John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants

Music as a business has long attracted PT Barnum types, from rock n roll's original promoter Alan Fried, through Sam Phillips, Colonel Parker, Bill Graham, manager Albert Grossman, to David Geffen and beyond. These people were not just flashy dressers with a lot of good backstage stories, they were entrepreneurial mavericks-creating audiences and markets that previously no one knew existed. With a keen sense of how to spark that connection between a performer and a mass audiences, they instinctively knew what “the kids” wanted next and they gave it to them.

Recently there has been a bit of controversy regarding Napster and the unauthorized trading of MP3 files on the Net, mostly by college students. A number of large law suits, notably Metallica’s action against Napster, and a group of labels against mp3.com have gotten a lot of attention. Perhaps the biggest surprise has been the publics generally unsympathetic response to the outrage of the victims, that is songwriters, recording artists and their representative labels.

As this controversy has unfolded, the recording industry appears more like a self-righteous and embittered fat Elvis’ that the youth-savvy marketers that is their usual, winning pose. How could an industry that is build on equal parts promotion and publicity reveal themselves to be so disconnected with the music culture of the moment?

When I was twenty-five years old there was no cooler job than to work for a record company. Now that the web has grabbed the best and the brightest for half a decade, perhaps there is not one left in the offices of the music companies besides the nephews and nieces to hip the executives to what’s going on out there. Perhaps the biggest threat the web brings to the music industry is not the intellectual property issues of MP3’s unprotected copyrights, but the talent vacuum Internet has created in the executive offices of many record labels. I have begun to suspect that the web itself has been a major brain drain on this once vital business.

Here’s some free, unsolicited advice to the Internet-beleaguered music executive: cancel the meetings with the lawyers for a day and go on line and look around. Figure out how to answer your own email. Download something- you might even hear something you didn’t know about. Quit wrestling over 20th century ownership issues and the inevitably obsolete MP3 format, and take a long look out to the edge of the marketing horizon. How about creating a cable like streaming system, or an on demand juke box, then figure out who you’ll actually have to work with to make it happen, because your business simply isn’t tech savvy enough to go it alone. Try to get back to when it was your imagination not your experience that qualified you for your job.

Major labels aren’t going away, but until they figure out how to lead the Internet rather than chase it, the mainstream music scene is destined to just get even duller and safer than it already is.

--John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants

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