Monday, October 31, 2005

The Music Industry and the Quality of Music

It is no secret anymore that record labels pay radio stations to play their songs.

We have known for years that this is how the radio/music industry works. There have been very informative articles on this that were passed around last year on this subject.
The gist of the process is this: Usually, there is an indie promoter who acts as a buffer between the record labels and the radio stations. There are apparently 3 main promoters in the country who do it. They are paid very large sums of money by the labels to promote specific artists that the labels want to push. Then the promoter offers huge bribes and various other incentives to the program directors of the radio stations to buy an 'add'. An 'add' means adding it to the playlist for a group of stations.
These days, of course, almost all radio stations are either owned by Clear Channel or Viacom, and they do regional and national programming. Every city has an "Edge" and a "Kiss FM" and a "MIX" and so on, and they program a playlist of less than 200 songs for each genre.
At any given time, a radio station may only have 15 or 20 songs that it can play. That's why you hear the same 5 or 10 songs repeated over and over all day long every day.

These spots are sold as 'adds' to the promoter who is paying for them with money from the labels. He pays more for an 'add' during a drive-time spot, as opposed to 'adds' in the early morning slots. Also he pays more based on market penetration for a given station. The biggest concerns don't seem to be that it is all 'fixed' and dishonest, and even illegal, but rather simply that it is so expensive. This is how radio stations can afford to have commercial free blocks of music. Because the 'add' revenue compensates for some losses in advertising revenue.

I guess the radio station just looks at it as if they are simply selling airtime one way or another. They either sell to an advertiser, or they sell it to a record label to play their music. And then the radio station owner (Clear Channel) goes even further to buy the concert promotion company, so that now they can plug their own promotion events. They can hire a band for a concert, then saturate the local market with that band's sound for weeks leading up to the concert in order to bump up ticket sales.

In other industries this is similar to something called 'Vertical integration', but in this case, they have a virtual monopoly on the industry. All popularity seems to be contrived by corporate management. They simply 'decide' who they will make popular. The actual preferences of the public don't factor into the mix at all.

This is simply what the music industry has evolved to now. The net effect of this is that the listening public has little or no variety to listen to, and new artists are not given a chance to become popular. The little guy can never break through the system to become popular based on talent or ability.

Only the big labels choose who they want to make famous by corporate 'packaging', etc. For example, they may look at the market factors, and what the competing labels are making money on, and decide they need a 'boy band' to fill a given market niche at the moment. So they start auditions to hire the members into an act. They know they want two blonde boys, and two brunettes. All about the same height. They want a certain look, but they also want a representative of each different 'type' in order to capture a larger percentage of girl fans who go for the different types. Maybe a clean-cut type, and also a bad-boy type, and a partyer fun-type, etc. They assemble the group like hiring actors for a play. Then , they hire songwriters, use their image consultants, they choreograph it, etc. and they build an act. They put together a whole show. They record an album, and then they start the promotion process, buying 'adds' in the right markets and time slots to get the right penetration, etc. then they saturate those markets until sales for tickets and CD's appear. Voila - a new star is born. Just like a product launch for any other product.

The business is not at all about what is 'fair'. It is about how much to spend to get a respectable return on the investment. It's not about talent of the artists, it's about the talent of the managers and A&R folks to choose the right format and timing and market niche to plug into and the right promotional strategy for that product. It becomes a management issue rather than and artistic one.

Many people are suggesting that this trend explains why so many people have gone to the iPOD, and left radio altogether as a source for music. The contrived content, corporate packaging, copycat acts, and lack of real variety make listening to the radio far less fun than it used to be, whereas, my iPOD has over 4500 songs from all my favorite artists spread out over the last 3 decades or so. That is far more entertaining than listening to 5 songs I didn't pick repeated 200 times a day.

I, for one, would dearly love to see a return to the old days of radio where DJ's pick the songs to play based on what they like and what people call in and ask for. The music stands on it's own merits, and artists come forward because they can, and they come up in the listings and rankings and in popularity because they have something that appeals to the listening public. There is an honesty in that that I would love to see us return to.

I wonder if maybe Sony is tired of paying the bribes. Who knows, if the other labels start to feel the same way, maybe the payola-based system will collapse, and we can go back to a more free-enterprise open-to-all approach. What a refreshing thought!

