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The State of the Pop Music Union

President Obama’s State of the Union Address took place on Tuesday evening, and it got me thinking about the state of popular music.

Not that the issues tackled by the president are at all analogous to the relatively puny problems facing the music industry – careers might live or die based on the shock to the system that is digital streaming, but actual people won’t. And as fractured and shattered as the world of popular music most surely is, it doesn’t hold a candle to the viperous and vaporous pit of ignorance, corruption, hatred and stubborn partisanship that is the world of present day American politics.

Still, popular music has an immense effect on popular culture, and popular culture in turn has an immense effect on the way we think about, relate to, imagine, and in some senses, create the world we inhabit.

I don’t have a team of speechwriters – I actually do my own stunts, for better or worse. But if I were to stand in the pop music equivalent of the Oval Office, and make an impassioned speech on the state of pop’s union, these would be my talking points. They’re addressed to both sides of the music industry – the artists and businessmen, and the listener/consumer.

Adele is not the center of the universe. Admit it – she’s a little bit boring.

In the business world, the concept “Too big to fail” is applied to corporations deemed so large and powerful and important to the economy that the government will step in to aid them before they are allowed to fail. Adele has a great voice, and her low-key, generally classy approach to her material is refreshing in a world of oversinging and self-aggrandizement. But at this point, she is to the recording industry what the massive chain of interconnected mega-banks is to the general economy. Nothing in music should be deemed “too big to fail.” If something appeals to “everyone,” the odds are strong that it has been watered downt. Or, to paraphrase something my mother used to say when I was growing up: Just because everyone else is buying Adele’s “25” doesn’t mean you have to.

Music and fashion are not the same thing.

Fashion can enhance music. But fashion is not music. You can dress the contents of your garbage disposal in cool clothes. But underneath, it’s still gonna be garbage. I don’t care how many retweets it gets.

If you are singing a song or making a record with the primary goal of being liked, you’ve already lost the battle.

Music is an art form. It is not meant to be a social media post you throw out there, and then sit back to watch how many “likes” you get. If you’re a real artist doing something worthwhile, and you invest yourself in the process with integrity, we’ll either get that, or we won’t. Be an artist, not a salesperson. On the listener’s side of the equation – stop encouraging these people. It’s not your job to feed their egos.

Concert ticket prices are ridiculous.

The top price point for a live concert should be $125. If you need to charge more than that, you are either running an organization that is far too top-heavy, or you’re just plain greedy. Rent one less video screen, lose the satellite stage – do whatever you need to do, but stop dropping the bill for all this unnecessary pageantry on our doorstep.

If you like something you hear on Spotify, buy it.

Streaming has replaced radio as the primary means of music discovery. Crying about this is, at this point, is an immense waste of time. It is what it is. That said, if we employed these streaming sites – which, by the way, continue to offer lousy deals to artists, and will likely continue to do – in the same manner we used to employ terrestrial radio, then maybe we could help the market to right itself a little bit.

When I was a kid, listening to WQBK Q104 FM in the Capital District, I’d buy blank cassette tapes and record live concert broadcasts, interviews with artists and “album hours,” during which a DJ would play a new release in its entirety at 11 p.m. every Tuesday. I amassed a sizable and diverse collection. But when I fell in love with something, I went to the store and bought it. (Gasp!)

We should all treat Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music or whatever service comes next, the same way.

Go see a local artist, and don’t try to get on the guest list.

This one speaks for itself. Think global. Buy local.

Don’t look for entertainers. Look for teachers.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since David Bowie died on Sunday – a loss that, for me and so many others, was experienced as a palpable one. While reflecting on the decades I spent as a devout listener to every single thing Bowie did, I realized that, for as long as I can remember, I have not looked to musicians for entertainment. I don’t need to be entertained. What I do need is knowledge. Those who have gone the deepest into the world of art have a lot to share – about their art, about art in general, and in the most profound cases, about life itself. Katy Perry might be a perfectly nice person, for example, but I just don’t get the feeling that she can teach me as much about what it means to be alive as, say, Joni Mitchell or Bjork or Kate Bush can. Popular music can be conduit to wonderful worlds, can be a gift that keeps giving throughout a lifetime. We should stop treating it like something we throw away after using. We should demand art that is worth keeping around. The landfills are overflowing.