Spokesmen for the music industry have been wailing about the loss of their biggest market. Baby-boomers used to buy more recorded music than any other demographic group before or since. Why did we stop? Have all of our music collections really become complete? Are we willing to pay for anything but food, medical insurance, medication, and retirement accounts any more? Can we even hear music any more?
So far as I can tell, most people my age have accumulated substantial record collections. That’s not why we stopped collecting records. They do wear out. Some of us would still be replacing our worn-out favorites if the industry were offering what we wanted to buy, but since the industry has written us off as antiques, we’ve written it off too. We listen to new music on the radio, if we can stand a steady diet of increasingly derivative, increasingly “hard,” and increasingly bad rock. Or, like me, we listen to music only in real life and store it only in memories, or on small-batch tapes.
Here’s a Top Ten List of guidelines for marketing recordings to people currently in our forties, fifties, and sixties:
1. Forget about “changing the technology.” We converted from LPs to tapes of one style or another. Some of us then converted to CDs. I know one adult who’s bothered with an Ipod. (Middle-aged people are not amused by incorrect typing, either. If you try to tell us to put the capital letter somewhere other than at the beginning of a name, most of us say, “To Hell with it.” Forgive us, Michigan readers.) For most music collectors, one “conversion” is enough. You need to stick with one medium of recording.
2. And that should be cassette tapes. Why? Because the devices for playing and recording are simple, easy to carry, easy to repair, and made in the U.S.A. The sound system we use for recording the kids’ first musical efforts and exchanging “letters” with blind people is the one we like. Few people actually heard the superior sound quality CDs allegedly offered. All of us knew that the push to convert to CDs was coming from industry greedheads who resented that Erykah Badu was having to compete for air time with people’s grandchildren. Well, guess what, greedheads? We’ve been there, and we’re not going back.
3. Don’t forget the correct pricing. The value of one hour of recorded music is the same as the value of one hour of picking fruit or bussing tables or whatever we did back when we were starting our collections. Don’t even try to charge more. It’s a recording. A live concert may be worth $100 but a recording is worth $5. Young people would buy more recordings, too, if recordings were priced correctly.
4. Now, about the music itself: Many of our favorite musicians have retired. How are we going to get interested in new ones? Probably in the same way we did when our favorites were new ones. We might hear an appealing sound on a radio or TV show, or we might recognize a familiar song title on an album cover and decide to find out what a new singer or band had done with it.
5. Adding video content to music recordings was a clever gimmick for MTV, but the people who bought the most recorded music never wanted to watch our records. If there is a demand that new musicians invest their probably limited funds in videos, it’s not coming from us.
6. Try to minimize the eroticism, or attempted eroticism, of new music. What do you think we think when we hear all those new recordings that seem to consist mainly of shrieks, gasps, and grunts with a beat? It’s not “I want to buy that.” It’s more like “Call the Department of Animal Control.” Middle-aged people do not need continual canned and packaged “excitement.” If we want to be adrenalin junkies, we can be fire fighters or ambulance drivers. Real life does enough to raise our blood pressure. The less said about the “excitement” of angry energy we hear in raps and protest songs, the better. When we enjoy erotic “excitement,” it might start with a modest, not excessive, stimulus from a recording of someone with a nice voice singing a lovesong, or whatever else. Erotic stimulation still works for middle-aged people if we pay attention to it only when we’re willing and able to follow where it leads. Most of the time, the effect we look for in music is relaxation, not “excitement.” So, think in terms of one or two songs specifically about Romantic Love on a one-hour tape of songs about places, events, thoughts, and general good will toward people. Love songs should have a clear melody and stick to it, and most of them should be suitable for parents to sing to children and children to sing to pets. Romantic Love songs should feel like recognizing a twinkle in an eye, rather than being shoved into two strangers' bed.
7. If a musician’s face or normally clothed body isn’t effective cover art, landscapes are definitely better than bare waists or thighs. Janet Jackson, who seemed to start the waist-baring craze, really was an extraordinarily well built young woman...but unfortunately she did not present herself as a young woman whom middle-aged women, even those who’d had crushes on her brother, wanted to invite into our homes. A singer who can’t keep her shirt tucked into her waist and her skirt over her knees looks like someone whose next act might involve dancing on the table and passing out in the punch bowl. People who live to be middle-aged generally like to associate with others who are also sane and sober.
8. Everything that can be done with pounding drumbeats has been done. If you’re looking for something new that really does appeal to some baby-boomers, try drum-free acts, with the focus on melody and harmony. Yes, my generation loved rock, but most of us originally loved our rock music as a variation in a background of what used to be mostly melody-centered music. Mix it up. Who said all music has to sound like a headache? Melody is fresh. The 1990s Gregorian Chant phenomenon was an echo of the 1980s Irish harp and dulcimer phenomenon and could probably have been replicated with Japanese koto music, European folk songs, Victorian Anglo-American pop songs, or anything else where the rhythm is only felt within the melody.
9. Not much has been done lately with musical instruments other than drums, guitars, and electronic keyboards. There has especially been a dearth of women instrumentalists. Redress the balance. There are women with big hands who play their own guitars, like Emmylou Harris. There are women who play more rarefied instruments, like Robin Roys with her classical harp. There should be more of both, and there should be more instrumental music played by men too. Middle-aged people bought lots of albums of instrumental music—folk and classical. Many of those albums are wearing out and need to be replaced. “Background music” in stores that entices, rather than distracting and annoying, tired middle-aged women shoppers, is instrumental music.
10. Calm down about the copyrights. When a song is successful, other people sing and play it, altering it to suit themselves, making it their own. This is known as the Folk Process. The only way to prevent it is to prevent interest in your song. Stop clutching at music—you’re killing it. Forget the sick greedhead idea of one songwriter selling one song, that can only ever be performed in one way, to one band whom one marketing company ship around the country, or around the world, and force to perform that song in a different city every night until a key member of the band dies from constantly trying to “medicate” all the jet lag. Accept a healthier idea of lots of local musicians tape-recording their versions of the song and selling them to people who’ve heard them perform live, while the local musicians have normal lives, with families, and day jobs, and a reasonable chance of good health. Don’t demand payment, other than possibly mentioning the songwriter’s name, unless and until a recording has achieved huge, lucrative sales. Instead of demanding that permission be purchased in advance before a radio station broadcasts a local church service in which the congregation sing a hymn, start writing copyright agreements in terms of “If over 500 recordings are sold, then payment...”
My generation hate greed, the way the Victorians hated lust—so much that some of us fail to recognize it when we succumb to it. Naked greed is what put a lot of us off being musicians and what’s putting nearly all of us off buying music these days. Curb your greed, and the majority of us who can still hear music will buy it again.