The State of Music Today

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the state of the music industry.

Over time, it seems to have become more and more synthetic, more and more controlled with every passing year.

Fad styles of music seep in for a couple of years, and are then replaced by some new trendy auto-tuned alternative.

And you know what? I actually don’t even care anymore.

It used to be that as a die-hard rock music fan, I would loudly scoff at anyone who listened to pop music, or who wasn’t game to come to a live show. I thought people who listened to jazz were highly suspect, and that anyone who liked musicals or opera must be 100% lame.

I was a ultimate rock music snob. I loved rock. I still do. In my youth I practically lived for it, skiving off work and skipping family gatherings to go to shows – even if I didn’t know who was playing, or the band wasn’t a particular favourite. I just couldn’t get enough of the vibe, of the energy, and I was constantly on the lookout for the next act I could really get into.

But after many, many years of this singular focus, I started to feel tired. Exhausted, if I’m honest. Looking down on people for their music tastes takes a lot of energy. Keeping at the forefront of the scene takes a lot of time and dedication, and often doesn’t deliver anything great back to you for months at a time.

I realised as I’ve gotten older that I just don’t care that much any more.

If kids these days want to listen to Taylor Swift and One Direction, who am I to judge them? Just because I think they’d get more out of listening to AC/DC and Iggy Pop doesn’t mean they should have to listen to an old man ranting about it. In fact, I’m not even sure that AC/DC and Iggy Pop would be relevant to them.

We came up in a different time, when politics were about the little guy beating back the establishment… not about bombing the living hell out anything that moves. Kids these days are growing up in a dark, ominous world, where their freedoms are increasingly being taken away. It’s hardly surprising they just want to hear songs about easy love and fun parties.

Who can blame them for that?

Why the U2 Stunt is Good News for the Music Industry

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard that Apple added U2′s latest album to all iTunes account as a publicity stunt for the unveiling of some of their new toys. Many people felt like this was a violation of their choices, but there is some good mixed in with the bad.

Since it’s already been written up succinctly, I wanted to share this article from Pando Daily with you:

Last week, amid the frenzy over new iPhones and smartwatches, Wired’s Mat Honan wrote a truly excellent requiem for the humble iPod. While reading it I felt like I was 19 again, using birthday money and cash from a summer job to buy my first Apple-adorned mp3 player (it was a 3rd generation). I remember experiencing that “new Apple smell” for the first time, wondering how a $300 device barely came with any instructions, and acclimating myself to the oddly soothing “click-click-click” that would follow me everywhere throughout the better part of my young adulthood.

The line that truly hit home for me was when Honan describes how this tiny device, which is now quickly approaching oblivion, changed the way we think about music, identity, and each other:

Looking at someone’s iPod was like looking into their soul. In their music you could see who they were. You could tell if they were sophisticated or rough. You could see in their playlists the moments they fell in love and the moments they fell back out again. You could see the filthiest, nastiest hip hop in the little white boxes of the primmest people, and know their inner lives a little better than you did before.

I know how he feels. I remember trading iPods with friends whose tastes I admired, furiously scribbling down every album and song I had never heard. If I ran across something like, say, Garth Brooks on a device belonging to an ardent hip-hop head, the person would simply shrug and say, “What can I say? I like him.”

Despite the fact that we lose our minds sharing and oversharing all day on Facebook and Twitter, we’re losing that window into the idiosyncratic soul of a music fan. As the iPod phases out andstreaming continues to replace iTunes like iTunes replaced CDs, how does one measure a listener’s collection and all of the personal statements that come with it? You might stream the new Miley Cyrus song out of perverse curiosity, and Spotify or SoundCloud or Rdio will be more than happy tell every one of your Facebook followers that you did it. But if you allocated a few precious megabytes of storage to that Miley Cyrus jam on your iPod? That meant something.

Today, however, everything is in the cloud — disposable — and that’s got many worried that the value of music has become as fleeting and intangible as the stream over which it’s delivered. It’s what happens, says ex-Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, “when every part of your life has a capacity to be vaporized.”

