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Frontline: The Way the Music Died

Michael Kirk
Filmmaker
Friday, May 28, 2004; 11:00 AM

The modern music scene was created in 1969, at Woodstock. Half a million fans, dozens of artists, and the politics of the times came together as a big bang moment that eventually would generate billions of dollars. But over the last twenty years, MTV, compact discs, corporate consolidation, Internet piracy, and greed have contributed to a perfect storm for the recording industry. Frontline examines how the business that has provided the soundtrack of the lives of a generation is on the verge of collapse.

Filmmaker Michael Kirk was online Friday, May 28 at 11 a.m. ET, to discuss his exclusive report, "The Way the Music Died."


"The Way the Music Died" airs Thursday, May 27 on PBS.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Boston, Mass.: What might the music industry do differently in the future to create an environment where quality music of different genres can thrive?

Michael Kirk: It needs to find a way to make it profitable to develop and nurture artists, not musical commodities.

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Lyme, Conn.: If the modern music business is dying, then please tell us this: what was the total sales of CDs, and how much profit did recording companies make on these sales? Can this business survive at this level of profitability? Can it allow music to evolve so the music doesn't die?

Michael Kirk: The advantage in economic terms is very much in favor of record companies if the CDs sell at high enough numbers to repay the following rule of thumb costs: $1 million to sign an artist and record their first album, at least half-a-million dollars to promote it. Therefore using simple mathematics, how many units must be sold to make a profit on a $1.5 million investment at $10 a unit. The simple answer is -- especially given the fact that one out of 10 albums (units) is marginally successfull -- so the simple fact is this is worse than gambling on longshots at the racetrack for the record companies. And if that album is downloaded illegally or not available because of the record stores all over America are going bankrupt, it's a real uphill struggle to find profitablility in the current marketplace.

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Waldorf, Md.: Do you feel by cutting back on TV exposure -- ie. MTV, VH1, etc. -- of music videos and increasing the tour schedules we can regain the demand for music industry product? It seems like in the old days, the artists' accessability was less visual, therefore more demanding.

Michael Kirk: The last point is the right question to ask. We're not gonna in reality be able to do anything in a free society with a marketplace orientation to control what MTV or consolidated radio decides to play. The best one can hope for if one's interest is nurturing the careers of artists, is a varied and thriving multi-faceted marketplace: clubs, the Internet, other ways of artists getting their music before people.

But that flies in the face of the trends of the last 20 years. The consolidation of the record business itself under multinational corporations; consolidation of radio at the hands of three major corporations; and some of those corporations are actually now moving into the live venue business. The musical futures of artists are therefore in the hands of fewer and fewer people.

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Columbia, S.C.: I enjoyed your program. A couple of questions:
Why didn't Scott Weiland participate in the interviews?
Has Sarah Hudson's album picked up any airplay since you completed filming?

Michael Kirk: Scott at the time we were making the film was in rehab. Happily, for his fans, he is now out and singing with the band.

Sarah's album is due to be released in July. Her single as we mentioned was released in early May, and its too soon to tell whether our program has had any effect on its sales.

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Chapel Hill, N.C.: Any musician with a bit of knowledge knows that when signing to a major label, there is a 99.999 percent chance of ending up tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. What the smart bands (who have a strong following) are doing is signing on to big independent labels like Epitaph. They by no means become famous or rich, but they are able to make a living on their music and constant touring. The independent labels, like the ones in the 50s, give musicians the creative space they need -- they pay attention to the music. So in this way the music didn't die, the independent music scene is just being ignored by the mainstream media.

Michael Kirk: The independent music scene is thankfully alive and thriving and that is a very good sign. Whether the work of those artists will be heard and appreciated by millions of Americans and exported in the way it used to be to the world as one of the nation's thriving cultural exports is no longer in question. They will not be heard by millions of Americans, exported to the world, and therefore their art is limited.

That may not matter to some artists, but its a shame that the major means of distribution and financial reward are extremely limited for those who aspire to it.

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Alexandria, Va.: Mr Kirk, one of the questions that I have always asked myself is why have British bands been more successful then American bands? (Particularly in the 60s 70s and 80s.) The one reason I believe is that American record companies are adverse to taking risks. Do you feel that this is accurate?

Michael Kirk: I'm not sure I agree with the premise of your question. Sure, there have been many very good and successful British bands, but it's not hard to list countless great American bands from the 70s, the 80s and early 90s. Risk certainly enters into the calculation any major label makes and there are those in our film who argue that that has caused some very uninspired choices lately.

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Atlanta, Ga.: What a wonderful program. Its really such a sad story. There are so many artists fighting that same fight. One band in particular I have taken recent notice of is Hanson. They are taking the indy route with their own label after parting ways with their label IDJ, which they fell on to after serveral corporate mergers. They are now on the charts with moderate success so far. Taylor Hanson often performs wearing a shirt bearing the phrase "The Music Lives." Thank you for the show. Enlighting, heartbreaking, glimpses of hope... well done.

