Thursday Thinkpiece: The Ever-Looming Issue of Immediacy vs. Ownership

Under the guise of convenience, media providers are wresting control from individuals and reaping the benefits in perpetuity.

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Thursday Thinkpiece: One-Hit Wonders and the Incredible Thirst of Carly Rae Jepsen

The notion of a “one-hit wonder” might seem simple at first: a performing artist who is only recognizable for one massively popular song. They scored a huge hit and then disappeared from the public’s consciousness, only to reappear on snide and degrading future compilations and lists of other unlucky artists. The problem is that most of these artists aren’t actually one-hit wonders, and the parameters for labeling an artist as such are vague and arguable. And as we enter an age in which the music industry and radio are flailing towards their demise and many massive artists don’t even have “hits”, the label becomes completely meaningless.

At first blush it’s easy to come up with a list of publicly deigned one-hit wonders:

– Gangnam Style- Psy
– Somebody That I Used To Know- Gotye
– Float On- Modest Mouse
– Flagpole Sitta- Harvey Danger
– The Way- Fastball
– I Believe In A Thing Called Love- The Darkness
– Crazy- Gnarls Barkley
– Macarena- Los Del Rio
– Blurred Lines- Robin Thicke
– Nothing Compares 2 U- Sinead O’ Connor
etc, etc

Source: popmatters.com

Source: popmatters.com

Whether they deserve it or not is up to the individual, but the majority of people only know the one song by its respective artist. This is the sort of playlist a radio station might compile for a themed segment, which is kind of messed up considering it’s the radio stations that decide whether or not to play more than one single by an artist. It’s also messed up because most of the aforementioned artists actually did have more than one radio hit, as most artists in general do.

Source: soompi.com

Source: soompi.com

– Gentleman- Psy
– Eyes Wide Open- Gotye
– Dashboard- Modest Mouse
– Sad Sweetheart of the Rodeo- Harvey Danger
– You’re An Ocean- Fastball
etc, etc

It’s usually a novelty or charity ensemble group that only ever release one single (Live-Aid/Band-Aid, Liam Lynch,  whoever did “Disco Duck”). Regular artists tend to have these things called “albums”, and after they land a big hit they chase it with one or two or three other songs. You know, to keep them in the public eye. Sometimes these songs even chart pretty high! Does nobody remember that Psy’s “Gentleman” was a hit as well? Or that Robin Thicke, Gotye, and Psy all had careers before their big singles? Gotye was already a huge deal in his homeland of Australia with the song “Heart’s a Mess”! Psy was five albums into his career before Gangnam Style! Why is he considered a one-hit wonder?

Furthermore, does this mean that artists that never have that one big song are no-hit wonders? Because there are a lot of artists that are doing just fine without one, including:

– The Script
– Colbie Caillat
– Sara Bareilles
– Christina Perri
– The Tragically Hip
– Jack Johnson
– The Jonas Brothers
– Lady Antebellum

Source: pixelfanatix.com

Source: pixelfanatix.com

If you asked the general population what any of those artists’ “big song” was, you’ll get blank stares. But they’ve all got comfortable careers with consistently high-selling albums and reliable fanbases. Colbie Caillat, above could release a greatest hits based on all her singles, even though most people don’t know what she looks like (I didn’t until about five minutes ago). It’s not really that big of a deal that they’ve never reached the pinnacle of the Billboard Top 100. Although even that achievement doesn’t matter in this day and age, especially when you consider how few legitimate hits come out.

To date this year, there have only been a handful of big songs, with one (“Uptown Funk”) languishing at the top for 16 weeks. Streaming music has segmented audiences to the point where there may never again be a true “Song of the Summer”, because everyone’s got their own songs of the summer. There are now “micro-stars” who are hugely famous thanks to industry pushing despite not yet having…any recognizable songs.

source: youtube.com

source: youtube.com

Who are Austin Mahone (above), Rita Ora, and Five Seconds of Summer? I can’t even picture their faces, much less tell you what they sing or even what KIND of music they play. But I know that they’re rich and famous because I see those names everywhere. They’re doing fine. In fact it seems like these days, NOT having the “one big hit” is more beneficial than having it. Stars have to be careful not to make their songs too good. (note: maybe that’s why music is so bad nowadays cuz they’re purposely making it bad, tee hee)

