Recently, I read the last sad story about the demise of the music business I care to read. This latest covered how once proud metal guitarists have been reduced to singing 80s pop to make ends meet, tragically left to decompose in ignominy at the bar mitzvahs of the greater Jersey metroplex. Not a week before, I read about this guy trying to Kickstarter yet another movie project about how the music industry is broken and the music will all die and everything will be sad forever, waah.
I have had enough of all the doom and gloom about the music industry in the past fifteen years. There is something indeed very wrong, but the current analysis misses what is really going on in music, culture, America, and the world. I am fed up with the same entitled whinging and would like to get onto a more productive discussion about where music is heading.
What, you ask, are my credentials to prognosticate on the future of the music industry? For one thing I am a life-long, committed, sick-in-the-head musician, a veteran of 1500 gigs, several records, too many basses and guitars, thousands of dollars in string purchases alone. I am also a strategic analyst for corporations and governments, and occasionally I manage to predict things like the financial crisis of 2008 and that Iraq will suck and that solar energy will come around. Also, I’m that guy who kicked the Guitar Center in the nuts a few months back, so there’s that. But nothing is especially authoritative about my platform on the music industry, so take it with a grain of salt.
I recently managed to get my kids into Star Wars, another successful 20th century thing that began to suck in the new millennium, so my thoughts on this matter shall be organized into a trilogy.
Episode IV: The music industry has a technology problem – but not the one you’re thinking
I have been writing about the effects of technology on the record business ever since music industry executives began suing terminal cancer patients and pre-teens over illegal downloads of MP3s. This ultra-interesting marketing technique was important to me on two levels: first, as a semi-professional musician who made income from live shows and recorded music, and second, as a strategic analyst who helped executives deal with the impact of disruptive changes in society, technology and the economy. I believed, as millions did, that the evolution of compression-and-decompression software was the worst thing ever to happen to the stability of the music industry. I was correct – but not for the right reason.
Two months ago I purchased a device that made me realize the real damage that computer technology wrought – and that it wasn’t just from the decimation of royalties and record shops.
This is what I bought: an Origin Effects “Cali76” limiting amplifier. Only serious guitar nerds and record producers will know quite what this is: an effect for electric guitar and bass that is a clone of a very famous and expensive piece of rackmount studio electronics, the Urei 1176. A studio-quality limiting amp like the 1176 takes your sound, smoothes out the peaks, brings up the valleys, and makes everything that goes through it more punchy, warm, and vibrant for the low, low price of $2800.00. Its clone, the Cali’76, is $479 and fits on your pedalboard.
As soon as I plugged it in, I lost my mind. It reminded me instantly of playing in a proper studio through proper gear into a huge recording console and out mindblowingly-expensive monitors, and how fat your instrument can sound. And then it made me sad, because I realized how much the computer has dulled my sonic expectations over the years. This, I believe, is the root of our problem, and I suspect almost nobody even knows what I’m talking about.
If you are the average person, you probably do not know just how unfuckingbelievable music can sound. Forget your uncle’s “Hi-Fi” system – I mean the real stuff. I produced a record back in the late 1990s where we had a decent budget, and I had the honor of using real gear. Never mind ADAT or hard-disk – we were recording to two-inch tape, a medium so heavy you can practically see the drum beats sitting on it if you squint. We rented some vintage, professional-grade equipment from Nashville – compressors, mic preamps, and equalizers – the raw material for the music of the Gods. Hearing my very own instruments through this gear for the first time, I had a holy revelation, a moment of divine epiphany. I finally understood: When you acquired a CD, a cassette, or even a vinyl record, you were actually receiving a paltry copy of what the engineers were forging out of pure sonic bliss. The best sounding record you ever heard, even through somebody’s absurd $9,000 audiophile home stereo, was no better than disposable airplane headphones compared to what the mix engineers meant you to experience.
