John Mellencamp: Back In The Good Old Days…

from the they-don't-exist-any-more dept

A bunch of folks have been sending in John Mellencamp’s essay on what happened to the music business. It’s a worthwhile read from someone who’s been through a lot — and you can even forgive the silly “you can’t comment on the industry unless you’ve recorded an album” rhetoric we were just laughing about. While some might quibble with the specifics, the point Mellencamp makes is that the industry “went Wall Street,” and focused on what it believed was the best way to generate profits — pushing a very top down approach. This generated some dollars in the short-term, but at the long-term expense of the music business.

Or, at least that’s how he views it. I know that we’re not supposed to comment on the business — never having recorded an album and all — but, from a fan perspective (which I think enables me to comment), I’m enjoying much more music than ever before (yes, legally obtained, thank you) — and much of it is significantly better than what I heard back in the “good old days.” The issue is that it’s not the super popular music that plays on the radio — but as a fan, I need to dig it out a bit. It’s really not that hard, though. I find a few folks who have similar tastes to me, and I trust them to make recommendations.

Sure, the top 40 business that made Mellencamp famous might no longer exist, but that’s not the music business. Mellencamp complains about the fact that new measurement systems got everyone focused on radio stations in big markets — but ignores the fact that these days radio doesn’t matter nearly as much as it used to. There are all sorts of ways for fans to get new music. And, sure, he complains that he doesn’t want to be PT Barnum, but he doesn’t need to be. If he hooked up with a smart label or business partner who handled that side of it, he could just focus on the music. Finally, he talks up how wonderful it was that his success came from “the bottom up,” with songs starting to play on one radio station and then spreading across the country… though, he conveniently leaves out the payola that his record label likely put behind the record to get it onto different stations. Bottom up or greased palms?

While you can understand where Mellencamp is coming from, it seems like once again, it’s someone who’s complaining about “the way things used to be,” and refusing to recognize that there’s tons of opportunity in the new model and tons of wonderful music being created, listened to and shared every day. It may be a different business than it used to be, and that may make it more difficult for John Mellencamp to have hit songs like he used to, but for plenty of us fans, we’re living in an era of opportunity and wonderful music. It would be great if John Mellencamp stopped by and checked it out.

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Comments on “John Mellencamp: Back In The Good Old Days…”

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17 Comments
thomas mcintosh says:

John Mellencamp story

While I agree with you that there is TONS of music out there today, if you are still inclined to listen first and buy a disc, your choices to go listen have all but dissapeared. I used to love to go to a “record store” listen to music hand picked by the people in the store and discover new artists. Then I could buy the tape, record, disc etc and that was that. Now I am at the mercy of what iTunes says is cool and short of scouring online, I have nowhere to go any longer. To me, this is the big problem with the industry today. Good music yes, but it is too hard to find it! ๐Ÿ™‚

Mike (profile) says:

Re: John Mellencamp story

While I agree with you that there is TONS of music out there today, if you are still inclined to listen first and buy a disc, your choices to go listen have all but dissapeared. I used to love to go to a “record store” listen to music hand picked by the people in the store and discover new artists. Then I could buy the tape, record, disc etc and that was that. Now I am at the mercy of what iTunes says is cool and short of scouring online, I have nowhere to go any longer. To me, this is the big problem with the industry today. Good music yes, but it is too hard to find it! ๐Ÿ™‚

Look around and you can find some great music blogs… or try something like HypeMachine. It’s like that record store guy on steroids.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: John Mellencamp story

You need to broaden your horizons… besides, what’s wrong with scoruing online? If you use it right, it’s like the biggest record store on Earth.

It’s all about going beyond the mainstream spoonfeeding. Use Pandora, last.fm or iLike to recommend some music to you based on your current tastes. Find a blog (such as Stereogum) that appeals to your tastes and sample music through there. Use cheap legal download services that thrive on discovery, like eMusic or AmieStreet. Take a look at podcasts that give away regular free tracks like KEXP or KCRW to work out which artist to explore next.

I’m with Mike. I’m buying more music than ever before, and a part of that is because I have much more to choose from, for much more reasonable prices than I could before.

(Ironically, eMusic was the first place I ever listened to Mellencamp. Though I’ve heard of him, he was never exactly a top 20 artist in the UK and he works outside the genres I was interested in during previous decades. The eMusic release of Life, Death, Love, and Freedom – downloaded purely because eMusic made it cheap enough for me to want to experiment – was the first album of his I ever listened to… If the old-style business was still the only game in town, Mellencamp would never have gotten any of my money.)

