Saturday, 30 June 2012

The State of Popular Music

Hi guys, welcome to Orygyn!

Yesterday, I received a PM from a YouTuber who goes by the name jhams2 containing essentially a mini-thesis on why there has been a decline in the standard of popular music over the past few decades. jhams2 made it his senior project to answer the question through getting expert opinions on the subject and I'm extremely grateful that he has shared his results with me. I did a similar dissertation myself, which can be found in full on this blog minus any personal information relating to myself or university staff.

In this post I'd like to share my thoughts on his results. The entire PM will be pasted below in bold interspersed with my comments.

"Often I have asked myself- what happened to good music? Why is music in general today so utterly revolting, and downright embarrassing compared to what has been in the past? How could something that was once so good and refined, degenerate into what it has now become, and why has nothing been done? I have been told before that I was simply born in the wrong generation, and that it's all a matter of taste and preference, and I have considered this, and decided that there must be more to it."

I agree that there is more to it. First of all, there is no such thing as objectively good or bad music. "Good" and "bad" are words we, as humans, invented to describe our preferences or how we value something. This does not, however, mean that all music is equal in terms of how we value it. Some songs get to #1, some don't, some are remembered for centuries after they were written, some are forgotten within a month. If we can observe that there are relatively fewer songs today with that staying power, we have shown there is more to it.

"I decided that I needed an answer to these questions, and the senior project presented me with an opportunity to do so. But what is the best way to go about this, I asked myself. Certainly questions of this magnitude could not be easy to unravel, nor could I likely find the answers to them by any traditional "research paper" means- e.g. trolling the mass of information on the internet, cornering myself in some stuffy college library, and so on. Being that I am experienced with music only in listening to it and playing it, I decided that I would have to get an expert opinion on the matter, and if I wanted to truly do justice to the questions at hand, I would need outlooks from various experts in multiple positions throughout the industry."

I've written music for 6 years now and I've got a degree in it, but I'm not going to make the mistake of calling myself an expert. However, I have thought long and hard about this issue, and I have a few theories that I'd like to share in this post. I'll wait and see what theories the experts have suggested first though and then add any of my own which might not have come up.

"I created a short series of questions relating to this subject, and sent them to a number of music wonks in different areas of the music field; DJ's, music editors, radio station program directors, music critics, and other various music journalists. When the results were in there seemed to be a few theories as to why music quality had so degenerated, but there was absolute unanimous agreement that music had in fact not only lost its luster over the last 30 or so years, but had deteriorated almost beyond recognition in the area of artistic development, and had entirely lost its staying power."

"Entirely" I think is a bit of a stretch. There will always be a few songs which have this staying power, but I do agree that there are fewer.

"There was not total agreement however when it came to the cause of this downfall. One particular theory was summed up well by Sean Spillane who wrote:

"I think it's harder for artists affiliated with major record labels to keep artistic integrity than it has been in the past. Years ago, labels would allow artists to grow and take chances and would stick by someone it has invested time and money in. Nowadays, companies are just as likely to be impatient and cut an artist loose if the artist tries something that may not be as commercial as the label would like.""

I would agree with this analysis, however, it begs the question as to why there has been this change. This is answered below though.

"This is certainly an element to what has happened to music. Where is the wild inventiveness and bold experimentalism that embodied such bands as Pink Floyd? Why has no modern band come close to the soaring crescendos of lunacy found on Wish You Were Here, the towers of sound and cyclones of obsessive fervor on The Wall, or the orgasmic apogee one feels whilst saturated in the momentarily all-encompassing vibrations of ineffable euphoria offered on Eclipse, the final track on Dark Side of the Moon?"

This is where I would like to make my most important point. I would think there are many such bands producing music now which fit the current description, but they are not in the mainstream for the reasons given throughout the post. It is unlikely that a money-hungry record label would take a chance on a band that likes to experiment to that degree, but on the internet, where you can host and share music for the cost of your connection, there is practically infinite room to experiment and grow.

"Spillane is certainly correct in his analysis. If a band such as Pink Floyd wasn't given time to develop artistically, perhaps our ears would never be allowed the privilege to tune in to their masterpieces of sound. The solution could not be so simple. It would be easy to lay full blame on the soulless corporate bogeymen of our modern age, bedfellows of the money they so crave, however there are other factors that I believe should be taken into account, and other reasons for the decline in music that were mentioned in the interviews that I read. Technology is also a major player in the music industry, and though there are quite a few benefits to the new wave of technology there are also problems that it causes. As Rick Koster of the New London Day says,
Because of the amazing developments in technology (wherein almost anyone can make relatively inexpensive high quality recordings at home) and the stubborn idiocy of the major record labels (wherein they over the years ceded artistic control to accountants who have no taste or talent), the industry has been revolutionized. In this context, thousands of artists who believe in the integrity of music and their own work are finding ways to get their stuff out there. The problem with this, though, is obvious: if everyone can afford to release music, and being a "rock star" is perhaps more attractive than ever before, there is an astonishing amount of crap out there. It can be very frustrating, from the perspective of a music journalist, to have to wade through the overwhelming amount of mediocre or even awful music -- but it's always a blast to find something great and new."

