The Destruction of American Music & How To Save It
I’ve spent much of the last year trying to figure out and break down what’s gone wrong with the mainstream music industry. I recently wrote this article on the subject. I’d be very interested to get any and all feedback.
The Destruction of American Music & How It Can Be Saved
By: Kieran Ridge
Copyright 2010 by Kieran Ridge
Rock and Roll is the great American art form. It is the culmination, the coalescence of our disparate, ethnic musical traditions into something powerful and new that completely changed the world. The large corporations that own the major record companies are destroying American music. The system that they’ve devised for producing and marketing music has created a situation in which there is almost no incentive for them to record the kind of high-quality, mainstream music that was heard before the advent of digital technology. However, their system is failing dramatically. Sales of recorded music are at historic lows and continuing to drop steadily.
Such multi-national corporations have reached into almost every aspect of American life in recent years and altered the way we live. They’ve changed the way we work, the way we eat, and the way we entertain ourselves. They are homogenizing American life at the expense of our politics, art, and health. They’ve taken the best aspects of American life, the greatest joys and passions of living, and turned them into something hollow and artificial. In the last couple of years there has at last been a pushback. With the publication and popularity of books by Michael Pollan a movement has begun that opposes the industrial food complex. Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Craft As Soulcraft examines how corporations have changed the way we work, and how this system crushes the human spirit.
A similar movement has begun in opposition to mainstream, corporate music. Stripped down, American roots music is finding an enthusiastic audience with the success of the movie “Crazy Heart.” One of the main elements of the New Orleans based TV show Treme is the richly textured musical tradition of one of America’s greatest music cities. What is perhaps most promising is that Jack White has opened his own record label, Third Man Records, which records exclusively on analog tape, and distributes their music solely on vinyl.
I’ve been writing and playing music with my own band for eight years. My music has been back to basics Rock and Roll all along, but, I’ve made some compromises to try to get noticed by the record industry. This will never happen again. For the last year I’ve been attempting to figure exactly what’s wrong with the music business. To discover what specifically makes it so inferior to what it was 30-40 years ago. I’ve also stripped down my own music to the bare bones. I’ve gone back entirely to the roots of American music.
I’d like to state clearly at the outset that I intend this article to be a call to arms for musicians and listeners who care about music to spurn the short cuts and technological trickery devised by these corporations, and unfortunately embraced by most musicians today, and go back to the real, high-quality, authentic music of America: the music that changed and inspired the whole world. The current system has failed and I believe that the pendulum is beginning to go back in the other direction already. I’m hoping to create a greater momentum for this change.
The Failure of The Record Industry
It’s my belief and assertion that the record industry in America is on the verge of a momentous and inevitable change that may very well be against its will, but not against its best interests. This change is the result of a shift that is taking place in American society, and in the American zeitgeist. Many Americans have grown increasingly disturbed by the overly corporate and industrial nature of so many aspects of our lives. From food to entertainment, big business has destroyed much of what we love and a general momentum for change is building.
These changes are also the inescapable consequence of the enormous financial failure of the record industry in the last decade. Let’s just start out with the assumption that popular music is not what it used to be. Argue if you will, but the evidence is in sales of recorded music and concert tickets. According to IFPI, the international representative of the recording industry, profits from sales of recorded music fell 7.2% in 2009. Of course, that might be expected in one of the worst years for the overall economy in decades. However, sales have fallen from $38 billion in 2000, to $17 billion in 2009, a catastrophic decline of 55.3%.
The record industry no longer grooms artists for long-term success, and so, music released by young acts on major labels is of very poor quality and it does not sell. What is called entertainment is failing to entertain. What is called popular music is unpopular. Instead of grooming acts for long-term success, record companies find or create a band or singer that conforms to their current marketing strategy with a one dimensional, easily definable, easily categorized sound. This act will have a hit or two and quickly be forgotten as another band or singer takes their place. This is music without thought, depth, or artistry, and the drop in profits is proof that this system is failing. Consequently – with the one possible exception of Country music – there are few young superstars with long careers in popular music today.