So WHY is Carly Rae Jepsen so thirsty for another hit?

source: kiss925.com

source: kiss925.com

The halcyon year of 2012 brought us the inescapable “Call Me Maybe”, which is her one big song. The thing about its success however, is that it was a complete accident. A single by a third-place runner up on the 2007 season of Canadian Idol and produced by the former member of a hard industrial group (Dave Ogilvie)? It was a fluke and that’s partly why it was so refreshing. Nobody was expecting it to be huge and its viral spread was completely natural. Jepsen followed it with a guest spot on Owl City’s “Good Time” and another song later in 2012 called “This Kiss”, and could have continued releasing low-key pop and had a stable career like Colbie Caillat or Christina Perri.

But she didn’t. She went away for a little while and started planning a BIG comeback. Which could in turn backfire in a BIG way, as the desperation for another huge hit is palpable. Everything that’s come out of the promotion for her new material has been a transparently obvious grab at the limelight.

source: mashable.com

source: mashable.com

– “I Really Like You” was released in March, a calculated date when artists wanting to score a “song of the summer” drop their songs.
– The video had a celebrity cameo in Tom Hanks.
– A big deal was made of Jepsen’s quest in making this album, from the wide range of producers and songwriters to the hundreds of songs she wrote for it.
– She performed on SNL, Ellen, and Castle (??).
– Another (kind of embarrassing) “viral” video was released with a bunch of famous friends (Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande) singing the song.
– Another song called “All That” was released.
– Both songs were very much in the late-80s style that is en vogue right now (as opposed to the timeless sound of “Call Me Maybe”)

Despite all this, as of this writing the song has not charted very well (39 on the Billboard Hot 100). It’s nowhere near the ubiquity that “Call Me Maybe” had and it doesn’t seem like it will be the huge summer hit Jepsen wanted it to be. The corresponding album has no release date due to this tepid response. No doubt the producers are going through the “hundreds” of recorded songs trying to revise them for another hit, possibly with a guest appearance. And it’s all a little sad, because “I Really Like You” is a pretty fun song and didn’t need this massive circus surrounding it. Jepsen could have just released it normally, had the album out by now and toured without pressure and expectations. Her quest to avoid being a one-hit wonder has turned into MORE of a one-hit wonder, something I think she was really, really really, really, really, really trying to avoid.

Thursday Thinkpiece: Shared Universe Syndrome

                                                                 Welcome to the Age of Branding!
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Talking strictly from a cinematic sense, of course- branding’s been lording over every other market for generations. It’s not like it was absent from movies all this time either, it’s just that now it has become the single greatest asset for films. This proves difficult, however, if there are no brands.

And so somewhere in the mid-late 00’s the executives and corporate brass began mining the past for brands, for familiar properties that would not require pesky things like “establishing plots” or “character development”. It was harder and harder to create cultural touchstones; in turn the nostalgia market blossomed. Suddenly a load was taken off the backs of Hollywood’s thinktanks as they no longer needed to imagine ideas for blockbusters. They just needed to re-imagine them.

Batman_v_Superman_logo

Dark and Gritty™

 

It boiled down to two genres, loosely divided by gender demographics. Comic books for the fellas and the classic fairy tales for ladies. This is by no means a static divider, but from a marketing perspective this is how the trends skewed. Trends that are still healthy to this day, though they’ve required a little augmenting as the decade turned.

Why have one brand when you can have two? Or three? Or ten? All in one property, too! Hollywood was more than happy to oblige and sate the public’s appetite for brands and thus was born the shared universe.

Although crossovers and spin-offs have popped up throughout cinematic and televised history (remember, the Flintstones and the Jetsons live in the same timeline), the roots of the modern incarnation of the shared universe model can be traced to one early millennial franchise: Shrek.

shrek

It’s all your fault! All your fault!