Yes, bribery has always been there in that industry. There is nothing new in that sense, but it's a question of degree, I think. It's always been around to some degree, I'm sure. But up until the late 70's, at least the individual DJ's and radio stations made their own playlists. So if there was bribery, it had to be on a small scale and local. It was too hard to blanket the whole country. So there were always other DJ's, and other stations playing other music. There was variety. It was not unusual to listen to a radio station for most of a day and NOT hear a tune repeated in those days. Variety is what it was all about.

Now, however, with the near-monopolistic control of the airwaves by Clear Channel, the promoters only have to bribe a very small number of people who have playlist control over most of the country, and that's it - they own the airwaves. It's almost like a mafia-controlled industry or something. One response to this has been the proliferation of internet radio sites on the web. The problem is, you can't tune them in on your car - where most of us listen to the radio. Yet.

Recently on NPR radio, there was a news segment about the recording industry. They were saying that now the big labels no longer own the whole show anymore on the record label side. There are now lots and lots of small independent record labels that have sprung up. I suppose now that technology has allowed us to build very inexpensive little recording studios that nevertheless do a very clean job, and since many bands can even afford to record themselves, and since producing the CD's themselves is also more afforbale, the costs are less for producing the actual product, which means the only real expenses are the promotion and distribution. And now the big houses like Capitol, Universal, Sony, etc. are actually selling distribution services, so an indie label can piggyback on to that mechanism to get the product out there. That leaves promotion and marketing. And the small indie labels are partnering with the big labels in order to get the right talent, test it, and share risk, etc. The small label can develop an artist in a local market, then, when ready, they can sell the contract up to the majors who can take a pre-tested primed act national at a reduced risk. This simplifies things considerably, and a lot of these indie labels have sprung up.

Last summer, I was in Las Vegas speaking with just such a label about my own music. It is Reve Records. I gave them copies of my last 2 CDs to listen to and see if they want to promote my albums. But my music is not in their strike zone, so I don't know if anything will happen with it.

This is an interesting little label. They looked at the music industry and found a loophole. One thing that hasn't been covered by the big labels, yet has a sizeable audience. Trucker music. Yes, Trucker music. Young folks might not even be aware of that genre, but a number of years ago, there were quite a few trucker songs and trucker bands, etc. They haven't had any new music in years now, so Doug Widdifield thought he would fill that need. He signed up a pretty female singer, Cori, and brought in some top-notch hired gun musicians from the various Vegas showbands, and put an album together of brand new trucker music with a female singer. Something that hadn't been done before. It's an ecclectic mix of rock, country, funk, jazz, and even rap, but all with a trucker theme and trucker lingo. He even hired dancers. and a choreographer to build a show. They are called the 18-wheeler girls. You see, there are specific trucker shows, with trucker concerts, etc.
This whole world is probably under the radar for most of us, so we don't see or hear about it, but there is an active group of enthusiasts out there for it. Doug hired a bunch of telemarketers and they just call all the gas station and truckstop chains and independents as well all over the US, and sell them directly to the truckstops and roadside diners, etc. It's only just been released, and at the moment, it is already the top-selling CD in all the T/A truckstops across the country.

They are in the music industry, but yet they have totally sidestepped the entire music industry. They are not using conventional distribution to conventional record stores at all. They have not even tried to break through the radio industry stonewall to get airplay.
Apparently, most truckers also are tired of listening to 5 songs they don't like being repeated 200 times a day. So they have become tired of conventional radio. This approach hits them where they live. Truckstops. Direct marketing to the retail level.

Doug has a nice little record label started there, but my music is not trucker music, so I don't know if there is any sort of fit with Doug's mission, but it was great to meet with him and discuss what he's been doing and how he's doing it, and how it's working. He has already invested 300K into this album and this act, and hopes to get a decent return on his investment. it's interesting to see how this industry works. Even in the unique backwaters of the business. And then it was interesting to hear on the NPR segment how this seems to be a big trend now. I wish I could have heard more of the show, but it was on my alarm-clock radio and so I was half-asleep for half of it.

