With the FCC set to hold hearings in Seattle (Nov. 30) and Nashville, Tenn. (Dec. 11), media ownership controversy is once again in the news. Advocates of ownership limits are once again raising the specter of media monopoly and control, despite much evidence that media today, reviewed in this National Law Journal piece by Randy May of the Free State Foundation, is far more diverse and accessible than ever.
In the meantime, a new film about the country-western group The Dixie Chicks addresses the issue of how media concentration might suppress both free speech and artistic freedom.
I have not seen "Shut Up and Sing," so I won't attempt to review the film. But do wish to address the three-year creative odyssey of The Dixie Chicks that it documents. And these facts speak for themselves. For those outside the music scene, The Dixie Chicks are the highest-selling female recording group in any genre. During a 2003 concert in the U.K. that took place shortly after the U.S. invaded Iraq, the band's lead signer, Texas native Natalie Maines, ad-libbed that she was "ashamed" that President George W. Bush was from the Lone Star State. While Maines certainly has the right to speak her mind, the remark did offend many listeners that made up the core of Dixie Chick fandom and, from a commercial perspective, ran counter to the carefully crafted patriotic, all-American image the group and its managers cultivated. So it is no surprise then, that the comment landed the trio in trouble.
But were the Dixie Chicks, as some say, a victim of political censorship brought on by media consolidation? Or, did in the end, their experience validate the resiliency of the free market to bring producers and consumers together, one way or another? Three years after that controversial comment in London, it seems market forces have won again. One reason, perhaps, the Dixie Chicks are rarely brought up in the media consolidation debate anymore.
Back to 2003, only one company, Cumulous Broadcast Group, actually banned the Dixie Chicks, which it did for a month from its 270 stations.
Although some stations owned by Clear Channel Communications, a favorite poster boy for ownership regulation, also pulled the group from it playlists, many other Clear Channel properties did not. But putting aside the question as to who banned the group and where, there is no denying that the Dixie Chicks suffered commercially in terms of CD sales, sponsorships and concert bookings from what Maines said.
But the loss of air time, sponsors, and even the support of the country music establishment, was also liberating, an irony that I understand "Shut Up and Sing" explores. Suddenly freed from an image created more by their marketing than their music, the Dixie Chicks were able to explore new creative avenues, find a smaller, yet more sophisticated and appreciative audience, and in general grow as artists. This, by itself pokes holes in the media monopoly argument.
Instead, the free market offered the Dixie Chicks a choice rarely given talented, but mainstream, entertainers at the peak of their popularity–a chance to take a real artistic risk. That they did, and succeeded, is testament to the exaggeration and hyperbole we hear about media consolidation. In the end, the Dixie Chicks weren't silenced or run out of the business–they triumphed! They found new outlets to distribute their work. Their music can still be heard and easily purchased. They appeared on the American Music Awards on Nov. 23. They are on tour and will play concerts Atlanta, Dallas and Austin, Tex.–hotbeds of "former" fandom--in early December. They've released a new album, knowingly titled "Taking the Long Way." In reinforcing their new, edgier approach, their web site groups their material from 2003 and earlier as "historical Dixie Chicks."
As a result of the reaction from so-called "big media," the Dixie Chicks have become better artists, rewarding the fans and sponsors who stuck with them with an energized level of talent. Their experience shows that media consolidation does not equate with the power to control the airwaves, political speech, or the habits of the buying public.