Again, I very much agree. The barriers to entry to bands are pretty much gone now, so the average lay-man can upload his musical endeavours. This brings the average standard of music produced down dramatically.

Again, this is true and accounts for another factor in the decline of music, the burst of technology we have seen. The statement above also sheds further light on the first theory that the industry has become too money driven, and does not give the artists time to grow and prosper. In the 60's and 70's many of the major record labels were run by people who were very involved in the music industry, some of whom were musicians themselves. Today, as Koster stated, the control of the companies is left up to the accountants and bean counters who care nothing about the artists, but only about the cold hard dollar. The negative effects on the music industry from management like this are clear, and we are seeing them today. Without allowing artists creative freedom, and enough time to grow and age to perfection, as they could in the past, we come out with one hit wonders, and corporately produced groups that have about as much combined talent in them as Jimi Hendrix's right big pinky toe, if that."

There are a few additional points I'd like to make here. The decrease in music sales as a result of increased piracy, which are inevitable and unstoppable trade-offs of the digital age, compound the above factor. Record labels need to squeeze that much more out of their acts and, since catchy #1s are what sell best, that is what they'll focus on. It's possible that a gem will squeeze through, but only if it did the job of getting to #1. Also this would suggest that formulaic and short-lived music is an inevitable result of music costing any money at all, and that the more competition is involved, the lower the quality will be, as record labels will compete to sell their best-selling music (formulaic #1s) to the public.

"The record industry has prospered in the short run because of cheap tactics like these, but is creating a far worse situation for themselves in the long run. Without sustainable music acts, the industry is going to have to keep churning out the talentless groups and one hit wonders that they have begun to produce, and will have no sustainable means of income from people that can continue to sell records decades later such as The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Who, and so on, because there are no such acts today, and unless great change occurs, there will likely not be such acts ever again. Kevin O'Hare, of the Republican agrees with this sentiment. When asked "Do you think musicians today have the staying power of previous generations of musicians?" He replied: Overall, definitely no. If you look at the acts that are still filling some of the largest venues, a vast number are older acts that built a career around more than one or two hits. Look at all the nights Billy Joel has sold out the Mohegan Sun! He hasn't put out an album in 15 years but he could live off his massive backlog of hits for years. The Police, Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, Rolling Stones, The Allman Brothers, Santana, Prince, Jimmy Buffett, Stevie Wonder, etc., etc. are examples of stars from the past still doing tremendously well in this market. Who's going to fill vast arenas in 20 years? For the most part we've seen a parade of one or two-hit wonders rise to stardom and crash in burn because the music industry has not been intent upon building the careers of these artists they've been far more intent on cashing in as quickly as possible and now they are paying a price."

As I've said, there's not a complete lack of recent music legends. I would argue, for example, that Muse have enormous staying power, and their ability to fill stadiums is beyond question. In slightly less mainstream circles, metal simply does not have this problem. Regardless of people's views of metal, these bands are where the highest concentration of staying power resides. Look at bands like Lamb of God or Meshuggah. They engender huge respect from their fans, and their releases are generally viewed as getting better with time, in sharp contrast with the norm. Unfortunately, the big labels will survive, even after the Santanas and McCartneys are gone, as their current market strategy will persist as long as we collectively choose to buy from their acts. There is no reason to believe this will change any time soon.

"This response confirmed my fears about the record industry, and the lack of integrity within it. The result has been the same from all of the interviews that I have conducted. There is a major problem with the misuse of technology in the industry, but far worse of a problem in the ethics and motives of the decision makers of the record companies."

Worse though is that these are rational motives based on the desire for money, and so they are likely to continue to thrive among the Cowells of the world.

"Another issue lies with the fans, and consumers of music. The fact is that despite all that is wrong with the industry, the people are at fault as well. People continue to consume the trash that they are handed by the record companies. In order to enact change, people need to stop being ok with bad music. There needs to be a revolution against the music of today, or music will never again be what it was."

I can say with an enormous degree of confidence that this revolution is unlikely to occur. Think about the structure and style of today's pop music. The overwhelming majority of it at the very least has a strong dance beat. Many have no possible application in the modern world beyond dance. When you consider that the vast majority of teenagers and young adults, the most important demographic to the record labels, socialise in pubs, bars and nightclubs, the prevalence of this style of music makes perfect sense. While it may not be Beethoven, it's exactly the kind of music that works in that setting, even more so when drunk. Even I, as a passionate music fan, can't argue with dance music in a nightclub setting. Combine this with the more democratic way that we buy music (in the form of individual songs), another inevitable result of the digital age, and we find that the prevailing music is dictated by our social lives. As long as nightclubs and bars persist, and I don't see any reason to believe that they won't, dance music will prevail.

Of course, dance music is not the only form of pop music, but I'll address others if they get mentioned in the comments below.

