Elvis Aaron Presley. Affectionately known as “the King” to music fans world wide. Presley first burst onto the scene in the summer of 1953 when he cut a record at the legendary Sun Studios in Memphis Tennessee. Prior to Elvis, there were two very different music industries in the United States. The “white” music industry consisting of mostly crooners and singers who had migrated from the jazz world into popular music and the “black” music industry consisting of blues and rhythm and blues acts mostly dotting the Mississippi river from New Orleans to Memphis to St. Louis up to Chicago. Presley’s initial appeal was the fact that he was able to harness the emotional power of the more expressive R&B and blues musicians and make it palatable to a white audience. When he first appeared, radio listeners did not know if he was white or black. His first album released on RCA records in 1956 attests to his melding of styles covering songs by country and western artists Carl Perkins, Don Robertson and Leon Payne on one hand and Ray Charles, Little Richard and Charlie Singleton from the R&B world on the other.
Because there was not a cultural reference for someone like Elvis, the music establishment really did not know what to do with him. He was invited to play The Grand Ole Oprey in Nashville in the fall of ’54 but really wasn’t a match for the country audience. Presley gained attention by appearing on Louisiana Hayride a few weeks after the Oprey performance and from that gig appeared every Saturday night on their radio broadcast for a year. The Hayride was broadcast to almost 200 stations in 28 states and suddenly, Elvis was a star. The story might have ended there if not for an ambitious promoter named Col. Tom Parker who took over Elvis’ career and exploited his young star in every way imaginable. Back in the mid 1950’s there wasn’t a blueprint for how to create a star so Col. Parker made it up as he went. Record deals, television appearances, movie contracts together with a relentless tour schedule and promotion of every imaginable product kept Elvis busy and exhausted for the next twenty years. No one had ever seen a performer with such wide appeal and his influence was so wide spread by 1957 that the FBI actually regarded him as a threat to the security of the US.
As this is not a biography of Elvis, I won’t delve into the man himself, just the music he represented. Rockabilly, Country and Western, Blues, Rhythm and Blues, Gospel: Elvis could do it all and remained wildly popular throughout. He defined the modern music industry and paved the way for countless others. In almost every way imaginable, Elvis epitomized rock and roll; money, fame, women, drugs, and the excess, generations to follow associate with the rock and roll life. Elvis was the pioneer and his influence has been felt since that fateful day in 1953 when he walked into Sun Studios in Memphis paid $3.98 and cut a record ostensibly as a gift for his mother. On this, the 39th anniversary of Elvis’ death, every music fan the world over should take a minute to remember the truck driver who created and defined an industry.
Reprinted with permission from the blog POWERevolution
*For the purpose of this writing, I’m defining “cool” as those who don’t conform, who don’t always fit in nor do they try to, and who follow their own path; and “uncool” as those who dress, act, and have the same tastes as the masses and are vulnerable to corporate influences.
One night a few weeks ago, a group of twenty-somethings came into the bar where I was working and headed for the jukebox. It’s digital, which means it’s not curated, which means I immediately felt the familiar knot of dread form in my stomach that’s always accompanied by seeing young people approach the jukebox. It usually means my ears are about to be violated by a string of cheesy Top 40 songs for the next hour or so. Sure enough, Taylor Swift’s voice invaded the room, and some members of the group started singing along. Proudly. Feeling no sense of shame for doing something that, fifteen or twenty years ago, would have gotten them laughed out of the bar. And this wasn’t the first time I’ve noticed this recently. While grocery shopping a few days ago, a shopper started singing aloud to Adam Levine’s latest tragedy that radio tells us is a song. Where’s the dignity!? How can these people, people who moved to a neighborhood because of its supposed “cool” factor, not know that singing along to whatever is saturating the airwaves is one of the uncoolest things they could do?
In all fairness, it’s not entirely their fault. They really just don’t know any better. Their lack of knowledge of anything other than that which is spoon fed them is the byproduct of a global media oligopoly. To quote Robert McChesney in his book “Rich Media, Poor Democracy, "it happened to the oil and automotive industries earlier in the 20th century, now it is happening to the entertainment industry.” Media has been completely overtaken by major corporations and unless people choose to think for themselves, they’re going to believe that what’s put in front of them is the only thing that exists. And the talent show hosting, product endorsing “musicians;” along with the latest string of tame bands major labels tell us are “rock,” are unfortunately the spokespeople for getting us to think the music we’re having shoved down our throats is all there is, and that it is somehow relevant.
Shows like “American Idol” and “The Voice” trick viewers into thinking that having a pitch perfect voice is the only skill necessary to be a musician. Content, a message, is not a priority. Imagine if Neil Young needed Simon Cowell’s approval in order to get the label backing necessary to become a known musician. And can you picture Kurt Cobain nervously standing in front of Adam Levine to find out what he thought of his cover of “Man Who Sold the World?” If relevant rock ‘n’ roll were more accessible, I wouldn’t care what goes on in the talent show circuit. But corporate media has made intelligent music scarce, and what does exist is nearly impossible for the masses to hear.
