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LMU Interprets New Rhythms of the Music Business

Illustration by Brian Stauffer

Technological change is reshaping how music is heard — CD players and iPods are no longer necessary, never mind cassette players or turntables — and how it is made, engineered and distributed. As a leading university located in the entertainment capital of the world, LMU has a vested interest in understanding this change. LMU also has no shortage of outspoken participants in this new rhythm of the music business. Here, alumni and professors describe the change they see and adapt to every day.

“Basically what happened is that music got democratized, both in terms of its production and its distribution,” says Mladen Milicevic, an experimental-music composer who chairs the Recording Arts Program in the School of Film and Television. No longer does a musician need a supporting cast — engineer, producer, publicist, label rep and so on. Even musical training has become optional. “Before, you needed skills to play music — you needed to know an instrument. Now, you can build electronic loops or something.” In some ways, he says, this is progress. “And everybody’s doing it — you have millions of people making music and putting it out there.” It’s not only easier to make and disseminate music, it’s far easier for consumers — anyone with an Internet hookup — to find it.

Jason Bentley ’92, music director at KCRW and a onetime general manager at KXLU, has been working as a deejay since the late ’80s. “I am old enough to remember trucking around crates of records to clubs all over the world,” he says. Bentley still deejays at clubs and festivals, but these days he uses a tiny flash drive. “So I can have a world of music in my pocket.”

For some people, then, things have certainly gotten easier. But whatever the bright spots, the recent damage is hard to shrug off. Despite new “revenue streams” like digital downloads and services like Spotify, and high ticket prices for blockbuster never-say-die bands like the Rolling Stones and U2, the music industry’s revenues are way down. Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy” was hard to escape for about a year. But the 43 million Pandora plays it got internationally earned Williams about $25,000. The vast majority of rock, pop and R&B musicians are netting far less. Specialized musical forms, such as jazz, acoustic blues and classical music, have fared even worse.

Another tangible decline is in record stores. In recent years, Greater Los Angeles alone has lost Rhino Records, the Licorice Pizza chain, Aron’s, Virgin Records, Tower Sunset and Tower Classical, and others. Gail Mitchell ’75, senior editor at Billboard magazine, recalls a now-defunct chain that served black L.A. “I hate the record stores going away,” she says. “When I heard about new acts, it was because I had a favorite record store [VIP in the Crenshaw District] and a guy there who knew what I liked.”

Dusk Bennett ’98, a sound engineer, producer and School of Film and Television lecturer, enjoys a lot of things about digital technology. But soon after establishing his own recording studio after graduating from LMU, he saw a “perfect storm of technology” redraw not only his field but the very way musicians approached their craft. “More and more I found that musicians were relying on the engineers to get their performances,” he says. “I especially saw it on vocals: ‘Auto-tune will fix it for us.’ Musicians stopped taking pride in their performances. So you find yourself becoming a musical janitor, cleaning up their [messes]. Or they say, ‘I can record it all at home.’ In both situations, the product suffers.”

Some bands and solo musicians have been genuinely liberated by the decline of record labels and the larger infrastructure. It certainly means a musician has fewer people to pay. But Mitchell says many of the soul and R&B musicians she most admires — Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Prince — would have a much tougher ride today. Some of them had to stand up to their labels in order to pursue their artistry, but all benefited from A&R people who recruited them and supported their careers at vulnerable early stages. “If they started doing in today’s world what they did in the ’60s and ’70s,” she says, “I don’t know if they’d be able to break through. … Today, labels have no patience for evolution.”

It may be, though, that the trouble in the music world is part of a larger cultural or even psychological crisis. Eric Erlandson ’86, guitarist and co-founder of the band Hole, sees a larger loss of bearings that goes back to a culture of narcissism in the 1970s and celebrity-and-money worship in the ’80s. Technology has pushed us beyond all that, and it’s become harder not only to make a living but to find the peace of mind to create in music. It’s not just technology, but the whole velocity of contemporary life. Erlandson calls today’s sensory overload the age of “overwhelm.”

The majority of music consumers are young people, and they have more distractions — social networks, video games, endless television channels. “My students today have access to more music than they could ever listen to,” Milicevic says. “So they listen to only 30 seconds of a song, and it needs to be instantly catchy or they move on to something else. There’s software that jumps to the chorus of the song.”

And who decides which songs move into the hit parade? Increasingly, this will not involve human beings. One of Milicevic’s former students is working with Rihanna, who has received rough recordings of about 80 songs and will record about a dozen of them for her next album. Guess who gets to choose those songs? “Who” is not really the right term. Software now reads the patterns in songs and compares their melodies, rhythms and timbres to previous hit songs. “Somebody has to go through those 80 songs,” Milicevic says, “and I guarantee you it is not going to be a person.”

Given predictions that sound dystopian, some see ways to ride these new waves. Bentley points to the way new music — some of it genuinely adventurous — shows up in movies and television shows, through licensing, much more than it did a decade or two ago.

For his part, Bennett realized he’d had enough. “I decided I didn’t want to be part of the problem. So I stopped working with bands that didn’t care.” He also hardened his own sense of professional integrity. “At the end of the day, the engineers have an obligation to create great work beyond what society demands.” He currently helps run LMU’s music studios, which allows him to both make a living and educate students on the importance of listening deeply. The interest in predigital analog equipment and the revival of vinyl records feels like a brewing counterculture movement, he says.

Mitchell misses television shows like “American Bandstand” and “Soul Train” that offered a racially complex mix of artists. But she doesn’t despair completely. “The bright spot is that you’ve got so many folks out there wanting to make music,” she says. “I like the diversity of that. Music is still important.”