How the music business ruins music. It's a rare thing when artistic talent wins out over bottom-line economics, says Tom Sinclair
Alicia Keys, Clive Davis
Credit: Clive Davis & Alicia Keys: Lester Cohen/

How the music business ruins music

More than a decade ago, I interviewed Maurice Starr, the mastermind behind New Kids on the Block. Although I certainly wasn’t a New Kids fan, Starr proved to be an affable and unaffected guy, and I warmed to him. At one point in our conversation, he said something that continues to echo in my mind: ”I love music, but I hate the music business.”

I find that in my job as a music journalist, nary a week goes by that I don’t utter that phrase. In fact, it’s become something of a personal mantra, and the basis for bit of advice I find myself imparting to fledgling musicians laboring under the delusion that I can help them in their careers: ”If you care about music, stay the hell out of the music business.”

If that sounds paradoxical, well, you’ve probably never worked in the biz. Sometimes it seems as repellant and cutthroat as the sleaziest chop-shop brokerage house, with artists and employees treated like expendable commodities. Just consider the jargon bizzers use: Music is called ”product” and albums are judged on their ”performance.” I mean, are we talking about rock & roll or IRAs here?

I’ve seen friends and peers who entered the game with an idealistic belief in the spiritual power of music grow bitter and cynical as they watched worthy artists get gored by the grim realities of the marketplace. Just this morning I got an advance copy of the new album by former Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg in the mail. Turns out after being dropped by Capitol, Westerburg — once touted as rock’s last, best hope — is now on an indie label (Vagrant). Guess his last major label effort didn’t ”perform” well enough to warrant bankrolling another. And, besides, everyone knows the kids just want more rap-metal, hip-hop, and teen-pop, right?

No doubt about it: These are terrible times to work in the music industry. Massive cutbacks and corporate restructurings have dramatically reduced the number of available jobs and consigned lots of former record folks to the unemployment lines. The accountants and bottom-line types are running a tight ship, and if you can’t swim in their sea, you’re sunk, Bunky.

Of course, some would argue that it was ever thus, that music has always been a business, and a dirty one, at that — just like publishing or movies. For all the great songs and albums they midwived, moguls like Berry Gordy and Clive Davis have well-deserved reputations as hard-asses, and there are lots of execs who model themselves after those titans. Ah well, maybe it’s just the natural, sordid order of things.

It doesn’t seem like the situation is going to improve. I, for one, count myself lucky not to be a musician at this time in history. It’s too heartbreaking. I count myself fortunate to merely be an observer of the industry, and to view it with a degree of jaundiced journalistic skepticism. I’m blessed, too, to have a fair measure of autonomy in choosing what music I cover for Entertainment Weekly. I can champion deserving, talented artists like the Greenhornes or Chan Poling that the major labels would consider insignificant. Most importantly, I still love music. But I hate the music business.