06 January 2008

Killing The Music Business

I'm reading the first chapter of a biography of Jerry Garcia (don't ask; no, go ahead and ask, I'll tell you in a minute anyway), and have already learned that a) Garcia was named after Broadway tunesmith Jerome Kern; and b) that his dad, Joe (born José) Garcia was a professional musician and band leader until the 1930s, when, according to his brother, the rising popularity of "canned" (i.e., recorded) music helped kill off the industry.

I found this ironic considering that we're again in danger of drowning in the crocodile tears of those bewailing the umpteenth "death" of the music business, especially since today's situation appears to be the reverse: supposedly the problem now is that digital downloading has destroyed the sales of recorded music (or at least the ability to make large amounts of money therefrom) and musicians are being advised to make their living by through live appearances and the sale of image-related paraphernalia.

Could thing really have gone in such a circle? I'll have to acknowledge that although I don't feel good about getting free digital copies of the music and very rarely succumb to the temptation to do so, I am in a rapidly dwindling minority. But I'm not (and haven't been for a long time) in the prime music-buying (or shall we say "obtaining") demographic. What I buy these days is mostly limited to stuff by friends or, occasionally, a few songs from my antediluvian youth. Put it this way: I doubt I'm keeping any musicians in business.

The live music business does seem to be flourishing (though once again, nearly all the shows I attend involve friends or friends of friends), but is it realistic to expect musicians to again earn their living that way, as they had to all through all of history apart from the 20th century? I don't know, but it may be exactly what is happening. I can't - people far more technologically knowledgeable than me tend to agree - see any way of putting the digital genie back in the bottle in such a way that recorded music will ever be the license to print money it once was.

And true, a greater emphasis on tours and live music will disadvantage those who aren't young and good-looking, have family or other responsibilities that make travel difficult, or simply don't have the kind of extroverted personalities that make for good show business. Actually, I don't know why I'm worrying about this: neither the records my band recorded nor the shows we played ever made money, while most of my musician friends are talented enough that they'll be right (though maybe not get rich) no matter what they have to do.

Which brings me back to the matter of Jerry Garcia, who even in his heyday bucked the tide by focusing more on live performances than on selling records. Now I know I'm not supposed to like him (hey, I put out the Queers record that reviles "Jerry's ugly face" and probably a few others in that same vein), and if you read some of my writing from the 80s and 90s, you'll see I was quite vicious toward him myself. In fact one of the reasons that pack of Iron Peak dope growers threatened to burn down my house was my regular bashing of the Grateful Dead in Lookout magazine.

I saw the Dead a great number of times in the 60s and early 70s - about 25 times, I'm guessing. A big part of the reason was that they were always playing for free, but I kind of liked them, too, inasmuch as I was capable of making any rational decisions about what I liked in those acid-addled days.

I turned against them almost instinctively when I turned against the hippies, which I'd already done at some point not far into the 70s, and my disdain both intensified and became more vocal once I'd joined up with the punks in '77. From then on you can't tell me much of anything good about Jerry or the Dead without my getting right in your face and telling you how far from having any brains or taste you must be.

So it was kind of disconcerting when it dawned on me one day that I'd never really stopped liking my favorite Grateful Dead record, Workingman's Dead. Didn't listen to it for a decade or two, true, but when I finally checked it out again, this time when I was drug-free or nearly so, it sounded better than ever. In fact, I was able to appreciate it much more without the chemical enhancement that had always been an integral and inextricable part of any Dead-related experience for me back in the day.

And while I still haven't become a fan of most of their extended-jam stuff, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, both from the early 70s, are and will remain classics in my view. If that destroys any shreds of punk credibility I may possess, so be it.

But that's not why I'm reading Jerry Garcia's biography. It's more because I like biography in general, but also because it covers times, places and people that, if not completely a part of my life, certainly intersected with it. I was startled, for example, to see one of my old Spy Rock neighbors cited as one of Garcia's lifelong friends, dating back to boyhood. I knew he - and a couple other neighbors - were affiliated with the Dead camp, but not to what extent.

And of course I like to read stories of the 60s so I can be reminded of just how degraded and debased the whole flower power, peace and love revolution was, not only when the "bad drugs" crept in post-1967 (which is how popular hippie legend would have it) but pretty much from the start. Even though this bio is written by a near-worshipful fan and hagiographer, Garcia doesn't come off as such a great guy on a personal level. Musically, yes; if you've got any appreciation at all for those who devote themselves to the playing of music, you've got to admire the guy for his near-limitless devotion to the craft. Personally, assuming you weren't part of his inner circle of family and friends, a bit of a jerk, I'm guessing.

Maybe I'll change my mind as I read on, but it will be an interesting experiment either way. I tend to avoid learning too much about my musical heroes because experience has shown me that it's usually the source of great disillusionment. Fortunately, Garcia isn't and never has been a hero of mine, just an enormously gifted musician whose music I can enjoy but probably wouldn't like to hang out with.


mikemorris said...

I agree, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty are great albums (as much as it pains me to admit it). But I saw them live a few times, and they were awful. So I guess what I really like is Robert Hunter's songwriting, though the Dead recorded some nice arrangements of his work.

Wesley said...

I'm changing the subject somewhat, but have you seen "Across the Universe"? It reminded me why I love the Beatles so much. Which is worth being reminded of. It's not entirely successful, but it's close enough to make you want to sing along.

And, yeah, mike & Larry are right:

In the secret space of dreams
Where I dreaming lay amazed
When the secrets all are told,
and the petals all unfold;
When there was no dream of mine, you dreamed of me,
you dreamed of me.