I watched the above ‘exposé’ and I can imagine it is intended to be shocking. And I can imagine, I suppose, that for some people it might be pretty shocking, although I doubt very many of them read this blog.
In short, every – and I mean every – record in mainstream pop is auto-tuned to hell. It’s just an assumption these days. And every live performance is auto-tuned to fuck as well, in the odd occasion it isn’t just lip-synched. Live shows, the last leg the music industry apparently has to stand upon, are a sham. The product is a lie. None of these people can sing. None of them are who they are presented to us as being.
The issue I have with the whole premise of the above video is that it misunderstands the nature of the thing it is describing. That’s fair enough, because the name it is given is almost entirely false, but the ‘music industry’ isn’t a music product so the way the music is put together is pretty much secondary.
The music industry is an entertainment product, not an art product, and so we seem to consistently misunderstand how it is supposed to work, what it is trying to achieve and how things are actually done.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some very talented musicians working in the music industry, and some amazing music being made, but that is a secondary aim. There are some talented artists working in the graphic design industry as well, but that doesn’t mean that its primary goal is to produce great art.
Modern musicians gain far, far more from celebrity than they do from music. Their money is made in appearance fees (and not always to perform either), in branded products and image licensing. Selling music is the means to this end, but it is really not the end itself.
I despise the X-Factor with its legitimised bullying and ridiculous karaoke circus, but I don’t hate it because it is Bad Music. It isn’t about music at all. It’s an interactive soap opera, so really, we shouldn’t care what it ‘says’ about the modern music industry.
Except for the fact that it makes explicit what should have been obvious to everyone for years: that the people we think are the stars are not really the stars. In the X-Factor the show itself is the star, and the contestants, even the winners, are disposable tokens whose individuality is more or less irrelevant.
The above video complains about lip-synched or auto-tuned live shows cheating the consumer out of what they came to see, but they think that musical excellence is what they came to see, and it just isn’t. It’s entertainment. They came to see a show – a spectacle.
And you can criticise Madonna or Beyoncé for miming their live shows, but look at all the dancing around they are doing. If they were performing those feats of athletics at the same time as having to really, properly sing, then all you’d hear would be their heavy breathing as they tried to gasp their way through their songs. They have to lip-synch. The performance and the spectacle are hundreds of times more important than some misplaced sense of musical integrity.
And if every song is auto-tuned and every performance lip-synched, then effectively you are looking at someone whose acting and dancing are far more important than their musical abilities. There are people who cross over of course, and have some influence over the nature of the product they are the face of, but who is more important to the Katy Perry machine – the people they buy the song-writing from, the army of image consultants, or whoever they hire to play the Katy Perry character.
And I am not being an indie-snob here. I have heard too many tales of stadium-filling guitar bands with teams of ghost-writers writing hits in the style of the band because the band themselves can’t do it anymore to dismiss those stories as bollocks. Anything that big is a product.
Of course this isn’t a neat division. There can be a lot of great art in even the most commercially successful music products, but that doesn’t mean that’s what the industry does, or what it is there for.
And I think it’s this messy overlap which confuses people. Underground DIY bands can ascend to this level of celebrity too, but it’s extremely rare. How many Hollywood superstars are actually decent actors, as opposed to hugely charismatic celebrities. Some of them can act, but at that level of the industry it becomes pretty much secondary.
The crossover can be weird. I remember Drowned in Sound going to the Mercury Prize this year and seeing this disconnect first hand. Young Fathers won the prize and instead of being interviewed about anything of substance were simply expected by the assembled press throng to rattle through a series of rote answers about how it was the music that mattered but how honoured they were, and the atmosphere when they didn’t play the anticipated game was highly uncomfortable.
I can’t speak for them, but it seems to me simply that Young Fathers weren’t prepared to step from the musicians’ ladder, which they have doggedly and successfully been climbing for some years now, onto the celebrity ladder.
I was a little taken aback by DiS’s surprise, I have to be honest, given their awareness of how celebrity drives traffic which in turn drives ad revenue on music websites and the effect that has on what actually gets written about. They should know that the fundamental basis of how you make your decisions changes based on whether you are an artistic product or a commercial one, and how early you have to make that decision.
Late last year I lamented how hard it was becoming for me to get our bands any coverage in the bigger online music magazines – ones, funnily enough, like Drowned in Sound. Irrespective of the reasons why this is the case, a friend of mine made the suggestion that I have a look for some bands being covered already, with some traction of their own, and sign them.
It’s an eminently sensible suggestion of course, but my reaction was really hostile: I’m not being told who to fucking sign by a straw poll of random volunteer music writers who will rattle out some stuff for these sites for free for as long as it takes them to get bored of not getting paid and fuck off to get a job in PR instead. I am putting in the work, I am spending the money, I am making the fucking decisions.
And of course therein lies the difference. What I was essentially saying was ‘I am not signing someone just because I think they’re going to do well’. Or, even more starkly: ‘I’m not signing someone for business reasons’. And if as a label you’re not willing to base who you sign on business reasons, then you can’t really claim to be a business can you?
And we’re not a business – well, not primarily at least. Like the ‘music’ industry, which uses art as a tool to enhance its business, we use business as a tool to generate revenue which enhances our art.
So I am neither surprised nor at all outraged that modern pop stars either can’t or don’t sing – mostly because that’s not really what they’re selling. Even Beyoncé. Even Madonna. Even Taylor Swift. And I am not judging or claiming some sort of moral high ground or smug level of integrity. They are just totally different things, done in totally different ways, for totally different reasons.
And if you don’t think so then ask me or thousands of small labels like me how willing we would be to compromise our art for business reasons. Then wonder how much someone like the One Direction would be allowed to fuck up their business in the name of art.