Music has been an important part of almost everyone's life from our earliest days. From soothing parental lullabies and sing-song nursery school rhymes, to painful music lessons and suffering the strains of the high school band; through graduations, weddings and funerals, music has provided the "soundtrack" of our lives and accompanied virtually every important and memorable passage and touchpoint as we've grown up.
For me, music has not only been a constant social companion and an important emotional support, it has also provided a series of exciting and challenging business experiences as well. From my early days as an owner of Rainbow Records, the neighborhood record store, to building and launching some of the most important music content sites, including RollingStone.com and TheSource.com, and then on to The Concert of the Century at the White House, I've had a chance to be a small part of every aspect of the music business. And believe me when I say it's been mainly a business, one that's all about making money, which just incidentally happens to create a little great music in the process. Or, as one old timer used to remind me, "we sell records, not music".
But whatever you want to say about how awful and exploitive the music business has been, (and no one ever said it better than Hunter S. Thompson), the music that eventually does get made has a consistent power and a seductive sway over our minds and our hearts that no other form of media can claim. You may vaguely remember a classic movie scene or two or an old episode of some TV show; but deeply embedded in your brain are the melodies and lyrical phrases to hundreds of songs, which leap from your subconscious memory the moment that you hear a familiar riff or a certain chord. We can't help it even if we were so inclined. You can't start it with a switch, and you can't kill it with a gun. And we also can't predict it, duplicate it, or determine what piece of magic will do the trick. There's a world of difference between a jingle and a hit single, but nobody (since the days of the Brill Building and the Beatles) has been able to figure out what exactly it is or how to recreate it on a consistent basis.
But I think that music doesn't really get anywhere near the credit that it should for a much greater and more important contribution to all of our lives. The truth is that music (and not Coca-Cola) is how we taught the entire world to sing and, more importantly, to sing in English. And, even in an increasingly globalized world (and with the possible recent exception of the K-Pop kids), it's been almost exclusively a one-way street. Sure, we had Danke Schoen, which wasn't really a U.S. hit until it was recorded with English lyrics by Wayne Newton (and then reborn 20+ years later in Ferris Bueller's Day Off). But basically - much like the Internet and computer coding - music has mainly been about English.
One of the most interesting things about attending a Springsteen or Eagles concert in a place where English isn't the first language is watching what happens during the audience participation parts. Tens of thousands of, say, Swedish fans sing whole choruses verbatim and never miss a beat, a key line or a special phrase. Not only are they singing in unison and singing about things they've typically never seen or imagined, they're bound together in a very interesting and almost spiritual way as a single organism composed of thousands of individual and highly diverse parts. Everyone is a part of the same and special moment. And they're all connected at the same time to worlds far away from them and yet made by the music a part of their shared experience as well.
And, in these moments, there's a common feeling and warmth among the participants that is palpable and also reflected back to the performers on stage. If you haven't been in the crowd or, better yet, stood on one of those stages as the whole structure pulses and shakes with the soaring sounds and the pounding feet of the crowd, the feeling is impossible to describe and unlike any other experience except maybe those at a few major sporting events-- although the singular sense of unity is usually missing there. And in that crush of hot, sweaty and often drunk bodies, everyone is also remarkably forgiving and patient because no one really wants to kill the good vibrations or the buzz. It's hard to be angry when you've gotta "peaceful, easy feeling" or a "hungry heart."
But not all crowds or moments are the same. I guess you could call it different strokes for different folks. I was struck by this distinction when I witnessed a recent political rally where the noise levels and the size of the crowd may have been similar to a small arena show, but the ambient feelings were painfully different. The music was cranked up, the crowd screamed and chanted from time to time, and there was a certain frenzy, but there was no soul at the heart of the event.
It wasn't a single, united crowd -- it wasn't a celebration of anything good and right - it was a bunch of angry individuals being egged on by an asshole who wasn't focused on bringing anyone together for even a brief respite. Instead, the speaker worked to highlight the differences (even among those present) as well as the real and imagined grievances that they all brought with them to the rally. It was heartless and ugly, and mostly, it was sad for them and especially sad for all of us.
Too many rallies today may try to play the same music, but they lose all the meaning if the ultimate message is one of hate. We can do better, and the whole world is watching.