Giant Hi-Watt amp stacks recorded with a Royer R121 ribbon mic through an Avalon microphone preamp make an electric guitar sound like a gospel choir of chainsaws. A Fender P-bass with flatwound strings through a Teletronix LA-2A compressor produces a rhythmic low-end thud that becomes a beneficial part of your gastrointestinal tract; I believe it actually helps your digestion. A full drum kit recorded to that fat, two-inch tape sounds like Zeus and Thor punching each other out to see who gets to go home with Aphrodite. And on top of it all, the silk of a Neumann vocal microphone lets the melody sit luxuriously on the track with a sensuousness that makes you imagine what a cashmere bathrobe would feel like on naked skin.
The reason that synesthetic language is required to describe musical equipment of such quality is that these sounds carry much more than the notes themselves. When you listen to real gear, you feel how music can penetrate you and surround you; uplift you and drag you into the depths; cause you to quit your day job and do nothing but search for the muse on the business end of a Vox tube amp. A Hammond B-3 organ throbbing through rotary Leslie cabinets produces notes that simply contain more of the universe – more physics, more information, more communication, more emotion and more life – than a synthesizer version of that same thing. And when you compress all that down to the digital streams on the Internet that provide the bulk of musical experiences these days, you barely have any life left in it at all.
Why today’s music is like frozen Burmese horsemeat
For years, musicians have perseverated in the notion that all of music has been ruined by the Internet, and we have been only partially correct. There is no question, the Internet combined with the MP3 file format disrupted the distribution chain of the record business and dramatically altered the public’s perception of what music should be worth. But the compression of music from the recording console to the iPod did something more than reduce the per-unit revenue of recorded music. Now, this is a very technical term – and I don’t want to overwhelm you if you did not pursue a degree in Electrical Engineering from CalTech followed by an internship as a mix engineer with Jack Joseph Puig, Mike Pensado and Chris Lord-Alge – but the other thing this accomplished is that it made everything sound like shit.
The problem caused by making music infinitely piratable has been analyzed to death, and we seem no closer to understanding or mourning or moving past the loss of the music record industry that people claim to love and miss. So let us engage with a problem that has been only loosely discussed by sonic idealists such as Neil Young – there are implications to the majority of music consumed through media that guarantee that they sound like nothing more than a flat, uninteresting collection of notes.
Since so few people have experienced a Neve console, a Pultec equalizer or even a proper Marshall amp turned to 10, I want to compare the shift to something more accessible: food.
Imagine that one day, all at once, most of the world’s restaurants switched over to freeze-dried meat, most of it produced in factory-farm settings a continent away. And let us say that the world’s restaurants were mostly consolidated under a corporate conglomerate by rapacious private equity bankers. (It happened to guitar shops, so why not?) To save costs, RestaurantCo (a wholly-owned partnership sub-subsidiary of an LLP located, nominally but only technically, in the trunk of a car in the Cayman Islands) decides to fire all the people making sauce and outsource the production of all “restaurant fluids” to a single manufacturing plant in India where the old Union Carbide plant used to be. So now, the vast majority of restaurant food is microwaved, recently-unfrozen Burmese horse meat covered in a suspicious brown liquid of industrial origin.
People, inexplicably, stop going to restaurants as much.
Now, imagine the media response to this since, until very recently, going out to restaurants was very much a thing. Why, prominent newspapers hired reporters dedicated to nothing but restaurants. Television shows were made all about restaurateurs and fine dining and how closely linked restaurants are to luxurious travel. But all of the sudden, the public stops digging restaurants. They eat at home more often. They can order those same horsemeat sauce units directly to their homes via Amazon drone delivery, after all, and they begin doing so. The public does not riot over the matter, since nobody really needs great restaurants to survive.
The culture begins to move on. Anthony Bourdain produces his last, brilliant, embittered, beautifully-filmed episode from what he feels is the last decent restaurant in America, a hot dog cart in the parking lot of a stripmall in Passaic, New Jersey. He utters a last biting witticism, a quote from Dee Dee Ramone, and drowns himself in the dirty water at the end of the episode.
Meanwhile, in Williamsburg, the last Instagram is taken of the last plate served at the last gastropub. Tiny tears are shed in front of tablets and mobile phones. An empire is crumbling.
The public, it appears, seems not to mind the loss, suddenly more entranced by the resurgence of the game LaserTag, which is now an enjoyable way to exploit all of the empty big box retail space in the crumbling suburbs. The only things truly vibrant about the restaurant business are the articles written about the corporately-planned superstar “chefs” working for RestaurantCo, and the endless stream of lamentations for the sous-chefs and food trucks and genius single-dish establishments that we philistines have rejected in the larger culture. But the fact is, people do continue to eat at restaurants every year, and to the tune of billions of dollars. Numbers are down, still, but aren’t they everywhere? Somebody writes a piece blaming the whole thing on the Millennials.
So, to learn from this metaphor, we keep writing about Rhapsody and Spotify and YouTube and reimbursement rates, but what about the product itself? In addition to mangling the revenue stream to musicians, has the industry not also begun shipping quite a bit of Burmese horseburger ? We could veer off here into a huge analysis of why this is, starting with the conglomeration of media into a tiny number of risk averse corporations, each solely interested in supporting artists who will fit into existing marketing categories, full stop. This, no doubt, affects quality as well. After all, half the bands you loved from “the Golden Age,” would simply never reach the public’s ears in today’s regime, having long since been ditched after not producing a hit during the first nine minutes of their first recording deal.
There is no way today’s executives would put up with three mediocre records in order to a get an artist like Bob Dylan to a point where he can produce The Times They Are a Changin’. You think they would allow a modern-day Aretha Franklin or Marvin Gaye to fritter away time making records that are too polite, as both did, before arriving at their legendary, soulful destination? Not with the way the industry works today, pal. They would need to come to the table with two million digital fans already built up or go back to Mom’s basement. Did you spend more time learning about music than you did digital marketing schemes? That ain’t our problem.
So, if nobody minds, I shall skip over the obligatory “but bands suck today, not like back in 1968, yay I’m a Baby Boomer” argument – however accurate – and deal with with what my Cali’76 reminded me: that most music today sounds like dry garbage, so it’s little wonder that it doesn’t inspire people. Fake digital instruments are cheaply recorded and compressed to the point of of lifelessness. Drums have been reduced from that fistfight between deities to the sound of a deck of cards being shuffled. Guitars have become nothing more than a flat, brown midrange tone that slouches across your headphones. The sparkle and life of vocals, horns, and pianos have been sucked out of existence, leaving only a tinny top end; who’ll know the difference?
And the bass! As God as my witness, can you even hear the bass? Not that flatulent, ear-battering percussive mess of schlubstep or EDSM or whatever: a real upright or electric or tuba: can you hear it in the mix of an MP3? No, in the name of all that is holy, you cannot.
This is not some minor problem if we are looking to heal music in our culture.
Episode V: The 1% versus the 99%
Given Occupy Wall Street’s popularization of the above title, you might think that I intend to blame part of music’s demise on wealth and income inequality. After all, try to imagine making it as a musician in present-day New York, one of the historically-great cities for the arts. How can music survive in a place where musicians can no longer afford to live, and non-corporate venues can barely afford to keep the doors open? What chance is there that jazz or punk could germinate with today’s kind of structural economic environment? These are serious questions. Yet for this second major problem in music, I am only borrowing the proportion from OWS, not the subject matter.
Yes, I have a different observation: for every 99 musicians caterwauling about how the music industry is terrible and no good and squashed their dreams, there is only one attempting to produce, maintain and innovate professional music as a product and service anywhere near the standards set by prior generations.
What follows is a spanking aimed at the musicians out there, and it has been a long time coming. The rest of you may listen in, if you would like.
MUSICIANS: isn’t it convenient how much of the blame about “who ruined music” revolves around everybody but musicians? In narrative after narrative, those poor, deserving, expert musicians are robbed of their rightful livelihoods by those mean record executives, ignorant consumers, and inhumane, soulless tech companies – with nary a word about musicians and their performance as a supposed “profession.” It is probably no coincidence that a paucity of criticism about musicians is linked to the second major problem: a deluge of mediocre amateurs masquerading as artistes.
