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Missing For 12 Years The Perfect Album Print E-mail
Thursday, 14 October 2004
I recently took a trip to my old favorite record store, Aaron’s Records, on Highland Avenue in Hollywood. It is a truly great record store, loaded with import CDs, used CDs, vinyl (for those who dig that) and is still to this day staffed with people who truly love music. Take any one of Aaron’s staff, name a record you like and the Aaron’s employee can give you five good recommendations of other artists or recordings you might like. Websites like Amazon try to do this but somehow just fall short. Big record chains simply don’t care about anything other than taking orders for CDs and DVDs you already knew you wanted before you walked in the door. After trading a good 60 old CDs in for 20 new and used ones, I got to thinking about my heavy record-buying days as a teenager and as a music student at the University of Southern California. In my teen years living in Philadelphia during the mid-1980s, all of my friends and I would anxiously await new releases from our favorite artists: Rush, Van Halen, Guns ‘N Roses, Peter Gabriel, U2 and many others. We had limited budgets and saved so that we could make a weekend trip to the record store (Tower Records on South Street or the Princeton Record Exchange) to buy, in most cases, one album on CD. We flipped through the bins like we were researching for a PhD in rock music, but all we wanted to do was to make sure that our $16.95 investment wasn’t in vain. In college, most of my friends in the music and business schools had a little more expendable cash and we would make literally five or six trips a week to the record stores of West Los Angeles, looking for exciting new records that we hadn’t heard yet. This was the early 1990s and music had just changed its focus to grunge. Little did we know how significant (and damaging) that popular shift in taste would be to music overall.

In the 1980s (and earlier, for older music fans), there were “perfect” records that made it absolutely essential to make a trip to the record store. When I say “perfect,” I mean an album that is better than great, a “10,” an album that helps define a generation and/or a musical genre. In the period of time I define as the Classic Rock Era (1967-1994), these perfect records were plentiful. An incomplete list would include the likes of:

- Led Zeppelin: I, II, III, IV, Houses of the Holy
- The Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour, Sgt. Pepper’s
- Pink Floyd: Dark Side of the Moon, Animals, The Wall
- Jimi Hendrix: Axis Bold as Love, Electric Ladyland
- Van Halen: I, II, 1984
- The Eagles: Hotel California
- Michael Jackson: Thriller
- Guns ‘N Roses: Appetite For Destruction
- Metallica: Master of Puppets, …And Justice For All.
- Pearl Jam: 10
- Beastie Boys: License To Ill
- Dr. Dre/NWA/Snoop – The Chronic, Straight Out of Compton, Doggy Style
- The Police: Synchronicity
- The Sex Pistols: Never Mind The Bollocks
- Prince: Purple Rain, Around The World in a Day, Symbol Album
- Many others

Everyone’s list is different, but one disturbing trend is evident – after about 1994, there aren’t any clear-cut “perfect” albums. Please don’t confuse a perfect album with a great one. There are many great albums, but in the last 10 to 12 years, which albums have been beyond great, the kind that an entire genre of music can be based around? I can think of a few modern records that I can’t deem perfect but are borderline, including Radiohead’s OK Computer, U2’s Zooropa, Nirvana Nevermind, Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP, Nora Jones’ Come Away With Me, Underworld’s Beaucoup Fish and Thievery Corporation’s Mirror Conspiracy, along with a few others.

Once again, everyone has their own tastes and their own standards for a perfect record. However, when you look to define a genre or a generation with an album, we have been in what seems like a decade-long drought. How could this happen? Very easily. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the record business was booming. Executives acted more like bankers or general managers of sports franchises when buying up big-name talent (think Prince or Janet Jackson) and banking on them to continue to sell records at record levels. History showed this tactic didn’t work. In the 1960s through the 1980s, the idea of developing bands and record development deals was more common. When a hit artist or group (not that they ever had a perfect record) like Hootie and the Blowfish came along, it took the band reportedly selling over 60,000 units on their own for them to even get a record deal. Virtually every record label passed on Alanis Morissette before a young Guy Oseary signed her to Madonna’s new Maverick label. 17,000,000 copies later, Oseary and Madonna proved their point.

The music business’ problem in terms of business is that they are selling the wrong product. The compact disc was such a phenomenal success that the industry’s leadership believed that it would last forever. DVD ended the CD’s run a few years ago when a generation (really GenX and GenY) realized that for around $20, they could get a two-hour blockbuster Hollywood film, complete with supplemental materials and surround sound, as opposed to getting an album with one (maybe two) hit singles on it for $16.99, with no video content. Factor in the RIAA’s awful leadership in attacking downloadable music as opposed to embracing it and you see the real decline of the Roman Empire. It took Steven Jobs and Apple Computer to teach the music business how to sell music in a way that is actually convenient to users. With Dual Disc (half-DVD, half-CD) coming to a store near you this month, there is hope of getting video and surround sound content to the masses with backwards compatibility to the CD, but that only addresses the music industry’s problem with product.

The industry’s real problem is that they have gotten out of the business of developing and signing truly innovative new talent and great-sounding acts. By 1982, MTV made it more important that rock stars look like movie stars, as opposed to actually being able to sing and/or play their instruments. Gone in the last 10 years are great guitar solos, yet on damn near every classic rock song being played out for eternity, there are solos for the ages. Gone for the past 10 years are top musical performances like the drumming of Stewart Copeland and John Bonham. Gone is the concept of the front man, yet the music of David Lee Roth or Freddie Mercury is played thousands of times per day on FM and satellite radio around the world. What we do hear in the last 10 years is the birth of singers who can’t find a note without computer assistance (think Cher, Ozzy or Dexter from The Offspring). What we have are undertalented A&R executives who only have their jobs as a favor from their powerful mommies and daddies, signing “Me-Too” acts. First comes Britney Spears, then Mandy Moore, then Jessica Simpson. First come The Backstreet Boys, then 98 Degrees, then O-Town. Yes these me-too acts tend to sell well, but creatively they simply stink and certainly do not hold the test of time critically.

The solutions to the ills of the music industry are two-fold. First, the physical disc must have video and high-resolution surround sound content for use in home theaters and in cars. Dual Disc accomplishes this and will integrate with CD players and car audio systems and can be sold in CD bins. All four majors seem to have given this format the okay, but at this point, it has yet to launch. Downloadable music is an interesting way to make new revenue, but it is nothing in terms of profitability when compared to selling a $16.95 album that cost about $0.80 to make. The second fix for the music industry is going to be much harder to accomplish than adopting a new disc to sell. The music industry needs to return to signing and developing artists and acts that are truly talented – composers and lyricists who can write songs, vocalists who can really sing, guitarists who can rip a hot solo, drummers who lay down innovative beats and so on. If you listen to the RIAA as they file thousands of lawsuits against their own customers, you’d think Napster killed off the record business but that is only one factor - and not nearly as large a factor as the death of the compact disc and a decade’s worth of neglect in development of truly new artists and sounds.

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