The American record industry allowed itself to be bamboozled into giving WalMart and similar operations a near monopoly over their music. It was a catastrophe for them and their artists, especially emerging artists who now have no place to sell their CDs. But it should be no problem for a superstar act like Green Day, right? Well, no. Green Day won't self-censor their songs, which WalMart demands of artists, even platinum-selling ones. So they're not carrying 21st Century Breakdown, the band's politically charged brand new album. Green Day lead singer Billie Joe isn't budging. "They want artists to censor their records in order to be carried in there. We just said no. We've never done it before. You feel like you're in 1953 or something."
21st Century Breakdown is certainly Green Day's best record ever -- and that's saying a lot. It's also the best record of 2009 so far and perhaps of the almost finished first decade of the new century. Yeah, that good. It's their most mature endeavor, the fulfillment of all the promise they've always had. There are no weak cuts. And, according in yesterday's NY Times the release couldn't have come at a better time for Warner Bros, their label. Reporting on the cascading economics of the music industry, the Times points to CD sales that have been cut in half in the last 10 years. Warner Bros doesn't really stay in business by selling music; they sell bonds to investors who get sold a bill of goods.
Last week the group led by Edgar Bronfman Jr. decided to try to sell $500 million of new bonds to replace some of its existing debt and extend the overall maturity of its liabilities.
Like tickets for a 1970s concert for The Who, investors practically stampeded to get their hands on the paper. Investors were so enthusiastic that the company expanded the deal and sold $1.1 billion of senior secured notes. As a result, Warner paid off all its existing debt and extended the date by which it needed to pay it back until 2016.
U.S. Treasury bonds, for the same time span, are offering a modest 3.4% return while the Warner Music bonds are offering a juicy 9.5% annually. Some people never learn but unless Green Day puts out an album like 21st Century Breakdown every year between now and 2016, my guess is that the suckers who bought the bonds -- or, more likely, the poor saps they get unloaded on -- will wish they had stuck with the Treasuries...or invested their retirement funds in autographed Green Day memorabilia.
WalMart, which the record companies helped turn into their biggest sales outlet (perhaps more detrimental to their own health than downloading and piracy) refuses to carry Green Day because of "dirty words." And iTunes, after non-stop badgering and threats from the label, has allowed the labels to set their own prices. Warners promptly upped the price on Green Day's songs from 99 cents to $1.29. Wall Street, always short term thinkers, loves it but it's likely to lead to even more people choosing the...free option. I called a friend to tell him how the new Green Day record was the best thing I had heard in years and before the phone call was completed he was downloading it -- from some kind of illegal site.
Warner is bragging because its quarterly earnings were only down 14% (much less than the industry's as a whole). And Goldman Sachs estimates their income could remain flat for the next three years. Break out the champagne? Probably not -- and the cost of the champagne could go towards buying another company, EMI, which is even worse shape than Warner Bros. If they do it fast enough, maybe both companies could get behind "Last Night On Earth," a song incredibly reminiscent of the Beatles' Revolver era.
I remember once going for a ride with one of my label's classic platinum artists who had invited me to his home to hear his just completed new album. He bragged to me that he wrote the whole thing in a day and recorded it in less than a week. I never knew for sure if he was joking but the record sounded -- and sold -- like he was describing it accurately. I don't know how long Green Day, along with producer Butch Vig, has been working on 21st Century Breakdown, but if they told me it was for the whole five years since the release of American Idiot I wouldn't doubt them. It sounds like there was a great deal of thought, energy, sweat and tears put into this opus dealing -- in a very personal way -- with the horrific mess Bush left behind.
My friend Harry typed out this quote from Billie Joe Armstrong that's in the new issue of Rolling Stone which came to his house... in the mail. Looks like what the band accomplished with this record wasn't like a coincidence or whimsy.
"Maybe that's the reason most people don't go for it," he says. "You can scare yourself with ambition-- having the audacity to want to be as good as John Lennon or Paul McCartney or Joe Strummer. There has been so much great shit before me I feel like a student: Who the fuck do I think I am."
"But you have to battle past that," he insists in his rapid fire punk chirp. "It's the people who are overconfident who are the ones putting out the biggest piles of shit. If you're at that place where you're working hard but don't feel like you know what you're doing anymore,then you're on to something."
And it looks like the young man accomplished what he set out to do.