Face the music


March 28, 2004



The music industry stands at an historic crossroads -- almost every aspect of the way people consume and listen to popular music is changing, dwarfing even the seismic shift in the 1880s when music lovers turned from sheet music and player pianos to wax cylinders and later, in 1915, newfangled 78 rpm phonograph discs.

The one thing all of the experts agree upon is that these changes -- which are already under way -- will be dramatic, quick and inevitable. But no one knows exactly where they will lead.

Compact discs, the dominant form of recorded music today, may be extinct within the next few years -- or they may continue to appeal to some percentage (know one knows the exact number) of (probably older) music buyers, while young listeners turn exclusively to downloaded music files.

Concerts as we know them may become much rarer -- or they may experience a revival on a smaller level, up to mid-size theaters, so long as promoters offer great sounds at a good value.

Mom-and-pop record stores may disappear, as a consequence of downloading music and shopping online -- or they may become ever-more specialized and valued centers of the music scene.

Similarly, the audience for AM and FM radio may dwindle, thanks to competition from satellite and Internet broadcasting -- or it may survive, if programmers continue to view their stations as a center for communities and not just pre-programmed jukeboxes.

To get some picture of what the future might hold, the Sun-Times turned to 20 of the top people in the Chicago music industry -- including concert promoters, retailers and radio programmers -- and asked all of them the same question: Look into your crystal ball and tell us what you think the music industry will look like five years from now.

Their answers are illuminating, and they offer as clear a picture of the future of music as anyone today can accurately predict.


Ken Waagner Internet music consultant

Waagner, who works with artists such as Wilco and Lucinda Williams, coordinating their presence on the Web, believes that CDs will still be a part of the music world in five years, but the shift toward the Internet is irreversible.

"It's a generational thing," he said. "Over the age of 25, people will continue to have an attachment to CDs. Under 25, they may never buy a CD, ever. I see an iPod being in every kid's life, or a Windows media player being in everyone's hand.

"From a record company standpoint, it behooves them not to have physical goods: There are breakage and shipping costs and manufacturing costs, and selling files online is easier, cheaper and has higher profit margins. What I really see is that more and more you will see artists being less dependent on the record company as a whole."

Tera Siwicki National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences

Siwicki recently became the executive vice president of the Chicago chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences -- the folks who hand out the Grammys, as well as campaigners for artist's rights. She is optimistic that changes in technology will bring a new emphasis to the music side of the music business.

"As things get more electronic, the industry is going to have to come up with much more creative ways to market a product besides cover art and liner notes," she said. "And maybe the image of the artist won't be as important as the music itself. If a song is floating around on iTunes, you're not necessarily looking at the person, you're looking for music. If there isn't a focus on the image, then maybe people will focus on the craft."

Bettina Richards Thrill Jockey Records

As the founder and owner of Thrill Jockey, one of the most respected U.S. independent labels (and home to Tortoise, Eleventh Dream Day and many other underground favorites), Richards sees digital downloading as only a small part of her own label's future -- perhaps 20 percent of the business in the next few years.

"Most of our artists, who maybe two or three years ago were opposed to their music being distributed in that manner, have changed their minds," Richards said. "It's not their preferred format, but they'd rather that kids pay for it than get it for free. But for those who still prefer to buy the hard copy, we are really trying to make our CDs have something extra that you cannot get from a download -- extensive information in a booklet, a CD-ROM or DVD component, coupons for contests -- an extra reward."


Jim Powers Minty Fresh Records

A former major-label executive who founded his own record company (and brought us Veruca Salt and the Cardigans, among others), Powers disagrees with Richards -- he's convinced that CDs will be almost extinct within the next five years.

"It's going to be a plastic-free future," he said. "In the same way as you still have vinyl aficionados, some people will still buy CDs, but it won't be the core source of income in the music industry. It's rocketing forward at a much faster pace than I think anyone realizes; I'm certain that 90 percent of the music Minty Fresh sells will be via downloading."


Rob Miller Bloodshot Records

The co-owner of Bloodshot, another of Chicago's best-known independent labels, Miller is pessimistic about the plight of indie labels like his own, largely because of the challenges that face small retailers.

"The bloodletting at the independent retail level is just amazing," he said. "And I think this bloodbath will make a lot of artists who are making a marginal living off their music, selling 3,000 to 5,000 records, just get frustrated and break up. There is just too much damn music out there, and I think there is going to be a bit of a contraction in the next few years."


Mike Felten Record Emporium

As the model for selling music online evolves, Felten hopes that small retail operations such as his store in the Lake View neighborhood will be able to grab some portion of the downloading business. But he also sees mom-and-pop record stores as centers for the musical community as much as businesses.

"I've likened going out and buying music to going out and buying a beer," he said. "You can buy a six-pack of Busch and go home for a lot cheaper than going to a bar and getting a microbrew for six bucks, but you don't have that social interaction. We have to make record stores more destination-oriented. That's why we're doing more in-store performances; people just don't want to sit home in front of their computer for the rest of their lives."


John Laurie Planet of Sound

The owner of Laurie's Planet of Sound record store in Lincoln Square believes the electronic fad will eventually pass. "I think there's going to be a lot of broken MP3 players," he said, laughing. And he's confident that he will still be in business in five years.

"I'm really not kidding myself, because when we first opened, people told me I was insane to do it, and that was eight or nine years ago," Laurie said. "No doubt online sales are a part of the business now, but they're not everything. I just know the problem with downloading MP3s, and the sound quality is still so poor.

"I don't believe there will be fewer mom-and-pop stores in the future -- it doesn't seem to go away, and I haven't been proven wrong yet. People like coming in here."


Paul Harrington George's Music Room

The manager of the South Side's biggest independent record store is also optimistic about the future of record retailers.

"I think the bottom line is, five years down the line, it's going to come full circle: People are going to want to come out and go to the record shop," he said. "Downloading music is so impersonal. Look at a barbershop: Even if they had a way to do your hair differently, at home, people would miss the conversations in the barbershop, and sooner or later, it would have to come full circle.

"Where I work, people just crowd in here to talk about new music -- who's coming out with what, did you hear what 50 Cent said about Ja Rule, you know what I am saying? And even though you can get that information off of the Internet, people still love talking to other people."


Scott Gelman Clear Channel Entertainment

Gelman, the local vice president of booking for concert giant Clear Channel Entertainment, believes that live music promoters need to "rekindle or reinvent the passion" for concertgoers to survive.

"I'm talking to my 13-year-old nephew and my 10-year-old son, trying to figure out what motivates them," he said. "They have so many alternatives today -- 150 TV stations, 300 different video games -- that they are doing things totally differently from what we did."

To draw new music lovers, Gelman believes that the industry has to explore extra incentives such as offering live CDs of concerts on site -- and it has to lower ticket prices. "We have to get the ticket prices on the lawn down to 12 or 15 bucks; second, we have to create a party atmosphere, and third, we have to make these bands accessible to all different age groups, not just the adults who can afford 50 bucks a ticket."

Andy Cirzan Jam Productions

Cirzan, a senior talent buyer for Clear Channel rivals Jam Productions, believes that nothing will ever replace the live concert experience.

"The one thing I can say is there has not been a reasonable alternative for how people can enjoy live experience," he said. "When Webcasting first came up, people were saying, 'Here we go, we're just going to watch concerts on TV.' It never happened, and anyone who's watched a Webcast can tell you, it is just a grueling experience. So we're lucky in the live end of the music industry that there's been nothing coming along that can replace that experience."

"But I do see a complete and utter reinvention in the major-label system. The amount of money invested in an artist is going to go down dramatically. The amount of staff involved in working projects is going to go down dramatically. The methods used and the moneys invested in promoting product is going to go down dramatically. Everything's got to go down, and the business has to completely reinvent itself."

Angie Mead Gunther Murphys, Abbey Pub

As a talent booker for two of Chicago's best rock clubs, Mead is cautiously optimistic about the future of smaller venues for live music.

"The city makes it really hard to obtain the right permits and everything, but I hope that we are still going to be here," she said. "There are so many bands out there that aren't big enough to play 2,000-seat rooms, but there are enough bands out there that can play rooms our size. We definitely see ourselves as staying in the community and being a big part of Chicago. People like going out and hearing music. It's one thing sitting at your computer downloading MP3s, but you need to go out and see a band live and support them live."


Joe Shanahan Metro, Double Door

The owner of longtime North Side music venue Metro and co-owner of Wicker Park's Double Door nightclub believes that small and mid-sized venues need to get smarter -- and fast -- about offering concertgoers more than just the entertainment onstage.

"We have to convince people that the live experience offers something to get them out from behind their computers and TV screens, and that going to that show is something special," Shanahan said. He is enthusiastic about programs such as the new "See a Show, Buy a Show" feature at Metro and Double Door (as well as at Schubas), where the venue, in partnership with a company called eMusic.com and participating artists, can offer concertgoers the chance to buy a CD of the show they just saw on their way out the door.


Bruce Finkelman The Empty Bottle

The owner of Chicago's prestigious Empty Bottle rock club also believes CDs will soon be extinct. "Everything will be done online," he said. "And sooner or later, bands may even stop putting out recorded stuff."

In the live music world, Finkelman sees trouble for small clubs. "I think it may soon be all government-funded clubs and venues, like in Europe," he said. "The small entrepreneur will be done. I hope I'll still be in business in five years, but ask the city [referring to restrictive licensing procedures] if they think I'll be in business. I mean, what I think and what it is looking like are two very different things. I think [the city] will lower the amount of places that will be allowed to have live music."


