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Nothing new in 'The Way the Music Died'

'Frontline' does credible job of documenting fall of industry
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

If you listen to the radio, own a remote control and a satellite dish, or have read a business page, the new Frontline documentary, "The Way the Music Died," won't be news to you. But if you stopped paying attention to pop music, oh, let's say, back in '77, have we got a primer for you.

Sure, "The Way the Music Died" — playing off a line from the Don McLean classic "American Pie" — does a credible job illustrating the demise of the industry, from the heyday of Woodstock to the Y2K apocalypse of mass firings and bankruptcy filings. As producer-director Michael Kirk sees it, there's plenty of blame to go around: Mega-record companies such as Universal and BMG gobbling up the little guys; Internet theft from digital downloads; controlling radio behemoths like Clear Channel playing the same five songs; and let us not forget MTV, which turned music into eye candy for the pimpled masses.

To bolster his case in the documentary (it airs at 9 Thursday night, check local listings), Kirk's got talking heads reciting scary numbers: Of the 30,000 records made in a year, only 100 or so are hits. Roughly 85 percent of all records fail. Sales in the industry have fallen from $40 billion to $28 billion in the last three years. And to keep the viewer from completely falling asleep, he's sprinkled in some actual music, with footage of artists past and present performing both in the studio and on the stage.

Yet, for sexiness of the subject matter, and for all the hand-wringing and cries of "The sky is falling" by industry insiders and journalists, "The Way" never advances the argument.

It's not such a stretch to say that corporations and creativity often make for an uneasy mix. But this documentary hits one note and doesn't veer from it in what is a much more complex, multi-note story.

Music is struggling, the industry is in the tank, sure.

But the film doesn't, for example, look at the phenomenon of the underground: Many musicians, who either can't get or don't want the attention of corporate radio/labels, are going the true indie route. They're carving out a credible living thanks to the word-of-mouth world of the Internet, peddling their CDs and selling out concert venues around the country.

Perhaps more egregious is the virtual blindness toward any musicians of color. Instead, in an attempt to create some narrative tension, Kirk chose to follow the careers of Crosby, Stills & Nash; Mark Hudson of "The Hudson Brothers" and '70s TV fame; Sarah Hudson — daughter of Mark, cousin of Kate and niece of Goldie Hawn — who has a new album and wants to be a real artist but also wants to sell records; and the "new" rock supergroup Velvet Revolver, composed of veterans of Guns N' Roses (Slash, Duff McKagan, Matt Sorum) and Stone Temple Pilots (Scott Weiland).

And so, watching this, you'd think that the only people making music today were preternaturally pale rockers with a penchant for bad dye jobs, the better to hide a receding hairline.

Hip-hop gets a cursory nod, but it's cast more in a historical context, as in, "Wow! That rap music sure was something, wasn't it?" Where's the mention of the considerable influence of country music, or Latin, or gospel? After all, as of this writing, Usher, a hip-hop-influenced R&B crooner, and Gretchen Wilson, a new country singer, top their Billboard album charts.

But that makes for a much more nuanced story, perhaps one that cannot be contained in a 60-minute format.

What we get instead are members of the choir: The rare A&R rep who really, really cares and wants to make sure that the "cool chicks" get a chance, and not just the "perfect and beautiful" Britneys and Jessicas and Jennifers. The lone disc jockey fighting a corporate tide of indifference, ferreting out fresh talent. Sensitive music attorneys fighting for their artists' integrity.

You can't help but wish that, for balance, or for mere entertainment, for cripes sake, the filmmakers had thrown in some comments from some of those evil bean counters that everyone spends so much time excoriating. A little footage of some self-important suit banging on a desk and declaring, as David Crosby imagines, "Get me a lead singer. He's got to be sort of androgynous, blond hair, very pretty. . . . Get me a pound of bass player, pound of drummer." Now that would make for some interesting television.