The Music Biz Is Dead, Long Live Music

John Brownlow lives and breathes creativity.  Aside from his day job as a screenwriter he spends a good deal of his time and energy facilitating local musicians to make the most of their talents.  His son, who is still in high school, leads the Ted Brownlow band, which performed this past summer at the Meaford Summer Concert Series and has also played a couple of gigs at the Marsh Street Centre in Clarksburg.  John has created a series of high quality performance videos of local artists, which he calls The Epping Sessions.  In a beautifully equipped studio, with a heavy retro vibe that comes in part from vintage instruments like a Hammond organ with a Leslie and a real Fender Rhodes electric piano, he creates recordings of his own original songs and mentors young artists.  John was leader of the band The Sportswriters, which disbanded a little over a year ago, in part because it is difficult to sustain a band that is built around original songwriting.  When he speaks about the state of creative music in our area he knows whereof he speaks.

Physical product, the driving force of the industry, has become superfluous

Physical product, the driving force of the industry, has become superfluous

“The music business is dead,” he says, “but music lives.”  He makes a point of differentiating between the two, a very valid point in this day and age.  In an apt but disturbing analogy, he says that musicians are to the music industry what pigs are to the pork industry.  You don’t have to delve very deeply into the history of popular music in the twentieth century and beyond to see his point.  Recordings of performances were originally made, when the record player was developed just prior to the advent of the twentieth century, in order to sell the hardware.  Despite popular perception it has never been the other way around.

Little of the cash filters down to the creators (RIAA statistics)

Little of the cash filters down to the creators (RIAA statistics)

It is only now, when a music lover can enjoy new music on demand at the push of a button thanks to the Internet, that the hardware has become superfluous.  And without the business of distributing hardware, in the form of records, CD’s, cassettes, 8-tracks or some other physical medium, along with the machinery to play them, the huge infrastructure that was the music industry has become superfluous.

Caruso, the first recording star“The industry created a bottleneck of sorts,” John explains, “through which chosen artists were fed, and so those who were chosen became hugely wealthy and famous”  The first big recording star to experience that phenomenon was Enrico Caruso, an opera singer who gained worldwide fame by recording for Victor at the turn of the last century.  Many others followed, riding the wave of technologies, including Elvis Presley who sold millions of 45 rpm singles, and The Beatles, who turned the 33 rpm long-playing disc into a new art form.  Pressing plants chugged, trucks rolled, racks were filled and fans bought the physical medium that carried their favourite tunes.  Someone made a little money each step of the way and it was all charged back to the musicians who had created the music before any royalties were paid.  Musicians provided the content but were last in line for their share of the wealth that accrued.

From an artists’ point of view the up side of the music industry was that there was a well-developed promotion machine that made sure they (the chosen ones) were heard.  The down side was that the only way they could actually make any money was by getting out in front of live audiences because their contracts ensured that all expenses, from limos to lines of coke, were “recoverable” by the record company before a penny of royalties was paid.  What has changed is that artists can now record their own product and retail it directly to fans, but they have to create their own way to be heard.  It’s no longer a matter of chasing that major label contract; now it’s a matter of personally winning an audience one fan at a time.

As far as John is concerned, what all that means is that making music is no longer a business of striving to become one of the chosen who will enjoy fortune and fame.  It has returned to what it was before Edison, a community of artists who entertain themselves and their friends.  Nothing in any mechanical or electronic medium matches that community experience of sharing real music directly, and so in a sense music has finally found its spiritual home.

Still, there is a well-developed history of artistry in recorded sound, in which production values take on major importance and the finished work is in a very real sense a work of art.  John himself, since the band broke up, has created over thirty finished tracks, all original songs, and of course he would like to find an audience for them.  With the bones of the music industry bleaching on the sands, like the shattered visage of Ozymandius a relic of a once powerful entity, he and other creative musicians have the problem of how to reach an audience.

the-festivalWhich brings us to Southern Georgian Bay, an area where the level of talented creative musicians is out of proportion to the population density.  There are many open mic stages in the towns that are strung along the south shore of the bay and anyone who compares them to open stages in Toronto will notice that the level of talent is much higher here.  That may be because the open stage is the only venue that is accepting of original material; a bar or a Legion hall will prefer a cover band most days of the week.  It may also be that the artistic temperament, with its refined sensibilities, values the lifestyle available here to the hustle and bang of the big city.  Whatever the reason, it has people like John Brownlow seeing a wealth of untapped talent and wondering how this talent can best find its audience.

He sees a few elements that can be improved.  One is that there is a lack of good music producers, even though the area abounds in studios (which these days really just require good acoustics, good mics and good software).  He understands that record production is a steep learning curve and the most talented musician or songwriter may not necessarily have the experience and skills to make their material sound good on a recorded medium.

The other is in the area of promotion. There is a smattering of local music promoters who have distinctive styles and approaches, each idiosyncratic in their own way.  From seasoned promoters like Liz Scott at Irish Mountain, Josh Richardson at Mudtown Records and Steve Vipond at the Bruce Wine Bar (along with Mossy who has just called it a day), to newcomers like Florian Lenders who is determined to make a music venue out of the Marsh Street Centre, Greg Bottrell with the Heartwood Music Hall and Chris Scerri who virtually put Meaford on the map this past summer, the music promoters in this area demonstrate individual taste and daring that provides something for every musical preference.  What they may lack, too often, is a real comprehensive promotion of the acts they present.  It is not enough to just announce a name and expect people to come; they need to be given a reason to attend a show.  Musicians and audiences in this area are open minded and willing to cross genres to explore new possibilities but a music fan needs some hint of what to expect.  Many promoters are finding that local talent attracts a crowd better than visiting artists, likely because the music fans know what they will be hearing.  That is good news for some of the hard working bands and performers in the area, and it also holds within it the germ of potential to create a local scene that is truly cohesive and nurturing.

This area may be on the threshold of something big.  The area lacks a large collegial crowd, which has traditionally been the audience for a new and exciting music scene but there is potential in the demographics of the area.  The baby boomers, possibly the most adventurous and obsessive music fans in history, are settling in the area.  With some disposable income and a remnant of the taste for innovation that characterized them in the sixties, they may provide an audience that can truly support new talent.  Attendance at Meaford Hall concerts, most of which seem to sell out with contemporary artists, support that theory.  Add to that the forty-somethings, newly  minted empty-nesters who have the opportunity for the first time since their twenties to actually get out an enjoy live music again.

mudtown-music-festivalJohn suggests that what may be required as the critical catalyst is more events that are encompassing of a variety of new artists and genres.  Summerfolk, The Electric Eclectics Festival, some of the Mudtown festivals and even John’s own modest Epping Fest show that focussed gatherings can be the start of the kind of community that can sustain local and visiting talent on a larger scale.

And we need a supportive press, which in the 21st Century means electronic and social media rather than print.  This website strives to serve that purpose and there is another, called Route 26, with a comprehensive calendar of local music events, maintained by singer-songwriter Laura Conning (

The final element is you and your support of live music in the area.  Thanks for being there.

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One Response to The Music Biz Is Dead, Long Live Music

  1. Gillian says:

    I learned a lot today, Bill, thanks! I work at an independent bookstore — Jessica’s in Thornbury — and “the writing business is dead, but writing lives” might be my new mantra. This blog is an example. In theory I believe we should all write, compose, paint and cook for each other but, in fact, it’s hard to give up the (much newer and short-lived) paradigm of being “discovered” by someone Out There.

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