David Prognosticates The Shape Of Music To Come
Would it help if I started with an apology?
You see, of my five predictions of what would happen in the music world this year, only one came certifiably true. The Shins’ third album, “Wincing The Night Away,” was a disappointment — even though the record is currently making it onto a handful of year-end “best of” lists and the Lloyd Dobler diehards might cry foul. But any objective listen — as well as the lukewarm sales figures — bare out that this record tumbles from the sublime heights the quartet achieved with its first two discs.
What were equally underperforming, however, were my remaining four predictions, which just didn’t seem to catch on like the Tarot cards said they would. While I think livestreaming of concerts, larger capacity iPods and the declining influence of YouTube are still in our future, perhaps these are more evolutionary changes than definable events.
Most humiliating of all, I can’t believe I predicted Guns N’ Roses’ frequently-delayed new album, “Chinese Democracy,” would finally hit store shelves in 2007. Well, at least I have comfort in the knowledge that many major label executives made that same mistake before I did. As we dive into 2008, Axl and his collage of semi-famous musical minions seem no closer to concluding this bad joke than they were in 1995 or 1999. The good news: The imminent release of “Chinese Democracy” can be one of my safeties when I make my predictions for 2009, or maybe even 2010
While my trusty crystal ball seemingly let me down last year, I have placed myself in an even deeper trance recently — achieved by watching the presidential debates — and I have emerged from the spirit world with a new list of predictions for the year ahead.
And like last year, I again ask you, my faithful readers, to send me ridiculing e-mails about how wrong I was this time next December.
So, here are my predictions for 2008:
Led Zeppelin Won’t Reunite For Tour
It’s only been a couple of days since rock’s most prayed-for reunion finally happened on a London arena stage, and U.S. tour dates are already being blogged, e-mailed and IM’d as fait accompli.
This is what we know right now: We know that guitarist Jimmy Pages wants to extend a Led Zeppelin reunion. He’s done little more than polish their legacy or attempt to recreate the group’s hard-rock dynamic since they broke up in 1980. We know that Bonzo’s sire, Jason Bonham, wants it. He’s been vocal in interviews prior to the London gig that he’d like see the band continue with him on his late father’s drum throne. Bassist John Paul Jones wants it if for no other reason but than to ensure that no semi-reunions happen without him like they did in the mid-’90s.
So, what’s holding up this highly lucrative misty mountain hop? It’s what Eddie Van Halen called LSD, or lead singer’s disease. In this case, just as Zeppelin singer Robert Plant served as an archetype for so many prima donna frontmen, he’s again acting like the consummate diva by leaving his bandmates in the dark about whether he will rejoin them. He remains the wild card. And why is he holding out? He has a new solo album out. Typical!
For those in a frenzy to get the Led out, they’ll at least have to wait six months as Plant must finish promoting and then touring with country singer Alison Krauss in support of their fantastic duet album. The pair have penciled in tour dates for the early part of the year — although no shows have been definitely announced — but such a prospect will likely push any Zeppelin plans into 2009, or Plant risks overexposure. He’s also no longer the road dog that most musicians are in their younger days, making two tours this year unlikely.
Furthermore, wary of his own nostalgia, Plant has always sought legitimacy beyond Zeppelin and an album as great as “Raising Sand” nearly guarantees him that. The urge to see this project through is likely too tempting for Plant to resist. Zeppelin has waited more than 20 years and he likely believes it can wait a little longer.
Besides Plant, however, the remaining members of Led Zeppelin have teased us all before with the specter of getting back together. While the group called it quits after John Bonham’s death, they still seem anxious to play together, only to crumble before the project got off the ground. Perhaps the closest to a full-fledged reunion occurred in the mid-’80s after the group’s debacle at Live Aid. Despite dreadful reviews of their brief set, Plant, Page and Jones were reported to have reconvened for rehearsals with Chic drummer extraordinaire Tony Thompson. The effort was again abandoned for unknown reasons
While the show on Monday, which benefited a fund honoring Atlantic Records founder and Zeppelin mentor Ahmet Ertegun, received overwhelming enthusiastic reviews and all reports point to positive vibes amongst the erstwhile bandmates, too many facts cast doubt on a multi-city tour.
British newspaper The Sun is already reporting dubious rumors of shows being plotted at New York’s Madison Square Garden and it’s hypothetical that the group could play together for a couple shows in New York and Los Angeles, similar to what Eric Clapton and Cream did a couple of years ago.
A tour, however, just doesn’t look possible.
Rock Stars Defect To Non-Record Label Distribution Deals
The New Year will likely translate into still more woe for the major record labels. After years of endemic music piracy continually nibbling away at their profits, the label honchos now have an entirely new problem to defend their livelihoods against: rock star defections.
Radiohead made headlines and caused a considerable stir in the music industry a couple of months ago when the British art-rockers announced they were forgoing signing a new record contract and were instead releasing their new album via download. That revelation was quickly followed by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor proclaiming that he would also seek other avenues to distribute music without major label muscle. Even pioneering ’90s shoe-gazing band My Bloody Valentine, while hyping its recent reunion in online communiqués, already vowed to follow in Radiohead’s footsteps and release new music on the Web.
