Video threatened to kill the radio star, but it didn’t have to—radio killed itself. Corporations drove up the purchase price of a radio station to astronomical levels only corporations could afford, and now a few corporations own almost all of the commercial stations in the country. That huge investment combined with their native reluctance to try anything new has led to the stagnation so many revile. The multi-national record corporations are also collapsing because they too have played it safe for too long. The revolution in the 1960s was a revolution in style, but a truly substantial revolution can only occur when creatives control the means of production—and more importantly, distribution.
The movie studios collapsed when they lost control of the theaters showing the films and the actors refused to work under contract. When digital distribution began displacing record stores, and digital promotion began displacing radio and television, the revolution truly began. Every musician now has the means to record and market themselves available to them.
My friends in Uncle Lightnin’, one of Chattanooga’s heritage bands, have just finished work on a new album. They’ve been holed up in their home studio for the past two years working on a huge clutch of new songs. Having created a rough draft of the album, they took the files to noted producer Mitch Easter. The resulting record has the same gritty immediacy that made the early REM albums he worked on sound so good. But, more importantly, while REM had to give them their finished work to a company for marketing and distributing, Uncle Lightnin’ will retain control of the entire process with the result that selling 15,000 copies of the album (released in October) will not make them rock-star rich, but it will afford them the means to make another album while leaving them considerable pocket change. That’s 15,000 copies—not 150,000, previously considered the break-even point for an album on a major label.
The digital revolution will not result in a new generation of fat cats sitting in their counting houses, and the foundering corporate music machine will continue to suck on the teat of young musicians gulled into buying their tinsel-wrapped fantasies. But many of the best minds are taking a different route to reach your ears. Making music for money is alive and well, but weary listeners aren’t going to pony up $20 for a hit-and-filler any longer. iTunes has seen to that. Musicians are back out touring and building an audience the way their grandfathers did it, and the music is better for it.
The other digital revolution, dating back to Grandmaster Flash and the other master mixologists, is also alive and well, and making merry with the corporations’ copyrights. Mark Vidler, the producer, remixer and DJ, puts his mash-ups on the Web for free. On his Go Home Productions site, he has a host of sometimes droll, sometimes clever, sometimes a tad too cute, but always unlikely combinations such as Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the Jackson Five’s take on “Rockin’ Robin’”—which by rights shouldn’t have anything in common. But better still is his mix of John Lennon’s “A Day In The Life” with bits of “I Am The Walrus,” which reinvents that classic as well as anything on George and Giles Martin’s remixes for the Cirque De Soleil show, “Love.”
DJs are the new rock stars—at least as far as their paychecks—according to a recent article in Rolling Stone, but only a few will have the longevity of even a good band because in the end most of them are relying on someone else to provide the source material for their act. Everyone has their favorite. I like Greg Gillis of Girl Talk. His most recent compilation, All Day, boasts a dizzying 372 samples within its 71 minutes. Rappers’ rapid-fire rhyming is matched with both instantly familiar and obscure music samples shifting so swiftly that almost as soon as you’ve registered it, it’s gone onto another one. A Joe Jackson piano melody segues into a Motown riff into a 60’s rocker into a thundering piano and drum instrumental broken by the sitar riff from “Paint It Black” into—oh, what is that, I know that tune, oh, too late, it’s onto another and another relentlessly for 71 minutes. Available from Illegal Art for free, the sampler neatly sidesteps copyright hassles. For the sample-obsessed, Girl Talk will be in town working the crowd on Friday, Sept. 28, celebrating Track 29’s first anniversary.
Since Woodstock the foolish few have demanded that music be free. Music‘s not free, but the musicians who make it deserve to be freed from the virtual indentured servitude of a corporate record contract—and the Web has made that possible.
Richard Winham is the host and producer of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed the Chattanooga music scene for more than 25 years.