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The Ball Drops on the Music Industry

Millennium compilations and concerts aside, it could be a long 1,000 years ahead of us

October 5, 1999 12:00 AM ET

So you're already sick of millennial madness? Too bad -- the next three months are going to be hell for you. You can trash your TV, buy your own generator, stuff your money into your mattress and stockpile food, but I have a question for anyone out there who might still be sane: What is really happening in music to mark the significance of this watershed in human history?

Virtually every record label is assembling a box set or a series of CDs so that we can take a look back and see where we've come from. Rhino, for example, is putting out a five-CD set called Respect: A Century of Women in Music. Even more ambitious, Sony is releasing a twenty-six-CD, 500-song collection called Sony Music 100 Years: Soundtrack for a Century, which provides an exhaustive -- and exhausting -- overview of the company's recorded work in just about every genre. And wouldn't you like a dollar for every artist who has stuck a millennial reference in the title of an album or song this year? The refusal by the Artist Formerly Known as Prince to perform "1999" at the MTV Video Music Awards last month is actually beginning to look like dignified restraint.

Then, of course, there's the issue of New Year's Eve. Perhaps you will be shelling out four or five hundred dollars to see Celine Dion and Bryan Adams in Montreal, or a more modest $250 for Hootie & the Blowfish, Styx and the B-52's at Downtown Disney in Orlando, Fla. More interestingly, you can also spend the night with Phish at the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation in Florida for $150.

Granted, musical history is important, and who doesn't want to have a great time on New Year's Eve -- especially this year? But why do I get the feeling that we're whipping ourselves up for what will inevitably turn out to be a crushing millennial letdown? Everyone has had the experience of waking up hung over on New Year's Day wondering where all the money went, what all the hoopla was about and why it seems to be impossible to approach that infamous night with anything like reasonable expectations. It's only going to be worse this time around.

And, for the moment, I'm not even looking for social significance, however important that might be. Bono's effort to have the world's richest nations forgive the debt of the poorest as a way to celebrate the millennium is admirable in every respect, and it demonstrates the ability of music and musicians to change people's lives for the better at a time when popular music is once again under attack in this country.

But what's on my mind is music itself -- what it is, how we get it and what it means to us. On Jan. 1, 2000, very little (if anything) will have changed about the most troubling issues facing the music industry right now, and that's a shame. Major labels will still be consolidating at a dizzying rate, creating less and less diversity in what we get to hear. New bands will continue to be held to the platinum standard of sales, and they'll get dropped if they don't meet it. Marketing will continue to rule over the music itself, and every trend and every new artist that sells -- some worthy, some not, it doesn't matter -- will be flogged to within an inch of its commercial life, then tossed aside.

Is anyone cooking up a new vision for what popular can be in the twenty-first century? That's the question that the turn of the millennium ought to be provoking us to think about. Perhaps technology will lead to a breakthrough that will mean something more than just another sales strategy. Perhaps the fragmentation that has taken place over the past decade -- a fragmentation that has somehow not created true variety, but isolated, sales-defined islands of taste -- will somehow be healed, and audiences will be able to share their tastes rather than disintegrate into increasingly narrow marketing niches.

Maybe the new millennium can provide us with the occasion to address these issues, but we don't need to wait until New Year's Day to do something about them. And we certainly can't stop thinking about them once the ball drops on Dec. 31. The next three months are going to be a big party, a weird vacation from our real lives. But nothing magical is going to happen. The need to fight for freedom of expression in music and for the proliferation of the greatest, most inspiring array of musical styles continues. When the party's over, we're still going to be living in whatever world we made before it started.

Is this a call for lowered expectations, then? Not at all. It's a call for real change and creativity. Box sets can be terrific, and if you want to spend $500 for a concert ticket, don't let me stop you. But the millennium would be most meaningful for everyone if it ushered in an era when the best music could be brought, conveniently and inexpensively, to whoever wants it, and the artists who make it could be nurtured into long, productive careers.

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