The future of the music industry? Hmmmm. Here the crystal ball grows cloudy..... There are too many variables for me to do a Hari Seldon and use the multidimensional mathematical equations of psychohistory to forecast the future trends with any degree of accuracy. (The Foundation series, by Isaac Asimov, were my favorite SciFi books)

Let's look at the factors entering the equation shall we?
1) Two big companies own the airwaves today. The handful of independants and little college stations left over don't account for a significant slice of the radio universe.
2) Years ago, big record companies took over all the small record companies in order to monopolize the recording industry. Then that changed, and now small record companies are springing up all over again.
3) In the last decade, free downloading and copying CD's contributed to a huge intellectual property issue, where the RIAA has suggested that as much as 2/3rds of the industry profits were sucked away by piracy, both domestic and international.
4) Some parts of the world (notably the far east) don't recognize or protect intellectual property rights at all. Piracy is not really illegal there as it is here. And in places where it is illegal, it is not enforced.
5) The total amount of money coming in from retail sales is far lower now.
6) There has been a shift toward live performances and higher ticket prices for concerts as a source of revenue to musicians, and the industry, rather than recorded works.
7) There is much more fragmentation in the music industry now, with so many people switching to the iPOD approach and satisfying their eclectic tastes with products and artists that are out of the 'mainstream'. This is like the second law of thermodynamics (Entropy increases though time.) In this case we similarly go from a state of high order to a state of chaos and low order as fragmentation of the genres increase, and small artists that don't conform proliferate.
8) There is a shift from album sales to individual song sales through's iTunes/iPOD, and through, and others. Legitimate downloads paid for by the song. This significantly changes the dynamics of revenue movement, planning, cost structuring - everything. How much do you spend to advertise, promote, market and position a single song that sells for 99 cents online, rather than an album of 12 songs for $19.99 pre-manufactured, shipped and sitting on a shelf. The album has an inventory and distribution sunk cost. The 99 cent song has nothing like that.
9) Music, like all other products and industries is now fully international. It is just as easy to buy an album by a Swedish punk band as it is to buy from a local band, as long as they both sell through their websites - and virtually all musicians and bands have a dedicated website now.
10) Other countries may admire the entertainment industry in the US and may try to buy in in significant ways. Witness the impact Sony has had.
11) The US is losing its predominance in the global marketplace for many products and services and skills. We have outsourced everything, and that has eroded our leverage for offering value once our control has diminished.
12) Economically, the world is moving either toward the new EU, or, increasingly, to China as the new direction-setting superpower. How does the entertainment demands of say 2 billion Chinese people and 1.2 billion Indian people affect the music industry, as they come into a new era of disposable income and better, cheaper, ubiquitous technology?
13) The monopolization of airwave radio has spawned both satelitte radio AND internet radio. Two entirely different approaches. No one can buy up ALL the internet radio sites. They are too easily spawned.
14) The UN has put forward a resolution to set up a global entity to control and manage the internet - which is now a global asset, and a global force in all markets of trade, commerce, and the distribution of information. The US is fighting that, of course, because they would like to own it and run it and control it, but they are losing power globally these days, and there is no one to intimidate by sending an army to lean on them. You cannot stop the rain by shoot a gun into it. The internet, like the flow of international business itself, has become a force of nature.
15) Technology has options that never existed before to create and distribute music.
16) Full-time professional musicians are competing with hobbyists and part-time musicians for producing quality product. And this competition can now come from anywhere and everywhere in the world. And it comes 24 hours per day, everyday. The next great blues album could come from Bolivia, or Finland, or China, or Toronto, or Austin. How much money should a professional full-time musician invest in an album, when it may be lost in a wash of similar or better product produced for next to nothing in any of dozens of countries? It's a big world out there, and everyone has the ability to compete easily and inexpensively now. The barrier to entry are very small. The barriers to huge success, have therefore become almost impossibly high.

What will happen next, you ask? Where is it headed? Will large labels sell out because they cannot make the profits they once made, and cannot compete with cheaper approaches, and cannot afford the old payola system anymore considering the dearth of retail revenue dollars to be had? Will new companies come in from elsewhere to buy up our recording and music industry as the old American owners sell out in frustration over lower profits? Will everyone switch to internet radio or satelite radio? Will music itself swing more to the Chinese and Indian markets because that is where the bulk of the consumers will be soon? Will CD's become free giveaways as an advertisement to build excitement for concerts where the tickets are $150 each? Will this lead to more mixed-artist CD's? Will cheap, ubiquitous technology for recording and making music turn the industry from large scale big-dollar enterprises, to amateur-based, small-scale, ecclectic groups with small clustered fanbases? Will being a musician no longer qualify as a full-time vocation? Will it be relegated to a hobby for 95% of the practicioners?

