Jun 12, 2007

An Astral Theory of Rock

(from suck.com aug 1 1996)

In the music industry there is life
before Soundscan, and life after
Soundscan. Life on the Billboard
charts before Soundscan was a
prototypical Scorsese movie,
dominated by the sleazy triumvirate
of radio programmers, record chain
executives, and Casey Kasem. Life
after Soundscan is blissfully
bit-driven, with record sales
instantly beamed through the ether
from record stores straight to some
air-conditioned, Halon gas-protected
computer room.
Like any new technology is bound to
do, Soundscan has spawned a new job
category at every major label -
specially-trained spreadsheet jocks
crunching the raw album sales
numbers to tweak market share here,
mind share there, and wallet share
everywhere else. Their ultimate
goal: maximize the lifetime value of
any particular artist.
The result? Reconstituted adult rock
masquerading as hip hop.
But I'm going to put all of those
data-massaging monkeys out of
business. Not with any new
harebrained tracking scheme or
business model, but with an entirely
new methodology of b(r)and scenario
planning. Think of it as the place
where David Geffen meets Carl Sagan.
It's the new Astral Theory of Rock.
During literally days of research,
I've discovered that the life cycle
of a star mimics that of, well, a
star. This flash of brilliance has
led me to believe that those Excel
worker bees could someday be
replaced by a few, highly-paid
quantum physicists, or at least some
folks who took Physics for Poets at
the local community college. In
order to predict the lifetime value
of a star, they'll just need to
follow the easy-to-remember,
five-step life cycle of a true
celestial body: Birth, Radiation,
Exhaustion, Collapse, Black Hole.
The Birth of the star is easy to
predict, and shouldn't concern our
new breed of record industry
knowledge workers. They should be
focused on future record sales, not
how the star got there in the first
place. All A&R schleps worth their
salt know that some combination of
bloodthirsty local fans ("I knew
them first!"), sleazy record
producers ("Sure, pal. Full creative
control. Whatever you say."), and
alcoholic managers ("But I landed
you your first paying gig,
asshole."), mixed together in a
crowded, humid club in some
Godforsaken part of town, usually
creates enough pressure and mass to
form the infant star. The new
science of star tracking, however,
will prove that what happens
"before" a star is born is
irrelevant, since "before" is merely
a temporal concept, and has no
discernible effect on future record
During most of a star's lifetime,
nuclear fusion in the core generates
electromagnetic Radiation. In other
words, the star just plain shines.
The Radiation phase is the most
profitable period of a star's life.
The highly perceptive star tracker
will need to keep tabs on the
quantity and quality of a star's
shine. Michael Jackson's sequined
glove shines. Paul Simon's bald spot
shines. Paula Abdul's lycra does not
shine. Furthermore, new
"astronomers" should be wary of the
"Glistening Effect." Glistening
should not be confused with shining.
Case in point: Kenny G's saxophone
glistens. Michael Bolton's hair
In outer space, a star survives by
balancing the outward force of
shining with the inward pull of
gravity caused by the star's mass.
Back in Los Angeles, entertainment
physicists should note the "balance
of fame" practiced by Madonna, a
perpetually radiating star. She
always seems to have an equal number
of bodyguards (a show of outward
force) and basketball players (an
inward pull of gravity) at her beck
and call.
If the balance of fame is upset, the
star begins the Exhaustion phase.
During Exhaustion, the star stops
shining, gravitation compresses mass
inward, and the star starts feeding
on itself. Van Halen is in a
prototypical exhaustion phase. The
core of the star has contracted
(Sammy's out), and it is allowing
their remaining nuclear material to
be used as fuel (Dave's back, but
only for the greatest hits record).
Exhaustion inevitably leads to
Collapse. The Collapse phase may
last over a period of hundreds of
Entertainment Tonight segments,
during which all remaining fuel is
used up. Sting has been in Collapse
for years. I've traced the precise
beginning of his collapse to the
Police song "Mother," which prompted
millions of people to learn to
accurately program their CD players.
How far the star collapses, and into
what kind of object (VH1
spokesperson, singer of country
tunes in odd time signatures, role
in touring company of Grease) is
determined by the star's final mass
and the remaining outward pressure
that the burnt-up nuclear residue
can muster. Or, in Sting's case, how
many jazz musicians he can fit on
the head of a pin.
If the star is sufficiently massive,
it will collapse into a Black Hole.
The rocket scientists among us will
immediately recognize the KISS
revival tour as the largest black
hole the industry has ever seen. In
the center of the black hole lies
the singularity (Gene Simmons's
tongue), where matter is crushed to
infinite density, and the curvature
of spacetime is extreme. Which
explains why millions of people keep
expecting to hear "Beth" on the
radio, and to be reunited with their
7th-grade car pools.
Any 12-year old with an Einstein
t-shirt can tell you that stars
surrounding the Black Hole run the
risk of being sucked in. But when
the geek with E=MC^2 blazened across
his hollowed chest happens to be
toting an HP 12-C, look out. Because
a single Black Hole could suck in an
entire star system, creating revenue
potential unheard of anywhere else.
(Imagine Carl Sagan saying "billions
and billions," and you're somewhere
in the ballpark.) It's not a
coincidence that the KISS tour
spawned reunions of Foriegner, Styx,
Kansas, the Scorpions and REO
Finally, the labels have always
struggled with the issue of star
retirement. Do they ship them to
Vegas? Set them up in rock operas?
Or simply send them on some endless
talk radio tour? If the Astral
Theory proves correct, their
problems could be solved. Certain
physicists believe that if a star
survives the whirling vortex of the
black hole, it may find itself in an
alternate, parallel universe.
Like Europe.