By: Christopher Short
The music industry is failing. For years album sales have been falling and hi-profile artists have been leaving the once-comfortable shelter of the major labels. The current worldwide economic depression isn’t helping, either. Concert ticket sales have been slumping for the last 3 years, although more people than ever are going to festivals such as Lollapalooza and Coachella. Yet 80 years ago during the Great Depression the music industry was treading water, fueled by the thirst for quality entertainment that was free.
The Depression hit black musicians hard even though the record companies were doing well. Ken Burns’ excellent documentary Jazz: A History of America’s Music tells the story of Buddy Bolden. Once one of the nation’s most celebrated cornet players in the Roaring Twenties, he died alone in a Louisiana mental hospital. Jelly Roll Morton, the self-proclaimed inventor of jazz, lost everything. But in the midst of tragedy something magical happened. Born of the sadness that set upon these men, the Blues launched into public consciousness with a terrible fury. It’s flaming chariot was the radio.
The radio was something that the whole family could gather around and listen to. It helped spur people’s imaginations and it gave them comfort. From George and Gracie to Little Orphan Annie to Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds there was an abundance of entertainment that didn’t cost people a dime. The jukebox had much of the same success. Instead of having to pay bands night in and night out, bands that might not increase business for local drinking establishments, here was was a handy invention that played people’s favorite songs for pocket change!Once the country was free of the Depression people started buying their own phonographs and record collections. As demand for the product went up so too did the demand for better technology. Wax cylinders were replaced with wax discs which in turn were replaced by durable vinyl. On the recording side of things, once humble companies were now spending a lot of money to build state-of-the-art recording facilities. Concert ticket sales skyrocketed. Seasoned Delta bluesmen found their careers taking off when young American teens, and later the Brits, rediscovered blues music. The fondness for that music birthed rock and roll and the rest, as they say, is history.
From the end of World War II onward each decade brought new talent, new innovations in the technologies used to record and listen to music, and new people looking to make money playing the game. As the machine grew, so did the lust for the Next Big Thing.On August 1, 1981 a new cable network debuted, titled simply MTV. It quickly became a staple of pop culture in the 1980s. I certainly do not remember a world without it. In 1983 Madonna burst onto the scene and became a pop culture idol. At the same time, Michael Jackson’s Thriller was burning up the charts. MJ already had an established career but he wasn’t satisfied with doing the same thing every album. Both Madonna and MJ were musical chameleons, pushing the envelope with both their music and the way they presented themselves. They also made a lot of money, not just for themselves but for their labels as well.
Next week: all about the money.