First, let us get some historical perspective around the very notion of being a musician as a profession. It is pretty much a freak occurrence of the 20th century. Quiz time – which of the following professions is also a last name that has existed for centuries:
Wow, it’s everything but musician, isn’t it? And the world still has bakers and carpenters, with nary an article written about threats to their profession. Guess what: the economy has not traditionally supported musicianship as a trade unto itself. It is actually weird that people make a living doing nothing but playing songs, much less becoming wealthy as a result. This historical reality has done little to deter musicians from pursuing a dual set of irritating behaviors: expecting that the world will always require well-paid professional musicians, and then failing to act like professionals.
To read the weeping and gnashing about the cruelty toward those poor, deserving musicians is getting unbearable in the face of what I see all over: slovenly, self-involved amateurs with none of the drive to act like the members of the profession they whine about so often.
I have seen one too many jazz snob angry that nobody is booking his dull, mediocre quartet where the musicians show up and pantomime the music of past generations while gritting their teeth through the “difficulty” of it all, making sure to dress like house painters and grimace like coal miners.
I’ve seen one too many bar band that can’t bother to play at a reasonable volume, nor make a set list, nor take requests, nor act entertaining, nor remain sober such that I really worry about their fate as supposed professionals.
And I am especially unsympathetic toward all those poor “original” acts which are supposedly being neglected. You know what I mean – those tired guitar-bass-drums-whining quartets where nobody on stage has the slightest clue how to play their instruments, and their entire repertoire of reproducible music is limited to that 42 minutes of unedited pablum. I am supposed to indict the entire structure of the industry because these youngsters will be denied their destiny as the next Led Zeppelin, despite not a single one of them being at the musical level of John Bonham, Jimmy Page or John Paul Jones, all of whom were highly-competent studio musicians for years before embarking on original material.
What is the proportion of those kinds of slouching, entitled amateurs versus those who exhibit skills of serious dedication, such as:
- The ability to play their instruments well, with tone, pitch, precision, and for improvisers, vocabulary
- The ability to sight read music in a variety of clefs
- High-quality, well-maintained equipment (including transportation)
- Knowledge of material from a variety of genres
- Capacity to produce entertainment in a variety of settings
- Appropriate attire for the given show
- Showmanship and stagecraft equal to other types of arts and entertainment
Would you still say that my 99 to 1 proportion of complainers to true professionals is fair given this list?
And do you think that this list is too demanding? Let me reframe the question: what would you think of a doctor, a licensed state professional, who operated out of his living room, wore his street clothes and only really specialized in rashes, but I guess could do colds and flus – broken arms if you’re really desperate? Would you be excited to read about that guy not making ends meet?
Man, I am being harsh to all those musicians out there, right? Well, you said you wanted to be a profession, a trade, a real job. That’s what it takes to be a stonemason, a dentist, an architect or an engineer: devotion to a set of skills and a willingness to hold yourself to extremely high standards. If you’re not willing to live up to that, and many wanna-be musicians are not, then stop filling your Facebook page with self-pity and righteous indignation and go get a real career. Trades can be spiritually and economically rewarding things, and if you’re not willing to make one out of music, then move on. It’s true: the music business is getting harder, and even if you do everything right, as many are, you may have trouble making a living compared with past decades.
This could be because the world is deciding that music just isn’t that important at this very moment, and we need to deal with that.
Episode VI: Pop music is dying – and that’s OK
Most of the hang-wringing around music is based on an unexamined assumption, one that says society needs the same level of money and attention spent around music forever. You can be forgiven for falling into this intellectual trap; our entire economy is based on this mathematically-impossible and culturally-unsustainable fallacy. For heaven’s sake, we actually built the structure of retirement funds on this nonsense, so I guess you can be forgiven for thinking that it could be applied to bar bands, too. (Side note: the eventual crisis from pension funds and private equity parasites will be much worse than the bar band crisis and maybe even worse than the housing crisis. You read it here first.)
Speaking of old age and retirement, my wife is an internal medicine physician whose interests are in gerontology and palliative medicine – the science of getting old and dying well. Palliative medicine is used in something called Hospice, a phase of medical care that is more concerned with the the quality of a person’s life than its length. You would think that all medicine is concerned with quality of the patient’s life, but the reality is somewhat different. As I have learned in discussions around my dinner table, there is a huge tacit philosophical framework in the rest of Western (and particularly American) medicine that dying is the worst thing ever, and we must do whatever we can at whatever cost to stop it. A cursory glance at our medical spending patterns will correlate with this desire.
There could be an infinite number of cultural reasons for this, but the one I ascribe to it is that our mindsets are linear and not cyclical. We want growth every year, forever. Nothing should come and go, ebb and flow, despite the fact that this is the basis of every other phenomenon in nature. Thus, we modern industrial Westerners suffer mightily when the tide goes out to sea, as inevitably it must. We wail and gnash our teeth and generally think like people about to be orphaned by the universe. This behavior can be seen in a great many aspects of our culture, and I believe that it is present in our thinking about music. Because pop music as a cultural force is surely waning, and that is something better understood, in my view, than forcefully resisted.
The end of an era: signposts
I play music in public, usually at nightclubs and private parties, though also at festivals and larger venues. In the vast majority of American locales, from what I see, it looks like music is already dead. The notion of music as an important, essential, exciting part of culture appears, to my eyes, to be part of gauzy memories of the past rather than how people behave today.
I see it at my own gigs, and at friends’ – everything but arena shows. Musicians are producing live art in front of people who are either staring at the venue’s ubiquitous forty-three TV screens to mindlessly track some far-off routine sporting event, or staring at the Facebook app on their phones to keep track of their high school classmates’ carefully-manicured “life” updates. Live music – this supposedly essential cultural experience – is happening right near them and you can tell that it’s just not that big a deal. You see, music, live or not, is just one of a great number or entertainments available to the average consumer. The fact that music is live, produced by real humans, is merely a detail.
Talk with brides planning their Big Day. This is supposed to be a windfall for musicians – three or four times the rate of the average gig in exchange for nine hours of logistics and managing the touchiest, most insanely demanding clients on Earth. Yet my professional musician friends report that opting for a DJ is increasingly popular, as it affords a high degree of control over the “content” and no discernible loss in entertainment value.
Live musicians, you see, are not all that important.
And it’s not that people don’t spend billions on music; they do. It’s just that they spend the vast majority of it on spectacles produced by artists who peaked decades ago. Look at the top tours and top record sales and consider if musical exploration really is that important. The music industry, in terms of money spent, is mostly about funding a last-minute spasm of nostalgia before the whole party is over.
Let this sink in.
Go and play another bar gig, with a band of whatever quality. Watch the crowd light up when the jukebox comes back on.
Go compare the attendance at the concerts for a tribute act with the attendance at the last concert of your best local band.
This idea of pop music being a big deal in a cultural sense is untrue. It is dying, on the way out.
The industry will take whatever size and shape that it takes, appropriate to the reality of what people really care about: social networks, “franchises” and nostalgia acts.
That, too, is OK. Mourn it if you will, go through your Kubler-Ross steps if you must, but accept it.
Pop music had an incredible run of several decades – a historic explosion of creativity in an industrial, mass media age coming to fruition. New technologies arrived constantly to enable the production of new sounds and amazing ways to record them, and artists stepped forward into that fertile environment to change music. They may still do so, but likely not with nearly the frequency and impact as in recent decades.
And that is OK.
We may have something bigger on our plates. We have been rewiring most of the institutions of society during the past couple decades. We now live between two democracies and two economies, still shackled by the last and not quite to the next. The development of technologies such as social networks have been necessary to their evolution, but the 20th century music industry is less possible as a result.
Is that the worst thing ever to happen to society?
We have work to do. Music may not be the most important part of that work.
Do not misunderstand me – I love music. I’m still going to be buying pedals and looking for tonal purity and sonic heaven, like an obsessive. I’m still pulling for local bands, and for breakout stars. You can too. And you can still be a musician, provided that you face the realities I have laid out, which will make it difficult to support yourself and a family as the player of songs.
The modern music business, which so many of us came to love, is gone. Love it for what it was. Sing a great requiem for it. Wish it well on its path of transformation. It is time for us all to move toward acceptance, and to discover what is next – for ourselves and for music.
P.S. To all commenters: I am not married to this analysis. I even hope it’s wrong. But we must move past grieving to take a leadership position in our own art. If you have a more empowering narrative than mine – let’s here it. I’ll gladly let you guest post.