Friday, May 15, 2009

Question of the Day - May 15, 2009


Amy Marston asks:

When pop stars become famous, they generally become famous because they have a hit song, receive a ridiculous amount of media attention, are exceptionally beautiful, or maybe even have extravagant setups when they perform, etc. Just recently I went to the new Britney Spears concert and as a huge fan was willing to pay a lot of money for good tickets even though I know she doesn't write her own music, is not particularly an amazing singer, lip syncs in concerts, and recently had a rough few years with negative publicity.I still love her and her music and from as far as I can tell, millions of people still do too. Are any of the heroes we studied in Rock on Film guilty of using things other than just their musical talent to lure in audiences and create cult like fan bases just as stars like Britney Spears do today? Could part of the reason there is so much history with some of these original rock and roll artists be because of their dramatic performances, tragic deaths, or something else?

Hartmann responds:

Throughout the evolutionary cycles of the record business "hit" singles have always been the driving force. This was true in the "antiquarian" age when The Great Caruso had the first million selling record. It continued in the "classic" period as Frank Sinatra was chased about by legions of "Bobby-Soxers," as his fans were known. Elvis exploded into the "modern" recording industry as 45 RPM singles dominated AM radio. In the "postmodern" era, single records were used to provoke interest in the albums of The Beatles and the thousands of singers and bands that dominated the music business. FM radio created an enormous interest in the albums themselves. The great singer, songwriters reached an ubiquitous audience and gold and platinum status was achieved by a a large number of artists. These albums delivered extraordinary profits to the record companies. As "big" business" calculated the margins a feeding frenzy erupted and consolidation of the labels became a giant bidding contest. Any successful in dependant label was absorbed into the distribution systems of the major companies lured by huge buy out dollars and corporate stock options. Eventually, critical mass was reached and only four are left standing. All are foreign owned companies. UMG is French owned, EMI British, Sony Japanese and Warner Bros is Canadian. The infrastructure created during the rise of these behemoths can no longer be sustained because of peer-to-peer file sharing and other forms of music piracy. All of these transitions were provoked by advances in technology. Not one of the changes was a flick-of-the-switch phenomenon. No particular technology was eliminated over night and none was instantly universal. You can still buy vinyl records, in fact some prefer them for their higher fidelity. The proliferation of iPods and MP3 devices was the quickest assault on prevailing systems to successfully build a massive constituency. While the big four record powers engaged in destroying Napster and suing their customers, they turned to a business driven marketing policy by cramming radio with formulaic, trend driven, fad based music. Rather than following the best songwriters and performers lead musically, they created stylized records around "celebrity" driven artists. Television was used to sell life-style, beauty, sex appeal and charisma rather than great music. This became the launching pad for Madonna, Brittany, Justin Timberlake and an entire generation of "pop" tarts and "boy" bands. As the song says, "video killed the radio star." The strangle hold the major labels had on radio allowed them to parlay radio airplay and MTV exposure into a monopolistic one-two punch that created a lot of financially successful artists without much musical substance. Where is Duran Duran today? In the current era, music talent doesn't even seem to be a requirement. TV and movies can make "media" stars over night as seen in the case of Miley Cyrus and The Jonas Brothers. These idols are built on sand. Their lack of true musical skills will become blatantly obvious as their audience matures. Then the fans will move on and choose more authentic heroes. Remember The Monkees and Milli Vanilli? These were manufactured artists who eventually demonstrated a lack of talent and, once exposed, their bubbles burst in a violent media backlash. Their fan bases dissolved over night. Most of the great music stars rose on the rebellion of their fans against their parents music. The parental objection usually fueled the fans interest. The parents were usually frightened by the sexuality of the newly emerging stars. Afraid that their daughters would engage in premarital sex, the "responsible" elders tried to thwart the popularity of the upstarts thus guaranteeing the love of the fan base. Will the Brittany fans ever totally die off? Probably not, some will take that passion to their graves. Each career is different and circumstances can change everything in a moment. Premature death and other tragedies, can catapult a rising star into legendary status and without their presence to destroy the image, the legend prevails in perpetuity. At the height of The Beatles success they asked in a song, "Will you love me when I'm sixty-four?" The answer then was a resounding "YES!" And, if asked today most of their fans would still answer that question in the affirmative. I would. As a matter of fact, I am listening to them right now. They are still the best.

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