When You Get It for Free, You Get What You Pay For
Circa 2002, while I was lounging on the back patio of a local café, I witnessed two things that I somehow knew had ominous repercussions for the music world. First, I watched a kid bring a CD he had just purchased from a record store (you remember those places called record stores?), and he gladly passed it around like a bong at a stoner party to all of his friends who had their lap-tops with them; in ten minutes, half a dozen potential sales went down the tube. Later that day, I watched another kid with a music composing program on his laptop bust out a microphone and plug it in to his computer. He had a random girl that was sitting there sing a couple of lines into it, and about a twenty minutes later he had composed and recorded a completely professional sounding Techno dance track from scratch while sipping his latte. The tip of the ice burg of free and easy music was just beginning to breach the surface and begin its treacherous journey into the record industry’s shipping lanes. I didn’t know it then, but I had just witnessed the beginnings of the death of rock and roll.
What brought this distant memory to mind was that I just watched “The Other F Word” on the tube, and if that documentary doesn’t make you wish you never got into to playing music for a living and did something else with your life, then you are indeed a real musician, and you better get ready to suffer endlessly for your art. Concentrating primarily on Pennywise’s front man Jim Lindberg and his eventual split from the band, this doc’ follows some of the first and second generation of punk icons around who are all dads now. Other than the nearly cringe worthy hilarity of watching a bunch of “fuck authority” figureheads of the punk subculture turn into tattooed, pierced and dyed hair versions of their fathers, the undertow of this documentary shows the struggles that these middle aged fathers have with maintaining their households and, especially in Jim Lindberg’s case, being in a touring band. This isn’t like watching Metallica in “Some Kind of Monster” where the cameras follow around a bunch of prima donna mega-millionaires as they cat-fight each other until all of their manhood is sapped by a shrink who puts their wallets and balls securely in their wives’ purses long enough for them to complete a shitty album. “The Other F Word” shows mostly middle and working class musicians on the daily grind trying to keep a roof over their kids’ heads through touring incessantly while missing out on being involved in their children’s lives.
With many of the bands covered in “The Other F Word,” it boils down to money…or the lack thereof. If you weren’t able to pimp up a fat stack of paper in the pre-file-sharing days and make a name for yourself big enough to sell out stadiums or at least decent sized venues, you’re screwed as a musician. Bands such as Pennywise, Rise Against and their ilk for the most part never had that big infusion of record industry money. Today, the music business and all of the ancillary businesses tied to it are nearly dead and on life support. Rising technological advances in the hands of the everyday person was the stone in the sling that brought the Goliath of the once mighty music industry crashing to the ground. That “easy money” that a band could luck into was gone for good.
Now, part of me — the part that hates worthless suits sitting atop some huge corporate structure doing fuck all and raking in massive wads of cash — still grins inwardly at this situation. The raging, working-class, cracker asshole of my psyche stands on the rickety porch of his wood shed with a jug of swill in one hand and a big middle finger thrust out from the other and gives out a rebel yell and big “FUCK YOU!” to the once powerful music industry moguls. Just the other day, I laughed heartily when I saw some show that follows around the bottom feeders who participate in storage unit auctions, and they were bidding on some series of lots from the once mighty Sug’ Knight. How bad has it gotten when a man who once headed Death Row records and pimped tens of millions of albums is basically having a glorified garage sale of all of his possessions stacked in sealed boxes to the highest bidder? I’m sure if I had the cash and lived near Hollywood, I could sit at the Rainbow Room or any other once fashionable watering hole and listen to ex-record producers whine about the good old days . . . and beat off furiously in a dark corner while hearing the stories of their pain, but I digress.
Unfortunately, there is a downside to these powerful moguls’ demise; the rest of the support industry surrounding them is dead or dying too. When the big, alpha predator goes to the bottom of the drink for the last time, all of the pilot fish attached to it and feeding off the scraps have to dislodge themselves and find another host or go down with the ship. While being interviewed on “The Other F Word,” Sean Parker of Napster fame gloatingly talks about all of the unnecessary industries tied to the record industry that will cease to exist: record stores, CD manufacturing plants, and the warehouses and trucking firms tied to them; all of them rendered useless in an age of digital file sharing. If I could have reached through the TV and put my hands around his scrawny, pasty neck, I would have pushed that billionaire scumbag up against the wall while telling him that there were tens of thousands of jobs tied to those “unnecessary industries,” jobs that are gone and never coming back.
There are other jobs that are ceasing to exist as well. With other aforementioned angles of recording technology now in the hands of the common person, there are many other fields that are witnessing a demise as well: recording studios and the jobs tied to them. In what seems like a blink of an eye, the recording studio went from some very expensive, hallowed, gold record lined halls of Hollywood to small mom and pop operations popping up everywhere to now even those smaller and cheaper joints going under due to the ability of any ding-dong with a computer program and a few mikes to record a complete album. A whole field of recording engineers and the support systems around them are nearly gone the way of the flint-knapper.
For some strange reason, the decline of the record industry hasn’t seemed to stop the sales of musical instruments at the same level. Guitar Center alone still has 200 plus warehouse sized stores all over the country, but with Mitt Romney’s Bane Capitol at the helm, they may just drive GC out of business for fun and profit, even if parents keep buying their kids musical instruments for Christmas and birthdays. I’m old enough to remember when being a musician was your primary peer group. There were jocks, stoners, punks, goths, geeks, preppies and musicians; the musicians were split up into rockers, “marching band-fags” and “choir queers,” with many of us drummers populating a crossover of the rockers and marching band-fag ranks. Today, musician is a hyphenated prefix: jock-musician, stoner-musician, geek-musician, etc. Everybody and their brother, mother, sister and dad today seems to play some kind of instrument, and that’s good in a way. Music is something that should be more common and shared. Nothing makes a good party like a live band, and what is a roaring bon-fire without some drunken guitar music? But the dream of that back yard party band or even group of campfire hippies/hillbillies going on to play stadiums full of adoring fans while trashing hotel rooms during drunken, drug-fest orgies and jumping on their own private jet with fat bags of concert proceeds to the next gig — while some group of suits is raking in billions of dollars of record sales and feeding the trough down the line — is over. And you can’t have a proper rock star with even more of an empty dream becoming nothing more than a memory fading out with each once famous band dropping off, which will eventually become nothing but a myth and a legend.
Without the possibility of a little luck and lot of hard work leading to making a twisted fortune or even a decent upper-middle class living, the rank and file of musicians striving for stardom will eventually slide off. The promise of free pussy from teenage fans and strippers only goes so far. Eventually, when there are no rock stars left and the dream itself is dead, that easy ass will dry up. What girl wants to give it up to some bum with messed up hair, shitty tattoos and smelly leather pants if that idiot will never ever be playing in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans while living in a tackily decorated mansion and drunkenly crashing his dozens of sports cars? If you don’t shell out some cash to musicians who bring good music to your lives, you will get the local “DJ” bringing ham-fisted brain-farts loaded into his computer as the soundtrack to your lives. In the end, you get what you pay for. And if you get it for free, free music is worth every penny.