Third World Impossible Music

When a large, powerful, well-organized force moves into a small, relatively isolated region, sets up camp, and goes about extracting wealth from the locals, we have a name for it: That’s called colonialization.

This is a pretty good description of what the mainstream music industry has done to small-town America. We’re the colonies. The music industry is the colonial power. So we get to sit around in the dust and watch the soldiers drive by in their armored vehicles. Ain’t it swell?

I live in a medium-sized town in Northern California. There is basically no way to earn a living as a musician in this town, because there is no local music scene. If you’re a musician and want to earn a living, you can teach lessons to kids, or you can work in a music store. (And we only have one small music store, and I kind of doubt the clerks there can afford to buy homes.)

When talented young musicians grow up in a small or mid-sized town in America, guess what? They leave. In order to have any hope of earning a living, they have to move to New York, Los Angeles, or Nashville. As a result, the musical life of the local community is impoverished.

It’s not that the people in my town and yours don’t care about music. I’m sure they do. But their music purchasing dollars are all siphoned off by the mainstream music industry. Sammy Hagar reunion concert tickets, CDs you buy on Amazon, iTunes downloads, that type of thing.

Every time you download a song from iTunes, that’s 99 cents that doesn’t go into the pocket of a local musician.

Here’s a shocking idea, one that has no chance whatever of being implemented. We, the people, own the airwaves, right? The airwaves are a public resource. So what would happen if the FCC decreed that a modest 10% of the music broadcast by every radio station had to be music that was recorded within the local area served by the station, and by musicians living within the local area?

What would happen would be, first, a mad scramble by thousands of local musicians across the country to prepare good recordings. After which, the people in the local community would get to know who the local artists were, so the local artists would have a better chance of getting paying gigs.

But it will never happen, because the corporations that own the radio stations won’t let it happen. They have the ear of Congress. Musicians don’t. And nobody but musicians cares.

The money you spend on music, be it slight or major, is leaving your community. It is winding up in the pockets of the stockholders of Clear Channel and Cherry Lane Music.

This situation doesn’t just affect musicians. It’s an absolute cultural loss for the local community as a whole. Sure, you get to listen to great tunes — but they’re homogenized to be attractive to as wide an audience as possible. Local concerns are not given voice by local songwriters, because no one is listening. It’s all Burger King music, Wal-Mart music.

The Internet is not a very good medium with which to attempt to address this disparity, because the Internet is inherently non-local. You can maybe get a couple of tracks on a podcast, and maybe some guy in Australia will write you an email effusively praising your genius, but he’s in Australia, so he’s not going to come to your gig. Unless your local gardening shop happens to have a website, you probably never visit a site that’s aimed at a local audience.

On the other hand, it wouldn’t hurt to research the local businesses that have websites, and suggest to them that they add streaming music. You won’t make any money that way — it will still be the online equivalent of setting up and playing for free at the local street fair (which is what you’re doing already, if you can manage to put a band together), but maybe a few more local people will get to know your music.

And then what? Are there clubs you can play in, if you don’t want to play for drunks and do want to play original material? Uhh, probably not. The patrons of those clubs have all driven down to San Jose for the Sammy Hagar reunion concert.

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