The Motor City refuses to take a back seat to any city’s musical legacy. From soul to punk, from to jazz to grunge, from hip-hop to techno, Detroit has pressed its imprint on music and American culture almost as much with songs as it has with cars. Motown, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Marcus Belgrave, Yusef Lateef, The Stooges, The MC5, Bob Seger, Ted Nugent, Death, The Screaming Lemurs, Kid Rock, Eminem, The White Stripes, The Belleville Three—providing a comprehensive list would once have been considered impossible, as new musical stars were always twinkling over the horizon.
But is that still possible for Detroit, or anywhere?
During the 1960s, there was a true, entrepreneurial expansion—indeed, a democratization—within the music industry. For a fleeting period of time, reality and myth merged; any young musician with talent and a dream could become a star. From Liverpool to Detroit to San Francisco, young entrepreneurs established small record labels and signed their talented peers from bars and clubs and street corners. The creative musical boon moved the world.
Yet, as P. J. O’Rourke wrote, “age and guile beat youth, innocence, and a bad haircut.” By the 1970s, like a succubus, the corporate record industry’s titans subsumed and sucked the entrepreneurial energy out of the smaller record labels. By the middle of the decade, mirroring the larger culture and economy, music transmogrified into “muzak”—safe, sedate, static, and stagnant. Punk provided a brief reprieve, but proved an impotent protest. Once new wave subverted and surpassed punk, and the transition from vinyl to compact discs and the era of “parental advisory” warning labels dawned, the triumph of the corporate record industry’s titans was complete. Like the two-party system, any time a new genre emerged, such as rap and techno, the corporate record industry’s titans swooped in and coopted it.
Until the internet emerged. Once more, the music industry was democratized. The question is, for how long?
As Thomas Friedman once opined, “the earth is flat.” In this, he meant the internet had the possibility of democratizing many gigantic vertical institutions, empowering individuals, either singularly or collectively, to exert greater power over them or subvert them altogether.
The music industry provides an example of this concept’s possibilities and limits.
In my youth during the 1980s, musicians played any venue they could in the hopes that a record company talent scout would hear them and sign them. Especially if the musician was located in the heartland, the odds of being heard were remote. So too, musicians could also rent a studio to make a “demo tape” for submission to record companies. The odds of them being heard were zilch.
Today, however, musical entrepreneurs don’t need a studio to record their music. They can record and produce their music on their laptops. Then, they can immediately submit their music not to a corporate record industry suit but directly to the public. Unencumbered by the suffocating weight of the corporate record industry’s titans, budding artists and their audiences can musically commune in cyberspace. So, does this mean that this latest democratization of music has once again melded the myth and the reality of the music industry?
In the mid-2000s, I had the opportunity to talk with a rock star from the 1970s, who was playing concerts to promote his new album. It was at a time when some internet companies, such as Napster, had put on steroids the old trick of taping a song off the radio to avoid having to buy it. Thus, the star expressed his consternation at this and other changes within the music industry. Not surprisingly, the crux of his complaints revolved around the fact that the internet made it almost impossible to quantify and collect royalties for the sale of the work. It seemed almost impossible to monetize music in cyberspace, which directly impacted his livelihood. In consequence, he and other artists had to tour to make their money.
But this rocker had found fame and fortune under the old system, where the corporate record industry’s titans would provide the publicity and air play that could virtually ensure a large audience. Yet, he wasn’t just doing his version of a Rolling Stones tune: “hey (hey), you (you), get off of my lawn!” He had been an entrepreneur in his youth, doing tasks ranging from handing out fliers to his gigs, which he booked, to writing songs, which he recorded, put on vinyl, and sold at those gigs. He recognized the opportunities to access and build audiences and commended young artists on their entrepreneurship in doing so. Yet he also worried that these young artists would not be able to enjoy the fruits of their musical labors and subsidize their searches for wider audiences, because of their relative inability to monetize their recorded music.
So, too, the corporate record industry’s titans have not gone away. Their power will continue to manufacture stars; and their siren songs will tempt budding independent ones to become co-opted. Thus, given the issues young artists will have in monetizing their music and, ergo, continuing their efforts to reach wider audiences, one is left to wonder if the current resurgence in the democratization of music will endure.
It has been said that when we look to the heavens on a diaphanous eve, what we see are long dead stars’ faint, final rays reaching Earth. But wouldn’t it be wondrous if these inspiring rays were not from the stars’ death but from their birth?