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The Decade In Music: How Musicians Create

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The Decade In Music: How Musicians Create

The Decade In Music: How Musicians Create

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

As we look back on the decade in music, we can't ignore revolutionary changes in technology. Yesterday, we reported on how the MP3 and the Internet have made collecting music, sharing it and listening to it easier for fans. Today, we're going to the other side of the creative fence, to musicians and people in the business. Jacob Ganz talked with some of them to find out how the digital decade has changed the making and distributing of music.

JACOB GANZ: Maybe the best way to sum up the reality of the music industry in 2009 is to listen to Steve Albini in an interview with musician Ian Svenonius for the Web site VBS.tv. Keep in mind: Albini recorded classic albums by the Pixies and Nirvana and has always loudly favored analog recording. He says the current digital trends don't bother him.

Mr. STEVE ALBINI (Musician): I see these changes as changes that are happening outside of me that I have no control over. So I basically treat them like the weather. Like, oh, it's going to be kind of bloggy and MP3-ey for a while.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GANZ: The music industry spent most of the last decade caught outside without a raincoat. Record labels, especially the big ones, didn't embrace digital music at first. In fact, they spent a lot of time and energy suing the source of their income: consumers.

(Soundbite of music)

GANZ: Today, many musicians have abandoned the stick for the carrot. It's common to give away an MP3 from a new album for free or stream that new album in its entirety before it comes out in stores or on iTunes.

(Soundbite of song "An Eluardian Instance")

OF MONTREAL (Band): (Singing) Does she know, does she know that I am not just searching for some first-time high?

GANZ: The band Of Montreal still wants you to buy its records, but last year, when it was time to release a new album, that band's leader, Kevin Barnes, started thinking about the ways in which the industry's preferred formats hadn't caught up to listeners' preferences.

Mr. KEVIN BARNES (Musician, Of Montreal): The download thing is probably the wave of the future. And CDs, they'll just become, you know, like the 8-track or whatever.

GANZ: Not convinced that MP3s form lasting connections, Barnes enlisted his brother David, an artist, to help him reimagine the physical presentation of that new album called "Skeletal Lamping." So, if you bought it as an MP3 download, you could look forward to getting, via snail mail, stuff in place of a plastic disc: a "Skeletal Lamping" paper lantern, or a "Skeletal Lamping" T-shirt, or a "Skeletal Lamping" tote bag, or "Skeletal Lamping" horse-themed wall decals.

Mr. DAVID BARNES (Artist): That's how it works. It's, like, why would I buy that record? It just has the CD. I want that one. Like, Kevin's funniest version of it would be, like, you get the album and it comes with, like, this amazing sandwich that comes with the download.

Mr. K. BARNES: Yeah. It could be anything.

GANZ: Gimmicks be damned, Kevin Barnes says he still believes in the concept of the album.

Mr. K. BARNES: The records that we really love are the records that, you know every single song, every single lyric, every single section of every song is sacred and important. And so, you know, when we're making records, we're trying to create something like that. We don't think of it as just, okay, you know, we're just going to make a couple songs that people put in their iPod shuffle and, you know, they're done with it.

(Soundbite of song "Wicked Wisdom")

OF MONTREAL: (Singing) Ooh, just to look at her is god.

GANZ: Other musicians have less of a problem with listeners removing individual songs from their context. David Rawlings is best known for his collaborations with Gillian Welch. He says that he's happy to be part of people's lives, no matter how.

Mr. DAVID RAWLINGS (Musician): If anything, all of this availability and convenience has made it so that people have incorporated music even more into their lives. Whether or not you're walking on your commute or whatever, music has the ability to transport you at that moment. So I think it's just people manipulating their environment in a way that they find pleasurable.

GANZ: The mechanics of how listeners find that music has become crucial to musicians and the traditional recording industry. Julie Greenwald is the chairman and COO of the Atlantic Records Group.

Ms. JULIE GREENWALD (Chairman and COO, Atlantic Records Group): It used to be you had, like, three things you had to concentrate on: physical retail, radio and the video channel. And if could get those three dots lined up, wow, you were selling records. Now, you have, like, 20 other dots to connect. We have people just dedicated to MySpace, to Facebook, to imeem to make sure that our content is going up there. Now we have 29 dots, and they're all just as important and all have to be worked.

GANZ: None of which, unfortunately for artists and labels, has actually helped to sell more music this decade. And fans are increasingly demanding a personal connection with their favorites. You can read about John Mayer's issues with tuna fish on his Twitter feed, but most of those 20 new dots involve an experience mediated through a filter that probably doesn't have anything to do with melody or lyrics.

Most musicians still want that personal connection with listeners forged through their music. And that means they have a power that nobody - not record labels, not file-sharing music fans - can take away. In 2001, in the aftermath of the Napster file-sharing lawsuits, Gillian Welch released an album that included a song called "Everything Is Free."

(Soundbite of song "Everything is Free")

Ms. GILLIAN WELCH (Singer): (Singing) Everything is free now. That's what they say. Everything I ever done, gonna give it away.

GANZ: It starts out like a lament, but Welch says that was only part of her intention.

Ms. WELCH: Ultimately, it's really more of a threat, the ultimate threat that the artist has at any point to stop sharing their art with the world. I can keep doing what I do, and I can entertain myself. If it ceases to be feasible to make a living at it, I could just stop going public with it.

GANZ: Maybe this was the decade that made everyone question their place in the chain. Listeners became writers, or librarians, or mini-labels. Labels went from litigants to friends on Facebook. Musicians became bloggers or wall-decal manufacturers. Thankfully, they're also still making music.

For NPR News, I'm Jacob Ganz.

(Soundbite of song "Everything is Free")

Ms. WELCH: (Singing) Every day I wake up humming a song.

BLOCK: And you can explore our full coverage of the past decade in music at nprmusic.org.

(Soundbite of song "Everything is Free")

Ms. WELCH: (Singing) But I don't need to run around. I'll just stay home.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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