NOTE: This is part one of a two-part article. The second part will deal with the shaky economic foundation of the new musical environment.
Necessity breeds innovation. Like a pathogenic bacteria, some people evolve to survive and thrive in competitive environments. Those with the ingenuity to prevail in spite of adversity leave behind the regressive and overtake the unprogressive. SUV manufacturers watch their bulky business model crumble as gas prices drive consumers towards smaller vehicles with innovative efficiency features. Nintendo has risen from the embarrassing slump of the Gamecube to overtake it's competitors with the novel Wii console. More often than not, innovative marketing plays a considerable role in a product’s success. However, a product must ultimately deliver, even at the most basic level, if it is to remain profitable.
If one takes his colors from a quick analysis of the music market, it is easy to paint a profoundly different picture. Popular music, the fittest in the jungle of sound, prevails despite, or perhaps because of, it's lack of originality or inventiveness. Indeed, the music industry appears to follow a unique market structure the likes of which cannot be seen anywhere else. Rather than responding to independent consumer demands, the music industry simply offers up the same old vanilla and tells consumers to buy.
In response, economics professors are pointing to the blackboard and writing out “A recipe for economic disaster”. But hold on there, Professor Dollarbill, the catch is that this bizarre method has been sucking greenbacks out of trouser pockets like geese into a 747’s turbine engine.
At least, that is, until now. The worldwide web, with it's fancy filesharing and undiscriminating hierarchy, has crippled the old music market model. Why buy what some mastermind industry executive tells you to when you can get whatever you want for free?
Of course, early internet music distribution was not exactly hallmarked by the exchange of innovative music. No, file-sharing saw listeners embrace freebies but stick close to the industry’s regimented menu. Before walking the plank and diving into the world of modern music piracy, however, grab the clock and start winding backwards.
Jazz enjoyed mainstream popularity for approximately two thirds of a century. After emerging from ragtime in the early 1900s, jazz music branched off and gained popularity as musicians and regions injected their flavors into the exciting new musical medium. Big band jazz, bebop, cool jazz, swing and others provided listeners with consistently fresh takes on the jazz genre.
But listeners abandoned jazz. By the 1980s, the music maintained mainstream interest only with older, nostalgic consumers. With another 20 years, jazz, the music that once had audiences twisting their ears in ecstasy, became labeled archaic and boring. Today, jazz has an indie presence but exists mainly as an overlooked influence or in annual festivals.
The rise and fall of the jazz dynasty is a historical omen with a mysterious message. The chicken-egg dilemma of jazz’s fall from commercial domination is a heated conundrum. On one side of the table, jazz, which was moving into highly experimental and perhaps musically indulgent forms, simply forgot to provide mainstream audiences with a “listenable” product. The flip side would counter, saying the rush of creativity and experiment was frightening to the impatient industry and that the listeners did not abandon jazz. Instead, jazz was preemptively removed from the commercial palette out of fear of alienating casual listeners. Or, contrary to the other arguments, one might maintain that jazz had run it's course; that the genre was exhausted and, without innovation, it could not keep itself afloat.
Ultimately, if jazz descended from it's position because consumers wanted new sounds or because jazz became music more for musicians than for listeners, then the music market of the time was a consumer-driven one. If it was removed from it's throne by industry minds wary of the budding experimentation and diversification then the industry was already calling the shots. Today, the state of music depends on whether or not the music market proves to be a truly consumer-driven one or merely one in which consumers follow the directions of the producers.
Back to the Future
Ok, jump off that plank and aim for the future. Piracy has brought the music industry to it's knees. CD sales have all but disappeared and commercial music is vying for something, anything to help it struggle to it's feet. The soundtrack to this near-future scenario is still hazy, veiled in a sonic smog with only vague limbs, notes and beats recognizable from outside. Tomorrow’s musical menu may be a varied, enormous one; a consumer-driven mammoth repertoire of choices, the success of each determined by it's individual qualities. Conversely, the option set might be more reminiscent of a basic cable set up; a few, clear commercial options and a bit of independent fuzz. The music of the future ultimately depends on the war being waged this very moment.
The internet is an equalizer. No, not in the sense that you can put the old “California smile” on the panel and play Master of Puppets, but in the sense that users compete on relatively equal ground. For music, this means that www.yourmusic.com and www.hannahmontana.com are just as easy to reach. Instead of being restricted to the selection available at Wal-Mart, internet users can pick and choose from a much broader range. At the end of the day, this means that artists and albums can be judged based more on their quality, originality and creativity than their publicist’s skill or mass-market retail connections.
Today, the “industry standard” still has inertia and is undoubtedly the major share holder in music listener’s ears. Still, major label representation matters less and less and the hierarchy is leveling out. The musical world is flattening.
Myspace.com, love it or hate it, is a prime example of the flattening. Commercial artists still have an advantage but popular independent and unsigned artists are increasingly able to hold significant market share. The modern musical spectrum not only covers a broader range of contemporary music but the entire field of choices from years past. With such a scope, listeners have an opportunity to cultivate expansive and varied tastes. A large vat of options also means that any cream that rises to top will be a thin one. It may be a vastly richer cream than ever before but the size of the musical vat is so gargantuan that the top selection will inherently have to settle for a smaller share than the stars of the past.
What that cream will be, though, raises a debate that brings up elements from the downfall of jazz.
Tila Tequila and Myspace Whoredom
Myspace.com, an experimental proving grounds for free music on an equal plane, bodes a mixed omen about the future of music. Independent and unsigned groups appear to garner a significant share of page views, but those that succeed are generally clones of music industry cookie-cutter artists. Aside from Tom and the prototypical “Emo Kid”, Tila Tequila is arguably the most recognizable Myspace face. She, along with others like rapper Sean Kingston and singer songwriter Lily Allen, amassed a ludicrous number of virtual friends that served as a human staircase to stardom.
With Tila Tequila it's queen, Myspace’s musical milk lacks a satisfyingly rich upper layer. Regardless, let’s push the straw a little lower. Past the crusty commercial fluff, below the cheap alcohol and beyond the lifeless and phony copycat junk. Once you’ve got your straw practically scraping the bottom, take a sip. Is that the taste of tomorrow’s music?
To judge the future of music by the tip of the sinking ship that is the old music model is to overlook the ocean around it. The preferences of internet users have not had much time to change and so those artists that offer more of the same commercial sounds in a flashy package still sit in the captain’s seat of the modern musical Titanic. The waves of originality are running onto the deck of the ship though, because it is easier than ever before for one to experience a profusion of music in every imaginable genre.
Indeed, one does not need to dig through records in a dusty shop to catch a glimpse of sounds outside the range of the music industry spectrum. This isn’t to say that every artist buried below the surface is a musical genius brimming with innovative, high quality music. No, the vast majority of artists are derivative of profit-making acts. Still, the rare musical treasures are buried below much less sand than ever before.
As little as a generation or two ago, most music listeners could probably count the number of artists they and their friends listened to regularly on their fingers and toes. Today most would probably require a full head of hair, counting one strand at a time, to do the same. The combination of unrivaled variety, limitless options and an equal opportunity marketing medium set the stage for a dramatic transformation in music.