I honestly don't know. There are so many variables it is hard to say with any reliability what will happen. So many things are possible, and it is possible for so many things to happen concurrently. There may not be "A" single new direction for the music industry, but rather a diffusion of the music world chasing many new directions all at once. Entropy increases over time. Maybe someone else's crystal ball is clearer than mine.

The point I was trying to make about the crystal ball was that it doesn't work. There are too many factors impacting at once to guess what is going to happen. So I was just trying to quantify what some of those factors were.

I really don't know what will happen, at all. I can't say anything - except perhaps that it will change. Anything that cannot continue forever as is will change. As for your suggestion that the labels should stop looking at copying past successes and simply focus on what is new and unique and good, it begs the question, "what is good?" When Jazz first came out, it seemed a lower form of music. It made no sense to proper classical musicians at the time. It didn't seem like music at all. When Rock and Roll first arrived, it seemed like cheap crap. Anti-establishment, anti-American, poor-quality, simple-minded, criminally-inclined garbage. Many thought it inspired devil worship. Most thought it created malcontents, drug addicts, and encouraged radical rebellious behavior in the youth. But they also thought it was cheap, poor quality music. Yet look how it changed things and look how it evolved. And look how popular it became.

So it is not always immediately obvious to people what is 'good'. It is easy to see what is different and unique, but not all different things are necessarily 'good'. 'Good' seems to be highly subjective. I have always been amazed at one aspect of the music industry. A CD of a really great band that involved 50 people and two years to make, will be on the shelf right next to another CD that was thrown together in a basement by a couple of teenagers in about an hour, and they will both be priced the same. And what's more, the the music from the basement band might sound to me like simple, uninspired poor work, while the other highly professional band might sound to me like high quality work. Excellent melodies, and harmonies, and great virtuosic playing, wonderful production, etc. And yet the cheaply done basement product might easily outsell the 'better' product.
Maybe we could take an example of Blink 182 and any Eric Johnson album. Eric's albums are beautifully crafted high quality works that take years to put together. But Blink 182 sounded to me to have very little musical value, frankly. And yet Blink 182 has outsold Johnson many many times over.
And no - it's not only advertising and marketing. Some of the lower quality stuff were break-through successes with no marketing push or dollars behind them. People simply liked them regardless. I have not heard White Stripes yet, but I read that it was that kind of product with that kind of break-through success. And it's just a guitar and drums.
There is no accounting for taste. And I guess that is what it comes down to. How can we say for sure what is 'good' anymore? It seems we can only really say what we like. Most classical recordings are good music, well played. But we probably don't buy that as much as we buy 'popular music'.
To me, Steely Dan is good, high quality stuff. So is Pink Floyd. So is Toto. So is Eric Johnson, so is Sarah Maclachlan, and Yes, and Vertical Horizon, and Al DiMeola, and a bunch of other artists. But that doesn't mean the next person agrees. I know lots of people who find Eric Johnson's music boring. To them it's all just self-indulgent guitar playing. Some guy showing off his 'Geek Trick" of being able to play a guitar fast. But for those people, that is not an especially attractive talent and has no value. They have seen lots and lots of people play guitars fast, and there is no shine left on that apple. It's been done. Many, many, many times before. The more subtle aspects of his music is lost on them. As soon as they hear him wind up into yet another pentatonic run at high speed, they think, "Oh, ok, I got it. He's one of those....." and he loses them. There is no accounting for taste.

Quality, is a perceived thing based on a listener's taste. I wish I could argue the opposite side. I wish I could point out that there are at least SOME universally-accepted concrete rules about quality involving meter, and rhythm, and staying in key, and tight harmonies, and well-balanced sound mix, etc. etc., but I can't.
My instincts tell me that quality exists above and beyond matters of taste. By my observations and experience tell me otherwise. Sometimes people love what I might consider the most purile, worst quality offerings. And those people think that what they are listening to is high quality.

