The Delta Snake Review

The Delta Snake Review


Friday, September 9, 2011

Blues and the Digital Age: Part One-A Little Background

I'm finally getting around to talking about blues in the digital'll be done in parts that follow my own train of thought on the subject, and of course, please remember that all this discussion reflects my own personal opinion (and knowledge or lack of). For a more scholarly look, I'm sure there's plenty of books on the subject, so here the subject will be treated in a more conversational manner.

First off, the advent of digital didn't begin with iTunes. Records were being made from digital tape for decades before mp3s became common. In fact, most VCRs could be used as digital music recorders (and often were by savvy musicians).

 Technology has always shaped the blues as much as culture. In terms of social impact, the movement of the majority of it's fan base from Afro-American to White in the 60s was the most obvious cultural change, but changes in technology has brought about a revolution in the blues (and music in general) in just about every decade.

The most obvious change is when electric instruments became common. That not only revolutionized Chicago blues, but led to the early rock and roll era.

But digital and buying music in digital form? Not so hasn't changed the genre one bit.

What it has done is give artists as much control as they've ever had since the invention of the phonograph. Not even the concept of copyrighted music as done so much (since the artist's rights were the first thing record companies went after). That may change when the various lawsuits start flying over the 70s copyright law change and those start reverting back to the original artists, but the whole concept of music being sold as digital files and sites like iTunes is a situation that's very new in many ways.

The classic model is that some company puts up the money to have the artist record music, takes care of the product (vinyl, CD, etc) and deals with the distributors (probably the real power in the industry). This was supported by the concept that any self-release or publishing was a "vanity" project. The music was part of a machine, really, and entry into the game took money, and it took the approval of those who controlled the industry.

Since this all involved financial risk, most artists bought into this idea. The concept of "small" or "indie" labels is absolutely no different if it involves third parties. The fact that these small labels support non-mainstream music still doesn't change the basic theory that a record label is in the business of selling music, and that for that risk, they have the right to dictate taste.

It's not that simple, of course. Many records companies have gone under making wrong guesses about what the public will buy, and a lot of vinyl has been wasted recording artists who simply sound like those lucky few who had a hit.

What should be obvious by now, is that the real power in music is only partly money and's distribution. Columbia Records rarely will make it's artists censor their lyrics...but the biggest U.S. distributor, Wal-Mart, can demand that this or that lyric be changed and 99% of the time, it will be changed without question. That tells you who has "the juice" in the industry.

All the articles you might have read about how much it costs to make a professional level recording is just industry B.S. The real message is that if it costs so much to get into the game, then you have to go to the labels to sell your music. Do it yourself, and you can find yourself sitting on thousands of dollars worth of CDs that the distribution channel may or may not sell. Add to that the popular idea that you'll make your money off live appearances, not recordings. I shake my head when hearing that one...

In these digital times, the situation is now that any person can record anything they want, transfer it to digital and pay a distributor to get it into iTunes, Amazon, and other sites. Promotion is still a problem, but the web offers more potential to a new artist than most publicity agencies could ever achieve pre-internet.

The artist is already protected by common copyright law, can register it with the copyright office to ensure the legal rights, and can either sell the music directly or through a distributor that doesn't charge exorbitant fees. In the old days, if the record didn't sell, it involved no little financial loss, and could even end a career.

If your mp3 doesn't sell, you don't lose much. Even better, you can keep it in circulation until it can find an audience. No company will look at a quarterly balance sheet, decide you don't sell enough and cut-out your record and send it to a bargain bin. Best of all, you still own your songs and it won't get buried into some vault because it didn't go gold, and lost to you forever.

There is one argument I've heard about digital; that the lack of controls has resulted in a lot of bad music being released.

Which is such a silly idea that I won't even discuss it any real detail. The recording industry has put out enough crap that it has no call to be self-righteous about digital releases by independents. That statement doesn't even need supporting facts or arguments, it's something we've always known. Everyone has experienced buying a record because of one good song, and realizing that the rest of the album was made up of filler.

The CD era was worse. The length of the record was upped to an hour or more to keep up profit margins (and subsidize bad guesses or incompetent promotion on other artists), and all manner of "exclusive material," outtakes, demos, and whatnot was packed in. Most of that stuff really only appeals to maybe 20% of the buying public, but you had to buy it all to get this or that song. Many companies didn't even bother to raise the quality of the sound itself, often just making a straight transfer from the analog to digital.

The reason that digital will make music popular again (once the growing pains are worked out) is that it has brought back the "single."

It's no accident that two of the greatest ages in music revolved around singles. The 20s, which dealt in 78s and the 50s with the immortal 45rpm single. The reason is simple...a fan could buy the song he or she wanted, they didn't have to buy a package to get it. If that wasn't possible, it was almost certain that it would be played on the radio by some DJ who had at least some latitude to play outside of the playlist (or was paid to play via payola). Music has always flourished when it was about favorite songs.

If you read a lot of blues books, one of the things you'll hear mentioned is that the 20s was one of the Golden Ages for the music, even if not expressed in those terms. The era's been judged harshly at times by writers from later eras that could take copyrights for granted, but it was the early age of recording, and there was no set business model. For sure, the idea that artists have been ripped off isn't some ancient concept, they're still being ripped off today in many ways, so each era does have to be judged in terms of the times.

In the second part, I'll discuss how the 78rpm record both helped and hurt the blues, and why it's was a time that strikes me as being so similar to today's digital market.