Paul (user link) says:

Re: John Mellencamp story

Well, you should blame the recording industry for that. iTunes didn’t kill the record store, the recording industry did by allowing big box stores like Walmart to stock popular CDs at such low prices that virtually no dedicated brick and mortar music store ever could. Most people started buying their music at the big boxes since it was so much cheaper, while complaining that the record stores were ripping them off. Again, the recording industry has no one to blame but themselves.

chris (profile) says:

Re: John Mellencamp story

Now I am at the mercy of what iTunes says is cool and short of scouring online, I have nowhere to go any longer. To me, this is the big problem with the industry today. Good music yes, but it is too hard to find it! ๐Ÿ™‚

are you industry types listening to this?

this is how you compete with free, with convenience.

for every pirate there who downloads whole discographies, there is a person like thomas who would pay you to find good music for them.

charge a small amount for membership (monthly or whatever) to the site (so people can’t just look up stuff for free and then download it elsewhere) and sell the tracks cheap or give them away. build the site around a netflix/amazon type recommendation system. this is called convenience and it’s really tough to pirate convenience.

offer different bitrates, up to full size wav or flac for the CD types, and stream samples so people can try before they buy. maybe you could give people the option of ordering a custom made CD. that way you aren’t making truckloads of plastic discs and trucking them across the country. make books of cover art and liner notes and sell them, and partner with amazon/B&N/borders to offer books about music.

will this alone save the music industry? probably not, but it would be a revenue stream that could replace some of the income your dwindling plastic disc business is failing to provide.

Anonymous Coward says:

Is funding based on securitization as a structured product?

Interesting article. But I wonder how many pieces of art were financed by securitization as structured products based on future revenue streams. Think of funding big budget films, along with million-dollar contracts which financed the live fast and hard lifestyle of music and actors. All would be good and well within reach, until the market shifted and people wanted to modify, enhance, or include content, which was out of scope with the original contracts with private equity, and the like.

Wallstreet and private finance probably would be interested if they could claim a piece of future revenue streams. Hence all the issues surrounding conspicuous consumption of content, troubles surrounding royalties, and necessity for control of content. I could be wrong, as I don’t know enough about the way finance affects the entertainment business.

http://content.grin.com/document/v38915.pdf
http://www.vivendi.com/vivendi/IMG/pdf/ENG_-_Financial_Report_and_Financial_Statements_-_FY_2008_03032009.pdf

Weird Harold (user link) says:

Re: yeah!

No, because JCM was just another decent singer with some talent and a dream that would probably still be working in a warehouse if he hadn’t gotten a record deal. His singing career might have been entirely limited to karaoke at the office christmas party.

Without the record label to get him going, he would have had effectively no fanbase to connect to. Again, cause and effect. He didn’t just magically appear with a fanbase and a fiddle player.

R. Miles says:

An interesting read.

I doubt John frequents this site, but if he does, I’d like to point out a significant flaw in his rhetoric:

“The artists were being sold out by the record companies and forced to figuratively kiss the asses of their corporate overlords at the time these record companies went public.”

This was a decision made by the artist. Fans didn’t tell you to sign contracts, now did they?

The “good ol’ days” referenced weren’t good at all, especially from a consumer’s point of view. Music prices increased, radio stations played the same 10 songs every hour, and finding unknown (and usually better) talent was damn near impossible.

This story is the same crap every artist writes about the record labels. Everything from label greed (which the topic scopes) to lack of publicity.

John, should you peruse this site, here’s some advice: Shut the hell up. I’m so glad you think the days of yesterday were good, but I certainly don’t.

You didn’t voice your objection back then, especially while cashing your paychecks. Neither did others in your situation.

Now you try to insult us with this rhetoric crap? Apparently, you must be related to Weird Harold.

You have my sympathy for your ignorance, but not for the choices, or lack thereof, you made off the wallets of your fans.

Which, by the way, I am not.

chris (profile) says:

Re: An interesting read.

The “good ol’ days” referenced weren’t good at all, especially from a consumer’s point of view. Music prices increased, radio stations played the same 10 songs every hour, and finding unknown (and usually better) talent was damn near impossible.

the dead kennedy’s talked about this kind of thing in the 80’s:

from “mtv get off the air”:
Tin-eared
Graph-paper brained accountants
Instead of music fans
Call all the shots at giant record companies now

The lowest common denominator rules
Forget honesty
Forget creativity
The dumbest buy the mostest
That’s the name of the game

But sales are slumping
And no one will say why
Could it be they put out one too many lousy records?!?

from “triumph of the swill”:
Music is banned in Khomeini’s Iran
On the grounds that it stimulates the brain
We’ve done him one better in the land of coke & honey
Using music to put people’s brains to sleep

Ever wonder why commercial radio’s so bad?
It’s ’cause someone upstairs wants it that way
If the Doors or John Lennon were getting started now
The industry wouldn’t sign ’em in a million years

who knew jello biafra was a prophet? ๐Ÿ™‚

Ima Fish (profile) says:

While John made some good points, some of his points were completely erroneous.

