Ask people in the “music industry” why sales have fallen through the floor and you’ll hear a common thread of complaint, usually around illegal filesharing and digital “piracy.” Of course, more thoughtful critics will expand the net further and come up with a broader range of issues (as in this piece, 6 Reasons Why The Album Format Died).
But, ask many casual music listeners where the problem lies and you will often hear a more biting critique. Too much of the music that major labels push these days just, well, sucks.
With that in mind I’m thankful to Jay Oatway (@jayoatway on Twitter), for posting a link to Jim Caligiuri’s Austin Chronicle piece, Sturgeon’s Revelation: Beating the music business odds at SXSW. Caligiuri is hosting a session at SxSW entitled, I’m Not Old, Your Music Does Suck.
“After more than 20 years of writing about music, and at least twice that as a listener, I’ve reached the point where a great deal of what I hear getting passed off as good and new seems simply like recycled ideas, or worse, like it has roots in sounds that would have been laughed at in the not-too-distant past. That’s why I pitched this to the South by Southwest PanelPicker and will be its moderator.”
I’m not entirely in agreement with Caligiuri. I believe there is a lot of great music being recorded today. What we have is a broken system. On one hand, much of the music industry is pushing lowest common denominator junk – and, let’s not forget they have always done so.
The recorded music industry was born as a result of technological breakthroughs and then the replacement cycles for those technologies. First it was cylinders, then 78rpm discs, then vinyl, 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, digital downloads and ringtones. The problem is that at each stage the consumer’s willingness to pay more to have the product in the new format has diminished, to the point where there is little appetite to pay again for low quality MP3. With the replacement cycle gone, we are left with music as a service for marketing and advertising.
What we are left with is a music industry that is largely focussed on selling fashion and drinks to teenagers.
On the other hand, it has become increasingly hard to find new music. In high school I was one of the kids that was always switching people onto new bands and artists. But, it wasn’t really my genius at work. I was piggy-backing off the good music journalism in magazines like Rolling Stone and NME. And, I had the benefit of making connections with the owners and staff of some really good record stores in my town (a great generalist store in my neighbourhood and three excellent genre-specifc stores further afield).
Of course, some people in the music industry pine for the good old days as well, but that’s because it was easier to control popular taste through (paid-for) gatekeepers and radio disc jockeys. You can identify that argument everytime someone calls for “filters,” as a solution to our current malaise.
Although I have no desire to see gatekeepers and taste-makers restored to their high priestly status I do think we have a problem with our current taste and, in particular, the culture of mashup and remix. In You Are Not A Gadget, Jaron Lanier makes the provocative claim that no new musical genre has emerged since the popularisation of the internet.
Maybe the constant churn of old ideas is a reaction to the flood of music that is now available? Certainly, we lack the tools to make it easy for the music listeners to find (and pay for) new music. I’m not convinced that social media “like” buttons and the arbitrary attitudes they encourage are the answer. I’m also not sure that cloud and streaming models will ever sustain independent musicians (as pointed out in The Paradise That Should Have Been), though we will certainly see major labels push for them as a way to suck the last drops of blood from their stone-like back catalogues.
I am quite bullish about direct to fan platforms like TopSpin and legal sharing services like SoundCloud. Back in 2006 it was clear to me that this new era was a huge potential benefit to independent musicians. The problem we still face is that the tools are new and we are too often obsessed with how they work and not with the most important task.
And, of course, the most important task is making great music. That’s why so often quote Rick Peckham
“If music sounds good no explanation is necessary and if music sounds bad no explanation will help.”
My final thoughts go direct to the musicians reading this. Whatever your business plan is – at the centre of it must be the commitment you make to yourself to be a better, more daring, more adventurous artist. Make that the standard by which you judge the advice of managers, mentors and friends: will doing this make me a better musician? Because when you shortchange yourself on that, your fans and listeners will tell; they always can.