Nashville Cat

Pedal Steel TransmissionDuring 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.

8 thoughts on “Nashville Cat”

  1. “…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…”

    First of all, there’s no real evidence that proves filesharing actually hurts sales. In fact, there’s been [url=]plenty of studies[/url] that prove that filesharers spend more money on music than non-sharers. What’s hurting sales is the focus on promoting a handful of shitty albums and milking one release for two years.

    Filesharing is just the underground radio of today. Every song downloaded is not a lost sale; it’s another opportunity to turn someone into a fan.

  2. As Disraeli (not of the Gears) or Twain or someone once noted, there are “lies, damn lies and statistics.” Consequently, I am a bit dubious of the “studies” indicating that there is necessarily more spending by people who fileshare because what these studies tend to show is an overall pattern and not a specific analysis of specific habits. And just as all politics is local, all income–at least so far as it matters–is personal. So let’s take a common-sense approach to the issue. (To be sure, a subjective one, not substantiated by “studies.”)

    The underground radio analogy used by Jake is a good one but a flawed one. Back in the day, when there was such a thing, someone listened to the radio and paid for doing so by having to endure the ads. But there was the opportunity to hear new music and then go out and buy black vinyl discs. If there is free filesharing, then the listener actually pays nothing. To be sure, the filesharer is undoubtedly a music fan. Music fans undoubtedly spend more money on music–downloads, physical discs, concerts, crappy T-shirts–than non-fans. Isn’t it likely, then, that if there are files of some songs downloaded that those same songs will not be purchased? To be sure, other music might be bought, but this doesn’t necessarily do the performer whose music has been freely gained any good.

    In theory, the whole notion of filesharing might make sense–unless, of course, you’re the guy who isn’t going to get a paying gig as a result of the reduction in income.

    While this might brand me as some sort of reactionary, I should point out that by choosing to write for GloNo I am deliberately doing something for free, as there is no income derived from doing so. But if this was a pay-for site of some form and if I wasn’t going to get a payment because some people managed to hijack the content and if I had a shitload of bills I had to pay based on the income that I was supposed to be deriving from the site, then I’d imagine that a Proudhon “Property is theft” approach to be utter bullshit as long as I’m living in a market economy.

  3. I’m not 100% convinced, Mac. Sure, there are kids who will never pay for a cd, just like how when I was a kid I would tape my friends’ records. Back then the industry said, “Home Taping Is Killing Music – And It’s Illegal.” But it didn’t, did it? What’s killing the music industry is the continued focus on immediate success and the lack of support for nurturing real talent.

    Major labels not paying to hire the best session musicians is just another example of the industry’s bad decision making and shortsightedness. And it further proves that they are not at all interested in producing the best quality music, but instead are willing to cut corners to release product that’s just good enough for the lowest common denominator consumer.

    Also, how about this tidbit: in the 60s, it was expected for artists to release two full-length albums every year. Now, artists have to work a single record for two years to attempt to recoup all the promotional costs. Back in the day, the same artist would’ve released at least 4 albums in that time, giving session musicians that much more work.

  4. Jake:

    I don’t disagree with anything you say–in this Comment. But when you taped your pal’s recordings, did you then always go out and buy the discs so that you had, say, the record jacket which, admittedly, was far more elaborate than the piss-poor pieces of paper lining jewel boxes of CDs? (I’m thinking that perhaps you did, so this may not be a great example.)

    The bottom line, however–and that financial statement metaphor is apt here as the discussion is predicated on economics more than on music–is that I’m sure the guy I talked to is not alone in his inability to get work in some instances because he’s told that the ROI from So-and-So’s previous disc didn’t make money ostensibly because of downloading. Whether that’s statistically true or not is irrelevant because if the corners are cut and he’s on the corner. . .

  5. I’ll admit there are lots of records that I taped that I never ended up buying. The Eagles’ Hotel California, is one that springs to mind. Taped that off of Dan McKinney in 8th grade. And the Eagles are doing just fine.

    I’ll even admit that there are a few albums I’ve illegitimately downloaded or burned from friends that I haven’t bought yet. And maybe I won’t. But I would never have bought those albums anyway. So it shouldn’t be considered a lost sale. You know? I wouldn’t have ever bought Jay-Z’s The Blueprint, but there’s a CDR of it sitting in a stack somewhere. And I liked it enough that I might buy a Jay-Z greatest hits comp when he inevitably releases one. And I never would have if someone didn’t give me a copy of that one cd for free.

    I’m not saying that filesharing doesn’t have any impact on sales. I’m just not convinced that the end result over time is negative…

    Nevertheless, I hope all good pedal steel players make enough money to live comfortably, and if they don’t, I think we should start a foundation to help them out! The pedal steel is the coolest sounding instrument ever.

  6. I sure hope that Don Henley doesn’t read GloNo because if he does, you and Mr. McKinney may be in for a world of legal hurt.

  7. Yeah hi, I’m Dom … err, uh Don Henley. I’m very hurt that you got a copy of my band’s CD Hotel California without paying for it. That is illegal and just plain mean. You are stealing food from my kids’ mouths. Would you tell little Timmy Henley that he can’t have that corndog because you didn’t want to pay for your music? That’s what you’re doing. Plus, one more sale of Hotel California and we go quintuple-platinaluminum-zirconia! Please remit payment to:

    The Eagles

    123 Fake Street

    Hotel, CA 98765

  8. Dear Mr. Brown,

    You may remember me from such cases as “The Defense of Tito Jackson” and “Blood on the Tracks: The Illegal Transfer from 8mm to 16mm”. Don Henley is not only my client, he and I also co-wrote “Hotel California” together back in 1982! This whole “copying” thingy is not new to me as I’ve attended Harvard, Yale, MIT, Oxford, the Sorbonne, and the Louvre, and I’ve attempted to sue them all! Anyways, whatever it is you’ve done my client would like you to stop, and if we win this suit-thing I’ll get lots of money. Speaking of which, would you like to buy this nice watch from me? It’s from the Superbowl! Well, maybe another time. Alright, see you in that court place!

    -Lionel Hutz

    “I Can’t Believe It’s a Law Firm!” Springfield Shopping Mall,

    Springfield, USA

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