Photo by Cindy Banescu – Creative Focus
This month’s 60 Minutes / Vanity Fair poll asked the question, Which decade had the worst music? The number one answer, by 42%, was this decade. No other decade listed (from the 1970s to the 2000s) came anywhere close. This got me to thinking, are we really in the midst of the greatest musical drought ever known?
When I asked Spawn, he opined that his generation, with the exception of himself and a few of his friends, had the worst musical taste of anyone anywhere. Ironically, Spawn listens to a lot of the same music I listened to when I was his age. The age from whence springs a vivid memory of my grandmother yelling ,Good Lord, somebody give that girl an aspirin, after I played some insipid pop anthem for the four hundredth straight time. So, really can this decade’s musical offerings be all that much worse?
Certainly, as the music industry has become ever more corporatized, emphasis has shifted to manufacturing trends rather that the good hard work of discovering what’s new and innovative. Record companies are no longer run by people who truly love music (I’m not saying that these same people always treated their artists with the respect and royalties they deserved but that’s something we can discuss another time), but by multi-national parent corporations whose interest is the bottom line and creating a “product” that can be leveraged across numerous other industries that have little or nothing to do with creating memorable music. Do you really believe your favorite pop star has the time to personally design a line of clothes and write a novel and start a charity and host a cooking show all the while updating the myriad of social media needed to maintain “relevance” AND create great music?
Technology has been a double-edged sword for the music business, bringing the cost of recording down and providing new outlets for the distribution of material. For talented independent artists this has been a great blessing. At the same time, it’s opened the way for lots and lots and lots of mediocre to bad stuff to flood the market, making it difficult for a noteworthy artist to cut through the dissonance. You can be a huge hit on Social Media not by being a master of your art but by creating something so cringe-inducingly terrible that it goes viral.
So having said all this you’d think I’d come down on the side of those who feel that this is the worst time since history began for music. I don’t. Though optimism is not my natural state I’m exercising it here. I am retaining my hope in the power of good music to triumph over so-so.
First of all, there has always been bad music. It’s just that what happens over the course of time is that the bad stuff falls away leaving only the good stuff behind. Go into any used bookstore and pick up a pile of sheet music and you’ll see what I mean. For every well crafted tune that you remember fondly, no matter what your era, you’ll find at least five times as many that should never have seen the light of day let alone been published. Yes, every now and then you’ll find an undiscovered gem in one of those piles, but the work required to find it is immense. I speak from personal experience here. A friend once told me that sometimes songs get “lost” for a reason. Let’s call it musical Darwinism.
Secondly, the musical choices are available to us are incredible. The old ideas of a few narrowly defined genres are slowly giving way to the understanding that there is an infinite musical variety out there. As those barriers are broken down we’ll see more and collaborations across musical borders. For this alone, it’s a very exciting time to be a musician.
Thirdly, and finally I think that music lovers must realize that any music worth hearing is worth searching for. The best music is out there waiting for you to discover it, but it takes some effort on your part to find. Going to the website or blog of an artist you admire and finding out who they like is a good start. Ask your friends what they like to listen to and why. See a live performance at a local venue. It can be a bar, or a theatre or concert hall, a well known performer, or one who’s up and coming, it doesn’t matter. Just look for something that sparks your interest. Want an evening in? Take a look at sites like Stage It or Concert Window. These sites allow you to experience a wide variety of performances from the comfort of your own computer. See what’s available at your local public library. Most have a great variety of music available and you can experiment to your heart’s content for free. See if your library has a section devoted to local performers, and check out some of their work. I am just throwing these ideas out there to get you started thinking about new ways to experience music beyond simply turning on the radio or I-Pod, there are lots more where this came from.
Despite, grumbling and gloom and doom predictions about the death of music I think there is a lot out there that is worth our time. As long as there are people who really care about what they listen to there will be great music to be had.