Early on in Andrew Shapter‘s documentary Before the Music Dies, Rolling Stone writer Alan Light pretty much sums up the state of the music business: “The thing that’s really striking about radio now, and radio consolidation, is that you’re very aware that things are not programmed for ‘how much do you like them?’ They’re programmed for ‘do you not dislike it enough that you won’t turn it off’.”
That lowest-common-denominator approach to music programming drove Shapter to hit the road on a quest to bring awareness to its impact on music in general.
“I model my whole career after Charles Kuralt, where I literally get on the road without a destination in mind and take these big questions out on the road,” says the graduate of Fort Worth’s Pascal High School, who now lives in Austin.
It’s been three years since Before the Music Dies first screened, yet Shapter is still traveling the country to show the film to curious audiences. On Wednesday night, he’ll visit his hometown for a screening at the Four Day Weekend Theater.
Ahead of his trip home, Shapter discussed what he’s heard from teens about the state of pop music, why he’s a fan of American Idol and how he scored interviews with the likes of Erykah Badu and Eric Clapton as part of this week’s Art&Seek Q&A:
Art&Seek: Before the Music Dies makes the case that corporate forces mainly are to blame for the homogenization of music. The counter to that, though is that through the Internet, music lovers have more sources for new music than ever.
Andrew Shapter: We agree with you – the Internet is a salvation. The only problem with the Internet is that the music industry, in terms of who is going to be seen and heard by the masses, is still controlled by the forces we can’t get around – which is the radio, major labels and television – American Idol and things like that. It’s not a counter argument, because what we’re saying is, if you’re a Midlake from Denton – that’s an example of a band that would never be the kind of band you’d see on an MTV or a VH1 or American Idol or Clear Channel certainly. So their whole survival and their whole career is built on the Internet.
A&S: One force that I thought you might have considered in the film but didn’t is American Idol. How do you think that show and all of its popularity plays into this issue?
A.S.: Well, I’ll give you a good example. If you look at what the record companies are really getting behind these days, it’s Taylor Swift. This was Taylor Swift’s first tour, she’s obviously a very, very attractive blonde girl, 17 years old, never been on the road before, never earned any stripes. But she fits the mold of what they think it going to sell, so they get behind it … I think American Idol is a counter to that argument, because if you look at Ruben Studdard, Taylor Hicks, Clay Aiken – these are not the mold that the record industry demands of their artists. So I think it proves their argument wrong that Americans simply want their pop stars to be attractive. Percy Sledge was a pop star. Billy Joel was a pop star, John Mellencamp was a pop star. Even Bob Dylan in his day was a pop star, but they sure as hell wouldn’t pass muster with the looks of today.
A&S: I agree with you on that front. But aren’t those singers just reconstituting the same music that has been out there for a while and emblematic of this idea that someone else can do the heavy lifting for you?
A.S.: Absolutely. And where is the band on the stage? Bands used to be a big part of it. Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Crazy Horse was a big part of that. You would hope that musicians won’t be forgotten in the future when it becomes so singer based, but I always believe that rock ‘n’ roll will come back.
A&S: Younger stars like Ashlee Simpson and Brittney Spears are held up in the film as examples of what’s wrong with music today. What do you think a teenager watching your film today would say?
A.S.: They e-mail me all the time, and what’s funny is the way that they talk is almost parallel to these fan letters I get from old school rockers and, let’s be honest here, bands that never made it … Teenagers in particular are funny, because they’re like, “Man, none of the stuff I listen to is on the radio. And I can’t stand the radio.” What I hear from teenagers is the complaint about repetitiveness. They get so numbed by how the same songs are played over and over again. … Teenagers are sick and tired of having music crammed down their throats.
A&S: The film was released in 2006. Do you feel that anything has changed since then?
A.S.: I was pleasantly surprised to see what Radiohead did. I was pleasantly surprised to see them give it away and kind of redefine the industry and then sign with ATO. … The one thing I find similar to how it was back in 2004 and 2005 when I was interviewing Bonnie Raitt and Elvis Costello and those guys, what they had in common was they had no idea what was going to happen next and they were obviously worried. Bonnie Raitt turned the questions on me, saying, “What did you find out, because I don’t know how we’re going to sell our album.”
A&S: You got a lot of big name artists to sit for interview for the film, how did you go about getting them to participate?
A.S.: I was a pest, and I was naïve. The reason why naivety works for young filmmakers and young musicians is you know that old saying, “If you visualize it, it’s going to happen?” I think I was in a mindset then – because it was dedicated to my [late] brother – that because I believe that these people would talk to me, that I moved heaven and earth to talk to them. So I didn’t take no for an answer. … Also, I changed my cellphone to a 310 area code from a 512 area code so people would answer my phone.
A&S: Dave Matthews makes the point that if corporate radio leaves a big enough hole, something else will come along and fill that void. What do you think that will be?
A.S.: Oh I think it’s Pandora. That’s all I listen to all day long. I think it’s Internet radio, the KEXPs of the world. And most of all, bigger than anything – and maybe you can attest to this – I think public radio and college radio are saviors of music.
A&S: Well, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but KERA just bought a second station that is going to broadcast only music.
A.S.: Well there you go. See, that’s what he’s talking about. Jay Trachtenberg down here in Austin is probably the best DJ in the entire area. He’s on KUT in the middle of the day. Here, we can hear Toots Hibbert in one moment, then classic Bonnie Raitt in the next moment, and then hear some Redheaded Stranger, and then hear new Green Day. In the same hour, you’re getting this great music.