Thursday Thinkpiece: Is Music Dying?

Is Music Dying?

Yes, it is.

If you came to find that out but don’t feel like wading through a meandering thinkpiece, there’s your answer, now get out of here.

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Music, both as a commodity and as an art form, is dying. A contentious statement, for sure, and easily misconstrued as sensationalist clickbait. The unavoidable truth however, is that popular music as a modern entity is now not only far beyond being lucrative, it is on its last legs as a legitimate creative medium. It’s not simply a lull in the cycle, it’s a total breakdown brought on by a multitude of factors, including streaming music and the revival market. Oh, and the fact that mainstream music sucks nowadays- but we’ll get to that later.

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Recorded music sales have been in an indisputable decline for years, but nobody really cared that it had actually gotten pretty bad. HMV now values books and video games over  music. Big box stores like Best Buy have relegated their entire music section to a small section about 10 feet wide. Where there were once aisles of different genres available, now every CD is grouped together in one poorly stocked, shadowy corner of the store. Tim McGraw, Beethoven, Slipknot, and Lady Gaga all share the same shelf.

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The inevitable Music: The Movie franchise.

Of course this is a slightly quaint argument, well-traversed by Metallica nearly 14 years ago when Napster reared its catlike head. However now the fact is taken apathetically rather than with any sort of outrage. Apple recently discontinued the once iconic iPod classic, a story that was overshadowed by people complaining “why is U2 on my PHONE??”. Devices solely devoted to playing just music are no longer a hot commodity. They’re barely a commodity at all.

Music itself just isn’t worth owning anymore. Not when streaming allows for anyone to have any song, ever, at any time. The youth market is now dominated by people, coincidentally enough, born in the year 2000- when Napster arose. These tweens and teens grew up in a time of mp3s, file-sharing, and torrents. Now that they are of age to be consumers, they don’t see recorded music as something you pay for. That is just not a possibility in their minds, not when their older siblings have been downloading free music for their whole life.

It was only this past month in fact that doomsayers such as myself were vindicated when it was revealed that not a single album in 2014 has hit Platinum certification.* I of course, had been saying this for months.

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It’s a little baffling as to why people didn’t see this coming. The summer of 2014 was the first ever to be missing its own anthem. Not a single song broke into cultural omnipresence, despite intense lobbying for Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”. **

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Sorry, almost but not quite.

There was no Song of the Summer 2014. There just wasn’t. No Blurred Lines/Call Me Maybe/Super Bass/Poker Face/Umbrella.

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Congrats, Ms. Trainor. 2014 music is all about your bass.

Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” has come close to zeitgeist levels, but it’s still not a bona fide smash hit. There have been only two songs that have hit the stratosphere in 2014…and they’re both songs from 2013. Frozen ballad “Let it Go” and Pharrell’s “Happy” are the sole offerings from the music industry ingrained in the public consciousness so far this calendar year.

But what if we were to set sales and careers aside? Even if the notion of an album has become antiquated, shouldn’t there still be a smattering of big singles? Yes, except for one simple problem: most popular artists just don’t have good music anymore.

It seems like a subjective stance, held by out-of-touch traditionalists clutching their “real” instruments and sepia-toned Rolling Stone photographs, but can you really argue it? Most songs deigned as hits nowadays have choruses that are flat and flavourless (see: Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball”, Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven”, almost anything by Imagine Dragons) or entirely non-existent (see: 90% of EDM songs where the build-up leads to nowhere). Because music has become so devalued and easily produced, no effort is being put into songs pushed by the music industry. Why should they bother, when the returns are so minimal? It’s a hit-and-miss kamikaze mission. Throw out any repetitive loop, a I-III-V chord structure, and a lazy melodic hook (the two most overused sound either like ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down”…or the theme from Shrek)  and hope that something will stick in the public’s ears.  

Imagine Dragons with friend

Interesting that an anagram for Imagine Dragons is “Managed Origins”.

A common strategy that’s been pushed hard in recent years is the piggyback technique, where an industry-approved “rising star” is featured on tracks of established recording artists until they finally become a household name. It worked extraordinarily well with Nicki Minaj, somewhat with Ariana Grande, and bombed spectacularly with Skylar Grey, one of the biggest failures in recent history.

Legitimate stars are increasingly rare, in part because of the public’s short attention span, but also because the industry doesn’t allow for growth. It’s been streamlined so the focus is on a select few lucky performers, with a few minor players being swapped in and out each year and foisted upon us as genuine stars. (See: Ed Sheeran, 5 Seconds of Summer, Fifth Harmony, Emblem 3, Austin Mahone, Cody Simpson). Doted upon by the teen twitterverse but not really adding any sort of value to music or culture whatsoever. None of these acts are going to leave any sort of legacy, musical or otherwise. Not only do they leave minimal impact during their time on the charts, but none stick to a defined “sound” that they can claim as their own. Everyone can be lumped into one generic glob of genre.

Making matters worse is the fact that the industry peddles this faceless sound. Songs are written by one core team of evil producers (among them Ryan Tedder, Red One, Dr. Luke, Max Martin) and these are mixed and matched to whichever star they want to have a good year. Avril Lavigne, Pink, Katy Perry, Daughtry, Kelly Clarkson, Rihanna- they’re all drawing from the same pool of recycled filler.

This is not to say that there aren’t talented acts still left out there. There’s an abundance of artists in every genre with great ideas. They’re just not profitable. Kanye West released what was hailed as his creative apex in 2013 with his album “Yeezus”…off which not one charted.

So what’s happened to music in the public eye then?

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is this music?

It’s a relic. Fortunately for music the rest of the media world is obsessed with nostalgia now, so in terms of sales it can latch onto that for at least a few years. Vinyl records are selling extraordinarily well because of this perceived cultural cachet, and legacy acts are doing very well live due to this as well. The wave is still fairly strong- classic rock acts are still touring and baby boomers are coming out in droves to see them, so any band from the 60s until the early 2000s have a safety net ready as long as their old fans are still around.

Newer bands can also find solace in performing live, as it will at least get them some money in the bank, if not any lasting success. Simply put, people want something to do and concerts are sometimes that something. Major festivals are even more of a something to do and millennials will come out regardless of who’s playing, if only to #document what they’ve been up to this summer. So chin up, local electro-ska outfit, you’ll have an audience for an hour or so at each gig.

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these guys will like you for as long as the molly’s around

So what next? Probably more of the same. Fewer and fewer stars, more emphasis on the established ones. Music acts concerned more with developing a “brand” rather than music; being known for antics and personal drama instead of songs they play (see: Kanye West). 

One Direction are more of a brand than a band and can live comfortably for the rest of their lives. Some bands will be lucky enough to gain a cult following. The music industry itself is done for, shrinking exponentially every year. Once the nostalgia craze fades away there will be very little left to promote. Music will be just a side-note, and the notion of it being useful on its own merits will be laughable. It will obviously always play a part in other mediums, but by itself it will be considered pointless.

And people won’t care.

*- Taylor Swift just managed to score the (so far) only platinum record of the year, in the first week of November.

**- “Turn Down For What” has become a fairly large earworm/social phenomenon, but it’s mostly just the one line that people repeat. I’m not even sure who it’s by, just that Lil’ Jon is in there yelling.