Mainstream bubble gum Pop music has always existed and I have no beef with it. It is what it is. Of all modern music, bubble gum Pop has stayed most true to itself. This is music that’s not meant to be taken seriously, and so, little effort goes into any element of it except image and marketing. The problem is that the same callow carelessness now goes into creating and selling all popular music. But this approach does not appeal to somebody who is into Johnny Cash, or the early 1970s Rolling Stones. It comes across as childish and inauthentic, because it is. This is an enormous segment of the population that is being ignored by the record industry when they are producing new music. So, these more serious music listeners, who care about music and want to listen to something with more than transitory value, either seek out smaller, niche acts, or, more commonly, go back to the only real tried and true money maker in the music industry today: so called Classic Rock. This is music that was made with artistic passion and the paradoxically lower tech, but superior sound quality of the 1960s and 1970s.
The Beatles One was the top selling CD of the past decade. In spite of being a repackaging of songs that are now over 40 years old, One spent eight weeks at the top of the charts when it was released in November 2000, and has since gone on to sell 11.5 million copies as of December 2009. Bob Dylan’s Modern Times, released in 2006, topped the Billboard charts in the U.S., was number one in seven other countries, and was in the top three in six more. What is shocking about this success is that Bob Dylan was 65 years of age, and 44 years into his career when Modern Times was released. Modern Times is a record of new songs. But they were recorded the way that old records were made, and it sounds like it. At the time, Dylan was the oldest performer ever to have a number one record. Neil Diamond, however, surpassed Dylan at the age of 67 in 2008 with his album Home Before Dark. It is an unusual phenomena to have artists in their sixties topping the charts. But, more and more, Classic Rock tours and albums are where the money is. Part of the success of Classic rockers is no doubt as much a backlash against the present sounds and techniques as it is an embrace of the great artists of the past. This is what sells because this is music of a higher of standard than that of today’s artists. The evidence is even more telling in the concert industry.
According to a list published by Billboard.com, the top five grossing touring acts of the past decade are: The Rolling Stones, U2, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, and Elton John. The average age of the lead singers for these five acts is 57.8 years as of this writing. In the top 20, the average age of the lead singers is 54.8 years. In the top 25, Britney Spears is the only singer in her twenties, and she is no longer profitable. Only Gary LeVox of Rascal Flatts is in his thirties, and he will turn 40 in July 2010. This is a major crisis because new acts of this caliber do not exist, and are not being groomed by the music industry. The current young acts do not sell records, do not sell concert tickets, and cannot hold on to an audience. Of course, much of the reason for the success of Classic Rock tours is that they’re a nostalgia machine for Baby Boomers. But they wouldn’t be selling so many concert tickets and albums if young people were not also listening to Classic Rock. The reasons behind the success of these older artists is, in the end, irrelevant beside the reality of the hard financial facts of their success.
So why has nothing changed if it’s gotten so bad? If older music and music made with older styles and methods still have the ability to sell so many more records and tickets, why not create more of it? The reason is that a great deal more thought, time, effort, and, therefore, money go into making high-quality recordings. Furthermore, there is little incentive for the big record companies to invest in such recordings. The big record companies are really the only game in town for large scale marketing and distribution. They buy up most successful smaller labels as subsidiaries. These big labels are not only record companies, they are enormous worldwide corporations like Sony, Walt Disney, and Universal. If record sales are down, they don’t go out of business like record companies would have in the old days. As a result, they’re not going to invest more money to develop quality acts, or spend extra time in the studio making a high-quality, timeless record for what would be a minor bump in sales for a giant corporation. They cut corners producing flavor of the month bands with little investment. Many of these companies already own, or have stock in websites, print media, radio, movies, television, etc…and to put their latest act and music out there in the other media costs them almost nothing.
Disney owns three record labels with such acts as Miley Cyrus, Rascal Flatts, and The Jonas Brothers. They also own TV and cable stations, radio, book publishing, magazines, stores, and, of course, they produce films and television. The story is the same with other large record companies. They push their latest act along with their songs and images across all of these media, and the band or singer become a ubiquitous, short-term sensation. If they don’t sell a lot of records, the corporation makes up the money from its other media. It’s about creating a few minutes of fame, not about making a quality product or creating true stars like those of the past. Under this system, we will never hear another Like A Rolling Stone, Thunder Road, American Girl, Layla, or Hey Jude on mainstream radio or media. There’s no reason for it. There’s no system for such a song to be created and distributed.
