Everybody in my circle is debating the merits of the new Home Box Office television series, Vinyl, about the music business in 1970s NYC, produced by Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, Rich Cohen, and the Sopranos’ Terence Winter.
So far, not so good. The first installment of the show was packed with hackneyed themes and tired performances by misogynistic, chain-smoking, coke-tooting cartoon characters—mixed with predictable Goodfella’s-style violence. (It also had some flaws, but let's not be picky.)
Episode #1 included a sleazy promo man killing a sleazy DJ and mobsters beating up a black singer for not cooperating with his record label—the usual Scorsese fine touches. But the person getting bludgeoned the worst was the viewer, or at least this viewer. A line from a Boston Globe review summed it up best for me: “It’s a story of excess told excessively.”
And yet…the film helped draw connections in my brain between the wild and woolly rock & roll business and the disruptive brand of American free enterprise in general. At a time when the extremes of capitalism run amok are being assailed daily (and properly) in a presidential campaign season (at least by one party), it’s useful to remember that the libertine spirit of rock & roll—a freedom that underlay both the music and the business—has allowed for both dissolute debauchery and unparalleled creativity.
Rock & roll, let’s not forget, was a market phenomenon that got rolling not despite arrogance, greed, exploitation, and corruption but because of arrogance, greed, exploitation, and corruption. A microcosm of free enterprise at its freest?
In the 50s, in the face of entrenched opposition by politicians, educators, clergymen, and even doctors, this expression of Dionysian freedom exploded seemingly out of nowhere thanks to the entrepreneurial opportunism of a handful of companies (like RCA Victor, Fender, Seeburg, and Texas Instruments) and the outright dishonesty of artist managers, promoters, and DJs. (See my earlier post on the scientific achievements that propelled R&R in those early years.) Managers and producers exploited artists, promoters paid off disk jockeys, and a few people got rich at the expense of others.
But in the process many people (especially teen consumers) were suddenly able to express their freedom in ways previously unimaginable. Animal spirits took over (in every sense of the word), spawning an industry that’s been growing for 60 years, with unparalleled artistic and technological innovation.
It’s useful to note that in the UK—which eventually copied America’s R&R success formula and produced some of rock's greatest stars (Beatles, Stones, Clapton, Bowie, etc.)—this magnificent "jungle music" was initially banished by government radio (BBC). But thanks to the free market—e.g, Radio Luxembourg, hundreds of record shops and nightclubs, and eventually the offshore pirate radio stations—Brits were exposed to rock & roll and were able to out-innovate their American competitors at times. (Same for Canada.)
Fortunately the exploitation and corruption of the record business have been reduced over time—just as the worst of robber-baron capitalism has been abridged. (How much of a reduction is up for debate, of course, especially in the wake of the Wall Street Meltdown of '08.) In the case of the music business, at least, bags of money and lines of coke are no longer to be seen in the offices of radio music directors—though minorities and women (see my earlier post) are still fighting for their share of radio play and boardroom seats.
Perhaps all of this is implied in the title of the series, though critics have not picked up on that. Beyond the inference that Vinyl is about something that would soon become obsolete (an old way of performing music and doing business?) the word suggests some of the attributes of vinyl plastic, which is tough yet bendable, malleable under heat, synthetic to the core, and a triumph of chemistry (human and molecular). Contradictions abound! Not to mention the fact that vinyl is now making a comeback.
In the end, this overdone treatment of 1970s rock in a made-for-television series still serves as a useful reminder of the ugliness, depravity, flexibility, creativity, and beauty of rock music and the rock music business. And, by extension, business in general.