As a singer and songwriter, I have traveled a long and winding road to where I reside today. I have determinedly pursued my dreams, and kept faith in my vision; which I feel is what an artist is supposed to do. Some of you who read this will be familiar with my name and my work, and some of you will not; for even after thirty years of writing and recording, I am far from a household name. I was an artist on both Atlantic Records and Capitol Records in the 1970s. In 1976, I invited B. B. King to his first recording session in Nashville, where he played lead guitar on my third Capitol album, Blackjack Choir. We brought the Chicago blues to country music. I performed twice at the White House for president Jimmy Carter, and I have played in concerts, festivals, little clubs and roadhouses all over America and Europe. I have had my songs recorded by Johnny Cash, Gene Clark, Alan Jackson, Johnny Paycheck, Moby and other artists. For almost thirty years, I have been a participant in, and an observer of, an industry we call the music business. At one time or another I have touched every aspect of it: songwriting, record production, publishing, contracts, performing rights, publicity, radio promotion, booking, touring, marketing, sales and distribution. I don't hold myself out as any kind of authority or expert; I have simply, by the nature of my relationship with the industry, seen and observed a lot. I will soon be releasing my fourth album on my own label, Cimarron Records, which is the twelfth album of my career. Over the years I have shared my thoughts about this industry in letters and emails to friends and associates. Some of them have urged me to share my thoughts with the general public; so here for the record, and your consideration, are some of my observations and insights on life and the music business, in the time in which we live.
There is a struggle going on today against tremendous odds, by dedicated artists and small business people trying to preserve music that is diverse, that has feeling, that respects tradition, that is not formulaic -- music that is "from the heart." Is it not the function of art to move people -- to help them feel, to cry, to laugh, to think, to inspire-- and to recognize and touch their uniqueness, as well as their common humanity? I think that is the magic of great music and art. The face-off against this struggle is the growing dominance and control of corporate America, where profits trump art, and decisions are made on the basis of commerce, not artistry.
Corporations, using the supercharged play money of Wall Street, and not the hard-earned real money of Main Street, can amass huge sums of capital. This permits corporations to undertake all manner of enterprises that individuals could never afford or consider. In order to induce people to invest and buy stock, corporations have been granted limited liability under the law. Their CEOs, presidents, and executives are not personally accountable or responsible for their actions. Their only requirement is to make a profit for the corporation and bolster the stock price. Whether it is destroying the environment, robbing the public through some offshore accounting loophole, or eliminating diversity, taste and quality in music, their actions are shielded. Woody Guthrie called this robbing people with a fountain pen. But I'm sure these corporate executives don't see themselves as bad people. Most of them probably feel they are pillars of their communities and guardians of the American Way. Most music executives, in fact, since we are speaking of that industry, originally gravitated to a music career because of a sincere love for music. But unfortunately, they quickly learn -- if they want to keep their jobs and expense accounts -- not to rock the boat, not to take risks, and to keep a close watch on the quarterly sales numbers. It is corporate marketing and selling; it has nothing to do with music or art. Music is just the product. It could just as easily be soft drinks, beer, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, or any other consumer product. Some of these executives have confessed to me that they personally do not believe in, or even like a lot of the music they promote, some of the decisions and choices they have to make, and their methods of carrying them out. They are trapped in a corporate system, with families and home mortgages, as slaves to the company. Maybe they were once free men; but now they are just doing the job they were hired to do -- sell a product and make a profit.
Corporate capitalism also relies on creating predictable programmed consumers. Corporate America hates the individual; it hates your uniqueness -- no matter what the banking commercials may try to tell you about having it your way, or how much they "care" and want a "relationship" with you. Corporate America wants everything reduced to a cookie-cutter formula; from the clothes you wear, to the home in which you live, to the entertainment that you watch or listen to -- make it simple, make it uniform. Hold the public's attention; don't ask people to think too much, and don't give them too much information. There is risk associated with individualism, uniqueness, and knowledge; it is not always predictable. Corporate America yearns for stability, predictability and dominance; it hates risk and risk-takers. Yet, to create something unique, anything, you must take risks. You must take the solitary path, the one less traveled. It is this quality in great art that moves us, for the human soul yearns for freedom.
In the not too distant past, there was no music industry, no music business. The musicians and the storytellers performed music as part of their religious rituals, or as a release from their day-to-day exigencies -- after the plowing, or the roundup, or after the day's work was done. Lewis and Clark, in the 1804 Corps of Discovery, had a member of the expedition who played the fiddle, the Frenchman, Pierre Cruzatte. That wasn't his job; it was simply an added benefit he brought along on the journey. People worked at other occupations, and played their music at Saturday night get-togethers, around the campfire, in primitive churches on Sunday mornings, or on their front porch late at night. Some of the best, most honest, and heartfelt music in the world came to us in this fashion.
It was only after Ralph Peer recorded Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family in Bristol, Tennessee in 1927, using Thomas Edison's new phonographic technology, and another new technology, radio, became a medium for distributing it to the masses, that popular music became a business. That evolution, and people's need for music in their lives, has of course led to the bloated excesses that today, in the pursuit of commerce, are passed off as art. The music we are offered in our lives today, like everything else, has been taken over and standardized by corporate America. A few giant corporations, for instance, now own most of the strong radio signals in the nation. The music played offers little diversity and little choice. The play lists are limited, and the desperate major music labels, which are trapped in this relationship with radio, lack the courage to challenge them. They continue to play the game, mass marketing the lowest common denominator of taste.
by James Talley