Trusting is one thing I don’t know
When it comes to the campaigning men
But I’ll meet you at the election
When I vote for the hope of this land
– Sean Kelly
You may have noticed, if you’ve been paying attention, that the music industry has gone to hell of late. It isn’t that nobody is making good music anymore – on the contrary, there are legions of fantastic bands and artists out there. It’s just that the best ones rarely get played on the radio; the recording industry cranks out nothing but imitation, prefabricated product – the musical equivalent of Cheez-Whiz (Now With Zero Intellectual Calories!); the RIAA – the body that’s allegedly working on behalf of artists – never misses a chance to kneecap young, developing musicians; and if an artist is making a living, it’s probably at a day job and not with his or her music.
It didn’t used to be this way, and it got the way it is for a series of observable reasons. Short version: a series of policy decisions aimed at enabling corporations operating in the music industry have, over the past 30 years or so, have worked to transform music from something with legitimate artistic and cultural value into something that’s pure commodity.
It would be wrong to say that Republicans set out to kill music. It would be wrong to say that all musicians are anti-GOP – in fact, a good number of talented folks are quite Republican. It is true that excellent artists have historically leaned progressive in one way or another, but our concern here today is less about what performers think and more about their ability to develop careers that genuinely enrich our culture.
The point, then, is that GOP leaders set out to make it possible for corporations to make more money, unhindered by the constraints of public interest concerns. In the music biz, as in every other biz, the party’s raison d’etre has been about profit.
To this end, there’s no denying that they’ve been responsible for the policies that have wreaked the most havoc on our popular music landscape. It began with Reagan’s first FCC chief, Mark Fowler, trotted out this bit of foolishness: “the public’s interest, then, defines the public interest.” That’s Newspeak for “the public interest is what the public is interested in.” No, I’m not making that up. This became the ideological foundation for driving a stake through the heart of our broadcasting sector’s public interest standard and throwing open the gates open to massive corporate ownership. (Here’s an early story on local marketing agreements, a precursor to the deluge that followed.)
More recently, it’s worth recalling Clear Channel’s pro-war rallies and the widespread difficulties any artist who voiced anti-Bush sentiments had getting played. In particular, it’s worth noting the case of the Dixie Chicks. And we need to acknowledge the close ties between CC and W. To be sure, smaller, locally owned stations can boycott whoever the heck they like, but you don’t get nationwide control with local ownership, do you?
As for Mr. Fowler’s estimation of the “public interest,” let’s just say that I … disagree. People, both individually and collectively, are frequently interested in things that are not in their best interest – and I certainly include myself in this. Some folks are keenly interested in crack and crystal meth. Others, like a couple members of my family, were way too interested in drinking heavily. There are adults who are interested in having sex with children. I can go on, but at this point those of you with IQs over 60 probably get my drift.
Michael Tracey has been talking a good deal about broadcasting and the public interest in his ongoing series, and if our next president accomplishes nothing more than to restore a little sense to how we govern media in this country, he will have done us all a great favor.
How hopeful should I be, though? Well, if McCain prevails a situation that has gone from bad to worse will likely go from worse to beyond worst. And if Obama wins? Well, he’s been palling around with Reed Hundt, who as Bill Clinton’s FCC chair was the best thing that ever happened to AT&T. Which is not so great.
So today, on ElecTunesDay, I’m hoping that we elect people who will end our War on Music (and all art, for that matter). I think it’s time we focused more on what’s good for Americans and less on what’s good for corporations.
I’m hoping for change, in other words. Hoping, but not holding my breath…
Oh, one more thing: