Pop is dead, and no one cares

When music became part of a corporate machine optimized for averages, they not only destroyed the art form, but its potential in the internet era for artists and listeners alike

“Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.”

-Andrew Fletcher

This is an updated version of a post I started a few years ago that was inspired by Chris Sacca …I finished it this morning because I think we’re finally ready to have this conversation. Let’s start with Chris’ Tweet:

Chris has a point — but let’s be specific, he is referring to pop music. Before we get into the rest of this post on why this is the case, let us note that other genres: jazz, classical, electronic, hip hop etc are more vibrant than ever. As my friend and audio engineer Colin recently shared to me succinctly:

“There’s no good music today, everything mainstream sucks”

“I miss the experimentalism, where are the artists who are taking risks?”

AKA the battle cry of the individual who can’t be arsed to go find the good / risky stuffs that is outside of their vantage point, and beyond the surface level mainstream offerings.

They cling to their perspective of music from their youth like a nostalgia drip feed IV. They bark dismissively at anyone who tells them they’re wrong to idolize their youth over the actual music scene, as they’re more committed to remembrance than supporting the evolution of musical ideas.

Those who actively engage in music scenes know there is PLENTY of experimentalism, PLENTY of artists making cool shit outside of the mainstream. It’s overwhelming to be a fan of music right now. I know I can barely keep up.

Being a music fan is active participation. If you’re not up for it, just realize you’re propping up your own nostalgia and that is not reflective of the current state of musical evolution.

I want to stress this is the case, that there has actually never been a better time to be a music fan (if you’re willing to put in a bit of work - we’ll get to that shortly - how the music industry continues to break the internet). As long as it’s not pop or mainstream music pushed on the masses by big labels. So what happened? Frank Zappa summed up the problem decades ago in the video below. It’s progressively gotten worse than any of us could fathom. I’d suggest you watch before reading on, so you have the proper historical context. Frank in essence predicted Chris’ Tweet.

This is far worse than Zappa could have ever imagined:

Does anyone with working braincells left actually enjoy this trash:

These are just two of countless stories in our postmodern hellscape of the music business/quality of work produced.

Let’s distinguish modern pop from the actual art form

The following essay by Theodor W. Adorno written after he fled Nazi Germany in 1938 and joined his colleagues of the Frankfurter Schule at the Princeton Radio Research Project on popular music is highly worth reading, a quick summary of the important bit follows if you don’t have time for the whole thing. But I’d like to again separate ‘pop’ from other forms of music for the purpose of this post. He separates out “the millennial whoop” nonsense (garbage in, garbage out) from actual art created with emotion and soul and with the intent of challenging us:

A clear judgment concerning the relation of serious music to popular music can be arrived at only by strict attention to the fundamental characteristic of popular music: standardization. The whole structure of popular music is standardized, even where the attempt is made to circumvent standardization. Standardization extends from the most general features to the most specific ones. Best known is the rule that the chorus consists of thirty two bars and that the range is limited to one octave and one note. The general types of hits are also standardized: not only the dance types, the rigidity of whose pattern is understood, but also the "characters" such as mother songs, home songs, nonsense or "novelty" songs, pseudo-nursery rhymes, laments for a lost girl. Most important of all, the harmonic cornerstones of each hit — the beginning and the end of each part — must beat out the standard scheme. This scheme emphasizes the most primitive harmonic facts no matter what has harmonically intervened. Complications have no consequences. This inexorable device guarantees that regardless of what aberrations occur, the hit will lead back to the same familiar experience, and nothing fundamentally novel will be introduced.

A population indoctrinated, complacent & uncaring …perhaps also uncurious

Pop music is now an “art” form devoid of creativity and by definition doesn’t challenge or inspire. It’s music for people who don’t like music. It’s for the same people who think cheap QSRs (quick service restaurants) like McDonald’s or Burger King make a quality burger, those who believe Bud Light is good beer or those who find entertainment in the mind numbing, intellectually devoid circus that is reality TV.

