In the recording studios of Los Angeles and the boardrooms of New York, they say the record business has been hit by a perfect storm: a convergence of industry-wide consolidation, Internet theft, and artistic drought. The effect has been the loss of billions of dollars, thousands of jobs, and that indefinable quality that once characterized American pop music.
"It's a classic example of art and commerce colliding and nobody wins," says Nic Harcourt, music director at Los Angeles's KCRW-FM. "It's just a train wreck."
In "The Way the Music Died," FRONTLINE follows the trajectory of the recording industry from its post-Woodstock heyday in the 1970s and 1980s to what one observer describes as a "hysteria" of mass layoffs and bankruptcy in 2004. The documentary tells its story through the aspirations and experiences of four artists: veteran musician David Crosby, who has seen it all in a career spanning 35 years; songwriter/producer Mark Hudson, a former member of the Hudson Brothers band; Hudson's daughter, Sarah, who is about to release her first single and album; and a new rock band, Velvet Revolver, composed of former members of the rock groups Guns N' Roses and Stone Temple Pilots, whose first album will be released in June.
But how will these artists fare at a time when the record industry is clearly hurting?
"It's a big moment," says Melinda Newman, West Coast bureau chief for Billboard Magazine. "There are about 30,000 albums released a year, maybe a hundred are hits. Sales have fallen from $40 billion to $28 billion in just three years."
FRONTLINE follows the trends in the record business that led to unprecedented growth of more than 20 percent per year in the 25 years following the industry watershed at Woodstock. Crosby, for example, recalls how his new band's album made millions after Crosby, Stills, and Nash performed at the legendary rock concert.
"It was the moment when all that generation of hippies looked at each other and said, 'Wait a minute! We're not a fringe element. There's millions of us! We're what's happening here,'" Crosby tells FRONTLINE.
In the early 1980s, MTV fueled a further explosion of interest and seemed to broaden the appeal of rock music.
But surprisingly, there are those who now argue MTV was a negative force.
"What it did really is make the business a one trick pony -- and everything became about the three minutes, the single, the hit single," entertainment attorney Michael Guido tells FRONTLINE. "I think the album died with MTV. The culture in the record companies in the last 20 years has been to reward artists for three minutes of music, not for 40 minutes of music."
Some critics fear that the industry's need for quick hits has made it difficult for more adventurous artists to offer the unique sounds and challenging themes that have long been the hallmark of the best album artists.
FRONTLINE also examines the effect of consolidation of ownership on the music industry. "What you had were these people who had been tremendous entrepreneurs … bought up by a multi-conglomerate," Billboard's Newman says. "And it just changes the complexion. The whole way you're having to make decisions is based on different models."
Michael "Blue" Williams, manager of the Grammy Award-winning OutKast, agrees. "We're run by corporations now," he says. "We have accountants running two of four majors now, and they don't get it. It's a numbers game. And music has always been a feelings game."
The consolidation of the radio industry also negatively impacted the recording industry, observers say.
"Thousands of radio stations changed hands, and companies that wanted to really get on radio were able to pull up some enormous multibillion dollar mergers," Los Angeles Times reporter Jeff Leeds tells FRONTLINE. "Suddenly a company that once owned three dozen stations could suddenly own a thousand."
With programming decisions centralized at the corporate level, most stations follow a mandated play list. In some cases, it's just 14 songs per week -- leaving little airtime for the introduction of new artists.
FRONTLINE profiles Mark Hudson's daughter singer/songwriter Sarah Hudson as she prepares to release her first album at a time when the music industry is struggling. "For any new artist, the odds are almost insurmountable. I think if they knew the odds, they would never get in the first place. You know, the vast, vast majority of records go absolutely no where," Newman says.
Vying with Hudson for a place on the Billboard charts is Velvet Revolver, a "super band" backed by RCA Records, a label that is betting heavily on the group. FRONTLINE follows the marketing of the band as its members struggle to return to the spotlight. Velvet Revolver's manager says success takes more than an expensive video and a marketing campaign. "It's still all about the kids. If the kids want to request it, it gets played more and more. The more it gets played, the more people buy. The more people buy, the more records they sell. The more records they sell, shazam, you're a rock star," David Codikow says.