Seven years before Tony Stark got a knock on the door from Nick Fury, the green ogre and his postmodern adventures gave audiences the thrill of seeing Pinocchio interact with the three little pigs, the gingerbread man and the magic mirror in the same room, and all the famous princesses walk down the red carpet together. Not only that, but they were all so sardonic and witty! They referenced modern expressions in fairy tale style! It would set the stage for the fairy tale renaissance towards the latter part of the aughts.

It’s also worth mentioning that the early 00’s also gave us Nintendo’s Smash Bros. franchise and the Kingdom Hearts franchise, with Kingdom Hearts also incorporating classic fairy tale characters (Disney versions of course) into their universe.

Disney would eventually become the king of the shared universe. They bought Marvel Studios one year into their epic undertaking and took the reins of what has become the most lucrative franchise in the cinematic world. The Marvel brand at this point is unassailable; a Midas blessing for whatever it’s attached to. Even without the rights to the X-Men and Spider-Man brands, they have a vast vault of comic book characters to use in their properties and populate their one world.

agents shield

Agents of cross-promotion.

Although navigating a universe where everything is canon is tricky, the payoffs are very literally worth it. With each franchise that rakes in box office dollars they gain another hype generator for any and all crossovers that will happen. Guardians of the Galaxy were virtually unknown prior to 2014, but thanks to the Marvel brand have become just as valuable as the heaviest hitters. They’re now seen as a property that will increase stock of a future project.

As will Marvel’s rapidly expanding ventures outside of the cinema. TV series like Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter are also incorporated in their universe, along with future Netflix series Daredevil and Jessica Jones. All of these will one day tie into one massive project, presumably the two-part Avengers Infinity War movie- a film that is epic in the truest, most literal sense of the word.

once-upon-time

aka Desperate Housewives…with magic.

But Disney haven’t forgotten what got them to this point- their fairy tales. Owning the rights to the “definitive”, most culturally accepted variations of fairy tale characters has given them another massive library to cater to those who are less fond of explosions and explosion accessories. Taking a cue from Shrek, Disney created TV series Once Upon a Time and The Descendants with hip new versions of their classic characters. Video game Disney Infinity has access to not only Disney characters, but Marvel and Pixar characters as well. It’s a smorgasbord of familiarity that thrives simply on the fact that people are attracted to all these brands separately, making them even more powerful together in one package.

Disney aren’t the only company privy to public domain properties, however, which has led to films like Into the Woods and television shows like Grimm, both based upon shared universes populated with these same bankable characters. TV series Penny Dreadful attempts to pull off a similar trick with slightly more recent literary icons such as Dr. Frankenstein and Dorian Gray. None of these have reached the same celestial heights as any of Disney’s universes though. In fact, the same can be said about the comic book side of their business as well.

Make no mistake, the Spider-Man, Batman, and X-Men movies have been hugely successful in their own right. When it comes to the shared universe gimmick though, Disney is thoroughly thrashing every single competitor due to a variety of reasons.

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* Sony’s Spider-Man series is the least effective. A premature reboot of the series lead to another origin movie, and had the studio rushing to make up for lost time. This gave us two below-average movies crippled by the weight of studio mandated references. Sony wants more movies so badly, they’ll cram in plots and characters unnecessarily just for the sake of hinting at a larger franchise. Which they don’t really have, seeing as the only comic book property they own is…Spider-Man. These limits have trapped them in their own web, forcing them to come up with hilariously bad ideas like an Aunt May movie.

man of steel

More plot holes than a speeding train!

* DC comics have bungled it up as well. At the time of writing this, they have exactly one movie in their universe (the subpar Man of Steel) to Marvel’s 10. Green Lantern was a flop, the Nolan Batman movies are now unrelated, all DC based television series are unconnected, and the unreliable Zack Snyder has control of next year’s Dawn of Justice. There are bound to be a few more trainwrecks down the road.

x men days future past

Degrassi: The Next Generation

* FOX’s X-Men are the best off. A rebound after the disastrous one-two punch of Last Stand and The Wolverine has led to three decent films. Thanks to time-travel plot devices they can bring the older stars back for a few more rounds while their universe is expanded with the Gambit and Fantastic 4 movies. Although the troubling production tales about the Fantastic 4 film set may mean that world does not get incorporated.

