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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2003/06/26
by Jesse Jarnow

On the Proliferation of Media Analyst Melba Toaste

Recently a small shitstorm erupted when rumors circulated on the cyberweb
about the imminent purchase by ClearChannel of Superfly Productions, the
crew behind Bonnaroo. The rumors seem to have originated with a (joking?)
onstage announcement at Bonnaroo by Superfly’s New Orleans buddies in Garage
A Trois, and abetted by a surprisingly well conceived prank email in the
form of an article "found" on the ‘net (with two obvious hints as to its
validity with quotes from "industry analyst Melba Toaste" and a link to The
rumors are, thankfully, not true, with Superfly denying them "vehemently."
They, did, however spread like wildfire, for (it would seem) two curiously
possible reasons. The first is that it seemed all too plausible. With new
consolidation deals and looming FCC
deregulation in the news almost daily, a world in which ClearChannel’s
acquisition of Superfly seems believable, even likely, is being spelled out
across the media in sizzling neon letters. The second is that people almost
want to believe that it could happen — not in any positive way (ie.
"I think the world would be better off"), but cynically, for sure, as a
confirmation of fears (ie. "We’re going to hell in a bucket, babe"). All of
which is an odd spot to be in for music listeners.
The relationship between musicians, listeners, and the culture industries
that both mandate, mediate, and regulate them has surfaced publicly at
various points over the past 20 years: Frank Zappa’s 1980s
battle with the Parental Music Resource Center, Pearl Jam’s 1990s crusade
against TicketMaster (1), and this decade’s Recording Industry
Association of America battle with Napster. Rarely, though, has it so
actively affected the way music goers actually experience music.
The PMRC, for example, succeeded in putting voluntary warning stickers on
CDs — which may have prevented a few kids from turning into yowling
Satanists or perverted masturbators (and thusly saving their parents from
being brutally murdered/raped), but really didn’t have a whole hell of an
impact in terms of what happened when you finally got the package home from
the record store (except, maybe, some enhanced sense of privilege). The
greater impact – mostly unquantifiable – came before the music was even
produced, by forcing some musicians to practice self-censorship in order to
get their albums sold through WalMart or other chains who refuse to carry
albums with PMRC warning labels. This is surely a heinous impact, but one
that rarely trickles down to the consciousness of the listener.
TicketMaster continues to add ridiculous service fees to concert tickets,
which means that one’s wallet is a bit lighter when he enters the venue, but
doesn’t matter a damn when the lights go down and the smoke machines are
fired up. The file trading boogeyman has had little definitely quantifiable
effect other than negative data (mostly missing revenue) and varying degrees
of access to songs.
One constant has remained through, which has remained sturdy through every
supposed revolution in the music world from the jukebox zip through the
present: live music. It is perhaps the most basic form of music listening: a
live musician communicating to a real audience, and there is slim to no
chance that ClearChannel will ever make it extinct. What is becoming
apparent, however, is that ClearChannel is the first institutionalized force
that can actively alter an individual’s experience of the performance he is
ClearChannel, either directly or through their SFX concert division,
maintains a long list of
venues that they "either own[]. operate[], and/or exclusively book[]." In
each of these cases, their control over their events is vast. ClearChannel’s
gradual movement into the live arena is significant because it is a foray
into what has forever been the most simple, direct method of music delivery:
The kind of censorship practiced by ClearChannel in banning the Dixie Chicks
from their radio stations is surely reprehensible, as is the self-censorship
that leads artists to change their material for sale at national chains, but
both are – in a way – abstractions. Neither has an impact on what one human
being says when he is standing on a stage before other human beings — such
as when promoters threatened to pull the plug on Ani DiFranco for potential
anti-war comments she might make.
What is more distressing is the way the company operates its live venues.
SFX frequently outsources their concert security to a number of firms. One
would assume, then, that there exists some sort of blanket corporate policy
about the type of security run at shows. Reports of security at SFX venues
has been increasingly grim, with horror stories of guards peeking over and
under bathroom stalls and shining high-beamed flashlights through the
crowds. Overzealous bouncers have surely been a part of the live music
experience for decades, but their institutionalization into the venues’
policies seems comparatively recent. Like light fixtures and stairwells,
security is increasingly becoming part of the venues themselves.
Fuck their broader legal significance (well, at least for a second): these
policies have an impact on the way people directly experience music. There
is a fundamental difference between regulating something abstract between a
mass media and an individual (radio waves, distribution of CDs) and
something tangible between individuals (what occurs between a performer and
an audience at a club on a Friday night). And with control over so many
aspects (who gets to play where, ticket prices, security), ClearChannel’s
business of putting on concerts is making the behavior of individuals
increasingly regimented.
Yes, these are strange days to be a music fan, as the Superfly buyout rumors
proved. There was clearly some energy behind their movement — a force that
eased a comment out of the mouth of Garage A Trois saxophonist Skerik, which
made its way through some grinning geek’s fingers, which compelled hundreds
of people to click the "forward" button. Whether they all realized it or
not, music has become politicized in a very active way. Right now, that is
manifesting itself in through things like the Superfly rumor, though it
could potentially take other, more positive, shapes — musicians and fans
actively attempting to boycott ClearChannel venues, for example, or simply
becoming more aware about the ways they produce or use music. Right now, the
channels are open.
(1) The supreme (and sad) irony of the Pearl Jam case is that, when they
finally did book a national tour, it was with the
soon-to-be-swallowed-by-ClearChannel SFX Entertainment.
Jesse Jarnow knows a little German.
He’s sitting right over there.

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