You and I may squint and shake our heads at the inanity of it all - but there it is. And their opinion about quality and value is worth every bit as much as mine or yours. To be fair and just, we have to acknowledge that.
I learned an important lesson about this from a guy I used to know at work. Wes G. He has a HUGE collection of music and seemed to be a well-versed musicologist. He could tell you the entire history of all the members of every band you ever heard of, and cite every album, and had an incredibly impressive mental storehouse of information about the music industry and the people and music that have come from it in the last hundred years. Then he brought me in some of his favorites burned onto a CD so I could sample them. This stuff was like eating steaming cowpies. It sounded horrible to me! He had become a big fan of punk. But not the better punk. He liked the most raw, base stuff possible. If it sounded like someone took the cheapest Sears guitar, plugged it into the cheapest amp, cut the speakers, cranked the amp, then threw the guitar down a flight of stairs - then he loved it. Honestly, this literally didn't even sound like music to me at all! It was akin to music the way the sound of a bus crashing into a garbage truck is akin to a symphony. It had nothing to do with music. It was just noise! But he, a man whose knowledge about music I admired, LOVED it. And he didn't care for Eric Johnson, and absolutely HATED Stevie Ray Vaughn. He called SRV's music "Guitar Masturbation". And this guy is a guitar player himself! Again, there is no accounting for taste. The lesson Wes taught me was that quality itself is subjective. And that I have to respect everyone else's taste.

I would love to think that it is as simple as having a standard universal set of rules about quality, and being able to measure all music against those rules, but that's just not how it works out there in the real world.
Let me give an example of something concrete. Music-related, but not music. Guitars. Fender guitars vs. Gibson guitars. In the design, and manufacturing of a physical product there has to be various elements of construction that indicate relative levels of quality. Things that work better, last longer, are more artful, require more materials, more expensive materials, things that require more skill to design or build, etc. typically are considered higher quality. This is true for anything from toasters to tow-trucks. From jewellery to jet planes.
Let's look at the construction of a Fender Stratocaster. It is a flat-top, simple cutout body. It has a bolt-on neck made from different wood than the body. The neck has no tilt-back head even, so it's made from less wood than others. In most cases, there isn't even a fingerboard on it. There are no abalone or pearl inlays for logos, or decorations, or fret markers. Just a simple sticker for a logo. There is no neck or head binding at all, let alone multi-layered binding. The body has no binding either. The pickups and all electronics are simply mounted to a cheap plastic sheet and screwed onto the guitar. You can buy a whole mounted pickguard for $49.99. All the electronics premounted. The pickups are the cheapest, noisiest, single-coil pickups. Full of hum. Poor shielding on the pickguards, usually. I don't even want to go down to the level of a Telecaster. We'll just leave that one alone.
Then look at how a Gibson Les Paul or a PRS guitar is made. Set neck construction which allows greater resonance, greater sustain as the vibrations can pass easier from the neck through the body. Binding on the body front and back, and the neck, and the headstock. Tilt-back headstock for greater string seating and greater resonance, and it stays in tune better. Beautiful abalone and pearl inlays for the fret markers and logos. The fret markers are not just little dots either. They are large blocks or trapezoids. Ebony fingerboards. Carved arch tops. Humbucking pickups, double-coil for quiet operation, and smooth, rich sound. The bodies are made from more expensive tonewoods with great resonance. The Les Paul is famous for it's sustain because of these woods and the set neck construction. The electronics and pickups are mounted directly in the wood, and from the rear through the wood, requiring higher degree of craftsmanship to make clean cut lines, blind wiring channels, etc. etc.

Importantly, I should add that I personally own both. In fact, I have 4 Fender Strats and 3 Gibsons at the moment (A Les Paul Custom, Flying V, and an Explorer) and so I am NOT prejudiced either way based on my own guitar choices or preferences. This is as completely unbiased an assessment as I can possibly make. Clearly, by any objective reasonable observation, a Gibson Les Paul is a far, far better guitar and much higher quality guitar than a Fender Stratocaster.
HOWEVER..... Sales over the past 50 years suggest otherwise. They suggest that the Strat is at least the equal if not superior to the Les Paul. Many guitarists seem to prefer Strats. Many that you talk to might talk for hours about the various high quality aspects of the legendary Strat. They might even make the cheap construction aspects of it sound like virtues. ("Look it even has a bolt-on neck so it can be adusted when it goes wrong!!") My God.

Some people will pay more for a Strat than they would for a Les Paul or a PRS, because they honestly think that the Strat is a better guitar. Millions of people feel that a Fender Strat is a high quality guitar. In fact, millions have paid two or three times the money to get an American-made Strat vs a Mexican-made Strat based on some perception of quality of American-made goods vs Mexican made goods, despite the fact that the two factories are only 96 miles apart, and the necks and electronic components are all made in the same factory and shared anyway.