Michael Kirk: Hanson and others who have left major labels to go their own way have a slightly easier route partially because of the notoriety derived from their years of association with major labels. The hardest route is the unknown, independent, but very talented performer who tries to make it in today's marketplace.

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Sterling, Va.: With the proliferation of file-sharing applications available, the current generation of teens have the mindset that, why pay for music if it's available for free? What does the music industry, particularly the major conglomerates, need to do to change this mindset?

Also, do you think that the quality of music today has declined from the past? If so, do you think the domination of the industry by major conglomerates who operate primarily with their bottom lines in mind and concerned more with demographics than with creativity and innovation have contributed to the decline in quality?

Michael Kirk: Sounds like you watched our program last night, so obviously I agree as do most of the people in the film.

As to why young people download -- many industry observers believe it is because the major labels convinced young people to buy a CD based on a great song they heard on the radio only to discover after they paid $18 that the rest of the CD was junk. It's not a surprise then that offered with the opportunity to download that single for free or even for $.99 at iTunes, they would do it.

What that means is downloading is surely a problem, but is it because downloaders are inherently larcenous or is it because of the greed of record companies?

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Austin, Tex.: Frontline didn't offer any new information about the music industry. I'm wondering if you see any movement in the industry toward looking for newer talent rather than scapegoating technology and blasting listeners rather than looking for new, fresh talent?

Michael Kirk: I disagree that we didn't offer new information -- sorry we didn't offer any to you, but maybe you're one of the lucky ones who is very knowledgeable. Reporting on music and culture is always an interesting proposition because it's the type of material everyone has an opinion on and most people feel expert about.

Regardless, there was -- for me, obviously -- information I didn't know before I started making the film.

As to the search for new talent, because of the consolidation of the ownership of both radio (the primary marketing outlet for music) and the corporations -- the people most willing to make a million dollar bet on a new artist -- the odds are very slim that they will scour the country looking for untested, untried commodities. On the other hand, there is the promise of independent Internet distribution. A group or performer can, if willing to make the investment -- financial and in terms of years of their lives to build a touring fan base -- there is a potential to at least make a living in the music business. But, the odds on stardom and millions of dollars are infentesimal in an environment where 30,000 albums were released last year and 100 were certifiable hits.

Did you already know that?

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Mike. What do you think of the show American Idol? Do you think this is a good vehicle for some aspiring singers to get the opportunity to gain exposure they would otherwise have much more difficulty getting? Or does the show represent some of the worst aspects of the industry as major companies try to make money at the expense of these aspiring singers?

Michael Kirk: Well, I personally find myself in agreement with the second half of your question. It feels a bit like marketing over substance (again, like MTV). Which is not to take anything away from the skills and aspirations of the talented performers on American Idol. But to comment on a business where the development of singer/songwriters and people who play instruments and carry cultural messages are not nurtured and rewarded. In this case, in the clash of art and commerce, commerce wins. And that's not necessarily good for anybody.

But, there has always been one form or another of American Idol in American popular music and there always will be.

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Washington, D.C.: All we hear from the record companies is that peer to peer networks are theft and cost the industry millions of dollars. I didn't get that impression from your show. IS p2p that big a threat?

Michael Kirk: There's no question that "sharing" or what some people in the industry would call "stealing," has had a significant effect on the record business. Now, the prevailing opinion is that in order to survive, the major companies must find a way to participate in the Internet as a vehicle for distribution and marketing of music.

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Qu?bec, Canada: What is the percentage of artists in today's Top 40 who are total marketing fabrications?

Michael Kirk: Total marketing fabrications is harsh, but it is true that in order to succeed in a business that has given itself over to marketing over substance through MTV, through an emphasis on singles, to what it takes to get a song played on the radio, and to the way record companies can maximize their profits -- that is by employing a performer (Britney, Jessica, Justin, JLo, Marya) rather than an artist (singer/songwriter) -- is the state of play because an artist takes time and money to develop.

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Boston, Mass.: I am in a band right now that has received some pretty serious interest from a few major record labels. We are working with a guy that has been in the industry for a long time, and will be shopping my band for the next year. We are working with a big-time producer right now, and we are all very jaded because we have been forced to cut our songs down in length, change lyrics, and basically tone everything down. Half of my band would like to forget the whole thing, and go back to doing it ourselves (making the music we want to make, and continue to get more interesting and complex musically). The other half of the band wants to continue "selling out," so to speak, and see where it takes us. What are your suggestions? And how did bands like Radio Head get to the point where they are now, where they are able to do whatever they want? That is what I want! How do we get there?

