I have been reading a few things recently about the state of music in the 21st Century. Not the state of the music industry exactly, but the state of music itself and its relationship with its fans. There are a lot of things I want to write about in response to this, so rather than one massive great big monster post, I think I’ll break it down into a small series of things which I’ll write over the course of the next day or so.
Firstly, here are the various articles that prompted this little festival of self-indulgence, so you have some idea what to expect:
A Penny For Your Thoughts by The Vinyl Villain (read the comments as well, because some of them are very thought-provoking.
Does the World Need Another Indie Band? by Tim Walker, writing in The Independent.
Why Has Modern Music Lost So Much Impact? by the Kings of A&R.
This comment, from a reader called Alex in the comment thread of my recent podcast – The Tribecast.
So, how am I going to break this down into relatively digestible chunks, so this post doesn’t just ramble on forever? Like so:
2. Over Saturation
3. Hype Overload
4. Decreasing Quality
I may quibble with either the existence or the seriousness of some of the other things I am going to discuss in this series, but I don’t think I can honestly argue against the fact that there is severe fragmentation in the music market. Whether it’s a bad thing or a good thing, however, I couldn’t rightly say, although I don’t think it is great for the vast majority of music fans.
If you think about it, no-one really knows where or what the mainstream is anymore. Jay-Z headlines Glastonbury, the NME left relevance behind years ago, Top of the Pops is dead, radio stations are struggling and internet ones are actually under attack from the music industry itself, so where do we all find out about the next big thing together?
Well for the fanatics like myself and probably, given you’re here reading this, you too, the fragmentation is actually a bonus most of the time. It is what allows us to be here, examining some of the more obscure
corners of the indiesphere, whilst still keeping half an eye on the wider mainstream acts at the same time. It also helps us build communities of people, even ones who have never met, nor are ever likely to.
For the more balanced music fan, however, it can be a problem. I mentioned during the Tribecast that pop music, particuarly mainstream pop music is not particularly about the music itself from an artistic standpoint. I mean, there’s a reasonably rigid formula for pop hits, and they have to be catchy as hell for some reason, so it’s not like the music can get away with being entirely inept (vapid is another question), but for the listener the social aspect is often equally important.
Culture is a crucial part of group bonding – basic tribal behaviour – and the act of sharing cultural entities is an important way of binding a community together. So it really doesn’t matter what you think of a song, what matters is its capacity to appeal to a large number of people and enough awareness that it has the chance to become something shared by as many people as possible.
In the Tribecast I mentioned Mr. Brightside by the Killers as a perfect example of a song and an album that was so ubiquitous that it is now completely attached to the Summer of 2005 and in five or six years time, any of us who hear that song again will instantly associate it with whatever was going on in our life at the time. We’ll have that ‘Aaa, remember this!‘ conversation with a random person in a pub, and this will allow us to instantly bond that little bit more, and that little bit more easily.
At the moment there seems to be no shared mass market for this stuff, in fact Top of the Pops’ very breadth was probably what killed it. Looking at the Top Ten Albums lists for 2007, we see the Billboard Charts – the barometer of major label sales – giving us obviously ludicrous hits such as Hannah Montana and Now Fifty-Whatever. Even the superficial magazines were writing out lists full of LCD Soundsytem and TV on the Radio – a bloggers’ delight perhaps, but is it that representative of mainstream tastes? Bloggers are prominent at the moment because we are very easy to find, and there is a definite style of indie rock that seems to be very popular amongst bloggers. So we’re one of the most coherent, available voices out there, but I really have my doubts that we are representative of mainstream tastes.
All this results in the fragmentation we are talking about. As Alex said, in his comment on the Tribecast thread:
“I think songs like ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’ and bands like Arctic Monkeys – that really capture the imagination of the mainstream, but that can also be looked back on a few months down the line without any hint of embarrassment – are so important. They’re the only point of cultural bonding (and drunken singalong) I can expect to have with anyone of my age in 10 years time.”
He’s right, but in other ways this fragmentation is a good thing. It allows, for example, smaller, more close-knit communities to form, often locally centred. Imagine if you find someone in ten years with a Toad Session recording in their music collection, for example. Or imagine, on a larger scale, meeting a fan of King Creosote and realising that you both talked on the Fence Beefboard at the same time. Or even just meeting someone who also reads The Vinyl Villain or, more likely, Said the Gramophone. That bond will be a hell of a lot stronger than a wishy-washy, generic ‘Oh yeah, I liked that Killers song’.
But remember that it isn’t just radio and television that forges these shared bonds. ASDA radio plays more and better indie music in an hour that pretty much any major radio station, and they probably have more listeners too, albeit not by choice. But this seeps in everywhere – in every pub and bar that plays music. If you’re in the same pubs as someone, you’re listening to the same music, and if it happens a lot you remember it, however subconsciously, so this process really hasn’t been stopped. Think about the ubiquity of cutting edge music in advertising and television as well – if we’re all watching Big Brother, we’re all listening to the same music.
Ultimately though, I think these things will consolidate. That’s what Capitalism does: builds bigger and bigger and shitter and shitter companies until there is an explosion and it all tumbles down and starts over. You can already see the growth of things like The Hype Machine and Drowned in Sound and to some extent The Guardian as well, all starting to point the way to the kinds of large entities that could easily grow out of the current sea of tiny enterprises. So for anyone worrying about the fragmentation in the actual music industry itself, I honestly doubt it will last that long.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that we often don’t know what is going to define a period of time until afterwards. What’s going to define 2008? Well we don’t know, do we – Vampire Weekend? It’s not unlikely.
The Killers – Mr. Brightside
Vampire Weekend – A-Punk
Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit