Thursday, April 19, 2007

Blame the Corporate Media

Less than one week after Don Imus was fired, only days after Oprah's round table with hip hop, and days after a gunman killed 33 people in Virginia, nothing has changed in the world.

I was listening to commercial radio in Detroit for the first time in months. I'm giving a songwriting workshop at a high school next week, and I wanted to hear what the kids are listening to so I don't seem "out of touch".

I heard the word "ho" bleeped or edited out more than I heard any real lyrics or original ideas. Let's not even talk about how bad the songs are as "songs". Let's just talk about the language and the subject matter. It's ridiculous.

But alas, I know that this is the state of the music industry. As an independent artist, I can't get a song on commercial radio without literally paying THOUSANDS of dollars, but these knuckleheads with NO real lyrical content and NO real musical content get played over and over in Clear Channel's 14 song playlist.

Do I sound bitter?

Some of these cats are real artists. Tupac? Great artist. Ludacris? Great rhymer and entertainer. Justin Timberlake? No comment.

But, it isn't just me. Why don't I hear Lupe Fiasco, who was nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy last year, on hip hop radio? Why weren't they playing Nas when he is performing in Detroit tonight? Where is Kweli? Where are Detroiters like Invincible or J Dilla or Amp Fiddler - real artists who are recognized as great artists all over the world?

I'm sorry, kids. I had to change the channel every other song just to keep my brain from going numb. Music is supposed to be food for the soul, but this nonsense is the musical equivalent of pork rinds and kool-aid. It's completely devoid of anything nourishing.

Influential political rapper and entrepreneur Paris wrote a great blog post this week in response to the Imus/Hip Hop controversy that laid it out plain:
Like I said, I'm not calling for censorship, but I am calling for balance. I'm calling for more representation of points of view other than gangsta rap and escapism. More revolutionary voices. More voices of women. Where is the diversity?

Music can only be kept artificially young and artificially dumb for so long before an inevitable backlash ensues, and that's what we're seeing take place now. Overall album sales for the January 1-April 2 period are down 16.6% -- with a 20.5% decline in CD album sales since last year -- and an even greater decline in hip-hop. Since LAST YEAR (and it was already raggedy last year, believe me). We're seeing the industry implode before our eyes.

I heard somebody say recently that in this current era of style over substance Stevie Wonder, Parliament/Funkadelic, Earth, Wind & Fire, Curtis Mayfield and others would never have been signed. Let that sink in for a second. They would never have been signed. Some of the very architects of black music as we know it would have been sidelined too, just as countless others are now, because they wouldn't have fit into white corporate America's cookie-cutter feel-good box of acceptable black behavior and appearance. Same goes for me, Public Enemy (they'll take the Flav, but not the Chuck), Kam, X-Clan, BDP, Wise Intelligent, dead prez, Zion-I, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, The Roots,
Blackalicious, Immortal Technique, The Coup, T-K.A.S.H., Michael Franti and a host of others.
Don Imus can't blame rap music for his words because I'm sure he doesn't listen to Tupac or Biggie or Ludacris. But commercial radio does. The corporate music industry does.

There are so many great artists who can't get play on commercial radio. Thank GOD for the Internet right now! I would be going insane! As it is I listen to more old music than anything.

One thing Paris doesn't point out in the excerpt above is that Stevie Wonder, Parliament/Funkadelic, and Curtis Mayfield were all signed to smaller independent labels even back in the 60s. The indies have always lead the way. Even NWA and 2-Live Crew, the pioneers of gangsta and misogynist rap, were on indie labels.

The difference was that in the 60s Curtis Mayfield could get his music played on the radio without paying a mint in payola. George Clinton benefited from radio stations that were largely programmed by the disc jockeys who spun the records. Now corporations determine the playlist from an ivory tower hundreds of miles away from the streets of Detroit or St. Louis or Blacksburg, Virginia.

Those same corporations (Viacom and NBCUniversal) that buckled under a mass national and local advertiser exodus during the Don Imus scandal happen to own major media outlets like MTV, BET, VH-1, Universal Records and countless radio stations. With this "Imus Incident", they have proven that they will bow to pressure from the threat of massive consumer boycotts.

But only days later, the world is still the same. If anything, Detroit's commercial radio stations were playing more offensive music than usual. I'm sure it's the same elsewhere.

Why do we put up with this? In this new economy, the consumer holds the power. It's high time we use that power to change our media for the better or leave it behind.

Support the media outlets that play what you want to hear, and more importantly, don't support the advertisers who spend their money on radio and television networks that continue to feed garbage to the public.

This isn't just a racial issue. It's an economic issue. It's a spiritual issue.

At the heart of it is this: consumers are abandoning the corporate music industry and corporate radio in droves. When those same consumers stop purchasing the products of those advertisers who still support those outlets, those advertisers will demand change.

Until then, there's lots of great music on the Internet and in your local clubs. Turn off the radio.


Blogger Paul Hue said...

What a huge and frustrating topic.I have no answers, even after reading your assessment. I remember how much popular black music and black radio meant to me during my childhood and young adulthood, and regret how for at least 10 years I have zero care about anything on black radio or any of the latest music that comes out. As you know, I have an extensive collection of music, but it's all frozen in time, back during those days: late '70s through late 80s. It cannot be that I've become an old bastard who wants everything to stay the same, since, as you know Nadir, I constantly develop new interests, tastes, and fascinations. I am certain that something happened, something negative, and I do not believe it all falls at the feet of evil corporate titans.