Michael Kirk: Where were you when I was starting to make this film, following the journey of your band right now is the stuff of a great story about the record business. In the story you've just articulated are all of the questions that have faced every artist who find themselves at the edge of a deal. The thing you probably know and surely will discover is that the odds against you are very high and that you will be faced with the choice between selling out and not making it. Or being true to your art and not making it.

In most cases, artists have to make that decision.

As to Radio Head and other bands who have finally reached a place -- through persistance, stubborness or good fortune -- where they get to do more or less what they want, it seems to be about whether a performer or an artist can catch lightning in a bottle and hold on long enough to get to control some of their destiny.

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Dallas, Tex.: It seems one of the biggest problems is the consolidation of radio stations in the hands of companies like Clear Channel, which is now going into the live concert business, & Infinity Broadcast. These companies have created monopolies. The FCC gives them the green light to do so. Is there ANY chance that music fans, artists, etc. can stop this from further happening & force them to relinquish control?

Michael Kirk: Well the FCC is a government agency that represents an administration and in the case of radio consolidation was lobbied extensively by the powerful broadcast lobby. It's the age-old question about how citizens in a democracy can independently affect policy. In this case, changing the way radio and the concert business is managed in political terms is virtually impossible. There's really only one vote that matters and that's the kind of voting you do with your feet. You don't attend the concerts and you don't buy the music and you don't listen to the radio.

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Lorne, Springdale, Ark.: It seems the recording industry has only targeted the 12 -30 year old market thinking that people over 30 don't buy music or if they do they're not going to give anything new a try. I think there a plenty of people like myself who still go out and by newer groups like OutKast and Evenessence even though I'm almost 15 years removed from high school.

While this formula has worked in the past do you think that limiting their target market has come back to bite them now that a lot of Brittany's and Justin's fans have outgrown them.

Michael Kirk: The answer is yes and the answer is not anymore. Clive Davis at RCA revived Rod Stewart's career by having him recently record CDs based on old standards. In fact, because "older people" do not download the major labels have discovered a vibrant marketplace where babyboomers are re-entering and re-buying much of their collection. Hence, Michael McDonald (former Doobie Brother) is back big. James Taylor continues to almost always sell between 700,000 - one million copies a CD, and Simon and Garfunkel are touring this summer at $70 a seat, selling out major venues.

The major companies are very happy to have older people back in on the marketplace.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Enjoyed the show - it was especially gratifying to see Mark Hudson in a Bob Mackie dress again - and he's still got that great figure, too. His reminiscences about the Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle days served as a reminder that the music 'biz' has always been about eating its young. Even the lawyer you interviewed said as much.

Michael Kirk: That's right.

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San Antonio, Tex.: How important is it for a new artist, to have
grassroots success before a major label picks
them up? And was Sarah Hudson a "local"
success before her shot at the majors?

Michael Kirk: The classic route to success continues to be the best way, they tell me, to proceed: build a touring fan base, small clubs first, larger clubs in a geographic area, opening for a headline act, becoming a headline act, selling your own CDs (either with a small label or that you've recorded yourself) and then signing on with a larger label that can use the power of your fan base to convince radio in a region to play you and hope that you catch on fire across America.

In Sarah's case, she has not performed around Los Angeles, but has entered the business another way (perhaps a harder way). She is in a family that is embedded in the entertainment business -- her cousin is Kate Hudson, her aunt is Goldie Hawn, her father Mark Hudson is Ozzy Osbourne's, Aerosmith, Ringo and others' producer -- and she is connected to a good label, S-Curve, has good management, a powerful attorney and might -- based on that -- get a chance to be played on the radio. But as a female singer/songwriter aiming at the same pop music demographic that Britney, Jessica Simpson, Avril Lavigne, Sheryl Crow and countless other performers aim at, she will live or die in the business on the strength of whether radio programmers like her songs.

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Columbus, Ohio: I've actually read that there's quite a resurgence among
rock music with some really talented young, creative
bands (Modest Mouse, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, White Stripes)
selling thousands and millions of records? Your
documentary didn't even address that and seemed about
five years behind the times...

Velvet Revolver? aack...

Michael Kirk: Velvet Revolver, the rock band we followed created out of Guns n' Roses and Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots is hardly five years old. They are the hottest rock band in America this week. We followed them for months as RCA records and Clive Davis decided to spend $2 million marketing them with the hope that they would be the standard bearers -- the new standard bearers in a rock revolution.

As good as the White Stripes and other bands you mentioned are, they are yesterday. Today, like it or not, Clive Davis' band, Velvet Revolver, is the band of the moment.

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Morgantown, W. Va.: Nice to see you cover the issue of Radio ownership. Any consideration for a Frontline special on the subject specifically?

Michael Kirk: Frontline is always interested in reporting on issues that matter to a wide range of people. Radio certainly touches most Americans and in music -- the soundtrack of most peoples' lives -- on radio is important and clearly a subject that Frontline is considering.

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