Saturday, January 31, 2009

Rich People Can Still Act Like Human Beings-- They Just Have To Work Harder At It


I don't get out much anymore but the other day I was on my way somewhere and I realized that the big Virgin Records superstore was gone. I mean, the building was still there but it's empty. I was shocked. Tower Records, once the center of Hollywood's thriving record buying community, just down the street, had already closed. I figured Virgin would positively thrive by picking up the extra business. Apparently there wasn't any extra business. So no Tower and no Virgin. There's a huge independent store in the area, Amoeba which always seems to be pretty crowded and lively. Somehow it makes me feel more secure that music is being bought and sold in the area.

I used to be in the record business. I ran a small indie label and eventually I ran a large corporate record company that was part of TimeWarner. I saw a lot of things change in that time and a book review in the L.A. Times last week-- of Steve Knopper's Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age reminded me that I'm always running my mouth about those changes. The review quotes Knopper and I talking about CD sales and how the "need" for consumers to re-buy their entire music collections kept the record industry rolling in cash. I haven't seen the book itself yet but I'm certain we also talked about some of the other changes that conspired to help the industry spin itself into oblivion.

Two were the conscious decisions by-- at least in the case of Warner Bros-- the same people who fought against the migration from vinyl to CD (and before that had declared cassettes a non-starter), to fight against online distribution and also to embrace the big box stores completely. The former I addressed, rather ungraciously, in a post I did a couple years ago for HuffPo. But it's the latter I want to bring up today-- the way the record companies gradually gave up on their customers (record stores) and started down the road to self-destruction by embracing the WalMarts of the world.

For WalMart and similar outfits, music sales were always a loss-leader-- something cheap they could lure people into their stores with so they could get them to buy a washing machine or some poisonous crap made via slave labor in China. That's where the money always was-- and still is-- for WalMart. I knew at once that dealing with them was the death knell for the record business. They were so big we allowed them, basically, to set their own prices and conditions. Inevitably that led to the demise of independent and then chain record outlets. And the record companies have pretty much followed them down the toilet. If ever an industry just made every single wrong decision to annihilate itself, it has been the record business.

Yesterday the new Bruce Springsteen CD, Working On A Dream, arrived in the mail. It's still in it's shrink-rap, unopened, unheard. But it's the Boss and he's playing the Super Bowl tomorrow. Yeah... so? I've liked the 60 year old rocker for a long time, although I was a fan of punk rock in the 70s when he started building his career nationally and didn't get too emotionally involved with Springsteen's quite likable music. Eventually I made up for lost time, especially after I realized how progressive he was politically. Lisa Derrick's must read post at Firedoglake may give more music fans than just me cause to pause. Springsteen has fallen into the worst trap a progressive musician can ever fall into retailwise: he's given an exclusive to WalMart The Destroyer. After being called out on it, he kinda/sorta now says it was a mistake and then kinda/sorta tries to push the blame onto his "team" (i.e., the greedy manager). It doesn't fly for Lisa and it doesn't fly for me. WalMart should send up red flags for anyone, like Springsteen, who cares about American working families, for unions, for America in general.

Is Springsteen so rich that he's completely lost touch with his roots? I don't want to think so. I don't think its inevitable that rich people turn into scumbags. Many do and it takes work to not. That's why Springsteen's lame excuses ring so hollow and so sad.
"We were in the middle of doing a lot of things, it kind of came down and, really, we didn't vet it the way we usually do. We just dropped the ball on it.. given its [Wal-Mart's] labor history, it was something that if we'd thought about it a little longer, we'd have done something different. It was a mistake. Our batting average is usually very good, but we missed that one. Fans will call you on that stuff, as it should be."

That's WalMart, the Evil Empire within, which spends its profits aggressively and viciously trying to destroy the American labor movement. Springsteen's manager makes much worse excuses and you can see why Springsteen has to work so hard to not fall into the trap many rich people fall into-- hanging out with scumbags and becoming just like them.

This week the Center For Progressive Politics released a survey of wealth among members of Congress. The easiest conclusion: there is no way on God's earth this gaggle of fat cats and multimillionaires can be representing average Americans. The freshmen are even richer than the non-freshmen and most of them are millionaires, some of them many times over. No wonder so many of them don't sympathize with the plight of the average working families whose lives have been so disrupted by their policies. But when I dug down a little, I saw that some of the representatives who were the richest have also been the strongest champions for working families, like Alan Grayson (D-FL) and Jared Polis (D-CO) and that even poor members, like Tom Rooney (R-FL) can wind up as complete corporate shills with no interest at all in helping average Americans. I know Grayson well enough to know that he's a conscious and conscientious guy who will work hard to never let filthy lucre divert him from his goal. I use to think I knew Springsteen the same way.

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At 3:49 PM, Blogger Bob In Pacifica said...

I don't want to seem stupid but what's Springsteen's exclusive deal with Walmart? I mean, I have never stepped inside one but Springsteen's CD seems to be available all around. What's exclusive?

At 4:43 PM, Blogger DownWithTyranny said...

Sorry for leaving that part out, Bob. It's a new Greatest Hits package and the only way to get it is by walking into a WalMart.

At 6:28 PM, Blogger Bob In Pacifica said...

Well, bad on Bruce then. I've followed Bruce from when I grew up on the Jersey Shore and he played dances with the Castilles, I think the name was. And Steel Mill later. He's been good on social and labor issues. Maybe with some penance he can get back into our good graces.

By the way, Howie, I think I have an old reel of tape with you and some of the Sex Pistols on KFOG in SF. They sounded intoxicated and had trouble not cursing. This must have been when they played Winterland.

At 9:56 AM, Anonymous Lee said...

I heard Knopper on NPR..The stupidity of the record business is astounding.Here's the interview

I am a HUGE Springsteen fan.Since I live in Philadelphia, we here were introduced to him by a now dead disk jockey named Ed Sciaky who played his music before anyone else.And My now 18 daughter was conceived to Springsteens music. His politics have been icing on the cake and I was really disappointed in his Walmart deal

At 5:46 AM, Blogger Scott said...

I worked in the record retail for a long time, including the 90s when the majors were letting Circuit City, Best Buy, Walmart etc sell CDs for less than I could buy them for. I was telling my boss that we ought to sell TVs at cost and see how much they like it. The reality is that the industry started destroying itself for short term gain before downloading ever started. Independent retail, which is what I was in, was starting to be destroyed in the mid 90s.


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