I respectfully submit that quality IS a subjective concept. These people think it is high quality. So they pay high prices for them. They value them and treasure them, and treat them in every possible way as if they ARE high quality. And in this way, they come to be considered high quality guitars. Despite any detailed objective analysis of how they are actually constructed.

You might argue that the one guitar is low quality and the other higher quality regardless of the opinions of millions upon millions of people, but I say that those millions of opinions count. They are money. They are sales. They determine the success of one brand over another, and the ultimate survival of one product and the demise of another. They determine what gets used and heard and accepted. Can millions of people be wrong?
Well, it's a philosophical argument, I suppose. If the fittest survive, that suggests that the winner in sales and survival was the higher quality product. At least to one way of thinking.

Now let's translate this back to music. If Back Street Boys sell millions upon millions of albums, and Allan Holdsworth can't even find a gig to play these days,(he said that in a GP interview last year) and if his previous albums don't sell and are not desired by anyone, who has the better quality product? Who will survive? To my ears, Allan Holdsworth sounds like better, more sophisticated stuff than most 'boy bands'. But apparently I am in the minority by a HUGE margin.
Apparently the most important aspect of any music is whether or not you can dance to it.

This lesson I have learned and seen reinforced many times in life: However sure I may feel about my convictions, I always must allow that I COULD be wrong. And so, I allow credence to other opinions. I try to be fair. I try to stay humble, and I always keep in mind that what seems like immutable irrefutable undeniable FACT to me, is always only just my opinion, since it is only the result of my own observations and analysis, and that must always necessarily be tainted by my own understanding and limited by the levels of my own gifts whatever they may be.

As for 'rules of quality', I do think there ARE rules that I apply to my own music. They aren't ISO 9002 compliant and aren't tracked on a spreadsheet or anything, but they do exist. They are things like the following:
1) Do the vocals stay on key, or do they waver sharp or flat? or does my voice crack, is my breathing right or do I run out of breath on a long note, etc. ?

2) Is the song interesting to listen to?

3) Is there an intro, a verse, a chorus, a bridge, in a recognizeable structure? Or at least, are there changes to keep it interesting?

4) Do each of the instruments sound good? Too much bottom or top end?

5) Are all the voices and instruments in a reasonable balance in the mix, or are some too loud, some not heard at all, do some share the same frequency ranges such that they step on each other too much?

6) Does the music match the words? In other words, are the lyrics about some dark introspective topic, but the music sounds light and bouncy? or vice versa?

7) Does the melody make sense? Is there a logical progression?

8) Do the words make sense?

9) Does the song sound like something that can connect to another person emotionally? Or is it struggling too much with technique or technology, such that the emotional message is lost?

10) Are the instrument parts played well? Or are they too difficult for me and notes are missed or not hit correctly, etc.

11) Are there any catchy or memorable sounds or melodies in the piece, that might stick with a listener afterwards?

12) Are there any glaring mistakes, like one instrument hitting the wrong chord, or unplanned silences, or whatever?

13) Are all the instruments playing together in the same tempo, or are some too late or too early and don't hit the right note or chord at the right time? Is it sloppy, or tight?

14) Is there a reasonable continuity of sound, or is it too choppy, and disconnected?

15) Does it sound like something I would enjoy listening to myself?

And more rules besides these. These are typical of the kinds of things I think about when trying to judge or improve the quality of my own music that I write and record. However, all of these considerations and all of this work means nothing to someone who simply doesn't like it regardless.
My ideas about how to render a high-quality piece of music may differ from the next guy. I might want to do 25 takes of a guitar track to get it right, whereas the next guy only wants to hear something that sounds raw, and with the energy and flaws that come on the first try of something. The next person after him may want it to sound more like a symphony. Everyone is different. I can't please everyone, so I have my own guidelines and standards about quality, and I follow those to the best of my ability.
My music is the best I can do according to what I think is good. And that's it. Some will like it, some won't. Some will think it is quality work, and some will think it is poor quality - maybe because it has too much guitar work and not enough keyboard work, or not enough percussion, or too many vocals, or not enough .....or whatever. That's the real world we have to live in. And some of those people run record labels, and record stores, and radio station playlists.
Such is life.