People who are not exposed to any other music except what is heard in the mainstream media of course believe that what these corporations are spewing out must be good music because it’s heard everywhere, and the singer is on all of these magazines, and the song, and maybe even the singer are in a TV show or a movie, and we believe that everybody must like this song if it’s heard everywhere. In reality, it’s just what’s being pushed by the near monopoly of big media. A song can be widely heard and distributed without selling a single copy. Peoples’ taste and judgment of quality is corrupted by this system. Not all of it, of course, but a staggering amount of the music from before, say, 1975, stands the test of quality and time in a way that music since has not, because it’s got real heart and soul and quality, and because it was made within a system where a record company was just a record company, not a multi-national corporation. Under the old system, profits came from record sales, and record sales came from high-quality records, and without high-quality records, the record company went out of business.
The Digital Paradox
One of the primary changes in the music industry since the 1980s has been the switch from analog to digital recording. Analog, or tape recording, has a full, powerful, warm sound that is much closer to listening to a live performance. Digital is quicker, easier, makes it possible to alter sounds, fix mistakes, and reduce background noise quickly and with little effort. Digital sounds very clean, but it sounds antiseptic. Digitally recorded music in no way resembles the sound of live music.
I have no grievance with superior technology replacing the old way of doing things when the new technology can do a better job or create a better product. But digital recording, although in many ways more technologically advanced than analog, creates inferior results. Cookie-cutter, digitally produced music is a cheap short cut that leads to quickly forgotten, disposable music, and to The Beatles and Bob Dylan topping the charts in the 21st Century. Digital recording is like sending a soldier into battle with a squirt gun that has top of the line computer components. His superiors might tell the soldier: “it’s the most powerful and accurate squirt gun in the world, it locks onto a target and doesn’t miss.” But, ultimately, a squirt gun shoots water and can’t do the job. The soldier would be better off with gun technology that’s 200 years old rather than bringing a high-end squirt gun into battle. So it is with analog vs. digital. Analog recording is old technology, but, for recording music, it is the best technology that has been invented so far.
In many American industries, manufacturing jobs have become automated or gone overseas. The perception is that successful people don’t have to get their hands dirty, literally or figuratively.
Consequently, most educated Americans only want to do clean, easy work. This has even taken root in music. We let the machines do the work and focus on the financing, the marketing, and the distribution. New music is sold and discarded like shirts, and pants, and electronic gizmos, and other products meant for short-term use and pleasure, but lacking the essential quality and artistry needed to become treasured as the cultural heirloom that music once was. It’s all about the bottom line: digital recording makes it possible to produce music of acceptable quality, by industry standards, quickly and cheaply. So, the investment money goes into marketing instead of production, and the corporation takes the short-term profits.
Many trades have become degraded by automation. For instance, a worker at a car manufacturing plant uses robotic technology to help him do his job because it makes the work easier and more consistent. Though, perhaps, the final result may lack the character and quality of a car hand-built by an experienced, expert mechanic. The worker probably has little choice in the matter, and he may or may not be aware that such technology will replace him entirely in the long run. The equivalent in music is digital recording technology. As digital technology increases in proficiency, it will become less and less necessary to have musicians do any of the work.
Good music doesn’t come out of Protools or any other software program. It doesn’t come from effective marketing. It doesn’t come from some rarefied, effete notion of poesy, and art, and divine inspiration either. Good music is about grinding away with pencil and paper, and wood and strings. It’s earthy and comes out of real human experience. It whispers, it howls, it weeps, it dances, and it shakes. It’s about heart and soul and goose bumps up your spine. It comes from the place where our animal and spiritual natures converge. And so, it’s sometimes ambiguous and indefinable, maybe the words don’t make any logical sense. But there’s a part deep within that understands, and so you’re overjoyed, or you find you have tears in your eyes that you can’t explain. Great art and music are about creating something that the world has never experienced, but has always somehow known. You can see it when a previously indifferent audience suddenly catches fire in unison and starts moving, shaking, hollering at the band.
Computers can do many things better than people. They can play a beat or rhythm with mathematical perfection. They can create sound or repair a bad note to a state of pitch perfect precision. But a computer can only do what it’s programmed to do, and a computer is programmed by a computer programmer, not by some inspired musical genius. A computer’s got no groove, no soul. These are innate qualities that people respond to. Like us, groove and soul are animal in nature. Our bodies respond to a groove because our ancestors’ bodies always have. We can admire perfection, but we are not moved by it, because perfection has never been a part of human experience.