But what’s that you say, no one eats at McDonald’s or Burger King these days as their quality ‘has slipped?’ Only drunk college kids pound Bud Lights? Or you don’t watch reality TV anymore because it is no longer novel? The actual reality is those choices were always terrible, but many lacked aesthetic or individuality to reject them when they were in fashion. They were all products created for a mass market world: cheap, fast, ultimately disposable, and lacking in personality or substance. They were marketed heavily. You may have risked being “popular” to reject them, and most people are conditioned to go with the crowd from a young age. Too much a risk for a majority of Americans to speak out against.

Those things mentioned above were distractions from anything of high quality and some might say harmless. But I disagree, the low end of the QSR industry (which I lump together with Coke, processed foods, etc) is to a good extent responsible for the current US obesity epidemic / our health crisis. So back to music: pop music, arguably, could be contributing a similar crisis to our collective mental health. For people that like music, it’s avoided like the plague and when forced to experience it, a headache. For the masses, it’s just what they know because music culture isn’t something they have dug into yet.

The words hymn writers and liturgists put on our lips in worship affect us profoundly: they teach us what to think and feel, the more effectively as they are put to music so we can hum them to ourselves whenever we are inclined.

-Gordon Wenham

McDonald’s is on the decline by health conscious consumers, whereas startups such as Chipotle which are ‘perceived healthy’ are on the up-and-up. Probably just a step in the right direction, but the trend is clear: people are starting to care more what they put in their bodies. The next trend will be people more conscious of the art they consume. For this reason and this reason alone, I am optimistic for the future of music. If you look at the history of music in every culture until current, it has been innate to everyone. We all are creative. Only now, and only in America, do we put a small number of artists producing intellectual devoid and “fast food” art on a pedestal. Well, some of us.

But I’ll be nice: it’s not the fault of people who like pop music that have become so manipulated. Just like it’s not the fault of people who watch reality TV or eat fast food. We can’t really blame them as these industries have, similar to religion, established themselves as what you “have” to follow. The music industry in-particular is a cycle of insularity among genres and manufactured talent the last 50 years, peaking with, IMO the show American Idol, something which is so far removed from actual musicians and meaningful art it’s laughable.

This industry should of course not really have existed in such a centralized manner in the first place. It’s a cartel that existed for some time due to radio and gatekeepers. Again, we can’t be upset about these things just like we can’t get mad at people who still believe in religion or fairy tales: it’s against the status quo to not believe them, and in America, from a young age, you’re taught not to question things. Rather, to follow the rules, to accept the world as you see it. And while following rules might actually make some people happy, something we should not outright dismiss in our critique, what if they would be happier presented with another reality? It is difficult to say, however I believe they might.

An industry that fights the future at every turn

In terms of the music business itself, I previously thought most knew pop stars and in particular big labels were copyright bullies and antithesis of free speech and artistic expression. But they don’t. Most, even really smart individuals, have no idea (or simply don’t care enough) and continue to support the large platforms and labels. If you already know what’s really going on, you’re in the minority. And yet the existing institutions of pop music and label-driven art are at almost comic levels of villainy. From continued lawsuits against their own fans to attempting to shut down any new technology innovations, this industry is probably the worst one there is. Mark Cuban says it best:

There is an old saying that the definition of insanity is, “Doing the same thing over and over again expecting the outcome to change”

I think of this saying everytime I hear about music industry efforts to impact piracy. Insanity is thinking that kids with more time than money will stop finding ways to get music for free. Even if the industry found the end all be all DRM solution that stops 100 pct of duplication, kids will sit in front of their radios with recording capability or redirect digital music from any source to their hard drives and then spend the time to pick out the music they like and burn it.

Insanity is thinking that piracy is the reason music sales are down and then focusing most of your business on selling music to the exact demographic that has the most time to spend on finding free music and most energy to spend on cracking whatever protections you introduce.

Insanity is ignoring year after year, the demographics with more money than time. Those who aren’t willing, or don’t have the time to troll through the net to figure out which network has the most music to download, searching for songs, picking out which peers to try to download from and then hoping it all worked out right. Those who would prefer to just buy music in the easiest way possible so they can get on with enjoying their music and their lives. Isn’t that why we buy bottled water? It’s easy and convenient?

Insanity is repeatedly telling everyone that piracy stops the creative process by preventing artists from making a living and then time and time again, going out and giving advances to bands. Hello McFly, every start up band thinks the money is in getting the advance of a record label deal, not from selling music. They are just as motivated as ever to make music.

