By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Christgau — an avid explorer of niche musics like African pop and riot grrrl punk — was the last person you’d expect to champion majority tastes. But his point was insightful. We are entering a time when pop history is quite literally disappearing. All the commentators who witnessed pop from the start are dying off or being put out to pasture. SoCal lost its own rock-critical doyen when Robert Hilburn stepped down from his 40-year post at the L.A. Times. (Fortunately the paper has had the good sense to retain him as a frequent contributor.)
Though Hilburn was less the pseudo-intellectual than his N.Y.-centric peers, his reporting often benefited from the fact that he witnessed pop history firsthand. By comparison, the new generation of writers and journalists rarely do more than venture guesses at what’s hot and what’s not. For example, compare today’s blog posts and magazine capsule reviews to “Eclectic, Reminiscent, Amused, Fickle, Perverse,” Trow’s remarkable profile of recently deceased Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun from a 1978 issue of The New Yorker. It offers — among other things — a close-up look at the Rolling Stones and David Geffen during his brief retirement. No links to MP3s, no YouTube videos — just plain old observation. Surprise, surprise: The lack of multimedia is no great loss.
Sure, canonical artists will never be forgotten — witness recent biopics on Johnny Cash and Ray Charles — but there ?is a real danger that eventually no one will even understand the concept of a musical canon. A stern warning: All our niches will seem far less fascinating when there’s no mainline against which these alternatives can measure their obscurity.
New Music Business Models: This year the music business finally started to acknowledge the sales potential of the Internet. Exhibit A: Three of the four major labels (Warner Music Group, Sony-BMG, Universal) took an equity stake in YouTube, in exchange for allowing the site to host their music-video content. When Google recently bought YouTube, the labels profited to the tune of $50 million dollars apiece. None of that money will go to their artists, of course, but it was a shrewd business move and, more importantly, an acknowledgment of how their customers actually want to consume music in the 21st century.
Along those lines, EMI chairman Alain Levy — the one holdout in the YouTube deal — was recently quoted as telling a business-school class, “The CD as it is right now is dead.” I’ve since heard rumors that EMI is seriously considering licensing its catalog to a service like Emusic.com — the successful subscription site that’s currently indie-only. None of this will stop the industry from doing deals with ludicrous ventures like www.spiralfrog.com, a service that will let listeners listen to songs for free, but only after making them listen to a 90-second commercial. (Spiral Frog’s site describes it as a “secure environment where music lovers can satisfy their unyielding passion and thirst for music, entertainment and information.” Uh, sure, and a prison is “a secure environment where crime lovers can satisfy their unyielding passion for weightlifting.”)
But it was tech companies who made the biggest blunders this year. Napster inventor Sean Fanning unveiled his SnoCap registry. It was supposed to revolutionize the music business overnight by enabling bands to sell MP3s directly from their Web sites and MySpaces. Its popularity has proven completely underwhelming. Then Microsoft’s Zune was supposed to give Apple’s iPod stiff competition. So far that product launch seems to be joining a distinguished line of overhyped flops, including the LZ-129 Hindenburg, New Coke and democratic regime change in Iraq.
And Finally .?.?. a subjective and completely incomplete list of 26 artists who made my 2006: Arctic Monkeys, Band of Horses, Beck, Brightblack Morning Light, Lindsey Buckingham, Manu Chao, Cold War Kids, Dirty Projectors, Bob Dylan, Gnarls Barkley, Grizzly Bear, Justice, the Knife, Lily Allen, Joanna Newsom, Phoenix, Professor Murder, Steve Reich, Shakira, Simian Mobile Disco, Spank Rock, Regina Spektor, Chris Thile, T-Pain, Scott Walker and Wolfmother.