During a recent visit to Nashville, I had an opportunity to visit the Emerald Studio. Architecturally blocky and office-cum-warehouse on the outside; a state-of-the-art facility with polished wood surfaces and an array of electronics on the inside, yet a sense of being a place where work is done in a creative manner, not some sort of antiseptic environment where the creativity would be predicated on the technology. And I learned about how Nashville does charting in a way that makes the traditional approaches used in other parts of the music business seem molasses slow. There I watched part of a session. And had the opportunity to talk with one of the musicians, a long-time steel guitar session player. While he has had the opportunity to play on the road with some of the genre’s notables, mainly what he does is get called in to places like the Emerald to ply his craft, or art. He’s been doing it for more than 20 years. What, I asked him, is it like today, versus how it was in days gone by: different? better? same? Consider that this is a man who must play to get pay. A man with a family and a mortgage and truck payments and insurance and. . . all of the stuff that ordinary people deal with, yet while many people have day jobs that provide them with the means to financially deal with all of that, he has chosen a route that is far different. He is not a name-brand musician. He’s the sort of person whose name is on the liner notes in a comparatively diminutive font. He’s not complaining about this, mind you. But it strikes me that he—like many of the musicians who play the very fabric of much music that we hear (or not)—have taken a path whereby their livelihood depends on how good they were their last time out, and whether they can get another gig. He’s not complaining about this, mind you. It is what he does. But it is one thing to think about making a living this way when you’re in, say, your twenties and another thing entirely when you’ve pushed past 50 and are still living out the consequences of the earlier decision.
One of the things that was surprising to learn is that he has rather strident positions on two of the things that are sometimes discussed in this space: downloading music and the corporate consolidation of the music industry. Both have direct consequences on him. As you can well imagine, his position on music downloading is anti. And with good reason, so far as he’s concerned. It strikes him as being nothing more than stealing. Remember that this is a man who gets paid for his work and his work is making music. He is not a “star,” nor is he part of a band. Arguably, by opening up Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Wilco made a clever maneuver that had consequences including that of (1) making the band more popular with its already-existing constituency; (2) getting new fans and admirers who might otherwise not have heard the music; (3) achieving a certain notoriety among the Open Source community, which has led to such things a Tweedy being able to be on stage in a venue where the topic is essentially more legal than musical. The band’s risk resulted in a virtuous circle, one that has and will continue to work to its benefit.
However, that won’t work for the pedal steel player. Not all things trickle down. Realize that in his case the equation is something along the lines of: A producer puts together a group of backing musicians for a “name” (or hoped-to-be-one) act; the group assembled is predicated on a given amount of cash that can be spent; if the “name” act has had sales negatively impacted by free downloads, then the amount of cash is reduced; the player in question may be passed over for someone who might charge less (or they’ll somehow make due with, oh, some clever tricks on the board). In other words, the pedal steel player perceives file sharing as something that’s taking, in effect (and in this case, there is more than a small amount of reality attached) food out of his kids’ mouths.
Yet he’s directly aligned with those people for whom the likes of Ticketmaster and Clear Channel are the sorts of evil monoliths that tend to inhabit the Marvel Universe, rapacious, giant villains that are interested only in their own self-aggrandizement, damn the consequences. As the pedal steel player explains, the growth of these organizations have had a direct, negative impact on the possibility for different types of music to get any attention unless that music is something that the two outfits think will line their pockets. He says that not all that long ago it was possible for a Nashville-based act to go to a place like Houston and, with (admittedly) a little grease for the program directors in that town, get some airplay. If things worked out for the band as hoped, then that could be duplicated in another city or town, repeated until there was actually what we have now all learned is called a “tipping point.” Now the only tips that are occurring are the ones that serve the interests of those who are nothing more than middlemen, not musicians. The Houston program director directs essentially nothing; it is all decided for him by Someone Else, who will be selling the tickets for the acts that get the air.
And so I clicked my heels three times and left the Emerald Studio. And like Dorothy, a bit wiser.