Insanity is continuously trying over and over again to “fix” the CD ripping problem hoping to find DRM software that makes the process more difficult and deters the “good people” from creating illegal copies, while completely ignoring DVDs as a solution. A DVD only allows you to use its increased storage capacity to add more value through more music, games, video, pictures, software, whatever, at about the same cost of a CD, while being far more of a pain to rip than any DRM/CD combination the industry has ever come up with.  Dual release on DVDs and CDs and over time elimination of CDs will have far more impact than any DRM on CD solution.

Insanity is watching the digital download services develop customer relationships with music buyer after music buyer,  while year after year the labels have none. When are you going to learn that it’s not only about hitting the numbers for Wall Street every quarter but investing in your customer base. ITunes, Amazon, Netflix, CinemaNow and others have my credit card on file and can find me and sell me something in seconds. Create your own services and sell the music at a deep discount to Itunes and the others. Make it easy to buy, cheap to own.  The short term pain will be well worth the long term gain

The music industry has a very unique opportunity to really re-establish itself as a growth industry. It’s not like they don’t know all of the above. For whatever reason, they just love to do the same things over and over… Which to me is just insane

Again, I thought this was all known, but it’s not. That became apparent to me reading reactions from people previously supporting Taylor Swift redacting her music from Apple due to a promotion they wanted to run, and Swift running a blog post slamming them. This is a complete non-issue, a sideshow to the real problems with the music business (and streaming in particular) and that anyone is upset about it shows how little they know about what’s really going on. While Swift proclaims support of independent artists in her blog post, I can say as an independent artist she in no way represents us.

The lies labels & superstars tell you justify their rake:

So I don’t support pop music in any of its forms, or feel bad when pop stars are fighting with technology companies or labels because they don’t get their way. The previous world order favored them. Radio locked out anything new, unique or that challenged us. As a business it would not take any new risks because a formula they had down was one which they easily profited from and required no risk. Risk is a requisite for great art, and MBAs lacking a basic understanding of culture and humanities have soullessly removed it. Now their monopoly has ended, and like a child having their candy taken away they are lashing out.

I was chatting with my friend Jesse who shares a more positive perspective on Swift. I wish I could share his sentiment, but to me (and others) she’s the same side as the RIAA / labels (which we’ve covered exhaustively) she portrays to be against. Swift sues her own fans and trademarks lyrics which aren’t even original to her. This is philosophically the same actions that the RIAA has taken against their fans for years (as Techdirt has covered even more exhaustively, they truly are the villains of the music industry). For the record I do agree with Jesse on the need for change in the music business particularly more open platforms. But if they are predominantly there to service “artists” with the ego and entitlement of Swift, I don’t want to be a part of it and will continue to be purely a non-profit, creative commons musician.

User hostile sectors doom themselves

How do you feel about Viacom suing YouTube for a billion dollars?

How about the RIAA pushing ISPs to hand over user data?

What about a major news editor claiming Google devalues everything it touches?

In each of these cases (and throngs of others), these organizations only succeed in:

  • Positioning themselves as institutions clinging to a past that is no longer a reality

  • Slowing down progress in an ultimate, inevitable transition that can’t be legislated or sued away

  • Turning their back on tools which enable a profitable and prolific future that can actually makes their users happy

The future does not belong to those who try to lock it down, sue, or otherwise impede the direction of an open information society. We’re pretty much already that, and it’s a beautiful world for companies who organize around making creative works open and accessible.

Unfortunately those in the previous guard making the decisions can’t see beyond their myopic view of the past they built empires on top of. That world doesn’t exist anymore, and no amount of lobbying can put the genie back in the bottle.

The never-ending parade of drama we see every day of battles between old media and technology are difficult to read because the new tools around us are so exciting and enable so much. Not in terms of piracy, in terms of possibility for everyone to have a voice. We have given birth to a long tail of influence, authority and content – which has been enabled to thrive due to technology that old media would be happy to see go away. The truth is, everyone can thrive here, but the problem is those with power have grown complacent and can’t view a world where they are not king.

