Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Our Awful New Record Business

Lothar and the Hand People: The Fate of Off-Beat Bands

The record business completely changed somewhere along the line. In the 1980s, was it? It started in there somewhere. There was a giant shake-out of record companies, and the total number was sharply reduced by mergers and acquisitions. The companies controlled the radio business by then, through corporate mergers, and what can people buy but what they hear. The new breed of executives created a world where there were no longer millions of fans of hundreds or thousands of acts buying millions of records. The new model was tens of millions of Michael Jackson fans all buying his newest record, or CD at that point. It was so much more efficient! Along the way, those guys ruined the record business and degraded music itself, not just the music business. It’s still pretty awful.

It’s hard to imagine by now, but there was a time when there were many, many record companies, and they all kept big catalogs, featuring a great number of acts that offered a great variety of musical styles. Of course, the big companies already loved the big acts, like the Beatles, that were loved by huge fan bases and sold millions of records, but they kept a lot of bands in the catalog, producing records, for a lot of reasons that now sound sentimental or foolish. Maybe they were waiting for the band to finally produce a hit; maybe they had great faith in the band and felt like their high quality would eventually be realized. They kept these bands alive with small salaries and support services, buying equipment, organizing tours, and providing studio time, producers and engineers. It all seems quaint now, doesn’t it? A band like Jesse Colin Young and the Youngbloods had only one hit, but they could make a small living touring college towns and fans could still buy, or at least order up, their back-catalog of several mediocre LPs.

Our modern record business is not like that. Small time, dubiously commercial bands now are on their own. They must produce and manufacture their own product (CDs, t-shirts, etc), which fortunately is much easier to do now. They must buy their own equipment, buy and drive their own van, for crying out loud, find their own gigs, and sell their own products at their shows. That would be the modern fate of a band like Lothar and the Hand People.

I saw this band one time, warming up the crowd for whom, I do not remember, at the Café au Go Go, on Bleeker Street in lower Manhattan. 1968, it would have been, they had one LP out, but they were not on the radio yet. They were very good, I thought, not the usual fare, but not so odd as to be inaccessible. Their set consisted of more or less conventional songs, in recognizable keys, performed with very novel instrumentation and presented in a lighthearted manner. My friends and I enjoyed their set, and I bought the LP the following week.

They were too far outside the mainstream to make it in 1968, ’69, and they passed unnoticed from the scene. Listen to this song, though, and you’ll here hints of things to come. Silver Apples at almost the same time, Kraftwerk in the early 1970s, Devo in the mid-1970s. Those are bands who themselves influenced a lot of acts that followed. Listening to “Machines” today, it still sounds fresh and it reminds me of a lot that has happened since.

A band like this could make it through two or three years of almost zero sales and very little radio play because it was possible to find a record company that would support them in their quest to find an audience. Today, that would be impossible. Today, they would be what I call “KXLU” music, because that Los Angeles area college radio station plays a lot of music that is self-produced and obscure. People say that there is no good music today, not like the old days. It’s not that simple. It’s just harder today to find the great, new music. And people are such sheep that they continue to support the few crappy acts that the few giant companies push down our throats.

Thus endeth the lesson.

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