Technology has its place in music, but music is not about technology. The technology should be in the background, just doing what is necessary to get the song heard, not to purify or emasculate the music. There’s no need for a digital middleman to clean up the sound before it reaches the listener. The little mistakes on a recording can be the very moments of serendipity that make a song a classic. A song needs room to breathe. There must be a place for fate or serendipity to intervene. No auditory trickery can improve the sound of the human hand on a set of guitar strings. It’s time to get back to music made with flesh on wood and metal and skins.
Music is not about sonic perfection, it’s about being moved: physically, emotionally, in your feet, and in your soul. No Pro Tools trick, no vocal effect, no onstage loops or lighting or device of any kind can send a chill up your spine like James Brown howling “Please, Please, Please.” No matter how good the technology gets, it’ll never be capable of that. Live music is where it’s at: the spontaneous vitality of a great performance by a great performer. Old records were, for the most part, a recording of a live performance. Today, the musicians play their parts separately and the spark of live performance is gone. A good record should sound like a great live performance without any special effects to come between the instruments and your ear. Digital perfection removes the raw emotion of the performance. A barrier between song, performer, and listener is created and the spell is broken. The sound of digital music is sterile, antiseptic, slick, but dull. Much of life has become too fast and depersonalized, overrun by technology. Music is a restorative that speaks to the best part of us. But music has become as inauthentic, computerized, and depersonalized as everything else. If this continues, the art of writing and playing great music will be further diminished and lost, just as painting was diminished and eclipsed by photography. I’m sure nobody in the year 1800 could have imagined that any technology could so quickly make painting irrelevant. The same thing is happening to song writing and performing that happened to painting. Digital music is to music what photography is to painting. They may bear a resemblance to the older art form, but they are not the same: they’re a quick and easy substitute that rely on technology rather than the human heart, mind, soul, as well as our creativity. People want the illusion that the band is in the room, that the singer is singing right in their ear, to them alone. That’s the magical element that makes a song timeless.
In the 1960s there were relatively few musical genres. The term Pop covered all mainstream, popular music: Rock and Roll, Soul, Motown, etc… In many ways, the only divisions were between black and white music, and between electric and acoustic music. But there wasn’t much of a separation. They influenced each other, often shared the same stage, and in many cases there was so much bleeding over the lines that made it tough to tell where the lines were.
Today, many people choose to listen to, or play one narrow genre of music that they pigeonhole themselves into because they believe that it suits their personality, or worldview. When you open a band account on Myspace, you have the choice of pigeonholing yourself into 125 different genres (126 if you include “Other”). None of those listed is Rock and Roll (Rock is there, but Rock isn’t Rock and Roll). Almost none of these genres were created naturally as a cultural development, like Jazz, or Blues, or traditional Country, or Rock and Roll were. Almost all of these genres were self-consciously created by people in the music industry in order to divide up the listening audience into marketing segments: there’s a category and a gimmick for everybody. Say, for example, that you and your friends are the rebellious Punk music fan type. So the bands you’re into are on the “indie” Punk spin-off label of some major mainstream corporate record company. But, your Rock and Roll rebel dollars ultimately go to the same place as the Miley Cyrus money. It’s a game meant to appeal to everybody by voluntarily dividing us into identifiable rival camps where we can be targeted more easily for marketing campaigns. Some people even help to identify themselves by dressing the part: this group has tattoos and piercings, that group wears cowboy hats, that group only wears black…conformity disguised as rebellion. They take your money, but make you think you have a choice that appeals to your uniqueness and individuality, the thing that sets you apart from all of those conformists and sellouts. The recording industry doesn’t have to make good music, they just have to create a scene and then record the soundtrack for it and the listening audience does the rest.
