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It is absolutely much harder now in 2004 for new music to be created.  The record business is built for safety; it's not built for taking chances.

... Is this a difficult time right now? How difficult a time is this for the record industry?

It's a very difficult time for the record business that they're not selling the sort of records that they're used to. So they're all sort of screaming because their pockets are thin.

However, the general appreciation of music in the society has not diminished at all. Kids still love music. Just the record business is having a hard time monetizing their love. It's not as easy monetizing it as was 10, 20 years ago.

Downloading is talked about a lot at this point. [Is it] leading to the demise of the record industry?

Not at all, not at all. Any basic economist will tell you, if you go into the supermarket and there's a girl standing there with a platter of free cheese, everybody's going to take a piece of cheese. That does not mean that everybody who took a free piece of cheese would've bought one. It's not a one-to-one comparison. So the record business would love for you to believe that every download equals a sale lost. It simply doesn't bear out in common sense level.

The downloading problem is much worse and much less worse than they would have you believe. It's worse because I do [go to] a lot of high schools, and I ask the kids, "Who downloads?" Nearly every kid in high school is downloading, except like the dork who doesn't even know how to use a computer. So there's more downloading than they're probably even willing to admit. And for the vast majority of kids, the lawsuits have not stopped them at all. There's no fear of the lawsuits. So all that the record business has done is victimize a couple of kids and make themselves look bad. But they haven't actually stopped it.

But now what lots of kids who are downloaders say is that they go online and check out these new songs, and then if they like it, they buy the record. So it becomes this sort of national listening station. Not everybody discovering new music this way is actually buying it. But a lot of the kids are. And that is a boom.

So why does the record industry make the argument?

Well, it's very easy to believe. I mean it's very easy for the over-35s. Their record buying mentality is go to a store and buy a CD, and buy an album. There's a huge generational divide in the way that we buy music that the record business has not responded to.

photo of toure

Touré is a novelist and contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He has also hosted "Spoke N' Heard" on MTV2. In this interview, he is critical of the music industry for not responding to a generational gap in the way people obtain music. "People over 35 are buying albums or the CD," he explains. "People under 35 are looking for MP3s and singles they can download for free or to buy. … They have to find a way to shift to giving the teenagers, the prime consumers, the product in the way that they want it, which is convenient, fun Web sites that make it easy." Touré also explains MTV's impact on the music industry. "I think you can look at MTV as the most powerful radio station in America," he says. "You can get 30 or 40 spins a week on MTV; it's just as good as getting it on a hundred radio stations in America." This interview was conducted on May 6, 2004.

People over 35 are buying albums or the CD. People under 25 are looking for MP3s and singles that they can download, for free or to buy. This is a completely different way of consuming.

The record business has been set up for 30 or 40 years to give albums to adults.

It's been since the '60s that they've haven't marketed singles to teenagers. So they have to find a way to shift to giving the teenagers, the prime consumers, the product in the way that they want it, which is convenient, fun Web sites that make it easy.

So is the piracy issue an excuse?

For the record business a lot of times the piracy issue is an excuse. Absolutely. I mean, it's also sort of an excuse for the kids, because a lot of the kids say things like, "It's just easier to go one of the pirate sites," than it is to go through all the rigmarole on one of the pay sites.

But there's this undercurrent also that most Americans think that most records, most albums, don't really have that many good songs. Even a superstar artist -- for the most part you're going to get, what, two, maybe three good songs? And the rest is going to be crap.

So when you go into the transaction thinking "I'm going to get screwed," there's no guilt in stealing it through downloading. Because they're putting out crappy product anyway. I mean how many records have you bought that you feel you got burned. "I paid $15 dollars and only two songs I want to hear." And it happens over and over and over.

But is it an excuse for the record industry who's making these other mistakes and not capturing the audience? Is that why they keep coming back to this fact that this thing is hurting them so badly? That this is the reason for the downturn.

Many of the record business executives feel the downloading issue with a real passion, like a store owner who comes in in the morning and the front pane is broken and somebody has come in and taken a bunch of their stuff. I talk to executives who are like, "We want to put not just ghost files" -- because now they're putting lots of ghost files, which are nothing. So you download 20 Madonna songs to get nothing, you get tired of it, you say "forget it."

Now some executives want to put out viruses where if you download this, it will wreck your whole computer. Put a couple of those in circulation, people will stop downloading fast, but that's against the law to spread viruses like that.

But they don't know what to do. They are so emotionally assaulted by the downloading thing. And they're so blindsided by it that they're like, "Whatever we can do." So yeah, of course they're attacking.

I mean the record business can't make a crusade of, "there's no good music." They can't say, "You guys aren't buying catalogue CDs anymore." But they can say, "Stop stealing our product through downloading."

