April 27, 2005    BusinessArts

How Getting Exactly What You Want Is Killing Music

It’s the 21st Century. You now have a vast array of music channels to choose from, either from Satellite Radio, Internet Radio or Satellite and cable TV music channels.

Choose from Classic Country, Old Skool Rap, 80’s Hair Bands, Soul Ballads, Light Classical, Hits from any decade and many more. About a dozen services now offer 100 channels each in every sub-sub-genre of music you can imagine (and some you can’t). You never have to listen to styles of music you don’t like anymore. A great thing, right ? Maybe not.

Back in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, FM Radio disc jockeys played a wide variety of new and innovative music. A new hard rock hit was followed by a singer-songwriter ballad, which in turn was followed by an international reggae hit.
The result was that the tastes of listeners and musicians alike were expanded, and the next big thing could be anything — and everything as well.

Nowadays, an artist must pick a very specific musical niche — and stick to it. If you decide to play “death metal”, you’ll never get away with inserting a funky chorus. An “electro revival” group must play electro, and that’s all.

Nowhere are this trend and its attendant problems more noticeable than in Dance Music. The last new music movement was the electronic Dance Music scene of the early and mid 90’s. This music intertwined the two innovations of the late 80’s — House and Techno - with a strong social scene based on camaraderie.

Then, in the late 90’s, people started to identify many sub-genres of the new electronic Dance Music — hard house, progressive house, trance, vocal trance, deep house, hardcore, breakbeat, and many more. And what happened in Dance Music — and every other kind of music - is that artists started to identify themselves as artists of one of those particular sub-genres. Once they did that, then they were locked into a particular formula — because they have to conform to the definition of the sub-genre.

This trend has two major problems. One is that musical artists have entirely stopped innovating. Every “new” piece of music sounds exactly like some previous piece of music — the rhythm is the same, the harmonies are the same, the pace is the same, and the melodies are the same with maybe a few notes changed around. Every time I hear about some new “great” artist, they sound exactly like some great artist of the past. Did Elvis sound exactly like someone else? The Beatles? The Doors? Led Zeppelin? Miles Davis? The Police? All of the great musical artists were innovators, who brought a new sound to music.

The other major problem of today’s world of musical sub-genres is that we don’t get to hear the new artists of any sub-genre of music that we don’t choose to listen to. This is a large part of the reason that there has not been any new “Big Thing” in music. Those “Big Things” came and went and no one noticed — because they weren’t listening to the channel playing that particular sub-genre of music.

In 1963, radio stations were playing “do-wop music” and “girl groups”. A few disc jockeys heard the new British guitar music of “The Beatles” and played it during their shows. The result was the biggest “Big Thing” in the history of music. In 2005, the disc jockey of the “girl groups channel” would never dare to play any guitar rock — or anything else not meeting the “girl groups” formula.

In contrast, throughout the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, FM Radio channels challenged their listeners by playing new styles of music — we heard acid rock, ballads, soul, hard rock, Motown, jazz fusion, progressive rock, folk, reggae and many other styles. As a result, the musical tastes of the public were widened considerably, and the appreciation of music increased.

The pre-eminence of the “sub-genre” phenomenon has destroyed all that, and this is the real core reason behind the decline in interest in music (and sales thereof). There’s nothing new in music — and now that the genie is out of the bottle — there may never be anything new again. Because if there was something new — how would you know?