"The main problem as I see it lies with the parents. Children are constantly being exposed to crappy music, without knowing how bad it really is. They are left on their own to try and find music, and unless by some chance they are exposed to quality music, will never know what they are missing. Some parents even encourage this filthy behavior by doing such things as watching American Idol with their children. Such an act of child abuse leaves me shocked and chagrined. If a parent were to send their child to a prostitute, the child would be taken away, and brought to a more responsible family, and rightfully so. But when a parent exposes their child to the musical equivalent, the brutish and barbaric ritual dubbed American Idol, it is looked upon as family time. Just as the Romans had the Coliseum, we have American Idol with its screaming mindless masses of fans under the spell of mob mentality. This is a classic example of irresponsible and neglectful parenting. Parents who want the best for their child must take it upon themselves to teach their children right and wrong. This goes for every aspect of the child's life, including music. Of course in the end, the decision must ultimately be the child's, however without exposure to quality, genuine music, in our corporate controlled culture of advertising and media buys, young impressionable children will undoubtedly fall victim to the Satan that is modern day mainstream music."

This is the last part of the PM, and also the part that I take most issue with. It is easy to think that someone growing up in an era where the quality of music is generally lower will be content with such music, although to address the question in full, there needs to be a better description of what higher quality music is exactly. If we're saying that kids will be content with music that will be forgotten in a month, this doesn't make a lot of sense, especially if, as I would argue is the case, there is little difference between such music. Eventually, everyone would get bored of such music. I'm in my early 20s, and yet there are people 10 years younger than me that agree with me. Sure, their parents may have had something to do with it, but is it really so hard to imagine that they could've gotten bored of the same pop formula using the same sounds and same endlessly repeating 4-chord progressions, and decided to look to metal, alternative, or the past for something different? All I'm asking is that you give generations Y and Z a bit more credit.

I would also ask that if the situation persists, what happens in 20 or 30 years time when those same kids are themselves the parents? Will they still be clueless and have nothing to pass onto their kids? Or will they eventually wise up? If they do, what's the problem in the first place? I don't think we should be worried about the kids. Look at how Ark Music Factory (responsible for Rebecca Black) and songs like Hot Problems were so overwhelmingly rejected by the public, made up mostly of the people we're concerned about. At the very least, I'm not worried.

I'd like to share some additional theories of my own. 1 that I had was that the internet has made it easier for people to share their opinions and so for opinions to prevail. 20 years ago, outside of a market research job, you would probably hear no more than 10 opinions a week about popular music of the time. Today you can literally hear (or more accurately, see) hundreds or thousands of opinions in a single day from reading forums, blogs or YouTube comment sections. When you're that much more in tune with public sentiment, of course it's going to seem like more of an issue. Maybe people have felt like this for quite a while. Still, I do think the position has a lot of validity.

Also, I think originality is increasingly harder to come by. As a result of our current technology, we could theoretically produce any conceivable sound, but we would still mentally group those sounds into categories: electronic, rock, etc. Our own labelling has the potential to close our minds to the variety of possible sounds, of which we are only currently using the tiniest fraction. Eventually, we'll run out of styles to cross-breed or invent, based on these shallow labelling techniques, and we'll be forced to churn out music which is increasingly similar to what has been done before. If, at that point, we don't stop seeing originality as being important, we won't be able to appreciate much music from that point on, and it'll be our fault rather than the fault of those future musicians. Of the wide variety of sonic combinations uploaded by the millions of musicians onto the internet every day, you'd think 1 would've caused a stir by now on the scale of the grunge movement, but this hasn't happened yet. Could it be that we've already reached the point where we have to value originality less?

I'd like to end by giving some objective criticisms of current pop music. First off, although the pop formula of verse-chorus has been followed for decades, the great songs of the past that used it did so only loosely. Nowadays, it's employed rigidly: 4x bar intro, 4x bar verse, 4x bar chorus, interlude, 4x bar verse, 4x bar chorus, 4x bar middle-eight, y(4x bar chorus). Add more sections, take some away, adjust the lengths of the sections to something exotic. Basically, do something unexpected. Anything, just not the exact same structure over and over again. Don't repeat the same 4 chords endlessly throughout the song. Repetition works in moderation, but let's see something more inventive. Why always 4/4 or 3/4? Why not 7/4 like "Them Bones" by Alice In Chains, or switching it up like in "Black Hole Sun" by Soundgarden, starting in 4/4 and then having the solo in 9/4? Don't copy those exactly, of course, but have some imagination. And if you have a huge vocal range, why not show it off? Seeing as Pink Floyd was mentioned earlier, there's not many better examples of exactly that than "The Great Gig In The Sky". Most importantly of all, electronic sounds need not be the soulless music-killers they're characterised as, just spend time on cultivating them with the software and using them in new and inventive ways like Aphex Twin or post-2000 Radiohead. It's so easy to make any of these changes that it absolutely can't be that no-one today can do it. If you're reading this, and you're an aspiring songwriter, please, take all of this into consideration.


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