Dissonant Notes

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Quality of Music and The Conformity of Youth | Dwindling Album Sales Explained

Hear ye, hear ye. Come gather round friends and listen to the news. Album sales are at an all-time low. The American music industry is dying. The vultures are circling, the jackals are prowling, and it is surely only a matter of time before the whole sorry mess collapses in on itself. When things start going wrong it’s natural to start pointing fingers. To many people the most obvious culprit is digital downloading, both legal and illegal. Illegal downloading results in lost dollars, and legal downloaders aren’t always interested in entire albums, many preferring to pick and choose individual songs. Others choose to ignore the whole issue with technology and simply point to what they believe is the obvious reason for diminishing music sales: MUSIC SUCKS. Yes, the reason album sales are plummeting is because there’s a lack of good music. Perusing the comments on various articles (a bad idea at the best of times but I’m trying to make a point), many seem to think that music just isn’t as great as it once was.

Let me show you some examples:
“It means one thing only….MUSIC SUCKS TODAY! The crap that is supposedly popular sucks, the crap that’s supposedly good sucks, it all sucks.”
“It all comes down to the quality of the material. So many of the releases today lack imagination and creativity when it comes to the actual song and production. It seems that we are treating the consumer as if they will buy anything. Just because it sounds good does not mean that I would buy it. What happened to those songs that touch you in multiple ways, not just the ones that will make you say humm, not bad.”
“The market is overloaded with mediocre CDs or downloads.”
“Today’s pop stars have no debth (sic).”
“Might have something to do with how most popular music today flat out SUCKS.”

You know what I say to that? Bullshit. First off, album sales these days are still better than they were in the 60s, the so-called golden age of music. Outside of The Beatles, album sales were nothing compared to the 70s, 80s, and 90s. In the top 70 best-selling albums of all time, only three come from the 60s. The real reason album sales are down is because there’s too much good music out there being made by a ridiculously diverse bunch of people. We’re being overloaded with amazing albums and people just can’t keep up. I’m not fucking kidding here. If you can’t find good music in this day and age, then you aren’t trying. You’re in decline but, instead of looking in the mirror, you’re blaming music and society. I can see by that look in your eye that you want me to explain some more. Fine, keep reading.

The vast majority of albums bought from the peak years of the music industry were for shit product. Let me name you a few artists with an estimate of their total album sales:

Celine Dion: 200 million
The Eagles: 150 million
Billy Joel: 150 million
Aerosmith: 150 million
Garth Brooks: 130 million
Dire Straits: 120 million
Kiss: 100 million

That’s a billion album sales from seven artists with nothing but shite on every album. A billion. Many classic artists haven’t actually sold very much. Combine the total album sales of The Small Faces, Aretha Franklin, The Velvet Underground, Nico, Funkadelic, Kraftwerk, The Raincoats, Sonic Youth, Throwing Muses, Public Enemy, and Elliott Smith and you still haven’t topped Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) by The Eagles which has estimated sales of around 40 million. Throw 10 or 15 more of your favourite artists into that calculation and you’re still not even close.

The past is littered with garbage that sold in unfathomable numbers. Want more proof?

Metallica: 100 million
Van Halen: 80 million
Foreigner: 80 million
Journey: 75 million
Mötley Crüe: 75 million
The Scorpions: 75 million

Ugly music, unbelievable album sales. So who was buying this shit? In the 70s and 80s, straight white males made a lot of shitty music, and this helps us answer the question of who bought the music and why these same people tend to be the ones who think MUSIC SUCKS right now. It used to be that all you had to do was be a SWM (straight, white male) who got signed to a major label and fame was all but guaranteed. By 1969 SWMs dominated the album charts, from the perspective of both artist and consumer. Look at the reaction to disco, music not initially made for SWMs. DISCO SUCKS. SWMs controlled everything, and they had a very limited idea of what constituted good music. Artists such as The Eagles, Eric Clapton, and Bob Seger appropriated from outside their race and class and imagined themselves soulful, complained that disco lacked soul, and thought their drug habits and romantic troubles made their lives comparable to old bluesmen. Then, by the late 70s, most stadium guitar bands had stopped listening to contemporary black music altogether. Guitars got louder, and stadiums got fuller. Just at the moment when SWMs were at their peak, however, it all started to come undone.

