A boomer’s belief: Music is the Great Democratizer

Music, we’ve heard it said, is the great equalizer. But here’s a different take: Music, (not might!), is the great democratizer. This comes from Chicago’s Howard Tullman, an entrepreneur all his life and now executive director of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship, as well as author of a weekly series called The Perspiration Principles at Inc. Magazine. But that entrepreneurial spirit carried this baby boomer into the world of music, and he has seen and felt things he wishes all of us could see and feel.

Music has been an important part of almost everyone’s life from our earliest days.

From soothing parental lullabies and sing-song nursery school rhymes, to painful music lessons and the insufferable strains of the high school band, right up thru graduations, weddings, and funerals, music has provided the “soundtrack” of our lives and accompanied virtually every important and memorable passage and touchpoint as we’ve grown up.

Howard Tullman.
Photo: Monica Kass Rogers

In some especially fortunate cases like mine, it’s been a constant social companion, an important emotional support, and provided a series of exciting and challenging business experiences as well. From my early days as an owner of Rainbow Records, then the record store in my neighborhood north of Chicago, to building and launching some of the most important music content sites on the web including RollingStone.com and TheSource.com, and then on to help line up the talent for 1999’s The Concert of the Century at the White House, I’ve had a chance to see and be a small part of every side and aspect of the music business.

And believe me when I say, it’s always been mainly a business that’s all about making money which just incidentally happens to create a little great music in the process. Or, as one old-timer used to remind me, “We sell records, not music.”

Hunter S. Thompson

But whatever you want to say about how awful and exploitive the music business has been, and no one ever said it better than Hunter S. Thompson, the music that eventually does get made has a consistent power and a seductive sway over our minds and our hearts that no other form of media can claim.

Maybe you vaguely remember a classic movie scene or two, or an old episode of some TV show, but probably only vaguely. Deeply embedded in your brain though are the melodies and lyrical phrases to hundreds of songs which leap from your subconscious memory the moment you hear a familiar riff or a certain chord. You can’t start it with a switch, and you can’t kill it with a gun.

The Brill Building at 1619 Broadway in New York.

And we also can’t predict it, duplicate it, or determine what piece of magic will do the trick. There’s a world of difference between a jingle and a hit single, but nobody (since the days of the musically iconic Brill Building and the Beatles) has been able to figure out what exactly it is or how to recreate it on a consistent basis.

But I think that music doesn’t really get anywhere near the credit that it should for a much greater and more important contribution to all our lives. The truth is that music (and not Coca-Cola) is how we taught the entire world to sing. And more importantly, to sing in English. And, even in an increasingly globalized world (with the possible recent exception of the K-Pop kids), it’s been almost exclusively a one-way street. Sure, we had Danke Schoen which wasn’t really a U.S. hit until it was recorded with English lyrics by Wayne Newton (and then reborn 20+ years later in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), but basically— much like the Internet and computer coding— music has mainly been about English.

One of the most interesting things about attending a Springsteen or Eagles concert anywhere else in the world where English isn’t the first language is watching what happens during the audience participation parts where tens of thousands of fans in the crowd sing whole choruses verbatim and never miss a beat, a key line, or a special phrase. Not only are they singing in unison and singing about things they’ve typically never seen or imagined, they’re bound together in a very interesting and almost spiritual way as a single organism composed of thousands of individual and highly diverse parts. Everyone is a part of the same and special moment. And they’re all connected at the same time to worlds far away from them, and yet a part of their shared experience as well.

In these moments, there’s a common feeling and warmth among the participants which is palpable and reflected back to the performers on stage. If you haven’t been in the crowd or, better yet, stood on one of those stages as the whole structure pulses and shakes with the soaring sounds and the pounding feet of the crowd, the feeling is impossible to describe and unlike any other experience except maybe those at a few major sporting events… although the singular sense of unity is usually missing there.

And in that crush of hot, sweaty, and often drunk bodies, everyone is also remarkably forgiving and patient because no one really wants to kill the good vibrations or the buzz. It’s hard to be angry when you’ve “gotta peaceful, easy feeling,” or a “hungry heart.”

All thanks to music.


Howard is author and co-author of several books, including his newest, “You Can’t Win a Race With Your Mouth.”

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