Thursday, October 14, 2010

Black Cats and Black Crowes

When I was a kid, my family had a fireworks stand. And when I say my family, I mostly mean me and my older brother, though the other two kids spent some time there, too. My parents' were the owners of the operaton, but neither of them ever spent a minute in the stand. Their end was being able to tell us that they weren't buying us [insert name of thing we wanted] because we had the fireworks money. Also, my father took as much product as he could carry to put together the fireworks display that ended our big 4th of July party. Which I never got to attend. Because I was working in the fireworks stand. But I'm not bitter. Anyway...

Image from here

We had quite a racket going. Fireworks were illegal to sell within the city limits, but our property and our neighbor's had been surrounded by the city and never annexed. We were on a busy street with good parking and about two miles closer than the next stand. We made several thousand dollars every year during the three week season. Which is not bad for a couple of teenagers during the seventies. Not that I ever got half. Even though I spent the most time in the heat, selling firecrackers to little kids that were raiding their parents' coin collections after spending all of their allowance. My brother got a bigger percentage because he was older. But I'm still not bitter.

The point of all of this is that there were little mom and pop stands like this all over the country, and you don't make that kind of money without attracting some attention from people with more money. So by the time we grew up and got out of the business, the big operations were starting to appear with their buy one, get one free promotions and air conditioning. The easy money disappeared pretty quickly, and the independents along with it.

This is exactly what's wrong with the music industry today. Well, actually what's wrong is that it's the music "industry," which is my actual point. There is so much money in music that the big studios have become music factories, and just like fast food, the secret is to make it just good enough that people will eat it. There is no reason to take a risk, or make anything different, when they have a formula that works. And since they own the distribution channels, there is no way for anyone with an independent voice to compete.

You can see the impact everywhere, though nowhere more apparent than American Idol. I mean, Kelly Clarkson? Really? They can pick an average person with a slightly above average voice, stick them in the machine and a pop star comes out.

I had a show on the college radio station at the second college I attended.*  We programmed our own shows, and typically brought a lot of it from our dorm rooms. I'm sure it was terrible, but we enjoyed ourselves, and with a listenership that numbered in the dozens, who cared, really? I was horrified to learn the other day that there is a format called "college radio" now, and that it's just another channel for big factories to market a slightly different version of mechanically separated music.

There is still good, independent music around, if you have the means and motivation to find it. Like food, local is probably best. Personally, it seems I get busier all the time, and hipness is much less important to me than it used to be, so I find myself relying more and more on old stuff. I'm fortunate to still have friends in music who turn me on to new sounds on occasion. Like Bottle Rockets. If you haven't heard them, and you like an unpolished southern rock sound (think Presidents of the United States of America meets Georgia Satellites), spin up some "Welfare Music" and see what you think.

(See how I did that thing with "Bottle Rockets," bringing us back to fireworks? That's literary, is what that  is. My English composition teacher would be proud.)

* There were four altogehter.


  1. Good post. Depressing but true in all aspects.

  2. fireworks stand? heaven on earth for a crazy little pyro kid like me...

    and i'm still cranky about the supermodels of the music industry. video killed the radio star. finding new music is tough, though. i've listened to a lot of shit bands in dive bars. my luck has been better by going to regional festivals... if it sucks, move to the next stage...

  3. @daisyfae: excellent point! we are very lucky with local, especially if you count New Orleans. And I do. But growing up we usually had to travel to find the really good stuff.