Although punk was a movement dominated by SWMs, its right-on ideology and do-it-yourself philosophy allowed many non-white, non-male musicians such as X-Ray Spex, Bad Brains and The Slits to break through and create some space and some music. Meanwhile, as the 70s turned into the 80s, mainstream pop had no place for the SWM. Michael Jackson, Prince, and Madonna dominated, and suddenly the charts looked like a scary place for SWMs. As a result, they doubled-down on their ideas about soul and authenticity, imagining their guitars, which had previously filled stadiums to the brim, were suddenly symbols of rebellion and bucking the mainstream. When Nirvana knocked Michael Jackson from the top of the American album charts, it was greeted by many as some kind of cultural victory for real music over pop superficiality. However, as time went on, victories like these became more and more unlikely, and American SWMs turned away from pop culture in disgust, preferring modern country or guitar heavy cock rock. The process had begun with punk, and was accelerated by the dominance of artists such as Prince and Madonna, but by the mid-90s American SWMs had all but abandoned mainstream pop, for the same reason that they had abandoned the idea of government: it became obsolete when it stopped serving their needs explicitly and after that it became a symbol of corruption and herd-thinking. If SWMs don’t like what’s in the pop charts, then the pop charts must be bullshit.

If there’s one thing guaranteed to upset a SWM on the wrong side of 30 just as much as pop music, it’s “kids these days”. The usual line about young people in the 21st Century is that they are brain dead and lack individuality. The truth is, teenagers right now exhibit more signs of individuality by any definition of the term, are way more media savvy, and are less likely to fall in line with societal trends. Ask yourself this: if people start having themed parties centred around the 00s decade, how exactly will they dress? Corporations failing to shift product and struggling to make profit is hardly a sign of mass conformity. If you have millions of kids who see through media manipulation, then it’s harder to sell them substandard material. People from older generations take pride in stating that they always bought albums, went to shows, and stayed faithful to musicians no matter what. Let’s put that another way: they were dependable, loyal consumers who dutifully purchased product whenever they were asked to.

Many social commentators lament the attitudes of music fans in this day and age, with their willingness to pick and choose, download illegally and drop artists without a second thought. What nobody recognises is that kids these days are actually bad consumers. They place less emphasis on physical ownership, and will gleefully subvert the morals of a previous generation to avoid purchasing music. I don’t want to be misunderstood here, I’m not championing illegal downloading, I’m merely pointing out the full ramifications of these actions. Isn’t refusing to do what a monolithic corporate structure requires of you a sign of individuality? Or is unquestioningly obeying advertising demands and laws the sign of a robust individual? I don’t have a definitive answer, but you should take the time to ask yourself these questions. I realise that when all is said and done most people believe true individuality starts and ends with their own behaviour, but individuality can mean anything from sticking to your opinions without question to being completely open-minded in regards to emerging societal trends and social movements. The fact that many people’s transformation from open-minded enthusiast to cynical “but music really was better in my youth” haters-of-all-things-new usually occurs between the ages of 25 and 30 is of course merely coincidence and not a reflection of anybody’s cultural fatigue and unwillingness to explore or enjoy more contemporary musical acts.

The real problem that the industry is dealing with these days is the lack of cultural importance given to popular music and the fact that popular music no longer has the same unifying power as it used to. With less bands to choose from, and with major labels dictating every aspect of the business, music fans in the 70s generally accepted what was handed to them without question, even if it was something as awful as The Eagles. Nowadays there are thousands of small labels capable of releasing great albums. You can spend hours and hours tracking down recommendations, streams, and free downloads. You can listen to as much music as you want, for as long as you want, with no compulsion to own, and that is a problem for die-hard consumers who are used to limited options and immediate cultural feedback in regards to their choices.