Madonna, however, topped them all in the money department when she ditched her label and signed a $120 million deal with concert promotion company Live Nation to to distribute three studio albums, promote her concert tours, sell merchandise and license her name. The deal was the cornerstone of a new initiative for Live Nation, which is seeking to expand its core business from concert-oriented to supplying to artists many of the services that record labels traditionally have and more. The Madonna deal encompasses all future music and music-related enterprises, including fan clubs, Web sites, DVDs and even sponsorship deals.
But whether it’s signing with another type of multi-national corporation or just posting your act’s music files on iTunes, established artists are no longer forced to deal with the majors to be heard. Bad blood has existed between artists and labels since the first contract was signed, but the coming of the Internet and the plummeting costs of manufacturing CDs means artists no longer need a middle man between them and the audience. They can directly control the means of production and personally take their fate in their own hands. Most importantly, they no longer must surrender the profit.
In 2008, look for big acts like perhaps classic-rock vets Aerosmith, who are currently recording their final disc for Columbia Records (owned by Sony Music), to potentially make such a move. While the group’s audience is older than the iPod generation, the band is in many ways the prime candidate to strike out from the majors.
First, the band has a large and dedicated fanbase, which could support untraditional or less accessible distribution methods (Of course, what constitutes accessibility in today’s music world is often determined by what year you graduated from high school.) Secondly, the group has the financial resources to hire lawyers, computer professionals and others smart enough to figure out such a scenario. Lastly, the band members know that because of their popularity and the kind of deals they have with their labels, they command a lot of label resources. In an era rife with negative profit margins and layoffs, those resources are no longer as plentiful as they once were. It would just make sense for the band to control their own future and reap the majority of the profits.
Don’t look for record labels to disappear anytime soon, however. For newer and younger acts that aren’t yet established, record labels will remain important gatekeepers. Their strengths no longer lie in the manufacture of musical products, but in the promotion of them. Their existing relationships with the media and brick-and-mortar record stores as well as their relative deep pockets still make them a powerful ally for those breaking into the industry. They’ll essentially morph into something like managers or agents.
On the label side, focusing on smaller acts translated into cheaper operational overheads as they are groomed into big moneymakers. The arrangement also means that labels might try to force new acts to sign multi-year deals or somehow tie them up so that they can share in the wealth for as long as possible.
The Beatles To Join iTunes
For the Beatles, “come together” is a sentiment most easily realized when you have a pack of hanger-on hippies plastered on psychedelics guiding your music career. It’s much tougher to execute when you have cutthroat suits watching the money and a half-dozen people’s rock star lifestyles are hanging in the balance.
Such is the reason that rock’s most famous group has steadfastly held its albums off the world’s popular, legal music download site, iTunes. Since the service’s introduction a few years ago, iTunes execs and the Beatles representatives have engaged in a lengthy courtship, but appeared no closer to a conclusion.
Several other major acts have none or only parts of their catalogs available on iTunes — Pink Floyd and Radiohead, among others — but the few holdouts have slowly begun to see the writing on the wall and were able to win concessions from iTunes to secure their appearance, including the Grateful Dead, the Rolling Stones, and most recently Led Zeppelin.
The reason the Beatles have stayed off iTunes this long can be traced to two principal reasons. First, iTunes’ parent company, Apple Inc., was until recently involved in a copyright lawsuit with the Beatles’ label, Apple Corp. Both corporations were involved in litigation years ago, but it was resolved after Apple Inc. reportedly promised not to become involved in the music industry. The introduction of the iPod and iTunes sparked yet another round of legal wrangling, which was only recently resolved last February. This cleared an important obstacle.
Perhaps more importantly, the Beatles and their handlers are notoriously prickly when it comes to embracing new technology. The group was a relative late-comer to CD technology in the late ’80s and its albums are still available only in that early generation of CD technology. Rumors of a remastered catalog are as ubiquitous as a deal that would bring them to iTunes,. However, the group has been unusually conservative, weighing the ramifications of every move and what it might mean years from now. Considering the amount of piracy prevalent in the larger industry, the slow and steady approach might appear well-founded if not quite the progressive spirit on which Apple Corp. was founded on..
Some light is beginning to show though. Steve Jobs, head of Apple Inc., has consciously or subconsciously referenced the Beatles or used their music in some of his recent technology presentations. In more concrete terms, Olivia Harrison, the widow of Beatle George Harrison, told Reuters earlier this year that the band’s catalog could be coming to iTunes in early 2008.
“We just have a few things to work out elsewhere,” she was quoted as saying.
The Beatles solo offerings are all available on iTunes already. At this point, however, the Beatles are only depriving themselves a possible revenue stream by staying out of iTunes and their business attack dogs know this. So before mid-year, an announcement will likely be made that iTunes and the remastered CDs will have a release date. Maybe we’ll even get another “Free As The Bird” collaboration between the Fab Four to kick the whole thing off.
Kanye West To Be The Subject Of Grammy Lovefest
Nobody loves tragedy more than Grammy voters.