Every recent decade up to the 90′s had a music revolution that inspired a counterculture. One that challenged the status quo. Political and psychedelic rock during the 60′s encouraged young people to leave the safety of their parents’ homes, fight in the streets for civil rights, and protest war…while taking acid and smoking lots of dope. The 70′s challenged youth to question the establishment with punk rock, which was still alive and well in the 80′s; and along with it, bands like Devo sang about the devolution of the human race. The 90′s had grunge, which was an outlet for the pain and frustration that accompanies feelings of isolation and disenfranchisement. It discouraged consumption and showed that opulence was uncool. Along with the music bands were playing, was a lifestyle that inspired it. Punk bands like Crass lived on a commune to prove humans can govern themselves. Nirvana rehearsed ten hours a day before recording “Nevermind” because their house was so freezing they tried to stay away from it as much as possible. My point being, popular musicians prior to the 21st century were actual artists, on a path of self discovery. They either never had comforts, or they gave them up to pursue their passions and find themselves, not allowing themselves to be told who they should be. The best art is usually born out of struggle, whether personal or sympathetic. And most of today’s popular musicians’ lifestyles are anything but difficult. Their music is not based on life experiences, hard knocks, or political and social themes. It is self-absorbed, mindless drivel that would make John Lennon blush with shame for the human race. Today’s popular “artists” are a constant stream of sell outs who can’t be content with the mansion that their music affords them. They need a fragrance line, a fashion line, a job hosting a talent show, and commercial endorsements so that they can buy even more stuff they don’t need. And too many of today’s millennials buy into it. They believe that if they keep their noses to the ground, stay out of trouble, never challenge the system, and work to maintain the same sort of lifestyle as their role models, they’re doing the right thing. Oblivious to the fact that they’ve been turned into total nerds.
So what happened after the 90′s? Did musicians just stop caring? Has there been nothing going on in the world that needs to be changed, so therefore no music asking for it? Or could it possibly be the passing of The Telecommunications Act of 1996 that kept inspiring, rule-breaking, boundary-testing music from reaching our ears? Again, from “Rich Media, Poor Democracy,“
"The core premise of the act was to eliminate restrictions on firms moving into other communication areas - for example, phone companies moving into cable television and vice versa, or long distance phone companies moving into local service and vice versa - and then to eliminate as many regulations as possible on these firms’ behavior…And the one media sector most thoroughly overturned by the Telecommunications Act has been radio broadcasting. The Act relaxed ownership restrictions so that a single firm can own up to eight stations in a single market. In the twenty months following enactment of the new law, there has been the equivalent of an Oklahoma land rush as small chains have been acquired by middle-sized chains, and middle-sized chains have been gobbled up by the few massive giants who have come to dominate the national industry. Since 1996, some one-half of the nation’s eleven thousand radio stations changed hands, and there were over one thousand radio firm mergers."
So the 90′s was the decade when radio stations got taken over by corporate giants (with corporate, not cultural, interests in mind), and, not coincidentally, when radio went to shit. Joy Elmer Morgan, founder of Future Teachers of America, predicted that "as a result of radio broadcasting, there will probably develop during the twentieth century either chaos or a world-order of civilization. Whether it shall be one or the other will depend largely upon whether broadcasting be used as a tool of education or an instrument of selfish greed. So far, our American radio interests have thrown their major influence on the side of greed….there has never been in the entire history of the United States an example of mismanagement and lack of vision so colossal and far-reaching in its consequences of our turning the radio channels almost exclusively into commercial hands…whoever controls the radio will in the end control the development of the human race.” Scary. Especially when noting that Morgan died in 1986, and in 1983, 50 corporations controlled the majority of news media. Now six corporations control it. One of them is Walt Disney, which would explain why Adam Levine is touted as a “rockstar.”
In 1948, jazz critic Sidney Finkelstein summed up commercialism in music superbly when he said it ultimately leads “to what is really destructive in culture: the taking over of an art by business.” It seems that with the advent of the internet, and the seeming freedom and ease it could provide to get relevant music out there, corporations have gotten even more aggressive to keep people’s thoughts on consumption, rather than cultural and social change. And millennials are the ones most vulnerable because they have no personal connection to a time when music actually mattered. When it was the most accessible medium for getting a message to the world. Now corporations have used the medium artists once used to spread a message of social change, to send the message that they need more and more useless shit instead. Don’t believe the Top 40 hype that pushes singing puppets on us and tries to make us believe that their silly antics and extravagant lifestyles are anything but pathetic. Supporting your local musicians by going out to hear live music is a great way to combat the control media has over us. Checking out music blogs is another way to find out about artists who aren’t corporately endorsed. If you can’t find anything on those, ask around to find out who people’s favorite bands are. Just make sure those you ask are over the age of 30. ;)
“Rich Media, Poor Democracy,” by Robert McChesney
Power: (n) The measure of an entity’s ability to control their environment.
