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Turn Up the Music, Tune Out the Business

July 15th, 2008 9:00am EDT
In RainbowsNotice: that song bumping out of your stereo is a product, you a client. You are not a fan; you are a customer. You do not enjoy the music so much as you consume it as the business of it all consumes you. Your radio, boombox, iPod, they are nothing but a digital car lot, and Clive Davis, Damon Dash, and Tommy Mottola are nothing but salespersons. Hear that bass? It does not thwump your knees in a two-step rhythm; it pumps them forward, out the door and into your local record store. "Buy! Buy! Buy!" cries the chorus. "Buy! Buy! Buy!" wails the guitar. Buy, buy, bye integrity.

RadioheadDon't like this song? Want to turn the dial, hear the next track? Now, you can. Now, you can turn off the radio and log onto LimeWire. Now, you can press mute on the record industry and tune better into the music. Now, you can erase LFO from your mp3 player in favor of Radiohead and Girl Talk. Now, you can listen to what you like, not what the record industry likes you to listen to. Now, you can pick for yourself what you wish to buy and not buy into the hype. You can choose quality of music over quantity of advertising. To put it obscurely simple: music is like grocery shopping. Take your fingers off your head and cup them around your chin as you ponder this analogy:

Let's say you are grocery shopping: you need a tomato. You check out the pre-packaged, discount ones first. But, then you remember the last time you bought a pack of bloody red ones. You unwrapped them at home and instantly dropped them into the wastebasket. Rotten. Dismayed, you turn towards the pile of vine tomatoes, clumsily overflowing into the aisle. You poke your way through a cluster of pale ones for a hidden but conspicuously red one. Still, you squeeze and delight in this firm, unblemished, solitary tomato. You decide to buy it.

Music is like grocery shopping because sometimes you have to ignore the pre-packaged deals to find the quality goods. Music is like this tomato. No, not in the pretentious, kumbaya-like sense that music is not a bitter sustenance of life but a ripe reminder of life's vitality. Save that speech for after yoga. Music is like the tomato because sometimes it takes a few missteps, a few tomatoes squeezed and sifted through, a few songs listened to, before you find one you enjoy. Milli VanilliYou cannot simply buy all the songs, or tomatoes, and weed through the rotten ones; you're McDonald's salary does not provide you with such luxury. Nor can you endure the subliminal, subhuman marketing of the record labels who hope to dupe you into buying the new Miley Cyrus album like they did with Milli Vanilli a decade ago.

So, you download. You sample a couple of songs from Lil Wayne's new album and that Coldplay song from the Apple commercials. You even reach out and lend your ear to a track from that obscure artist your best friend's been raving about. You squeeze them all and find out which one is just ripe enough for you. Lil Wayne's good, but you're not in a clubbing mood. Coldplay's fine, but you're happy, so they sound sad. Santogold? You're not even sure what that is, let alone who, but, somehow, listening to "L.E.S. Artistes" makes scrubbing the toilet much more enjoyable. So, you download the whole album off LimeWire, maybe you even think of piecing together $9.99 and buying it off iTunes. But, at some point between taking a sledgehammer to your piggy bank and clicking "Buy Now," you read that artists only earn $1 for each album sold, that the rest of the money goes to iTunes and the record label, who divies it among marketing execs and advertising hacks. You download off LimeWire. To atone, you promise you'll catch Santogold's live show. That's where she makes her money anyway.

Hard to believe, isn't it? What, with all the bills that come with live shows, the venue, the promoters, the concessions, setting up the stage, tearing down the stage, even getting to the stage, how could artists make more money off live shows than albums? But, let's think about this for a moment: artists get a share of the revenue from tickets sold, merchandise, even concessions, not to mention kickbacks from sponsors like LiveNation or Verizon or Pepsi. And, much of the time, artists record albums to perform them live because they understand the importance of touring to earn their living.

Take Radiohead for example. The band initially released their long-awaited follow-up to 2003's "Hail to the Thief" on a pay-what-you-want basis. This act seemingly revolutionized the industry: a major artist eliminated the industry from album sales and even risked eliminating album sales. This could have sent Thom Yorke to the docks, waiting for work. But, it didn't. The strength of the album led to a stronger interest in the live show. The sold out, pay-what-we-tell-you live shows that you still plan to stalk outside of in hopes that you might scalp a ticket for less than your weekly wages.

So, go ahead, download illegally, rip off the RIAA, make L.A. Reid cry into his silk handerkerchief, watch Jimmy Iovine put one of his many McMansions up for sale. To them, it's just business, dollar signs and digits, currency and contracts. Their priority is not the music, it's the money. To the artists, the musicians and singers who care more about quality of music than quantity of commas, the beat goes on.

Tim Peterson
Story by Tim Peterson

Starpulse contributing writer