Michael Yerke House of Blues

The head talent buyer for Chicago's House of Blues maintains that the live music scene is stronger today than ever. "We don't do arena shows, and there is a lot more risk at the arena level, but at our level, it's thriving," Yerke said.

"People are spending more and more time with video games and on the Internet, but you can't match that concert experience unless you are there. There is no way to duplicate being at a live show. No matter what you have on your computer or DVD, it's not the same, so I am optimistic about live music up to the theater [size] level."


Todd Cavanah B96

Cavanah, the program director of WBBM-FM (96.3), is another believer in the inevitability of the CD's extinction.

"I predict that in five years, the majority of music buyers will receive their purchases digitally," he said. "As a matter of fact, at B-96, we already receive most of the songs we play in MP3 form. CDs are an afterthought these days; it's much easier and more practical to listen to an MP3 that we receive from an artist or management company and send it to the studio to air."


Shawn Campbell WLUW-FM

The program director for the lauded community radio station WLUW-FM (88.7) is optimistic that CDs won't disappear entirely. "I think it is going to take a generation," Campbell said. "I don't think that five years down the road, people who are accustomed to buying music in traditional forms and have done so their entire adult life -- people my age, in their 30s and above -- I'm not sure they are going to make that transition [exclusively to digital]. I do think, unfortunately, a lot of small, independent record stores are going to continue to go under, and buying music is definitely going online."

As for the radio scene, Campbell believes that stations like WLUW are the future. "I think that we here on the left side of the dial [dominated by nonprofit and college stations] will continue to grow, while commercial radio shrinks. Once again, people are looking for more alternatives, more things outside the mainstream. You hear complaints about mainstream radio that it is the same thing over and over again -- it's pre-fab, not authentic stuff. So I think that college radio, public radio and community radio will thrive."


Bill Gamble The Zone

The program director of WZZN-FM (94.7) believes digital delivery will be the future for all radio stations. "And there will be a point in the not-too-distant future when you will be listening to a song on the radio in your car, and you will have the ability to push a button, and someone like Amazon and Yahoo will get it to your house the next day," he said. "Eventually, though, it will be all digital: Everyone will be walking around with 10,000 songs on their iPod."

In the radio world, Gamble thinks that the current crackdown on corporate broadcasters will mean a shift to subscriber or satellite broadcast for adult fare like Howard Stern, but that stations like the Zone will live on.

"As far as the music side, I think radio's power will continue to be there: It is still the credibility stamp and the shared cultural experience," he said. "If you walk around with 10,000 songs on your iPod, that is great, but then when you hear one of your songs on the radio, you go, 'Oh, wait, I have good taste and other people like what I do!' The majority of people like to know that they like what everybody else likes."


Norm Winer WXRT-FM

"Consumers will just walk into a room in their house and download movies, songs, albums and entire artists' catalogs and add them immediately to their personal digital libraries, all of which will fit into their pocket," said the veteran program director at WXRT-FM (93.1). But he believes there will still be a place for radio as we know it now in the high-tech future.

"I don't think people will just be limited to radio for their listening choices; there will be more specialized choices for every genre, for every vintage of music. But good radio will survive in places where there is respect for, and responsiveness to the audience, where there is a relationship to the community, where there is sufficient talent and relevance and artistry, so the station is providing a unique service. If it is generic, I don't think people want it -- they can get that from satellite. Localization is the main advantage of good radio."


Patty Martin The Drive

The program director of WDRV-FM (97.1) believes the FCC crackdown on commercial radio will be a boon to satellite broadcasters. "Terrestrial radio is going to have to adjust," she said. "But stations like ours have nothing to worry about, and the attraction is still the localism. You can't find [DJ] Bob Stroud, who you've been listening to and loving for years, on satellite radio. And that is going to make DJs more important.

"Anyone can throw these records together, but you don't have the particular personalities on satellite, or things like traffic and weather -- just being in tune with what is going on locally is going to give us the edge. I don't think terrestrial radio is ever going to go away, just like local television stations aren't going to go away, and it faced the same thing with cable."


Elroy Smith WGCI-FM

The music industry needs to reprioritize, insists the program director of WGCI-FM (107.5). "I really would like to see the music industry get back to pure music -- artists like Alicia Keys," Smith said. "And radio as we know it will continue as long as it remembers to serve the community.

"We need to learn more than just radio. The corporate consolidation will probably continue, and new kids are not coming into radio, but I think it will continue to be strong. You have more competition, so your product needs to be good -- there's more competition from satellite and the Net, and anybody can play a 'Slow Jamz' by Kanye [West], so the personalities make a difference in terms of branding a radio station. We have to stay out there -- sponsoring concerts and being a part of the community -- because if we're just a jukebox, you know we're going to die."