It’s amidst this disposable culture that Apple took the unprecedented move of adding U2’s latest album, “Songs of Innocence,” to half a billion iTunes users’ libraries. People were pissed. I’m talking some truly next level Twitter outrage last week. You’d think Tim Cook had penned a Peter Shih-style Medium post about how much he hates poor people. Industry analyst Bob Lefsetz said it was “no different from a rape or a murder, but with even less legs.” iOS developer Dan Wineman* was more subdued, tweeting, “Evolution of music sales: 1. Pay a lot 2. Pay a little 3. Pay anything 4. OK fine, just pay once a month 5. Fuck you, now you own a U2 album.”

I’m empathic toward the outrage — I just didn’t feel much of it myself. And it’s not because I like U2 (I don’t). To me it wasn’t so different from when that doofy David Byrne song “Like Humans Do” came pre-loaded on every Windows computer in the early 2000s. Maybe if Apple had forced an album on me from a band I hate more viscerally (like the Eagles) I would’ve cared more. But to be honest, the real source of my apathy was that I couldn’t remember the last time I even opened iTunes, on my computer or on my phone — like many Americans, I use streaming music services almost exclusively. Of course, there are still gigabytes upon gigabytes of music on one of my external hard drives. But who has the need or space to have all that on a phone or computer?

After reading Honan’s piece I began to understand why some people were outraged. The iPod is on its way out, and the entire album format may not be far behind. And yet, people still care about having a self-curated library of songs. They still think of it as a reflection of their identity. Otherwise, the feeling of betrayal at having a corporation slot an album into your music library against your will likely would not have been so palpable.

In reading Honan’s elegant description of the iPod revolution, you get a sense of the power that expressing your personal tastes through a music collection has — and that’s not going to go away. First it was a shelf of vinyl records, next it was a CD rack, and then it was an iPod library. We’re still figuring out what it’s going to be next — it will likely take the form of playlists or even custom remixes and mashups of popular tracks — and the streaming music services are tinkering with the best ways for listeners to share these playlists with one another.

This is all good news for musicians like Chamberlin who worry that the actual product of music, now that it’s ubiquitous, effortlessly accessible, and even less tangible than an MP3, has become little more than a commodity. That people were so outraged that their music libraries, and thus the very core of their identities, were sullied by a lackluster offering from an aging rock band, is proof that fans still have an intimate relationship with their favorite bands (and an active distaste for their least favorites). They may not express it by buying an album or a T-shirt anymore. And for many, live shows have become more about the drugs and the culture and the lightshows than the artist onstage.

But fans still feel it. Now platforms just need to figure out how to harness it.


The State of The (Music) Nation

Once upon a time, launching into a career in the rock music industry had pretty good odds of setting you up on a very comfortable financial cushion.

Even if you never really hit the big time, there was plenty of room for radio fodder. Studios had rosters full of B-list artists that they could trot out at any time they needed to fill a slot on a radio program, talk show or even to cover a live event.

Those artists weren’t making the big bucks, but there was enough for everyone to get by.

These days, even some of the biggest names in the industry are struggling to get by. Record deals are no longer the lucrative cash-cow they once were, and the royalties paid by radio stations and online music players are little more than a pittance.

To replace their ever-dwindling traditional income, the high rollers are turning increasingly to live music for their bread and butter.

This, however, presents us, the music fans, with a dilemma.

While it’s fantastic to be able to see our favorite artists more frequently, and in a more diverse range of venues and types of concert…

We are increasingly aware that WE are the commodity – not the artists.

This has become blindingly obvious, with many bands being brazenly sponsored by energy drinks and the like, their performances peppered with subtle-as-a-sledgehammer references to their sponsors and their products.

More and more, live music has simply become a vehicle for artists and big businesses to make more money together, while delivering a less authentic and less enjoyable experience for the people actually coughing up the dollars.

Until record companies, the online music stations, festival organisers and the artists can come to a workable agreement for all, this commodification of the art form will go on, cheapening it and damaging the very prospects they are looking to grow.