While the recording industry is notorious for wrongly assigning merit to paper over past omissions and is equally eager to wrap their arms around a comeback, an artist in the midst of personal crisis is the ideal scenario for voters itching to right some perceived wrongs.
This year, no one has a better sob story worthy of earning a sympathy vote than Kanye West, who at the very apex of his career, recently lost his mother after she underwent plastic surgery.
Nevermind that West has previously thrown temper tantrums when he was overlooked at other award shows, nor that he has often actively campaigned for accolades. As was the case with Eric Clapton a few years ago, losing a loved one in voters’ eyes trumps reason or prejudice in the Grammys competition (Especially considering Clapton’s “Unplugged” album was mostly made up of rearrangements of his old tunes).
As a perfect setup for West’s triumphant march through the ceremony, he is also the most nominated artist in this year’s awards crowd. He has eight nominations, including “Album of the Year” and “Rap Album” and was already a strong contender in both.
You can just imagine now the image of the sensitive West, perhaps teary-eyed and arms full of statues, plastered over every frontpage in the nation.
Poor 50 Cent will have to sit at the front of the ceremony and smile through the whole charade.
Dr. Dre Won’t Release Proposed ‘Detox’ Album
Rap impresario Dr. Dre might be the P.T. Barnum of hip-hop, or the more charitable among us could label him as a flaky artist at heart. But, whatever your level of generosity, Dre has a history of failing to follow through on what he says.
Since his last solo disc dropped in 2001, Dre has promised to release one final disc, called “Detox,” which he said would be his sayonara release under his own name. Seven years later and after plenty of statements touting its release is imminent, no album appears on the horizon.
This is a trend with Dre. Chalk it up to his loose lips with journalists, but his career is littered with proposed albums and collaborations that are broadcast far and wide, but for one reason or another, never materialize. Dre has vowed to record with ex-N.W.A. partner Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Timbaland, Rakim, 50 Cent and others, but those projects never ended up in anyone’s iPod.
To be fair, Dre has been busy leading his label, Aftermath Entertainment, and lending his formidable producing talents to protégés like Eminem, 50 Cent and The Game in addition to rap, R&B and pop’s heavy hitters (Mariah Carey, Gwen Stefani, etc.). He reportedly even said that he was giving up on the “Detox” record, but shortly thereafter disavowed that.
The album’s title suggests that Dre is again contemplating giving up on the gangsta image and sound that he formulated in N.W.A. and during “The Chronic” years. His first solo release sought to turn the page on the Death Row years, but was lambasted as gentile and haughty in comparison to the grittiness of his past releases. His last album, “2001,” was a popular retread of “The Chronic” and brought Dre back as hip-hop’s most important kingmaker. Since then, he’s guided a succession of his discoveries to the top of the genre.
Eminem, himself exiled to production duties because of the white-hot popularity of his first three disc, has vowed to turn the tables on Dre and force him to release “Detox.” Other projects as well as Dre’s age make it increasingly unlikely that he’d want to step away from the mixing board and behind the mic.
Hip-hop doesn’t have a retirement program — besides acting — and maybe Dre can be the first middle-age recording star. One thing we can surely count on Dre to deliver in 2008 is more empty promises.
Whitney Houston Will Stage A Comeback
Freed of the clutches of drugs and the erratic influences of jailbird ex-husband Bobby Brown, Whitney Houston will make a major comeback in 2008.
Since her fame reached its pinnacle in the early to mid-’90s — thanks to the top-selling “The Bodyguard” soundtrack — Houston has had a dramatic fall. Her ensuing recorded output has been increasingly spotty and her recent concert performances were very often alarming. She also made several infamous appearances in Brown’s short-lived reality show, “Being Bobby Brown.,” on which she often appeared harried and acted especially diva-like. Rumors and ridicule tarnished her past accomplishments and her exploits in the tabloids overshadowed her musical attributes.
But since a couple of reported stints in rehab and now without Brown, who was had his own share of substance abuse and legal headaches, Houston and her camp have been marshalling forces to launch a comeback next year with a new album.
Spearheading the effort is label mogul Clive Davis, who has remained a proponent of Houston’s vocal talents throughout her career. Davis, who now heads both RCA Records as well as his own J Records imprint, is Houston’s ace in the hole. Besides his four decades of industry experience and reputation as one of the great cultivators of talent in the contemporary music scene, Davis was the mastermind behind Carlos Santana’s surprising career renaissance in the late ’90s. He proved the wily businessman knew as much about rescuing artists as he does about discovering new ones.
Davis will likely seek to employ the same magic with Houston as she reorients her career from pop star in her prime to the music industry elder stateswoman. As with Santana, look for Davis to pair Houston with younger talent to underline her relevance. More than that though, look for him to steer her toward material that showcases her vocal power and differentiates her from the Britneys and Jennifer Lopezes, who most people would prefer to watch dance than open their mouths.
Houston won’t likely have the hits that she once achieved, but attaining the commercial draw and critical respect as this generation’s Aretha Franklin is something in her grasp.
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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.
©Copyright 2007 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.