Revolution: (n) 1. Activity or movement designed to affect fundamental changes in the socioeconomic situation. 2. A fundamental change in the way of thinking about or visualizing something.
Evolution: (n) 1. Growth. 2. A process of gradual and relatively peaceful social, political, and economic advance.
Knowledge is power. By educating ourselves on how our everyday actions affect the world, we can start governing ourselves rather than trusting the government to do so. Through signing petitions, protesting, making smarter purchasing decisions, getting involved in our communities and just informing ourselves and those around us on what the mass media won’t tell us, we can start a POWERevolution. A revolution that will hopefully lead to our evolution as a human race into one that protects our planet and our youth rather than allowing them to be exploited for profit. One that sees the value of integrity, wisdom and compassion and the transciency of wealth and celebrity. A race that doesn’t wait for the government to solve all the world’s problems (because it won’t), but solves them ourselves instead. So let’s get to starting the revolution… follow the blog to find out how you can be a part of the POWERevolution.
Folklorists say the belief that good or bad things come in threes is an ancient superstition that remains a strong modern belief. Perhaps it comes from the Latin phrase, "omne trium perfectum" (every set of three is complete). Regardless of the origins of the phenomenon, all to often when a celebrity or icon goes to his just rewards, we, (the little people out there) keep a little sharper eye on the news to see just who might follow. It's morbid, I know, but we are a voyeuristic culture. Unfortunately, last month, the rock and roll world was hit with one of these triads that you didn't have to look too hard to see.
On January 10, we awoke to the news that music icon David Bowie had passed on just three days after his 69th birthday and three days after the release of his album "Blackstar". Bowie's death was unexpected and a shock to the industry and his legions of fans. No sooner had that news sunk in, we learned just eight days later that Glenn Frey, founding member of The Eagles died at the age of 67 in New York City of complications from rheumatoid arthritis, acute ulcerative colitis, and pneumonia. Again, a death we were not expecting that shocked the music world. Then to complete the triumvirate, on January 28th we learned that Paul Kantner of The Jefferson Airplane had passed away from multiple organ failure and septic shock after he suffered a heart attack just days earlier.
It's been two weeks since Kantner's demise and I hope the music industry can rest a little easy for a while. Keith Richards needs the rest.
I've never been one to formulate New Year's Resolutions, much less adhere to them. I was recently going through my website however and realized that I have not published a blog post since April of 2015. So, with that in mind, my resolution (if you can call it that) is to produce more blog posts this year. I am not sure if anyone reads them or for that matter cares one bit about what I have to say about the music business or anything, for that matter, but I have a blog and damnit I am going to use it this year. Some of the posts may be very short and sweet and some may be more substantial but the point is to get them out there.
This post is about a dear friend of mine who passed away yesterday. Warren Kosinski was a man I have known for over 30 years and we have had some good times together. Warren was a little bit my senior but after the age of about 15, what's 10 years or so. Warren was a Viet Nam vet who didn't really like to talk about his time in the service but would if pressed. He was one of the lucky ones who came back from that conflict in one piece and relatively sane. Warren was a house painter by trade and could make walls come alive with color like no one else I know. He had a tremendous work ethic and was very proud of the work he accomplished. Like many painters, Warren had a drinking problem but I suspect breathing paint fumes for years on end pickled his senses way more than his drinking.
Warren was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2009 and stopped drinking for good. He fought through his illness and was making progress until about six months ago. His condition worsened and he finally succumbed to his illness yesterday afternoon. Warren and I shared a love of music and one story I can remember highlights his insight. Back in the early 1980's I had tickets to see Joan Armatrading at The Fox Theater in Atlanta. I invited Warren along. He was not all that familiar with Joan at the time and we listened to her music on the way to the show. He commented at some point during the trip that she reminded him of Van Morrison. OK, I never got the connection but alright. During the show that night, about half way through, Joan launched into a cover version of Moondance that blew me away. I don't believe that I have ever heard Joan cover anyone else's music before or since. Just one of those things that make you go hmmmmm.
Warren was a great supporter of the show and of the festival we produced last year and even though he was not in great health, he traveled the two plus hours to be here and had a great time at the festival even though it was hot and the heat strained him. Warren is not the kind of guy who will have brilliant obituaries written about him but I wanted to take this opportunity to honor his memory and to remember him fondly. So long Warren, rest in peace!
Mad Music Presents First Ever Thoroughbred Music Festival