I am a big fan of Nelson George's "The Death of Rhythm and Blues", as you know, and witnessed first hand the following amazing transformtion, which saddens me indeed: Through the early 1980s, black folks were unique in US music consumership in that approximatly both genders and all age groups listed to the same music. This is one reason why Black Radio could play such an important role during the Civil Rights Movement; a single station playing Sam Cooke in the '50s, Stevie Wonder in the '60s, or Ohio Players in the '70s reached EVERYBODY, and DJs like Detroit's famous Jack the Rapper and others could communicate political information disguised as "rap" (and sometimes even undisguised) between songs.

Sure the guys in EWF and ConFunkShun would get signed today! And signed long before they ever had to waste all those years mastering instruments, learning to play in a band, composing and arranging music, orchestrating, singing, and writing lyrics. Heck, that takes at least until you're about 20 years old. Instead Philip Baily and Michael Cooper wouldv'e spent their early teen years learning to create ugly, "hard" rap lyrics over music that some suckers 20 years previously had troubled themselves to create, and then deliver their "rap" over various rude stage posturings. If there is a Frankie Bevery today at 21 doing what FB was doing back when he was 21 (playing his ass off, writing songs that you want to hear 22,000 times even though they never mention bending a b** over, fancy jewlery, or busting a MF up, and watch on stage without any dancing), no, I don't see him getting signed.

But I do not blame corporate villians alone, not at all. I blame the consumers just as much. The consumers are getting what they want, and without complaint; to the contrary, they want more! I do blame corporate leaders for not taking more chances.

This problem seems to me indicitive of an overall lowering of standards by ordinary people in most aspects of artistic "culture": music, literature, cinema, theater, archetecture, food, etc. The more I learn about culture, the more I love music, the more I appreciate different forms of music that in my childhood I rejected out-of-hand, and the more I value that music that dominated black radio and my life during my formative years. Yes, I know that you say some of my music was pretty simple (GAP Band, SOS Band), but compared to what you surveyed on the radio the other day, I know that you have respect for even those simple tunes from "the day".

And even white radio is suffering in a similar way, though perhaps not to the same extent. Though the white radio performers aren't degrading themselves as badly and to as great an extent, are the white kids today listening to any white performers who will 20 years from now stand along side the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan?

I struggle everyday to get my 12 year old daughter influenced by real, authentic music rather than that garbage that assaulted you the other day. Here's score so far:

1. Her iTunes is full of that garbage, and when I permit her use her iPod or to listen to the radio/stereo, garbage does come out.
2. Her purse always has a few bucks earned for successfully naming songs played in the car by the real artists; at least she will know!

April 20, 2007 12:02 PM  
Blogger Nadir said...

I'm a HUGE fan of new music, and I can definitely turn you on to new artists that you would LOVE like Amel Larrieux, Frank McComb, Anthony Hamilton, Alicia Keys, Black Bottom Collective, Jill Scott, Damian and Stephen Marley (if you liked reggae), and others. There is great music being played but most of it doesn't make the radio unless a label has the money to pay for the songs to air.

The corporate machine follows the tastes of the streets, but it steers those tastes as well. Since the dawn of the MTV era, image has trumped good music as the driver of corporate musical marketing. The Pussycat Dolls have a marketable image. Maurice White of EWF does not, and the balding leader of a jazz influenced funk band would not be considered marketable in this age, despite the power of his music and live performance... at least not in the US.

To some degree parents and older people always seem to denigrate the music of youth as unthoughtful and uncouth. Classical purists hated jazz at its birth. Sinatra fans loathed Elvis and Little Richard. The Beatles were panned as mop-topped hacks. Hendrix was just too wild for many R&B fans (and his employers) when he backed the Isley Brothers. I remember arguing with a high school teacher of mine about the cultural relevance of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. My buddy Khary told me yesterday that he argues with friends who say R. Kelly is this generation's Marvin Gaye.

But the difference is that most of the artists we hear on radio and see on videos today are not innovators. In fact, the corporate machine discourages artistic innovation. It works too hard to press out cookie-cutter acts that can be sold in a pre-established formula.

On the surface, one could say that The Gap Band or SOS Band were also formulaic funk bands in their day. But those bands were and still are great entertainers. They put on great shows. Most of these artists today don't even do that!

In his American Book Award winning tome Hip Hop America, Nelson George blames MTV for the diminished role of the live show in hip hop. And along with that we could blame television and the McDonaldization of American culture for much of the dumbing down of American taste.

What is good for business has often proven to be bad for culture, and bad for the human soul. Not always, but often.

April 21, 2007 3:40 PM  
Blogger Paul Hue said...

One thing has changed in the world since Imus' firing. Morning TV news talk no longer has a host who:

1. Constantly harangues against and criticizes George Bush's every move, most especially his war, and calling for the impeachment and imprisonment of his entire staff.

2. Insists that the federal Katrina response resulted from anti-black racism.

3. Promotes any black candidates for national office.

4. Makes fun of various religions.

5. Makes any jokes at all.

6. Plays music that commercial radio will not play, including black musicians not singing about hos and bling and fucking motherfuckers up.

7. Wages a daily rhetorical war against Rush Limbough, Pat Roberson, and Jerry Fallwell.

8. Raises money for various charities.

9. Discusses books and promotes reading.

Paradoxically, the show with the dumbest commentaries was also the show with the far-and-away the smartest. Now it is gone.

April 25, 2007 4:08 PM  
Blogger Nadir said...

Yeah, doesn't it make you mad the Imus made such a stupid bonehead comment? His loyal viewers and listeners are suffering.

April 25, 2007 6:22 PM  

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