What was the importance, in the beginning, of the rise of MTV to music?

It's difficult to look back on the beginning of MTV, because now it's so damn inevitable. Just the same way I'm like, "Mom, when you guys went out and you didn't have ATMs, what did you do?" Like when there was no MTV, what did we do? I mean it's so obvious. Music videos, kids love it.

When Michael Jackson came out with this amazing video, "Thriller," that changed the nature of videos. Everybody wanted to see it. And that was the first time that there was a sort of appointment moment with MTV. I remember calling my friend and saying, "I'm going over at 12 o'clock, and we're going to sit in front of the TV until 'Thriller' comes on because I've got to see this thing."

And I think lots of teenagers were doing that across the country with "Thriller." And that was the first moment that MTV really sucked us in and we started to say, "Whoa." You could just put it on at a party. You know, a real party where there's hundreds of people, or you know a little party where there's eight or nine of you just sitting around. Just put on MTV and just let it roll and you've got a party.

As the power of MTV grew, as they became more popular and therefore more powerful, tell me historically what took place. …

I don't exactly know. I think you can look at MTV as the most powerful radio station in America. You can get 30 or 40 spins a week on MTV; it's just as good as getting it on a hundred radio stations in America. So once you had that sort of a shift, you know, then MTV is more powerful. The record labels have to do what MTV wants.

So if you can expand, what does that power mean? In the world of music, what does that power mean?

In an era where MTV is dominant, as opposed to radio, you get, of course, artists who are visually appealing. So somebody like Britney Spears would probably have a much more difficult time in the pre-video era. I mean generally video artist is seen as a pejorative. But, you know, Michael Jackson is very much a video artist. Madonna is very much a video artist.

But, many artists would just not be able to survive. Certain artists who demand a five minute solo to make their music matter would not be able to survive. People who weren't that good looking would not be able to survive.

So much more is put on how you look versus just how you sound. Which in the music industry, does not spell good music. ...

[MTV] was sort of a clearinghouse in a lot of ways, of music. ... They found the next best flavor day in and day out. Is that good or bad?

In the pre-download era, MTV is the prime portal for most people to discover new music. Perhaps you get it from a friend here and there, but for the most part MTV is the big stage, almost like the New York Times, the paper of record, the sort of music portal of record. When it starts getting spins on MTV, then it matters.

And artists who were visually appealing, you know, who would take chances in videos, had more lifeblood in that sort of an era, when MTV is king.

David Crosby is one of the people we talked to. And one of his quotes is that, "For me, it was deadly. Nobody wanted to watch MTV of me. I'm not cute enough. I could sing, but I'm not cute." People like him will argue what happened was that it was marketing over substance [that] won out. What's your thought on that?

The rise of MTV does allow much more marketing to come into it. I mean, Duran Duran -- were they a great group? I don't think so. I mean they had some great songs. I love "Rio," I love "Girls On Film," but this is not a great group. But they were one of the first big video groups that really thrived in the MTV era because they looked good.

The record business is not primarily about who can sing and dance the best. It's about communicating with the audience. In the '80s, before MTV, in the '70s, it was really about communicating with them on a stage, and perhaps through an interview. Now so much of it is about how you communicate through the medium of a video. It's a shift of the paradigm, but it's still about how you relate to the audience. …

[Hip-hop on MTV] wasn't because all of a sudden a bunch of white guys in their offices decided, "Well you know I think it would be good for the black folk of America to sort of be put on television." There was a realization that oh, there's money to be made here. Is that what happened?

Russell Simmons made a lot of the money from hip-hop in those first three years, and he talks about how he became rich because of the arrogance of white men who were like, "Oh, no, no, no. We don't want to be involved with that." Russell said, "Good. I'll take your money."

So where does rap start? How did it spread? In the '80s it was misunderstood, which allowed more artistry actually, to come about. Explain that to me. How it was in the '80s, and then how it changed in the '90s.

In the '80s, the record industry didn't really know how to market hip-hop, didn't know how to control it. So there really seemed to be this sort of creativity that was allowed. You could do whatever you wanted because it was like, "We don't know why this succeeds and that doesn't, so y'all just record. And go. And we'll figure it out later."

Certain records came and exploded, and certain records didn't. But then by the late '80s, early '90s, it started to be like, "Hey we kind of know how to shape this and mold this." And by the mid-'90s you really start getting really packaged and processed people, and corporate things. And now you have, in the 2000s, you have lots of really corporatized, slick things. And the old school fans are like, "Eww. It's not hip-hop."

[What is] the overall effect, the results of what we get?