Conversation on this does illuminate sad and unfortunate truths. The consensus seems to be that there are ways to tell if something is 'good', however, we seem to feel that 'good' quality doesn't seem to matter when it comes to success or even survival. Excellent restaurants shrivel and die, while McDonalds goes on forever and keeps opening up new locations. High-end department stores die off, while Walmart takes over the retail world. Low quality sells and thrives - even in music where low quality and high quality are the same price on the shelf.

Leo Fender was not an engineer, nor even a guitar player or musician of any kind. He was an accountant. He was just trying to make the cheapest possible electric guitar he could. That was the Broadcaster (later renamed the Telecaster). It was just an ugly plank of wood with strings and pickups. It looked like something any teenager could throw together in his basement. It was literally laughed at at the first music industry show he brought it to. The strat was just a slightly improved version, but again, extremely cheap to build.
His genius was in building something cheap but useable that sold based on style. (Which costs nothing to add.) The whole cultural phenomenon that sprang from that, was part marketing, and part happy accident. Cheap sells.
There are all kinds of tastes out there, and that was really my original point. Sometimes you connect to people who have similar tastes.

I heard from a woman yesterday who has two teenagers and one almost a teenager. Her kids don't want her to take my album "Light 'Em Up!" out of the car. Every time they get in the car, they want to hear it. Even when she wants to play some music she needed to practice her singing to (she sings in a choir), they begged and demanded my CD. That made my day to hear that.
Then also, a few months ago my daughter told me she heard my music coming from the headphones of some boy at school she didn't know. She had no idea how he would have found my music, but he did. And apparently likes it. Cool!
Also, two young guys that were making a movie called me up and asked if they could use my music on the soundtrack. Of course I said yes.
Another woman told me the other day she uses my "Light 'Em Up!" album as inspiration for her sculpture art class because it gets people's blood going, and then she uses my softer album "Natural Light" as music for her customers when she is doing massage therapy.
When you hear back from friends that they liked it, you never know if they are just being polite. But when you hear about things like those, you feel better. Frankly, I have been surprised that young people would like or even understand my stuff. I would have thought they would be into Rap or Punk, or some guy with so many piercings and tattoos he looks like he fell down a flight of stairs holding a tackle box, then rolled around on the ground over wet newspapers open to the comics page. I might have thought teenagers liked things based primarily on image, and I cannot imagine my image appealing to teenagers. But everyone is different, even at young ages apparently.
Come to think of it, that album didn't have a picture of me on it. I guess that tells me I should continue that approach....

As for universally accepted 'rules' or guidelines for quality in music, there is a company called Since no one can legally accept unsolicited music anymore, and since artists still want people to hear their music, this company fills that gap. It is a service that connects the people who need to find music for TV shows, commercials, full-length films, concert promoters, band managers for stars, record labels looking for artists, artists looking for songs, people who need music for any purpose, etc. - with the musicians that can supply that music.
As a musician, you sign up for about $300, and then you look through their listings of what people need and see if you can supply music for that need. You burn a CD with your submission, fill out a form, and mail it off to them.
They have industry experts listen to it decide if it fits and then either dump it, or, if it's 'good' and a good fit to that need, then they forward it on to the person who needs it. The film producer, or band manager or whomever.
If you ask, they will send you back feedback on your submission and tell you whether it's 'good' or not. Be prepared though - they are EXTREMELY picky. They are very critical, and their standards are extremely high. But they will give you details and advice about your style, your content, your approach, ideas, execution, quality, etc.
These are the kinds of people that have been in the industry for many years and supposedly have the kind of ear where they know what is good, and they know what sells, and can articulate details either way why it may be 'good' or 'not good'.
There are many amatuer musicians that belong to, but there are also many pros who are well known, or who have been well known (Randy Bachman is one that comes to mind off the top of my head) who belong to, and this is a way to sell their music into the film industry or music industry. Eric Johnson could definitely benefit from I bet his music would find it's way as the soundtracks for some movies.
It's an interesting solution to the problem of finding a market for your songs, or finding a manager or record company. If you cannot send your music unsolicited to a record label, how else do you get them to hear your stuff? Well this is a good solution for that, perhaps.
It's also a way to get expert-level, non-biased feedback on your music from someone who knows what they are talking about and doesn't have to say nice things to be polite. They just tell it like it is. I was a member several years ago. I'm thinking I should rejoin again.


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