The economy is in the crapper right now. And it's had a trickle-down effect on the music industry, but not in the way that analysts would have you believe. For years I've been hearing that the music world, as we know it, is on the verge of taking a dirt nap -- and recent developments suggest this sentiment may finally have some merit.
On September 8, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) announced the first of what could be thousands of civil suits filed by its members against several hundred people for the theft of copyrighted music on peer-to-peer file-sharing networks. The RIAA contends that downloading copyrighted music without paying for it is illegal, and they're tired of playing Mr. Nice Guy, so it's time to pay the piper, or else.
The RIAA can blame the decline of CD sales on peer-to-peer file-sharing networks or whoever the hell they want, but the reality is, with these lawsuits, they're merely slapping a Band-Aid on a slash wound to the jugular. There are myriad reasons that the industry is hemorrhaging money, the least of which is file-sharing.
First and foremost is greed. Album production has decreased noticeably, as have the costs of manufacturing, but instead of passing the savings on to music fans, the labels have opted to continually increase the retail list price. So in essence, the war between the haves and the have-nots really has less to do with stealing and more to do with the fact that consumers are tired of being ripped off by the industry. It's pure economics, value for the dollar. With less disposable income, most folks are less inclined to take chances on new artists -- especially when the product amounts to a steaming pile of dookie. Of course, there is that segment of the population who don't give a rat's ass about the music or the people who make it -- but for the most part, file-sharers are decent people just kicking the tires before they buy the car.
One of the key players in the industry is tackling the problem with realistic measures. Remember when discs cost less than a tank of gas? I do, and apparently, so do the powers-that-be at Universal Music Group (UMG). Last week, the nation's largest music company announced that effective October 1, it will lower the retail list price of its releases, from the ridiculous $16 or $18 to $12.98. The folks at UMG realized that they need to deliver a better value to consumers. It will be interesting to see if the other players -- Warner Music and BMG -- follow suit. Now, if only they would assess the problem with their A&R staffs and start developing artists again, that would be another step in the right direction. Until then, they've got to start somewhere, and gouging the consumer a little less is as good a place as any to start.
Meanwhile, back at home, a local independent imprint has continued to thrive in the midst of all this minutiae. Virgil Dickerson, head of Suburban Home Records, just returned from a week-long tour of Japan with two of the label's biggest homegrown acts, the Gamits and the Fairlanes, and is preparing to celebrate his eighth year in business this Friday night at the Gothic Theatre.
With the music industry in such a state of disarray, and given the fact that most small businesses fail within the first few years, Dickerson has cause to celebrate. Suburban Home has continued to flourish while all the big-leaguers are losing their shirts.
"It's just a lot of lucky things," says Dickerson as he tries to explain the success he's enjoyed since starting the label. "We were able to get better distribution and get our records into more stores. As a result, we were paid for more records, which eventually opened more doors to do distribution. And by doing the distribution, we were able to bring in enough revenue to actually hire employees and make a decent living at it. Really, we're able to have one minorly successful release. We don't have the big overhead and expectations the bigger labels do."
Dickerson is talking about the Gamits' Leaps and Bounds: Released in partnership with Ambience records in Japan, the record sold 15,000 copies -- not too shabby for a label that started out in 1995 as a fanzine while Dickerson was a still a student at CU. In fact, Suburban Home is doing better than ever: At the moment, the Gamits are preparing to record their next album (working title: The Antidote) at Eight Houses Down with Hop, the lead singer from Adventures of Jet. AOJ, a Dallas-based power-pop unit, joins Stereotyperider from Phoenix and the most recent addition to the Suburban Home family, Laymen Terms, from Colorado Springs. AOJ and Stereotyperider both have albums out now, and Laymen Terms is writing songs for its new record.
And if that weren't enough to keep Dickerson busy, also this Friday night, Love Me Destroyer (ex-Pinhead Circus) will drop its debut effort, Black Heart Affair, on a brand-new experimental imprint, Symbiotic Disharmony.
"It's a co-op between Eight Houses Down and Suburban Home," Dickerson explains. "Eight Houses Down will handle the recording and the mastering, and by doing that, they are equal partners in the label. We'll be handling the manufacturing, distribution and the marketing. And, hopefully, at the end, everyone will recoup their costs and be happy."
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Here's hoping the venture succeeds. We need more independently produced art and artists put out by guys like Dickerson. And only we, the consumers, can stop the madness perpetrated by the corporate devils in the music biz. They're only able to keep perpetuating this outrageousness because we allow them to. By supporting the little guys like Dickerson, we speak the only language these spineless weasels understand: the almighty dollar.
So stop by the Suburban Home anniversary party this Friday, September 19, at the Gothic. Pick up a copy of Black Heart Affair, then stay to watch Cost of Living (the new band made up of ex-members of Qualm), Laymen Terms, Stereotyperider, Adventures of Jet, Love Me Destroyer and the Gamits tear it up. It's like my man Nino Brown said in New Jack City: "Money talks and bullshit runs the marathon."
With that in mind, let's just say Wax Trax on the hill won't be running in the Bolder Boulder next year. As if you needed any more incentive to get behind the indies, here's one more. The little store that could, which started out almost 25 years ago at 638 East 13th Avenue before absorbing almost an entire city block and opening up a Boulder store, has decided to "move the Boulder store back to Denver," says Dave Kerr, Trax's buyer/manager, with a laugh. "The rent is too high. It's a 'lose an arm to save the body' kind of thing. The overhead is so high up there." According to Kerr, Trax was paying $3,000 a month to lease the space. And though Boulder won't be left without a place to get tunes -- Albums on the Hill is across the street -- Trax on the Hill will be sorely missed when it leaves at the end of October, especially in light of the loss of Tulagi a few weeks ago.