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'Before the Music Dies' Diagnoses an Ailing Industry

"Right now," says Badu, "this industry is all about youth."

"Superficiality is in and, you know, depth and quality is kind of out," offers saxophonist Branford Marsalis. "Today, Ray Charles would not get a shot. Stevie Wonder would not get a shot. They're blind."

The litany of complaints from musicians of a certain age starts to feel a bit too much like a visit to a union hall full of typewriter repairmen and elevator operators.

The whining about how today's popular music doesn't compare with yesterday's masks the legitimate criticism that feeds the anger expressed by the movie's talking heads. In fact, the business model that once used profits from big, popular acts to support the development of new and lesser acts has broken down. In one American industry after another, from radio to records to books to retailing, the financial foundation for developing the next wave of talent has collapsed.

That point doesn't come across nearly as effectively as the moviemakers' love of the blues and other roots music. "Before the Music Dies" finds and gives voice to several splendid new bands you won't hear on Top 40 radio.

But even as Rasmussen says he's not terribly optimistic about the ability of talented new artists to find an audience, the film touches on new paths that are emerging to connect music and listeners: satellite radio, the Internet, file sharing, bands that handle their own distribution. There's even a scene celebrating an FM radio station that dares to go its own way -- Seattle's KEXP, where deejays get to pick their own tunes and play tastemaker.

Rasmussen believes that in this era, when the promise of infinite choice slams up against the reality of time-stressed lives, what listeners crave is "someone to tell them where the great new music is." As the movie quotes Bob Dylan, who in his dotage has taken up the role of radio deejay: "It's just too much. It's pollution."

But this cry for someone to synthesize information -- a way to identify and lead people to quality work -- conflicts with the rhetoric of the Internet, the notion that out there on the Web, democracy is pure and no middleman need exist.

That is the central contradiction in popular culture today, the celebration of unbounded choice even as overwhelmed consumers crave both art they can share with others and a reliable guide to sift through all the junk for them.

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