While there are some genres that continue to sell well on the music charts, the undeniable fact remains that the music industry has struggled in recent years, with disappointing sales, companies not acting quick enough in trying to figure out how to deal with digital downloads and the fact that many (not all, but many) have become disinterested in what major labels have to offer. Smaller bands looking to make it have to struggle to get noticed by labels looking for the next big pop star (who'll have their 15 minutes of fame before being pushed aside.) Music retailers have been closing, the biggest of which being the sad close of the Tower Records chain, which had been struggling to pay its bills.
"Before the Music Dies" is a film from Joel Rasmussen and Andrew Sharpter, two music fans who, in the opening of the film, discuss losing loved ones who were musicians, and hearing from them shortly before their passing that they were dissatisfied with the state of the music industry. The two have no connection to the music industry, but they are inspired to search for answers to the question of what's happened to pop music.
One of the most depressing moments comes early in the film, as a group of teen girls outside an Ashlee Simpson concert are interviewed - one has no idea who Bob Dylan is and the other says that she loves Ashlee Simpson because she's "so real." Once MTV started, it became the age of the video star, as the music industry became more and more about the looks and less and less about the music. As they say, sex sells - and the music industry is no different. The filmmakers hire a model to record a demo song (written by the guy who wrote some of Jewel's early tunes.) She can't sing and it's even a little painful - but hey - that's no problem, as the engineer can fix her voice with a few clicks of a mouse. Many have discussed adjustments made to the vocals of pop stars today, but it's scary to see just how easy these fixes can be made.
Meanwhile, radio has been sinking further and further as people grow disinterested with hearing the same songs over and over again. Stations "test" music in focus groups and want to keep playing things that are familiar and test well, so you don't change the channel. However, many fans have instead tuned out completely. Sirus and XM radio have grown as much as they have because they offer actual diversity in their programming.
Record companies are, in many cases these days, are also run by people only with a sense of the bottom line - and not down the road, but right now. It's similar to network television, where if your first episode isn't a ratings hit, the corporation will move onto something else. There's no developing talent anymore - it's now or never and it's all about fitting the formula. The execs today, in most cases, can't even discuss the music with musicians.
Some independent labels have managed to gain enough of a following in order to sustain themselves. Fugazi (not profiled in the film) are an incredible example of an incredibly talented band who managed to be successful for many years and were able to proceed on their terms only due to the fact that they created their own label (Dischord). Fugazi's terms: concert tickets were $5 (and must be all ages) and the price of their CDs were kept to, in most stores, $10. No concert shirts, no posters. Yet, Fugazi gained a level of success that mainstream groups would envy and still put on absolutely amazing live performances for less than the cost of a movie ticket. While currently on hiatus, Fugazi has made 30 live shows (all 2 CD sets) available for $10 each.
The documentary also looks into how the digital download process caught the major labels off-guard, as well as people and companies that are looking to change the music scene today. Artists that provide their thoughts on the state of the industry include Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Erykah Badu, Doyle Bramhall II (a great musician who left his label after they gave his work no attention and who then soon after found himself collaborating with Eric Clapton, who was a great fan of Bramhall's and sought him out) and Dave Matthews, among others.
Overall, I was very entertained by this informative and insightful documentary. "Before the Music Dies" offers a good look at the inner workings of the industry and really provides a deeper look at what's wrong (aside from Britney Spears) with the music industry today.
VIDEO: "Before the Music Dies" is presented by B-side in 1.78;1 anamorphic widescreen. This is a perfectly fine presentation of the material, as the interviews appeared crisp and clean throughout the show. Some minor shimmer and a few soft moments were noticed, but no artifacting or other problems were seen. Colors remained natural and looked terrific, with no smearing or other concerns.
SOUND: The film's stereo soundtrack offers up the score (and the film does use an awesome selection of music throughout) and dialogue crisply and clearly.
EXTRAS: The limited Grassroots edition DVD of the film offers an extra 45 minutes of interviews (Erykah Badu, Elvis Costello, Questlove of the Roots, Dave Matthews, Les Paul, Michael Penn, Steve Poltz, Joey Burns), a performance by Doyle Bramhall II from the film's premiere and an extended interview with the filmmakers on XM radio.
Final Thoughts: Overall, I was very entertained by this informative and insightful documentary. "Before the Music Dies" offers a good look at the inner workings of the industry and really provides a deeper look at what's wrong (aside from Britney Spears) with the music industry today. The DVD offers very good audio/video quality and, in the case of the limited edition, a good hour's worth of extras. Recommended.