There are all manner of opinions about the state of the music industry, and why things are the way they are. Piracy has decimated it. The Internet has leveled the playing field. The Internet ruined music. Streaming ruined the industry. Spotify is saving the industry. The major labels are ass hats and got what they deserved. The music isn’t that great. There are too many choices. It’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. The wrong people make all the money. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah… Opinions are sort of like a certain sphincter muscle: everybody’s got one.
I suspect that the underlying truth of these myriad opinions is that many of them have a healthy shred of truth to them. The ability to share music en masse via the Internet has indeed led to some general devaluing of music in general. But Internet piracy isn’t the sole problem. Technology has also lowered the bar to being a musician. The ways that people consume music have changed. And all of this has conspired to create narrower genres and smaller pockets of fans.
Back in the day, we had what? Rock, pop, R&B, country, jazz, classical, and maybe oldies, and each market had a radio station or two to play each genre, and that’s it. We were done. We heard on radio what we heard, innovative radio jocks broke new artists and eased-in genre evolutions, we bought the things we liked, and everything was neat and tidy and simple and easy. We were spoon-fed things like babies, and didn’t know any better.
What a difference a decade or two can make. Today, there are at least two dozen sub-genres of dance music alone—but with less than half a dozen terrestrial broadcast radio stations in the entire United States that play dance music full-time. Online, there are Internet radio stations narrowcasting any tiny little sub-genre you might prefer (you like Japanese polka music?), while Spotify is promising (yet failing) to deliver all the world’s music on-demand.
I don’t have a clue where all this is heading for the dance music industry. But what I do know is that for whatever reason or reasons, retail sales of dance music are anemic, they’ve been anemic for a long time, and I believe as a direct result, the economic disincentives to create music are finally tipping the balance in an unfortunate direction. I can’t prove it, but the empirical evidence is now overwhelming.
On a weekly basis, I peruse the various sources of promotional material I have access to in order to program music for iDanceRadio.fm, as well as my own DJ sets and mixshows. Here’s what seems apparent to me:
- The major artists and major labels play it safe. The songs sound the same. The remixers are the same. The remixers produce the same styles, the same way, with the same sounds, every time. Y’all wanna know why I don’t play Beyoncé much? Every freakin’ song sounds almost exactly the same as every other Beyoncé track! Same, same, same. No risk-taking. Nothing fresh.
- There are more new producers and new artists than ever, joining artists and producers who’ve been at this game for years (if not decades). This is the low barrier to entry I mentioned before. Anyone can be a DJ. Anyone can be a remixer. Anyone with nothing more than an iPad and the Garage Band app can be a musician. The problem is, most of them just aren’t very good. Marginal songwriting; vocals that are poorly performed, poorly recorded, poorly engineered, poorly mixed; with productions that are thin, over-effected, perhaps under-effected, under-polished, and in many ways unfinished, all released anyway, and promoted as if they were the best thing to happen to music since the emergence of the synthesizer.
- Unfortunately, because of anemic sales, there’s really not much incentive for emerging artists to take time polishing and tuning releases, and engaging experienced producers and engineers, because while the quality might be better, those expenses can’t be recouped… Even with good songs, and good vocals. What would be the point? I totally understand the “throw it out there” mentality, yet adding to the endless piles of musical trash only makes the situation worse by further devaluing the product of music.
- Broadly, the number of new releases is getting lower and lower by the day. Well, more accurately, the number of worthwhile releases is what’s going down. The overall volume, as I implied above, is probably growing. But the signal-to-noise ratio (i.e., the quality) keeps making the flow more and more difficult to manage.
- The corollary to that last point is that the truly good stuff stands out like a grain of pure gold in a watery pan of muddy sand. This is as it should be I suppose. But the point is you have to sift through a hell of a lot of muddy sand to find it.
I certainly don’t have any answers. We’re certainly not going to be returning to “the good old days” of the music industry, and I wouldn’t want to anyway; I prefer the level playing field of today where independent artists at least have a fighting chance. I just wish that some of those independents wouldn’t accept it at face value when their closest friends and family members tell them how great they are (when they’re not), and would invest the time and effort required to hone their craft before slapping a label reading “gourmet pâté” on the can of crappy dog food that is their music. I’m tired of choking-down spoonfuls of it when I’m sampling the buffet.
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