By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
This was only the beginning of a larger trend. Napster opened the floodgates to the notion that we should be able to preview music before we buy it. What followed were more and more audio samples on Amazon.com, on artists’ Web sites and on a hundred smaller sites and e-mail lists. This raised the bar for brick-and-mortar competitors. Barnes & Nobles nationwide now have listening posts with access to thousands of CDs. Formerly, you could have expected to sample a few dozen at best.
Previewability is probably the most important revolution in recent music. Despite what the RIAA would have you believe, the shifts the industry has witnessed haven’t been a matter of quantity so much as they’ve been a matter of quality. People are making their purchasing decisions less on the basis of hype and blind faith, and more on the basis of what they actually enjoy listening to.
And that has really screwed up the trend-driven marketplace it took the major labels more than 40 years to perfect.
The great schism
To fully understand where the music industry is headed, it’ll help to go back not five years but almost 40, back to a time when records were sold on the basis of what they sounded like, and how people responded to them — not by the size of their marketing budget, and how much hype they generated.
The last time this was true: June 16, 1967. It was the heart of the Summer of Love, when cool became something corporations endeavored to sell to the masses, and it was the opening day of the Monterey International Pop Festival, the first major festival devoted to rock music. Over three days, the Byrds, Otis Redding, the Grateful Dead and two dozen more of that era’s best emerging performers donated their talents for a benefit concert in Northern California. Like ATP, it was a weekend of odd juxtapositions — imagine Lou Rawls saying hi backstage to Ravi Shankar — but it was also a weekend of signal moments in pop history. The Who got a toehold in the American market after a devastating set ended with them wrecking their rented gear. Jimi Hendrix, in his U.S. solo debut, brought the weekend to a rousing conclusion, dousing his guitar in lighter fluid and setting it on fire.
More than 200,000 dreamy-headed music fans showed up to watch, and the hubbub awoke corporations to the earning potential of edgy pop music. A number of labels had sent representatives to Monterey to sniff around. A lot of them came back with the goods. Take, for example, famed record executive Clive “Golden Ears” Davis. Eventually he would gain renown for his ability to mold superstars with a snap of his fingers and a twinkle in his eye, but at the time he was merely CBS Records’ newly minted president. He attended Monterey Pop on a whim and, impressed by the goings-on, signed both Janis Joplin and Santana on the spot to their first major-label recording contracts.
While it’s hard today to imagine a time when these artists’ fame and cultural standing were in question, most were unknowns going into the weekend. Few of them had impressive sales histories, in part because there wasn’t much of a market for what they were selling. The LP had surpassed the single as recorded music’s most popular format only one year earlier. The Beatles had released Sgt. Pepper only two weeks prior, essentially creating the market for freeform, album-oriented pop. It took a landmark event like Monterey, though, to convince major labels that the hegemony of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole wouldn’t last forever.
After that, change came quickly. By the end of the ’60s, the majors were running preposterous ads, claiming the hippies as their own with overreaching slogans like Columbia’s “The Man Can’t Steal Our Music” and “The Revolution Is on CBS Records!” This was a major shift. Love would no longer be free, and a Great Schism would open in the marketplace.
This concept is important, because it marks as deep a divide as its namesake. (The historical Great Schisms broke Christendom first into two churches in the 11th century, then into three papal lines in the 14th.) Basically, the world of music split into two distinct faiths in the years after Monterey. On one side were the True Believers — music fans who felt their ideals had been co-opted by Big Business. On the other were the Cynics — hard-bitten capitalists who did their best to isolate or invent successive pockets of hip, exploit them and slowly bleed their spirit.
The Cynics were bean counters who, in the interest of reliability and growth, guided the business through a succession of ever lamer novelties and trends, from arena rock to disco, new wave to grunge. The logic behind this makes perfect sense. Another band as great as the Beatles might never come along, but, hell, you could invent the Monkees. So the Cynics decided to transform rock and pop music from an ephemeral trend into a predictable commodity — like soybeans, crude oil or pig iron, they had Vanilla Ice, Candlebox and Jet. A few artists such as Madonna ended up turning this trend-hopping cycle into the central facet of their art, but for the most part the Cynics caused consumers to grow jaded, and hastened the decline of much of the art they touched.