There’s an illusion that record companies are producing lots of great artists and music, and that there is just so much to choose from. But there isn’t. There’s just a lot of bands and music in contrived, artificial, tightly confined categories. This means that there is very little room to experiment and step beyond the bounds of genre. If a band is on a major label, (unless they are of decades old, legendary status), the band must always conform to the confines of it’s genre or be dropped by the label. Whether or not a band is on a major label, they must walk this line of conformity, or risk being seen as sellouts by their fans. This rigidity among musicians and fans that such categorization has created has stultified creativity. Most of the great, legendary performers of the Rock and Roll era, on the other hand, became great by experimentation, and by having the courage to throw off their past to recreate themselves at the risk of losing their audience in the process: Dylan goes electric, Springsteen goes acoustic, the artistic genre and culture bending experiments of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Almost any artist with a long career has recreated themselves time and again. With the record industry’s creation of these marketing segments, these genres, however, artistic experimentation is seen as selling out, and that can be a nail in the coffin of an artist’s career. The freedom of choice among genres is an illusion. These are predetermined choices that are, in reality, limitations on creativity and taste.
In spite of these rigid divisions of genre, there is essentially very little difference between mainstream music within different genres that are produced by the major record labels. Take mainstream Pop and Country, for example. Each has the stereotype subject matter, singing voice, and instrumentation of their genre. The stereotypes being a generic boiling down of what’s been successful in that genre in the past. Pop is defined by singers with youthful voices; the subject matter is mostly young love or breakup songs with some sexual innuendo; the instrumentation is basic guitar, keys/synth, bass and drums/drum machine. Mainstream Country has love songs and break up songs, but also the patriotic songs and songs about trucks and other silly conventions that make a mockery of the whole, grand, Country music tradition. The rhythm guitars are acoustic, they might have fiddle and lap steel mixed in, and the singer’s voice has that trademark Country crack. In both cases, as said above, each aspect of the song is a boiling down of the stereotypical sound of the genre. There are several different flavors within each genre: the fast song, the ballad, etc…But, each of these has its own carefully followed conventions. As far as the song writing goes, each genre has a typical, cookie-cutter structure and insipid, uninspired lyrics. The end result is digital, sterile, inhuman, and completely lacking in warmth. There is no monkeying with the formula, there is no creation or art. It’s like building identical pre-fabricated homes in a housing development…just follow the same blueprints over and over again.
Under the current system, artists and consumers are being collected and sorted by big business in a system that is simply corporate manipulation of the market. We are commodities to be tracked so they can anticipate our desires and wants, our reactions, our incomes, what we will and will not buy, and to manipulate that willingness. This has become so pervasive that many people have probably gotten used to it and fail to see what an egregious violation of one’s privacy and human dignity this is. Most importantly in this instance, these practices are damaging to the creation of new music. We are serving institutional interests and not art’s, and not our own. But, the trick is that we’re made to believe we’re free and independent and serving our own desires, not theirs.
John Henry Was A Steel Drivin’ Man
Music has always been a spontaneous expression of a vibrant and dynamic culture. Today it has become part of a marketing plan. Townes Van Zandt famously said: “There’s only two kinds of music: the Blues and zippety doo-dah.” The Blues isn’t just what we commonly refer to as the Blues. The Blues is the peoples’ music, the songs of everyday life that speaks of the problems of every man and woman. Country music is the Blues, Irish music is the Blues,. There’s Blues music, in this sense, from all over the world, but it’s in this country that they all came together. Zippety doo-dah is corporate music, big business. The two lived separately, but side by side in America for many years. But now that large corporations have a strangle hold on the music industry, the real peoples’ music is dying out and it’s getting so it’s all zippety doo-dah.
The history of American music parallels the history of America itself. The music comes from far off, foreign shores along with its people. They are separate and strange, then meld together into something vital and new, achieve greatness, and world-wide success. But then fall into a delusional, hubristic, bloated, self-indulgent, selfish, anti-intellectual slide that threatens to bring it to an eventual state of meaningless irrelevancy.
Just a decade or so after that magical conjuring and co-joining of America’s disparate ethnic musical traditions into the world-shaking phenomenon known as Rock and Roll, this simple music had blossomed into an explosion of artistic discovery and creation that has completely altered the cultural landscape of the globe. The result was a flowering of some of the richest, most artistically accomplished, and most lucrative music the world has ever seen. But, like all great endeavors, Rock and Roll reached an inevitable climax and then a long decline. If the mid 1960s through the early 1970s could be seen as a pinnacle for popular music, it could certainly be said that the vapid, artless, throw away music of today is the low point.
