STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
@brianbingaman on Twitter
Part of the 11-week PBS-TV Arts Fall Festival prime-time series, “Hitmakers” premieres at 9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 14.
Its full, official title is “Hitmakers: The Changing Face of the Music Industry,” and just when you think you know where this documentary by Susan Wittenberg and Carol Stein is going, it takes you down entirely different roads.
Opening with music video clips of Psy’s joyfully zany “Gangam Style” — which former “Billboard” magazine editorial director Bill Werde is unashamed to call “awesome” — “Hitmakers” gets off and running with thought-provoking commentary on how what constitutes a hit song has radically changed in the 21st century.
“YouTube is the new radio,” proclaims electronic dance music DJ/producer Steve Aoki, pointing to the 1 million U.S. downloads this year for “#Selfie” by The Chainsmokers.
There’s also important discourse on how the internet and social media have rendered obsolete the notions of — as Sharon Jones of the band Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings put it — “too black,” “too fat,” “too short” or “too old,” all dismissive criticisms the 58-year-old soul singer heard from music industry people. Since 2002, when she started recording with independent label Daptone Records, she’s been able to thumb her nose and blow raspberries at the naysayers, even though she’s “not making Beyonce’s money.”
The discussion about commercial success jumps the tracks to Grammy-winning do-it-yourselfers that challenged the industry status quo, like the Tedeschi Trucks Band, who tour all the time to make money; and Melissa Etheridge, a shooting star of rock that found herself on the outside looking in after artist-friendly Island Records got gobbled up by another company. “Hitmakers” also veers off topic to tell the organic, artistically-pure story of Philadelphia’s The Roots, who begot the success of artists like Jill Scott and Eve on the way to becoming the house band for Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show.”
What’s supposed to be a narrative of the music industry’s resilience in the face of losing control to the consumer and artist, then backtracks to the biz’s “people with ears,” as MSNBC’s Touré calls them. A standout is Seymour Stein, a genuine lover of music that founded Sire Records and is vice-president of the Warner Bros. label. The stories Stein tells about how he signed Madonna, The Talking Heads and The Ramones are so interesting that somebody should make a documentary just about him.
“Hitmakers” asserts that what hasn’t changed is the search for a solid song, performed by extraordinary talent, that reaches out and grabs you. It’s punctuated by cool live performances by Lorde, Ed Sheeran, Led Zeppelin, Ray Charles and Bruno Mars, as well as some delightfully raw 1974 video of The Ramones at CBGB’s.
Despite the film’s title, it also has curiosities from Kraftwerk, Aerosmith, Depeche Mode and the South African group Juluka.
Game-changers like the former Napster peer-to-peer sharing network and the Spotify streaming platform get their due; so does the gramophone, which 100 years ago had sheet music publishers quaking in their shoes.
“Buy this furniture (the gramophone), you get the song (a record) for free, then charge me for it later. Doesn’t sound much different from Spotify, does it?,” said Richard Gottehrer, producer and co-founder of independent music and video distribution company The Orchard.
“Spin” magazine’s Alan Light states that despite rapid and constant change, “more people are listening to more music, and have more access to more music every day than ever before.”
“‘Hitmakers’ is an upbeat, thought-provoking hour with plenty of music and history. It is an engaging and compelling on-key documentary that gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the influencers in a changing industry,” said PBS Vice-President of Programming, Donald Thoms, in a press release.
True, but it’s also a sometimes-fractured film that’s trying to represent all the myriad moving pieces of an increasingly fractured industry. It only gives passing mentions to iTunes and Sirius (and Pandora?) and should have attempted to address the rising popularity of the previously-thought-extinct vinyl record. We’re probably going to have to wait for another day to see deeper scholarly research into the topics “Hitmakers” brings up, but this documentary is a pretty good starting point.
The PBS Arts Fall Festival will continue with classic Broadway hits, music from around the country and award-winning theater performances.