Dear Steven Van Zandt,

I just read your interview in CNN, and I wanted to offer an alternative view to your thoughts, particularly related to this quote: “The reason nobody wants to talk about it is because it mostly sucks! Who are we kidding here? Nobody’s buying records? Because they suck!”

You also suggest that if bands learned more cover songs and listened to more “great records” (i.e. classic records) the record industry would be saved, which I think it is a slightly myopic view of what is happening in the business. I think you are missing two key points:

1. THERE IS AN AMAZING AMOUNT OF GREAT MUSIC OUT THERE, but I think you are looking in the wrong places for it. I suggest you take a look at eMusic – the largest online retailer for independent music. Find an artist you like, look at recommendations by eMusic and other consumers, and you can easily fall down the rabbit hole for hours experimenting with new, and in many cases, amazing music you have never heard before. Like Psych Rock? Check out Wooden Shjips. Sign up for newsletters from forward thinking physical retailers like Other Music, a store run by music geniuses who can connect the music dots between Grizzly Bear and Erlend Øye in three steps or less. And of course there are dozens of music blogs, from aggregators like the Hype Machine, live music session and editorial blogs like Daytrotter, old school outlets like Pitchforkmedia, and a million in between. Not to mention the myriad of online radio stations that are not hamstrung by the tight-playlists the consolidated commercial radio business has given us over the past 10 years. Widen your net, Steven, and you’ll find tons of music that will knock your socks off.

2. THE OLD MODEL OF A PHYSICAL RECORD-BASED MUSIC ECONOMY IS DEAD. It is not coming back. Dead. Dead. Dead. You can have a million bands covering “Working on a Dream” for a million years and you will not bring traditional physical record sales anywhere close to where they were at their height in 2000. The infrastructure has shifted forever. Some details you should consider:

Less Outlets for Traditional Music: Tower Records shut down their U.S. operation in 2006; Circuit City (9th largest music retailer in 2008) ceased operations in 2009; Virgin Megastore announced in 2009 that they will close all of their U.S. stores; Borders (the 6th largest retailer of music) has cut back their in-store floor space by 30% to 7% of their total floor space; and Transworld closed 101 stores in 2008, after losing $69 million dollars, including a 24% drop in total sales during the nine weeks leading up to the end of the year – traditionally the best music retail time of year. Taken together, there are simply less outlets and less floor space available to the labels to merchandise and sell their music. It is not a matter of buyers not taking in records because “they suck.” The space that had existed for music is now filled with DVDs and other media, or is gone.

Consolidated Commercial Radio is Ineffective: The number of artists that terrestrial radio “breaks,” in terms of converting radio play to mechanical royalty sales is smaller with each passing year. Although radio is still the primary method that folks hear about new music (49% of consumers list radio as the #1 way they find new music, according to a 2008 Edison Media Research survey), radio is quickly losing ground to the Internet, with 25% of consumers hearing about new music online.

The Replacement Cycle: Technological innovations have been shaping how, where, and when folks listen to (and purchase) music for years, beginning with improved production processes with vinyl, and then moving onto 8-track, cassette, CD, and finally digital music. Along the way, major labels have been able to monetize these technological innovations through a process called the replacement cycle – basically a repackaging of existing content in the newest format.

With consumers being able to convert files to digital themselves from existing CDs (not to mention sharing digital files for free online), the labels have been unable to find a way to monetize this format shift effectively. The end of the replacement cycle, coupled with the complete decentralization of the industry brought on by the Internet and the change in consumer habits, makes for a very tough time for the record business.

I know it’s a tough to find new music, particularly when you are on tour. Perhaps you don’t have regular access to the Internet. But I assure you; the issue is not that that music sucks. Spend some time doing your research on finding new bands, find some tastemakers you can depend on to turn you onto new music. The old industry that you grew up with is gone; but the phoenix is rising from the ashes with new models and new revenue streams. Whatever you do, please don’t blame what is happening on a lack of good music – it really makes you sound out of touch.

Mike

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    Another quote from the interview: “There are things you learn by listening to great records, copying heroes.” He is way off the mark with a statement like that. Being an artist isn’t about copying your favorite musicians; it’s about seeing through your own eye and going off the beaten path to create something compelling that you (the artist) loves.

    His advice to learn things by copying others is the very advice that will lead people to make derivative, impotent music. Of course you learn a lot about music from listening to your favorite artists, but you don’t become an artist by copying these people.

    He really does prove that he is out of touch. There will always be a lot of bad music out there, but to counter that will be the amazing music that people will continue to create

    Amen! I used to be a huge fan of Bruce and SVZ, but it’s pretty clear that SVZ just hasn’t been paying attention. It bugs me when people who aren’t really clued in shoot their mouths off as “authorities”.

    Hey Mike,

    You guys seem to know your way around music. So I wanted to ask you something. I have been reading this blog lately. It’s written by a musician but I can’t find who the guy is or which band he plays in. I so would like to hear his/their songs.

