When Bob Dylan moved to New York to make it as a singer-songwriter, he was acknowledging something that he helped define â€“ the city was where pioneering musicians had to be. But if Dylan were starting out today, would he stay in Minnesota?
For decades, the city nurtured the alternative music scene and the artists who bloomed â€“ and crashed â€“ here, in famed locales like CBGBs, the punk club on the Lower East Side, and the corridors of the Chelsea Hotel. The names of past heroes rattle off the pierced tongues of the cognoscenti: It was here that Iggy Pop held court, here that John Cale, after studying with Aaron Copeland, settled down on Ludlow Street and formed the Velvet Underground with Lou Reed. Patti Smith dropped out of teacher’s college in New Jersey and got her start reading poetry here at St. Mark’s
Church. And it is here, of course, where Dylan sets his new bestselling book
Chronicles Vol. 1.
Neither the music scene nor the music industry has completely disappeared
from the city. The major music publications Rolling Stone, Spin, Punk Magazine
and newcomer Blender Magazine are all based here. The major bands still routinely
perform in the many music venues here. For the past 24 years, the College Music
Journal Network has sponsored its annual Music
Marathon in the city, unleashing
10,000 artists, professionals, fans, and even some public officials onto daytime
panels and nighttime concerts at over 50 clubs and local concert halls.
But, even panelists at the latest Music Marathon itself made it clear they do not think New York is what it used to be, thanks in part to changes in the music industry as a whole.
Recent trends in consolidation of music-related industries have made it more difficult for emerging artists to break through.
With this year’s partnership between Sony and BMG, just four companies (Sony-BMG,
Vivendi Universal SA, Warner Music Group and EMI Group PLC) control 80 percent
of the recording industry, and 95 percent of the
top 100 sales. The increasing
corporate control means increasing profit pressure, with the result that record
labels, which are cutting staff and jettisoning even somewhat-established artists,
are less inclined to take on the expense and the risk of untested new acts.
At the same time, massive radio deregulation began with the 1996 Telecommunications
Act and was furthered by the Federal Communications Commissioner (FCC) under
Chairman Michael Powell. Radio was the first victim of the deregulation wave,
which has since affected
other media as well.
Now, companies can own more stations in each market and as many as they want nationwide. Today, just three companies (Clear Channel, Infinity Broadcasting and Cumulus Radio) dominate the market. While the industry leaders before the Telecommunications Act owned 65 stations, Clear Channel alone owns 1,245 stations. In New York City, just four companies control 79 percent of all revenue from the radio.
Radio station formats are carefully controlled by their corporate owners.
Research by the Future of Music Coalition has found that though more “formats” are
on the radio, such as “Adult Contemporary” and “Hot Adult Contemporary,” the
supposedly distinct formats are playing up to 76
percent of the same songs.
While the courts are beginning to assert the primacy of the public interest
right for corporations to consolidate, and there are a few holdouts
such as college radio stations and WFMU, the truth is that these
barriers to access are harming New York City’s local music industry. Artists
coming to New York to break into the business are finding record labels less
interested and the radio less open.
Shut out from these traditional routes, up-and-coming artists are turning to a new medium to be heard. The Internet is doing for the underground music scene what blogging has done for political advocacy â€“ provided a more level playing field. The Internet gives both pop stars and struggling bands access to listeners.
Independent rock music has a world-wide venue thanks to the World Wide Web.
Musicians no longer need to rely exclusively on the press and personal contact
to announce their tours and album releases. Music nerds in 65 cities around
the world, for example, can get to know other fans of Omaha’s
punk-folk Bright Eyes at local
site, and even on Friendster where
lead singer Connor Oberst
has a “profile.” Today, online music sites â€“ with names like Pitchfork,
Fluxblog and Epitonic.com -- have flourished. Yes, the major magazines continue
to reside in New York City, but music Web sites exist in every town. Pitchfork
has, as The New York
Observer recently observed, “captivated New Yorkers more than any other” music news
site, even though it is based in Chicago.
You need not be based in New York, in other words, to define even New Yorkers’ tastes in music.
And the music scenes in other cities, such as Omaha, are flourishing. Small
cities have contributed to rock and roll before, but now the Internet has helped
Omaha rock artists like Bright Eyes and Cursive reach a national audience without
leaving the Midwest. In the song “The Execution of All Things,” Los
Angeles band Rilo Kiley sings “we’ll go to Omaha to work and exploit the booming
music scene,” and they did, releasing their 2002 album on Saddle Creek Records
and touring extensively with other bands from the same Omaha-based label.
Is It Really Dead?
Given these new complexities of the music business, it might be easier to
cope from Omaha than to move to New York City and get
A satirical feature in New York Magazine “Will
the Last Hipster Please Turn out the Lights: New York Cool Dies a Thousand
Deaths,” perpetuates the notion
that New York City’s trendsetters are increasingly
frustrated with the declining creative scene and increasing cost of living,
and as Gavin McInnes of Vice (a NYC magazine
and record label) puts it, true city hipsters are being replaced by “lawyers
who just learned to snowboard.”
In what may be the clearest sign that something has died, New York University
is currently converting what used to be the Bottom Line â€“ which
for thirty years was a hot club for live music -- into new
But it may not be time for the funeral dirge just yet.
For one thing, there is an emerging scene in Brooklyn . In a Daily News article “BROOKLYN
ROCKS! Cutting-edge rockers discover a hot music scene just over the bridge,” music
critic Isaac Guzman chronicles the dozens of new music clubs in Brooklyn, from
Park Slope to Red Hook, several of which -- Northsix,
Southpaw â€“ compete with
the major clubs in Manhattan. "I
got sick of going out in New York City and I got sick of corporate venues and
huge, stupid clubs,” said Jeff Golden, one of the owners of The Hook. “In Brooklyn,
people go to a club to see music on purpose, and people have to go out of their
way to come here. But when you go to the club, there’s a sense of community
inside. We’ve had bands who just walked their amps over from the neighborhood.” Just
over the border, Long Islanders are building their own rock and roll community,
as profiled in a recent New
York Magazine article “L.I.R.R. (Long Island Rock â€n’ Roll).”
And even Manhattan has not turned completely repellent. The truth is, it was never easy in New York. Dylan himself was under few illusions about the city. In “Hard Times in New York Town” he sings “They'll kick you when you're up and knock you when you're down/It's hard times in the city,/Livin' down in New York town.” Yet it’s New York that he chronicles in Chronicles.
Have things really changed that much? However appealing the Omaha music scene, one of its stars, Connor Oberst, has apparently relocated to New York City; when he performs at Town Hall next month, it'll be as a new New Yorker. In "Train Underwater," a song in his forthcoming album, he explains he wanted to “keep up with the moon on an all night avenue.”
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