Friday, January 9, 2009

Now that's what we call influence

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When the iTunes Music Store went live in April 2003, it offered 200,000 songs and hoped to help create an iPod Nation where everyone wore white earbuds. Today, with six million songs in its catalog and four billion songs sold, the iTMS is the #1 music retailer in the United States — oh, and the earbud thing came true, too.

One by one, major labels and major acts have signed agreements with the iTMS, knowing that something doesn't grow from zero to four billion unless a whole lot of people are flipping the switches. But Detroit's own American badass, Kid Rock, is a notable exception to the steamroller that so many other major music acts have climbed aboard. According to Rock, the iTMS monster doesn't give musicians rides, it only flattens them.

Metallica made this argument for quite a while as well, claiming that albums were meant to be heard as, well, albums, and that letting listeners buy single songs corrupted the artistic integrity and vision behind the album tracklists. But now, even the mighty Met has listened to its management and put its songs up for sale at iTMS for fans to buy however they choose.

Kid Rock's management advised the Romeo, Michigan native to cooperate with the iTMS machine too, or else watch his last album, Rock and Roll Jesus, vanish into the sea of obscurity shortly after its release. With a cry of "viva la resistance" and an eye on the $9 - $20 CD full price, Kid refused — and the album went platinum. It took over a year, but it happened. The little guy had proved his point; Steve Jobs and the hegemony of Apple Music (the other one) had lost.

The iTunes Music Store has been blamed for the demise of the Album, as both idea and reality, by more than just Kid Rock and the Hetfield/Ulrich team. But an album is just a title reflecting a particular collection of songs, and songs are just conceptual labels we give to the digital collections of zeroes and ones called data files on our hard drives. If we want to download a story from an online magazine, we don't grab the whole site; why buy a whole album just to own one "song"?

The argument's well known. But iTunes didn't kill the radio star; ripping single songs out of their album contexts happened decades before the iTMS was even an apple seed in Steve Jobs's eye. Anyone who's ever been in a Best Buy store in the past decade is familiar with the Now That's What I Call Music! series — which on Volume One gave us the Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls, and Hanson on the same disc as Radiohead — an unspeakable affront to artistic and aesthetic sensibilities everywhere. The Now franchise — essentially a mix tape with corporate backing — has somehow managed to keep slogging on in the digital age, presumably thanks to an army of Wal-Mart shoppers still resisting those computer things, but even the Now series (currently up to collection #29) had a predecessor: K-Tel Records.

K-Tel commercials had a style all their own, as any greatest-hits SNL parody from the 1970s shows. With a male announcer's echo-chamber voice verging just this side of hysteria, the roll call of artists commenced over the cheesiest TV "psychedelia" effects possible at the time. Then a number flashed on the screen for easy ordering, but so did a list of brick-and-mortar retailers, like E.J. Korvette and Montgomery Ward, where the collection could be purchased.

Today, K-Tel is a company in transition, with a web site claiming that lots of exciting changes are on the way, but not a lot of evidence other than logos and song titles. The greatest hits compilation task has passed along to Rhino Records, where the Have A Nice Day series of 1970s hits gave us 25 discs worth of lovable schlock and schmaltz, but where some of the most important archival and restoration work is happening for preserving and re-sharing music from germinal groups and albums (think Sex Pistols and The Stains) obscurities (England Dan and John Ford Coley) and artists given box sets (Joy Division) that would otherwise never see the light of day. (Rhino also has a great eclectic podcast.)

Meanwhile, an underground collection also using the title Now That's What I Call Music has been going around the Pirate Bay/RapidShare circuits for years, and Kid Rock's "All Summer Long," from Rock and Roll Jesus, is a notable inclusion in collection #71. Net profit for the Kid: zero dollars. But since he's all down with illegal downloading anyway, there's not a problem, right?

Apple and iTunes aren't the villains in the ongoing "music is information and information wants to be free" melodrama. Neither are Pirate Bay and RapidShare. But K-Tel is. And mix tapes are. And top-40 radio is, and radio programmers are. Teenage garage bands playing cover songs for the neighbors, too.

Sometimes, as Antonio Gramsci told us, top-level hegemony takes shape through manipulation and consent forming at ground level. Kid Rock isn't an example of resistance to hegemony, because he is it. He didn't withhold consent from the iTunes State Apparatus — he simply bypassed it and set up his own profit-making system. To think there was any real rebellion taking place is just smoke and mirrors.

If you want to find the Ur-source of the end of albums and a reconception of music, think really, really, really low tech.
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