The reality of the music business being a business is something that people, for reasons that are not entirely clear, like to avoid thinking about. To be sure, there is resistance to the record companies that have been manifest by the various forms of file-swapping, resistance that has led to a Borg-like response: Napster was assimilated; now there is discussion even within the U.S. legislature about the destruction of hard drives owned by those individuals who would dare continue exchanging music in a way that is unauthorized. Get ready for the photon torpedoes. The lack of what is perceived as authorization, of course, is one that is predicated on the belief of the record companies with regard to their “ownership’ of music. (This point of view, it should be noted, is not entirely unique to the record companies: the last time you installed any software from Redmond on your computer, you probably noted that you had to agree to what fundamentally amounts to the fact that although you “bought” the product—that is, exchanged money for product—you are really just borrowing the software.) But when we leave the realm of file swapping, there seems to be a blithe blind eye toward the fact that success is as much a matter of calculated stratagems as it is of talent. Rock and roll can change our lives, we think, because rock and roll is something that smacks of some sort of purity, of an almost religious state of being. We look at performers as being able to touch something in us, and we certainly won’t let anyone in who is tainted with filthy lucre. Or so we think. Because unless there’s an accountant behind them, and a marketeer in front of the accountant, we’re unlikely to see or hear them.
Consider, for example, the ruckus caused by Johnny Loftus’s questioning of the motives of the girls of t.A.T.u. Their playful antics could probably serve as a case study for the Harvard Business School: What do moderately good-looking, sufficiently ept singers from an Eastern European country do in order to gain visibility in a saturated market? Why, of course, turn the Sapphic spin to advantage. Otherwise, they’re probably about as likely to get a spot on MTV as singers from a middle school glee club. In a recent article in the New York Times, Meghan O’Rourke decried the transformation of Liz Phair for her new eponymous disc including the observation, “In place of a sometime feminist icon, we have a woman approaching 40 getting dolled up in market-approved teen gear (the bad school-girl look, recently embraced by Britney Spears).” Do we imagine that the Tatuvians like to display their ostensible sexual proclivities in public because they are exhibitionists (yes, there is a certain level of exhibitionism among anyone who performs in public, but the girly show we are looking at here is of a different sort) or because they know that by doing so they know that they’ll get run? Is Phair facing the possibility of public extinction or State Fair gigs and therefore reverting to a sartorial approach that might extend her sell-by date, or is it that she just likes to dress up in clothes that bring to mind Rock Star Barbie? The women in the hip-hop community seem to be more characterized by their enticing charms than by their pipes; from the obviousness of Lil’ Kim to the no-less subtle grinding of Mya, the music becomes something of a soundtrack to the main act. As the line from the original Alien had it (not to be confused with the cheesecake-cum-spy show Alias (as if anyone cares a whole lot about the plot)): “In space, no one can hear you scream.” Without sex, no one can hear you sing.
Yes, there is certainly a double-standard here: men can have all of the visual appeal and talent of Carrot Top and get a gig. Go figure. It is all about the commodification of talent. To which one might say, with a soupcon of cynicism: “If you’ve got it, flaunt it. And you might as well sell it while you’ve still got it.” Does any of this make the music any less appealing? No. It has ever been thus. From Tin Pan Alley to the Brill Building. And since. What is somewhat puzzling is that the existence of the Internet has not changed the status quo. That is, what is the extent to which people are able to be profitable musicians without being part of the majors? How many bands are able to distribute their music without going through the primary channels and are able to pay their health insurance premiums? Sure, there are the outliers, such as the well-known Aimee Mann (though I wonder whether she would be quite as successful had she not been part of Till Tuesday, which did have label coverage). But where are the alternative mechanisms to success not predicated on the seeming fundamentals of Viacom and Clear Channel? Say that you are in a band and you have to make the choice between “making it,” which continues to mean in our environment that you have to do something(s) that might mean that you are “selling out,” or that you continue to play night after night (assuming that you can get those gigs) in shitty bars and maintain what is considered, in the same context, “authentic.” What do you do? (Some people might argue that this is not a binary choice, that some can have their cake and eat it too. Some people also think that cake is good for you.) Given the creation of the network that is facilitated by the Internet (e.g., consider just the various places from which the Comments from this site come), then why isn’t there a better network for “breaking” acts and for distributing music such that there is actually a return on the musicians’ investments that is somewhat more renumerative than working at a self-serve gas station? The rocket science to make something like this happen has already been paid for by the likes of DARPA and CERN. But it hasn’t happened. So it all comes back to the cute smile and the deep cleavage. It comes back to the major corporations that buy and sell talent like livestock. It comes back to truly talented people who have to make tremendous compromises in order for them to be able to compete with those whose talents lie elsewhere. One would think that we could do better than that.