Well I think the average rapper today is a lot more well off than the same rapper 10 years ago and he more than the guy 10 years before him. But the quality of the music is less. I think on the whole, the quality of the music, the revolutionary bit of it, I mean the creativity bit of it, that was much higher in the '80s and the '90s, early '90s, [as compared] to now. ...

Is that, as the artist became more popular, got more powerful, they got richer. They diversified, they did all this other stuff. Does that tie in to the fact that the music is not as good? Is there a connection there?

Yeah I think so. In the '80s, you saw guys who came from public parks, or came from street corners, and they just wanted to get out there and spit their rhymes, and get fame, so they could go back on the block and get the hottest girl on the block.

Now, they see, "OK if I spit a hot single, then I can get, a label deal. Then I get a shoe deal, then I can get a movie, then I'll have money." And they're adding up how much money they're going to get. And think about [it], are you playing for the love of the game? Or you want to get rich?

And, no problem wanting to get rich in a capital society. By all means. But that's not going to make for a good artist. We all know that.

Talk to me a little bit about the irony of the dominant role today of rap on the radio and being sold on MTV. For groups of individuals that didn't want to even get involved. How ironic is the situation?

I mean, it's clearly a very new day at MTV, from the channel of the first few years where they were tepid about putting black artists in the mix, to now when there's lots of black faces on the channel, in the videos, in between the videos. You know, helping decide what videos go on. So it's a very racially integrated place on every level now. ...

But in the music industry, have things changed, have the bean counters taken over so it's harder for [an artistic movement] to happen?

It is absolutely much harder now in 2004 for new music to be created. The record business is built for safety; it's not built for taking chances. The number of gatekeepers we have now are smaller.

Clear Channel controls the vast majority of the radio stations in the country. By any normal standards it's a monopoly. So instead of having lots of program directors, and maybe the guy in Philadelphia is a little crazy and he'll play a record nobody else will play, and people start hearing it, and requesting it, and the record takes off by itself -- no more. Clear Channel is in control. If they don't want it played, it doesn't get played. The public doesn't get a chance to call in and vote, and speak.

So, now if you can't get through Clear Channel, or you can't get through MTV, how does anybody know your record is out?

Quarterly reports: What are they, and how have they changed the industry?

The record business is about: Send an artist into the studio, let him spend a lot of money in the studio and do his genius, and when he's ready, come back to us with some music we can sell.

But in the '80s and the '90s when the record business was making a lot of money, the international conglomerates swoop in and they say, "Hey, you guys are making a lot of money, and there's a lot of turnover here. We're going to buy you."

But you have to be profitable, quarterly, just like every other business. So what does that mean? That means that we can't just give Mick Jagger $500,000 and tell him, "Come back when you're done. You've got to have this record done, by this day, so that we can get it out by this day, so we can have most of your earnings in our second quarterly statement, so that we don't get fired when the Germans call and say, 'How much did you make this semester?'"

Mick Jagger does not want to finish his album by Aug. 12. He is inspired. Or Kurt Cobain, or Eminem, or whoever. But if he's racing to finish it by Aug. 12 because they're told that they have to, is that going to make for good art?

Is it?

I mean clearly it's not. ...

Why [is the business not doing well]? Is it the audience? Or is it the executives?

It's both. The audience has less money, because we have an economic downturn. The artists are putting out music that's not as good, because society is a little more vapid today. The executives are not figuring out the proper ways to sell the things to the people. They want a Web site that they can easily go to, and buy the stuff.

iTunes is a perfect example. It's fun. You want to stay on iTunes and just enjoy the site. We need more of those. The future of the record business is not the CD, it's not the brick and mortar store, it's online sales. And when they find convenient and fun ways to make selling online enjoyable for the consumer: then we'll start moving records. ...

How badly has music been damaged in these last couple of years?

The music industry as a whole has taken a hit, just in terms of their reputation and their image with the record, the younger segment of the record-buying public.

That said, it doesn't matter what you think about the record industry, when Madonna, or Britney, or Radiohead comes out with a new record, you buy it. Even if you hate Virgin Records or whoever, you'll still buy the album. So, that's not a problem.

People still love music, in general. They still run to it, and listen to it as they walk, and in their cars and all that. But there's a widespread perception that so many albums are going to be filled with filler and crap, so be careful when you go into Tower Records.

There's a lot of things going on. The teen pop genre stopped, and no other genre really came after it to really drive people into the stores. There's going to have to be better music. There's going to have to be a better relationship, a better online relationship with young consumers. And there's going to have to be superstars who are compelling, that we cannot take our eyes off.

You can hear any record you want for free on the radio. But what they want is that record, that song, that is so compelling that you will leave your house and pay $10 or $15 dollars so that you can play it whenever you want. That is the difference.


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posted may 27, 2004

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