So what’s next? What will bring in audiences once the novelty of shared universes finally wears off?

thanos

I control the shared universe…literally

* After Infinity War Part II Marvel will probably do a comic-logic approved soft reset. Messing with time and space along with inevitable tragically heroic sacrifices will lead to a semi-new timeline starting around 2020. Some new actors, some old, but well-established brands still in play. A “boss bad guy team-up” is probably in the cards in Phase IV of Marvel’s plan.

force-awakens-star-wars

The Force awakens…then remembers the rebellion is TOMORROW, and goes back to sleep.

* Outside the comic book universe, Disney still has a horse in the form of their Star Wars acquisition. Not content with just new sequels, they’ve also begun constructing a Star Wars shared universe with films centred around individual characters that will tie into the main story.

harry-potter

The Boy Who Will Continue To Live

* Warner Bros is doing the same with the Harry Potter books and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a trilogy of movies based upon a tiny sliver of a book. More Harry Potter films would not be unexpected.

mummy

Just let him sleep already.

* Verging on the slightly ridiculous is the Universal Monsters universe. Dracula, the Mummy, Frankenstein, and Werewolfman all adding up to…what? How will this even make sense? Expect this idea to collapse.

robin hood russell crowe

If Russell Crowe can’t start a franchise…

* Past ridiculous is the “Robin Hood” universe, which is unbelievably stupid. Robin Hood is no longer a viable brand on his own. What makes the studios think people will come out for a Friar Tuck movie?

cereal battle

Tony the Terminator vs. Trix-1000! Darth Chocula vs. Lucky Skywalker!

* Far beyond ridiculous and into sheer conjecture are these ideas: Avengers vs. Star Wars, cereal mascots universe, board game universe, Pixar universe. Though they might seem impossible now, they just might come to fruition.

The shared universe itself also has an inherent problem: what happens once people tire of the old crowd? If all time is spent on the novelty of old characters interacting and none is spent on creating new ones, what legacy is left for the future? What stories will future movie studios mine? It’s what I like to call the Smash Bros Dilemma. Nintendo has had no memorable characters for nearly a decade; the character roster can’t expand if there’s nobody worthy of putting in there. Smash Bros is a franchise that can’t grow without the success of new franchises, which simply aren’t developing in our stagnant cultural void. Disney’s Once Upon a Time gorged excessively upon the introduction of Elsa, one memorable touchstone in a landscape with fewer and fewer of them. This was a clear sign that our generation is starved for new icons in every field. Executives, take heed, if you don’t start developing new properties now, future generations will have no icons to call their own.

And they won’t buy your stuff.

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.

Tombstone_rounded_blank

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.

music-industry-change

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.

METALLICAvsnapster

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.

Screen shot 2014-10-22 at 1.00.44 AM

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”. **

220px-Iggy_Azalea_April_2014_(cropped)

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.

meghan trainor all about that bass

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?

DSC_1731

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.

Jimmy-Kimmel-Coachella

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.

Tuesday Thinkpiece: Millennials and the Power of Feel-Good Music

In case you haven’t heard (and you very possibly may not have), there are a lot of terrible things happening around the world. Economic collapses, civil unrest, mass kidnappings, disease outbreaks, amongst a plethora of other unpleasant situations. Yet the world’s vitriol hasn’t been aimed at any of these recently, but at an old racist saying cartoonishly racist things.

NBA: New Orleans Hornets at Los Angeles Clippers

Let’s not display any sort of lenience to Sterling- it’s an understatement that what he said was unquestionably wrong. However the fact that this story has become the top news headline, addressed by the president, and inspired a collective hand-holding campaign is kind of a joke. This should have been a three sentence blurb in the sports section, dealt with in private. That way at least we wouldn’t get the global back-patting everyone’s giving each other now that Sterling’s been reprimanded. HEY EVERYONE WE PERSONALLY DEFEATED THE EVIL RACIST! OUR GOOD VIBES BROUGHT HIM DOWN!

IT’S TIME TO FEEL GOOD.

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