The good thing about hitting bottom is that there is only one way to go. If we want American music to be great again, it’s going to be necessary for the cycle to start over. It’s time to start at the beginning by mining the rich veins at the roots of the American musical tradition, and to rediscover the elements that created the original vitality, greatness, and success of American popular music. No other country has such a virile and varied musical heritage, because no other country can boast having taken in so many immigrant groups, and with them their cultural traditions, from all over the globe. This is the source of America’s musical greatness. But to get to it we have to strip away the many layers of watered down pop culture that have buried this treasure.
Like in any corporate culture, there’s a group mentality in the music industry today. Music is now made by committee. It is decided what trends are current. Songs are chosen from a crop of cookie-cutter songwriters who follow the industry rules. The work of pro songwriters who crank out mainstream hits is unremarkably flawless in their conformity to industry rules, standards and practices. But these songs have as much art as any assembly line work, which is, of course, what it is.The song is given to the latest singer or band that suits the trends. Studio pros play the clichéd parts appropriate for the genre. The sound is digitally manipulated, or, in many cases, created by Pro Tools, or a similar software program. The music is released and marketed across mainstream media. Then it’s sold and quickly forgotten. How different this soulless, corporate groupthink approach is from Ray Charles, or The Beatles, or James Brown, or any of the great performers of old who built a song and a sound from the ground up and, in the process, created songs people still love and listen to today. Their whole soul and personality went into that record. It’s the difference between music by committee, and the true individualism of the artist-creator, standing on his own two feet to say and sing something through the strength of their will. Something that draws on the past, but is entirely new in the world. It’s the difference between throw away music and music that is timeless.
Music, like all of the arts, has always been an outsider game when at its best. Music and art have always been the enterprises of the contrarian, the rebellious outsider who is appalled by the work-a-day world and longs for a freer life. But, in music, when the big money rolled in, the game changed. With few exceptions, it became an insider game. Music became the place of the crowd pleasing, public fool, placed in a box like any product. The rebellious contrarian was pushed aside in the mad rush for cash. And who holds the cash – and all the cards – but the big corporations who have no interest in high-quality music, only quick profit. Success goes to the crowd-pleaser who fits the fads and plays the game. Corporations now decide what’s in, and what’s “cool” (in the modern, inherently uncool sense of the word), and often market it to seem cool and rebellious when it is, in fact, nothing of the kind. It’s just doing what the man says. You can see this contradiction most clearly in the supposedly outlaw world of Hip Hop, where performers and their fans are draped in clothing covered with corporate logos. What could be more conformist than this? Culture comes from the underground, from the grass roots, not from an office park. But, in recent years, he who rocks the boat is thrown overboard. Now at last that façade is cracking, and this system is finally collapsing, as seen in the historic collapse of record sales. The stage is now set for another Chuck Berry, another Dylan, or Joe Strummer.
Modern music and art stress the new, the modern, the high tech over the visceral, or the aesthetically pleasing. We live in a continuum where the past affects all we do, but the music industry tries to forget and ignore the past in favor of the novel. Normally it’s good and healthy to break with the past from time to time and create a new movement. But, historically these breaks have come with a new way of thinking, a new artistic ethos. This has been the case in the visual arts for a long time: a new ethos replaces the old. This was the case when Cubism replaced traditional, representational art by breaking down images into their basic, geometric elements to reflect the disjointedness of the modern world. It was the case when Punk came along to strip away the excesses of popular music in the mid 1970s. Both Cubism and Punk Rock have a philosophy. In each case, the ethos is to break away from the excesses of their medium and return to the basic, primitive elements of their art. And primitive is the key word here. At the root, art is primitive, music is primitive. Beneath a thin façade of civilization, we are primitive. Although good lyrics and a clever melody may have an intellectual appeal, it is the primitive elements of music, the beat, the rhythm, the emotion that excite us. The more we round out the rough edges of our music, the further removed we are from the song on a primal, emotional level.
It’s important for music to reinvent itself with a new sound every few years. It brings fresh blood and vitality to music, just as Punk did in the 1970s. But now, what worked well in the past is not rebelled against and overthrown with a purpose, but forgotten, and there is no new ethos to take the place of the old one. What’s produced today is done because it’s cheaply, quickly, and easily manufactured. There is a disdain for the past in the record industry, but only on the grounds of convenience, speed, and economy. There is no aesthetic, no philosophy, no ethos: just produce cheaply and sell. A cultural vacuum has been created. There’s not enough thought for there to be an ethos, just a continuous stream of digital sounds that nobody cares enough about to buy.