Another conundrum for the music industry and SWMs is the fact that so much good music is being made by non-white, non-male artists, and oftentimes their approaches to songwriting and singing can go against what for years was accepted as the only credible approach. With no “great white male hope” able to dominate the market and make music both important and popular, SWMs are increasingly dismissing the whole notion of popular music, or indeed music as a viable art form. Accustomed to being spoon fed by a limited number of publications, unwilling to do any kind of exploratory work, and having no chance of any cultural reverberations to give their tastes that added feeling of importance, older SWMs are lost in a twilight world of yearning for music and movements from years gone by and the cultural approval given to them, and not understanding either the music young people enjoy or the manner in which they choose to enjoy it.

That being said, is there really a lot of good music being made right now? Yes, yes, a billion times yes. Even SWMs are making amazing music. If you’re not excited by Julia Holter, Matthew Dear, Flying Lotus, James Blake, John Grant, Jessica Pratt, Laurel Halo, The Weeknd, Austra, Thundercat, THEESatisfaction, Chromatics, Destroyer, Burial, Frank Ocean, Mount Kimbie, Kanye West, Richard Youngs, Boards Of Canada, Jon Hopkins, King Krule, Dirty Projectors, Twin Shadow or Beyoncé, all great artists who are happening RIGHT NOW, then you should probably just admit that music is not something you are interested in any more. That list is nowhere near comprehensive, merely the artists I could think of off the top of my head, and it doesn’t even mention artists from outside of North America and the UK. Obviously I cannot prove to anybody that music is as good as it ever was, given the subjective nature of music appreciation but, by the same token, nobody can prove it is actually getting worse. Defences of music from the past usually point to its cultural relevance and popularity, forgetting that these are aspects which merely solidify group opinion not bolster individuality or prove artistic worth.

Music at this point in time is being made in abundance, and it’s being bought and enjoyed by more discerning buyers. Record sales in the 70s and 80s were built on limited options and catered to the needs of one core audience. The homogeneous nature of music culture was broken completely in the 80s and, tied in with the emergence of computers as a tool to record and promote, the end result has been the unstoppable decline of the music industry as we know it. Punk rockers dreamed of independent artists recording and releasing music with no interference, and they also dreamed of the death of major labels. Those dreams are coming true but it took a generation of computer savvy kids, not punk rockers eager to buy into the system, to do it. Albums still sell in the millions, but major labels no longer have the same power or influence. Independent artists can record and self-release while spending very little money. In terms of individual expression, we’re living in golden times. Yet some people are looking for that same feeling of cultural relevance and group-think comfort. They’re still searching for that youthful feeling, or dreaming of how cool it would have been to live in the 60s, or wishing they had been around when punk first emerged. You know, when music meant something, man. They complain that kids nowadays are mindless drones who can’t think for themselves when the opposite is true. They complain about Pitchfork and blogs and modern music culture because they feel excluded. They complain because ultimately they don’t really care that much any more and can’t face this very frightening fact.

With the unsustainable growth of album sales in the 70s and 80s now returning to more realistic levels, the music industry will have to adjust its outdated business model. In the meantime, independent artists will self-release straight to the internet, music will evolve as musicians experiment with technology and form, and music buyers will perhaps have to do a little work but will be rewarded by the most diverse, innovative, and interesting music the modern world has produced. It won’t be dominated by SWMs with guitars, it might not have that oh-so-classic vinyl crackle, but with the right ears it will convince you that music remains as good as ever. Better even. With less emphasis on massive cultural relevance and more importance placed on individual taste, music will survive because everyone can be a musician, and everyone can be a critic, and more and more of the world’s population can access the internet. Options will be limitless. If that’s a problem, perhaps it’s time to settle in with a nice piece of vinyl, a hot cup of cocoa, and dream of years gone by. The rest of the world has some listening to do.

This article originally appeared on Collapse Board.

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