In October, there were quite a few people listening to Elliott Smith. The sound of Smith’s whispery delivery, soothing yet intricate guitar work and simplistic view of the world resonated throughout the nation. Many DJs all over America played his affecting songs such as ‘Miss Misery’ or ‘Needle in the Hay’ and talked about Smith, as did his legions of fans. Why?
Because he’s dead.
The music industry has been churning out dead brilliance for quite some time now. Elliott is just one of many whose content life turned into a nervous breakdown, and the joy of listening to his music on the anniversary of his death paled compared to the sorrow of losing one of our generation’s brightest singer/songwriters. The list of musicians who died before the age of 35 is extensive: Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix are some who died at the tender age of 27. But how has this become such an issue that fans worry about their idols taking their own lives?
The pressure of making a hit record can be pretty overwhelming. Many rock stars live simple, happy lives before they are thrown into the limelight. Once they achieve some fame, their lives can no longer be simple. They have deadlines to meet, record labels to satisfy and fans waiting. Suddenly, it’s as if the music is pushed to the background and life becomes about what everyone else wants. The music isn’t as pure as it once was, and living up to expectations is always in the backs of their minds. As much as Kurt or Smith or Layne Staley or Ian Curtis tried to talk down the everyday pressures, this weight changed their down-to-earth lives into distorted realities. After all, record company executives still see music as a business, even if these records change people’s lives.
Surely, it’s impossible to blame the music industry completely for these tragedies, but the business has done its fair share. But how can this be changed?
It almost feels as if big-name labels have become too huge to change. Too many mainstream artists have grown accustomed to pursuing a compromise between what will sell and what their fans want. Some have significantly changed their sounds to appease both sides, like Blink 182. While they’ve lost those who were with them from the beginning, they’ve gained enough new fans that their place in pop culture is still sealed. Some call this ‘growing,’ while others call it ‘selling out.’ It’s understandable to develop your sound, but at what cost? Watching some radiant musicians burn out in the all-consuming business, when they’d rather stay true to who they are, has apparently been a reasonable price to pay in this supply-and-demand age. In order to change anything, the musicians must make the change themselves.
Most of these fallen rockers had this attitude to begin with, but when put in competition against the corporate machine, they withered. Most of the time, these guys didn’t even want big record deals. They just wanted to make music. When big-name labels came knocking with their pretty pennies and promises to get the music out, it was hard to resist.
However, in this day and age, ‘independent’ music is becoming more and more popular. Bands like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and the Arctic Monkeys are helping revolutionize the way music is being packaged by becoming popular through the Internet, without relying on an MTV generation that focuses more on reality television than playing music. Radiohead recently turned the industry upside down by selling their album exclusively on the Internet, for fan-set prices, while dealing with their label squabbles separately. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails is already planning to do the same, and actually encouraged his fans to download his music because he feels the prices are ripping them off. The Internet has become a completely new, fresh source of music, and while pirated music has become a big issue, artists have much more freedom with which to express themselves. Many bands have advertised their sound solely on the Internet, and whether or not they sign to any big-name label is their decision. All they need is a loyal fanbase.
So now, it seems like the cutthroat attitude of the music industry is slowly being moved into the rear-view mirror. There will always be corporate bands, with music filled with empty promises and dead messages, in addition to the few mainstream bands that have managed to stay true to themselves while using the machine as a marketing tool. However, it feels like the do-it-yourself revolution is in full swing. The Internet gives an open gateway to those who want the exposure. Bands get to take as much time as they want to produce their records, and all they’ll have to deal with is their grumpy fans. There was nothing wrong with the fundamental world our fallen rock stars lived in before they entered the business. It was all about the art, and now that artists are taking matters back into their own hands, this mindset is gradually being preserved. If this continues, distribution of music will be more independent, the artist will have the most control and the pressure-cooker music industry will gradually do itself in.
Shapan Debnath is a third-year philosophy and biological sciences double-major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.