To throw off the past and institute a vital new ethos, a new scene, you must be a great thinker as well as a great artist, a creator, as well as a destroyer. You have to overthrow the king before you take the throne. You can’t sit on his lap. Picasso could draw and paint like DaVinci from the time he was a child. Then as a young man he overthrew the entire Classical tradition. Today, musicians don’t master the past and then overtake it, they act like the past didn’t happen. Perhaps they ignore the past because they see it as too overwhelming to deal with. This is how Europeans saw Classical art until the artists of the Renaissance mastered the crafts of the ancient world and overcame them. This can be done in modern music, too. A renaissance is just what is needed, a new start, a rebirth born out of the greatness of our past. But we can’t have a musical renaissance in America until we relearn the art of creating great songs and avoid the short cuts that lead only to throw away music. We need to grapple with the past to make authentic music for today.
I suggest that the next big trend, or ethos, in music will be, and should be, a return to the simple. Basically, it’s time to start the American music tradition over. Simple instrumentation, no technology beyond electricity and amplified sound; it’s time to get stripped down, back to basics…but, I have to stress, back to basics, not old timey and hokey. It’s time to go back to the source material of our musical greatness.
As an example, James Brown was influenced by Blues and Gospel music. Michael Jackson was influenced by James Brown. If a musician today is influenced by Michael Jackson, but doesn’t dig deeper, he’s getting the root sources of his music third hand, and, therefore, watered down by so many other pop culture influences. You can’t understand The Beatles or The Rolling Stones without understanding Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry. You can’t understand Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry without Country and the Blues. So why not go back to the original root sources of the great music you love? Why not dig deeper and see what you can unearth? If not, we’ll continue to get further away from the roots and our music will become more and more watered down.
All arts go in cycles of simplicity and complexity. The pendulum swings too far to one extreme and then goes back the other way. Going back to the basic elements of American music will be the best cure for the deplorable state of the mainstream music industry. If this is done we can start from our roots and grow and improvise and go in whatever direction our cultural genius takes us. Right now we’re stuck in a ditch, we need to back up to go forward.
The solution to the problem of low record sales is simple. Go back to the old, effective, successful way of making records. Forget the quick buck and the flash in the pan band. Go back to cultivating talent, and help promising performers to build a career that’ll last. Make records that sound like the timeless songs of the past. I don’t mean we should write old timey songs that are out of place in the modern world. I don’t mean writing songs about railroad trains, those days are gone. I’m talking about writing songs for today, influenced by American roots music, and recorded by the best technology we have, analog tape. These influences and technology gave birth to the most artistically compelling and financially successful music ever made, and it can again. I don’t want there to be a throwback to the 1960s. I want us to do better. To surpass the 1960s in quality, and sales. I’m tired of the old guys being on top. Their time is past. But that won’t happen as long as we’re playing with electronic toys and looking for short cuts. Let’s stop trying to dupe the public into liking and buying low quality, well-marketed music. Invest, do it slow, do it right, and make music people will be passionate about by making music that the artists, engineers and producers are passionate about. This will create records that will bring everybody involved well deserved notoriety and money for decades to come, and songs that’ll never be forgotten. We need real, long-term stars again making great music. This is why talent must be invested in and cultivated.
Once Pandora’s box is opened there’s no closing it. I’m not naïve enough to think that the current technology will go away. I assume that, if anything, it will become more advanced and refined. But, what I’d like to see is a growing movement that pushes against this technology and stubbornly goes back to doing things in the old way, the better way. Not for nostalgia, but because it sounds and sells better.
What American music needs is something like the Outlaw Country music that Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and a few others created in the 1970s. Tired of the slick production, clichés, and corporate interference in Country music, they returned to the basic elements of Country and created their own musical culture outside of the mainstream establishment. That’s the kind of thinking and action that’s needed to save the real, authentic American musical tradition from being utterly destroyed and buried by the corporations that run the music companies.
We need somebody to be the John Henry of American music. John Henry is the story of the marginalization of man and his work at the hands of his own machinery. John Henry refused to put down his hammer when the steam drill came along. He died with his hammer in his hand while racing that steam drill, but he became a legend. Like John Henry, I want to beat that machine even if it kills me.