EASY ED’S BROADSIDE: How Music Scratches Our Niche
Between my weekly column for No Depression, keeping my own website updated, maintaining a digital magazine, and aggregating music news on a Facebook page, I devote about three or four hours each day to scanning headlines, as well as searching for interesting musical tidbits in the less traveled corners of the internet. Perhaps it’s become an obsession, because it’s done not for money but simply for my own sense of curiosity and interest, and the enjoyment of sharing. To be transparent, and this is in no way a complaint but just a fact, if I was to live on my monthly stipend for writing, I’d be living in a cardboard box under a freeway, weigh less than a hundred pounds, and you’d find me at Union Square with three rusted strings on an old busted up guitar, singing the blues out of tune for spare change.
And so it is that I have a regular day job with salary and benefits that keep a roof over my head, food in my belly, one kid in college with the other now on his own, access to exceptional health care, and even a moderate savings account. Now, it’s not at the level when I will ever actually be able to retire and enjoy the so-called “good life” promoted in television advertisements from wealth management institutions, but that is of little concern to me. I am fortunate — knock on wood — to live a frugal and utilitarian lifestyle that allows time to enjoy film, art, music, and books.
For 40 hours each week, I interact with hundreds of people from many walks of life. Rich, poor, young, old, born either here or there with multiple ethnicities and religions, conservative, liberal, apolitical, privileged, just scraping by, in good health, and at the beginning, middle or end of life. While it’s not the sexy fast-paced executive position in music distribution that I once enjoyed over a decade ago, in many ways it’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. My days are filled with human interactions, mini-relationships that can last from a minute to several hours for my patrons, and months and years with my associates.
It’s not important what my job is or who I work for, but what I can share is that a large part of my day is talking about music and learning not only what people enjoy listening to, but how they do it. For someone like myself, who has been an avid music collector with the fortune to turn a passion and interest into a career, it’s interesting to get out of my bubble to understand how other people relate to music in their lives. And while I won’t say it has surprised me, personal observation flies into the face of the ideas and statistics that are often touted in the media.
Let me offer some examples. First off, for the majority of the people I meet, music is simply a soundtrack that plays in the background at a very low volume. They don’t necessarily seek it out, but rather accept whatever happens to come up. It’s a push rather than pull experience. Those who actively choose what they listen to will almost always stick to what they know, rarely going out of their lanes. There’s a relatively small percentage of people who actually collect physical music anymore, as most enjoy the ease and variety of satellite radio inside their cars and homes, and are rapidly adapting to subscription streaming. With all the news stories about people who are actively buying and collecting vinyl albums, and an endless parade of new turntables being marketed and promoted, I’m hard pressed to actually meet these people, as they are few and far between. In my experience, it’s just a small bump, folks, not a movement.
The vast majority of urban and suburban twenty-somethings are listening to hip-hop, while for those in rural areas it splits by gender to either bro country and muscular rock, or the lite pop of Katy, Arianna, Taylor, Miley, or whomever. Instagram notoriety supersedes actual musical output; selfies and fashion are now wrapped up in a ribbon of unfulfilled aspirations. When you’re in your 30s and 40s, settling into relationships, careers, and family, the music preferences default to whatever you were listening to in college. I suppose it’s hanging onto your youth and the concept of independence. Once you hit your 50s there seems to be a divide: those that stick with the same old thing and those finally taking the time to color outside the lines. Am I totally stereotyping? Of course. But I’m purposely painting with a wide brush and skipping over the fine-line exceptions because it isn’t about you or me. It’s about the majority of people.
What we call Americana is rolling along quite nicely, but it’s simply a scooter on a highway of long limos and SUVs. You can toss jazz, blues, bluegrass, folk, world, classical, and any number of smaller genres into the same bucket. Put aside for the moment that some young folks have gone to summer music camps, become music majors at college, and now play and/or listen to roots music. To appropriate and re-invent a phrase from Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols’ manager and provocateur: All this scratchin’ is making me niche.
My personal observations should be considered neither dark nor dreary nor musical snobbery, because music brings to everyone enjoyment, emotional attachment, and connectivity to the world around them. And today more than ever before, it is live music that shines most brightly. Putting aside the cost of tickets to see top-tier acts, never before have we seen such a rise in festivals and the ability to discover exceptional performances in unlikely venues from local farmers markets, your neighbor’s living room, or the tavern down the street.
The inability to be financially rewarded from recordings and airplay has resulted in a shift of the paradigm. It’s not unique. From medieval fairs, minstrel and medicine shows, vaudeville, dance shows from American Bandstand to Soul Train, terrestrial radio, player pianos to DAT cassettes and beyond … it’s always changing. With the ease of both creating music and listening to it on an electronic gizmo that fits into the palm of your hand, what we have should be viewed as opportunity, not misfortune. And that serves not only the masses, but you and me. Another way of concluding my essay on the state of music today is that it, well, scratches our niche.
Many of my past columns, articles, and essays can be accessed at my own site, therealeasyed.com. I also aggregate news and videos on both Flipboard and Facebook as The Real Easy Ed: Americana and Roots Music Daily. My Twitter handle is @therealeasyed and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.