    The blog is fairly new and the guy posts like twice a month. It’s obviously some kind of biography about his life.

    The blog is called The Making of a Rockstar and you can find it here – http://themakingofarockstar.wordpress.com/

    Have you ever heard of it? Any kind of info that you guys could give me would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you in advance,

    James

    Mike,
    Ugh, already. Stevie sounds like SO many from this generation who just haven’t figured out yet how to find the music they’ll like, so their only access is to commercial mainstream radio. I disagree on almost every one of his (rambling) points, and ditto Ihor’s Amen to you. If I have to listen to one more performance of “only the good stuff” from the 60s and 70s I think I’m gonna scream.

    I think Mr.Van Zandts comments could be taken in a different spirit than the way you presented it. The internet is the most vast source of music available anywhere. If you don’t think that the majority of it sucks, then you haven’t been listening enough. I’m talking about ALL music available online from everywhere. If you think that more of it is good than bad, I bet you’ll agree with me that MOST of it is not worth paying for. I think Mr.Van Zandt is coming from there, because it is true. Next, Mr.Van Zandt advocates the value of learning the roots of your genre and being able to perform renditions of some of the classic songs. If you were a practitioner of folk, opera, jazz, classical, blues, etc., this would be expected of you by your peers. Music schools tend to promote this method also. Is there some reason why rock musicians are exempt from this stage of growth? The past leads to the future. Valid music stands the test of time. A good song is a good song forever. Bad music is forgotten.

    I’ve got to say. . . when I first ran across this article earlier today, and was impressed but wasn’t able to read it with full concentration. I came back to it this evening. Wow. What an amazing article! Very well summed up. Great points. What more can I say? (other than “I wish I could write like that!” and “I’ll share it with as many people as possible”)

    @swampyankee

    Might I suggest one avoids complaining about the drab, nonsensical music on the internet and focuses ones attention on finding and sharing music one actually likes? One is likely to find it far more rewarding.

    In addition to traditional media & social recommendations, quite a few of the guys posting here will already trust the opinion of certain online media to highlight the kind of music they’d enjoy and, more often than not, it works very well for them.
    Finding such sources may have involved a great deal of searching for some and subsequently, they will have listened to far more music (which THEY consider to be good & bad – NOT you) than you give credit for. Saying that, it’s no competition.

    Might I suggest starting with the following, if you are searching for an online filter/tastemaker:
    Hype Machine / Elbo.ws / Gorilla Vs. Bear / Music Slut / Pampelmoose / Pasta Primavera / Slowcoustic / Stereogum / You Ain’t No Picasso

    It’s a positive start, especially if you’re wanting to hear new/indie music. You may not share our taste but we’re ok with that and hope you find what it is you are looking for.

    “I bet you’ll agree with me that MOST of it is not worth paying for”

    Well, it appears to have escaped your noticed that there’s a growing trend which involves NOT PAYING FOR MUSIC AT ALL.

    Peace!

    @ Mr King
    Another fine post, Sir.
    Thank you.

    Learning from those before you is a necessary step – imitation, assimilation then innovation. You need to learn the ‘language’ of your favorite style first.

    Even so-called modern approaches to making money in music look to 3rd party sites and widgets to host your music and sell your merchandise.

    All the tools exist to build your own fanbase and sell direct from your own website, and even better make money on related products – eg. guitar lessons, membership sites (backstage access to your band), affiliate products, ebooks, etc.

    We seem to be stuck in the ‘new site of the week’ that offers to sell our music for a cut of course.

    Hi, nice posts there :-) thank’s for the interesting information

    He is absolutely right, most music sucks today. He hit the nail on the head regarding the “square pegs” comment.

    Mike,

    Way to crush this guys whole arguement lol. Seriously though, you are absolutely right, or atleast I agree with you. The music doesn’t suck, the models of pushing the music is what sucks these days. Not enough labels are learning from the indies on how to think OUTSIDE of the box to succeed and strike a deeper chord with their music fans. There is an abundance of great music, we just need new, innovative and exciting ways to market music to fans.

    Excellent post, keep ‘em coming and I’ll keep reading ‘em.

    - R. Liechti
    Future of Rap Music

    Great Article!!!
    One main reason people dont find great music is because they do not research. There is an unbelievable great number of bands all around the world, you just gotta do your homework. Most of the mainstream music is “Corporate Rock” or hiphop/rap because that is what the kids want. They only listen to what the media feeds them.
    Thats the problem with most of the major labels they only look at music from the profit side of things “If the kids are buying we’ll put it out regardless of the quality of the product”.

    Nowadays, even if an artist releases a great album, it wont have the same impact on sales as is used to. All this thanks to technology. Albums are now more about marketing tool for touring. If people like your album, they will come to your show.

    All of this of course is my personal opinion.

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