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Before the Music Dies

In the new movie "Before the Music Dies," the only representative of the bad guys is an executive from Clear Channel Radio who appears in silhouette, wearing a hood and employing electronic distortion to camouflage his voice. His illicit, dangerous revelation: "The advertising dollar is driving the entire company."

Call out the feds, convene a congressional investigation, organize a posse of musicians: The radio and record industries are killing American music because they are fixated on the bottom line. Quoth David Byrne, "Same as it ever was."

But wait: This same movie tells us that the Internet and digital technology have made it easier and cheaper than ever for new artists to record their work and deliver it to the ears of strangers across the land.

"Before the Music Dies," which is being screened in a grass-roots rollout on college campuses and at groovy bars and house parties, is distributed by a company whose slogan is "The audience is never wrong." Yet this movie makes merciless fun of the audience for choosing the overproduced, formulaic pop that dominates radio and CD sales -- the kind of music that has won mass audiences since the invention of records.

In a pivotal moment in the movie, filmmakers Joel Rasmussen and Andrew Shapter use man-on-the-street interviews with people coming out of an Ashlee Simpson concert to demonstrate what the radio and record industries have wrought: Music fans who have never heard of Bob Dylan, and can only giggle at the notion that musical acts once drove people to burn their bras or mount a political protest.

The men who made this movie were driven to spend a year of their lives wandering the country and talking to musicians and radio and recording-industry people because they correctly felt that something elemental has changed, that the institutions through which they fell in love with music are flailing.

Rasmussen and Shapter also had siblings who were musicians and who died young. In memory of those artists, the two set out to figure out just why music fans are so disillusioned with the sounds being pushed by the music industry.

"We remember a time when your local radio station really was local and deejays made up their own sets," Rasmussen says. "How did we get to the point where, as a frustrated music fan says in the film, they aren't giving people music they're going to like, but instead they're giving them the least distasteful music that will keep them from switching stations? The industry seems to have abandoned both musicians and fans."

The film includes testimonials from Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Erykah Badu, Elvis Costello and Questlove, all of whom bemoan the changing corporate structures that make it harder for new and lesser-known artists to win radio airplay or anything resembling freedom or patience from a recording company. (XM Radio, the Washington-based satellite service, has adopted the movie to highlight its commitment to genres of music that don't find an outlet on terrestrial radio.)

The movie offers a roster of forces to blame for all this: The consolidation of power in a shrinking number of companies; the takeover of executive posts in those companies by bean counters who don't respect the artistic process; the rise of MTV and a visual orientation among young people; technology that makes it easy to cover up and correct lousy singing; the culture's growing emphasis on physical beauty; and a mysterious loss of humanity and heart, certainly in the music business and perhaps in the species.

"We've ignored the very thing that made the song, and that was heart," says legendary guitarist Les Paul, shaking his head at the current state of music, and musicians. "I don't know that they have that heart like they used to."

"Looks have always mattered, but they really matter" today, Raitt says.

"Right now," says Badu, "this industry is all about youth."

"Superficiality is in and, you know, depth and quality is kind of out," offers saxophonist Branford Marsalis. "Today, Ray Charles would not get a shot. Stevie Wonder would not get a shot. They're blind."

The litany of complaints from musicians of a certain age starts to feel a bit too much like a visit to a union hall full of typewriter repairmen and elevator operators.

The whining about how today's popular music doesn't compare with yesterday's masks the legitimate criticism that feeds the anger expressed by the movie's talking heads. In fact, the business model that once used profits from big, popular acts to support the development of new and lesser acts has broken down. In one American industry after another, from radio to records to books to retailing, the financial foundation for developing the next wave of talent has collapsed.

That point doesn't come across nearly as effectively as the moviemakers' love of the blues and other roots music. "Before the Music Dies" finds and gives voice to several splendid new bands you won't hear on Top 40 radio.

But even as Rasmussen says he's not terribly optimistic about the ability of talented new artists to find an audience, the film touches on new paths that are emerging to connect music and listeners: satellite radio, the Internet, file sharing, bands that handle their own distribution. There's even a scene celebrating an FM radio station that dares to go its own way -- Seattle's KEXP, where deejays get to pick their own tunes and play tastemaker.

Rasmussen believes that in this era, when the promise of infinite choice slams up against the reality of time-stressed lives, what listeners crave is "someone to tell them where the great new music is." As the movie quotes Bob Dylan, who in his dotage has taken up the role of radio deejay: "It's just too much. It's pollution."

But this cry for someone to synthesize information -- a way to identify and lead people to quality work -- conflicts with the rhetoric of the Internet, the notion that out there on the Web, democracy is pure and no middleman need exist.

That is the central contradiction in popular culture today, the celebration of unbounded choice even as overwhelmed consumers crave both art they can share with others and a reliable guide to sift through all the junk for them.

By Marc Fisher |  November 26, 2006; 12:43 AM ET
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