His point about the music industry being taken over by bean counters is completely correct. I worked in a mom & pop music store from the mid 80s to the mid 90s, the exact time John was talking about. What he left out was that music industry intentionally set out to kill such stores. Starting about in the 90s stores such as Best Buy were selling CDs cheaper than we could buy them at wholesale. But of course retailers such as Best Buy and Walmart does not have the knowledgeable staff that a real music store would have. So when you were looking for a particular artists or CD, you could find it with us. At a big box retailer, you’d get a shoulder shrug and a confused look. (But of course the music store would have died anyway, because the internet is a more efficient system for researching and buying music.)

His criticism of SoundScan is not completely correct. He praised the prior system which was based on “manual research.” But because that system was not based on any objective criteria, it was easily gamed. Here’s a specific example. During the time it switched we sold cassette singles. One song on one cassette. Paula Abdul had a number one single the week prior to the switch. The week it switched, the single dropped completely off the charts. Why? Because no one was actually buying it! SoundScan used actual sales to chart hits, which means it was harder for the music industry to manufacture hits.

He complains that after the switch to SoundScan that “All of a sudden there were #1 records that few of us had ever heard of.” That’s because the charts were no longer being gamed! Duh, is he really that ignorant about what was going on?

Suddenly the music we’ve been selling a lot of, alt metal (i.e., metal that was not oriented around hair styles), alternative, country, and rap dominated the charts. Because that’s what people were actually buying.

John then criticizes modern music because you cannot sing it. But parents and old fogies have been doing that for generations. The biggest mistake any musician makes is thinking that his style of music will never go out of style. Styles change John, get used to it.

Of course John is right, completely right, that the music industry completely missed the boat on portable music.

But his argument that he does not want to be a “P.T. Barnum” is pure nonsense. On one hand he wants to be completely free to make music, and not worry about anything else. And that’s fine. He can do that. No one is stopping him from doing that. The nonsense comes from him wanting to do nothing but music, but also demanding access to everyone’s ears. He does not want to sit alone in his room making music, he wants to “enrich” the world with his art.

I can’t believe how ignorant John is, but the internet will allow both! He can sit in his room and do nothing but eat, write, perform, record, and sleep. And he can put his music up for sale on Amazon and iTunes, or sell it himself. He can have complete freedom and access to the world without ever leaving his house, and without signing away his precious freedom and copyrights to the labels!

I wish to god that we had the net back when I was a musician in the 80s and 90s. It would have made it much easier to escape obscurity and to please fans worldwide. The fact that John is oblivious to this borders on a mental condition on his part.

JEDIDIAH says:

Barnum and the Street

The part I found objectionable about John’s rant was the
fact that he was complaining about being expected to be
his own promoter one minute and whining about there being
“no street anymore” the next. If artists want “the street”
back then all they have to do is rebuild it themselves.

Plenty of young musicians got their start by being their
own promoters. That’s how they broke into the business.
The skills they used to get the attention of the labels
could be redirected now to online distribution.

Plus, you can only “delegate” so much. Past a certain
point you have to hand off too much responsibility to
people who don’t have your interests in mind. You’re
basically leaving the fox in charge of your hen house.
As a matter of self-interest, artists need to reclaim
more promotion and distribution responsibilities even
if they delegate to someone like a manager. They need
to keep this stuff at “arms length” if they don’t do
it themselves. They need to do this in order to avoid
being taken advantage of.

Gene Cavanaugh (profile) says:

Music Industry

I think the real purpose of the apparent stupidity of the music industry is to raise emotions, thereby making music a “front and center” issue.
Let’s face it – we all like music, but it is hardly a really important part of life. It is, or should be, a background thing; something that enhances the true values.
By outrageous actions and statements, the music industry is able to make people divert their attention away from things that matter to something that really doesn’t, in a basic sense; at least, not all that much.
Perhaps the next big thing will be passing gas, and the music industry will take such outrageous actions that all the public will want to do is sit around sniffing (and complaining).

Anonymous Coward says:

Maybe John’s point is that music has lost its soul. He probably believes that Mike, most of the posters here and people that think like them have lost their soul too.

Gene, maybe that is exactly his point on your comment ‘we all like music, but it is hardly a really important part of life. It is, or should be, a background thing; something that enhances the true values.” Where is the soul in that? Where does music move you with an attitude like that? Certainly not to new heights.

Music once lead revolutions. Civil rights, war protests, it used to move a generation.

To people here, it is “a background thing”. That is sad indeed.

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