 / July 2004 / August 2004 / September 2004 / October 2004 / February 2005 / April 2005 / June 2005 / December 2005 / March 2006 / April 2006 / July 2006 / August 2006 / September 2006 / April 2007 /

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