- The Washington Times - Friday, February 13, 2009

“I think the majors at the moment — I’m not dissing them — but I don’t think they really know what’s going on. I get the feeling that, with the download culture, they’re floundering a bit, because they’ve had it their way for so long.”

Which major recording artist uttered the above?

I’ll give you three guesses.

You’re wrong — it was Paul McCartney.

Not exactly the first guy you associate with anti-major-label militancy.

The living Beatles legend has been on a tear through the culture recently, turning up most recently at the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles to dust off a classic (“I Saw Her Standing There”) with the young-ish Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters.

In May, he’s set to headline one night of the Coachella festival, an alternative-rock extravaganza held each year in the Southern California desert.

There’s even talk that he wants to marry again.

Mr. McCartney, 66, is, in short, in an odd (for him) fountain-of-youth-questing state.

Just five minutes ago, it seems, he was pitching a well-received project called “Memory Almost Full.” Its very name a nod to advancing age, the album was precisely the kind of thing — at once meditative and playfully nostalgic — one expected from a songwriter of Mr. McCartney’s maturity and still-ticking talent.

He “went indie,” it’s true — but it was with the Starbucks Coffee-run label Hear Music and its target demo of baby boomers who weren’t to be found in the requisite numbers online or hanging out in record stores.

It was hardly a decision to cause shame: Mr. McCartney was attempting to find his audience where it lived — or, put another way, where it stopped on its way into the office. (This was in 2007, mind you. In this economy, Hear Music would do better to include its CDs with Mr. Coffee machines.)

The collaboration with Starbucks yielded Mr. McCartney first-week sales of 161,000.

A smash, it wasn’t.

But pretty respectable in this day and age.

So what’s the old boy up to now, hoisting the indie-rock flag of insurgency and running the young man’s marketing gantlet?

If it’s possible, I think I actually squirmed more than Mr. McCartney did during his sit-down on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.” Desperate to plug the CD “Electric Arguments” — another fine installment of electronica-laced rock with Fireman partner Martin Glover, aka Youth — Mr. McCartney clearly was uncomfortable both with Mr. Colbert’s satirical blustery persona and, more generally, a situation that didn’t entail the ritual kissing of his ring.

Let’s not pick on just Macca.

Another oldster I greatly admire, Bruce Springsteen, recently elicited howls of betrayal from fans upset at the Boss’ appearance at the Super Bowl halftime show and a deal (for which he subsequently apologized) to sell a novelty hits package exclusively in Wal-Mart stores — the bete noir of left-wing laborites.

The charitable explanation for Mr. McCartney’s and Mr. Springsteen’s aggressive outreach is that such efforts are simply good for business in a climate that’s extremely bad for business.

As Mr. Springsteen told the New York Times, “At my age, it is tough to get word of your music out.”

If Mr. Springsteen, who turns 60 this year, meant getting word out the traditional way, he would have a point. Older artists like him, no matter their fame or prestige, are all but shunned by radio programmers.

But these are not tradition-bound times. In reality, it’s easier than ever to get word of your music out: Anyone with an Internet connection and an e-mail address is theoretically within reach of a musician with new music to sell.

The problem for legends such as Mr. McCartney and Mr. Springsteen (and, while we’re at it, the Rolling Stones and Neil Young, Bob Dylan, the Eagles, etc.) is that a rather large segment of their audiences doesn’t care much to hear new material. (Even with an all-out PR push behind it, Mr. Springteen’s latest album, “Working on a Dream,” sold fewer copies in its opening week than its predecessor, 2007’s “Magic.”)

Hence, on we go to young-skewing platforms like “The Colbert Report” in a forlorn search for potential converts.

If Mr. McCartney were as savvy as he claims the major labels are not, he would know there are two surefire ways of winning new fans.

First, you give your music away on the Internet.

Streaming content, as Mr. McCartney did with his live EP “Amoeba’s Secret,” was a step in the right direction, but it was only four songs, after all, and streaming is not, technically, the same as offering free downloads.

The second, even more important step is to drastically reduce the price of concert tickets.

There no doubt are scores of young people who would be curious to see rock’s living legends in the flesh but can’t afford the three-figure price of entry.

Quite apart from the increasingly irrelevant question of labels, affordability and accessibility are the essential hallmarks of the fan-friendly indie Weltanschauung.

The fountain of youth is real. It exists.

But it would leave old rich guys like Paul McCartney feeling severely thirsty.

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