This is creating much more than a PR nightmare. The music industry is in big trouble right now because they ignored the shift. Print media suffered the same fate. Hollywood is making similar missteps, but was finally forced to do better due to the pandemic (I’m so excited to stream The Matrix 4). Media has always changed with technology, usually with a fight. Scribes were put out of work with the advent of the printing press, the telephone killed the telegraph, video killed the radio star. You know the story.

One more industry analogy: the Internet (should have) already done to music what Tesla (love or hate them) has done to auto sector: Tesla sells direct to consumer and skirts the old dealership model. The incumbents have rallied hard against this and it’s a clear anti-competitive system trying to reassert itself in a world that has changed beneath their feet. The only difference here is the music industry has fought back and “put the genie back in the bottle” for independent artists. If this were not the case, I would not be receiving messages from Spotify telling me I’m a pirate (they haven’t the faintest idea what a creative commons artist is). I include this to show you that sure, some artists like Swift are upset about a promotion by Apple. Meanwhile others of us are outright banned from the “new radio” of streaming, including myself, because labels have created rules which bar modern platforms from allowing creativity via styles of art they do not personally bless. My 2015 album “Untold Story” (free to stream or download here) which is completely free as I’m a non-profit musician (again, remix culture under fair use is not welcome on Spotify). This is a conscious decision by them, there is no reason they couldn’t include us (most of the rest of the internet allows it, at least for now).

The future & how we do better for artists and listeners alike

The current generation of streaming sites basically seeks to establish itself as radio 2.0. There is no upload button on Spotify or iTunes (SoundCloud and YouTube are the only artist-friendly platforms and allow users to upload directly). You have to go through the same artificial barriers as you did on radio (submitting music). Can you imagine if someone had to say yes to you publishing a blog post, a Tweet or a video to YouTube? Exactly. Spotify and Apple’s music streaming services are not free and open, rather closed platforms that have been molded to appease the labels / keepers of the pop music status quo. Otherwise why would they not work to accept new kinds of art and just fold to the labels?

The current drama with the labels, pop artists and music tech companies isn’t by accident. Make no mistake, this is a battle to keep original, creative and different forms of art out of the system. I have had enough of my work pulled down (original and remixes!) from platforms over the years I have almost given up entirely on having my music anywhere but SoundCloud (who I’ve also had issues with as I shared previously in music tech industry trade Hypebot). It’s clear indies aren’t welcome here. And why should they be? That’s the antithesis of the music-industrial complex for consumers to have choice, or be free to remix/engage in other active & creative interpretation. They would have embraced file sharing years ago if that was the case.

It dawned on me the other day. The fact that I can publish a single story on LinkedIn (which was actually just a copy-paste re-post of one of my old columns) taking a total of 60 seconds, and it’s given 40K views due to the platform deciding to amplify the story via their editorial choices/algorithm …it took years and 100s of songs published to a major streaming platform SoundCloud for me to get essentially same level of amplification LinkedIn provided in a single day (Spotify, which is much larger, provides essentially 0 discovery for indies). Similar on YouTube, creating and sharing videos has baked in amplification. My videos are surfaced instantly and YouTube is more than happy to provide an audience. Similar story on Twitter. Video, text, images all have reasonable chance and opportunity to spread. Music is the one media type where this is not the case.

It’s a blue ocean market to build something that’s great for indie artists, and no one seems to understand enough about this niche to do anything about it. Indies matter. Their work is of high quality and important. It’s just discovery is broken and not considered with music, as it is with other media formats.

Still waiting for the endgame: a music platform that takes advantage of the Internet’s superpower

In Think Twice: Harnessing The Power of Counterintution, Michael J. Mauboussin postulates that a diverse crowd will always predict more accurately than the average person in the crowd. He takes social scientist Scott Page’s diversity prediction theorem (collective error = average individual error — prediction diversity) a step further to identify the three conditions which must be in place to know when crowds will predict well:

diversity, aggregation and incentives: Each condition clicks into the equation. Diversity reduces the collective error. Aggregation assures that the market considers everyone’s information. Incentives help reduce individual errors by encouraging people to participate only when they think they have an insight. The web brings diversity, aggregation and incentives together in a way that is instantly accessible. If you think about it, this is one of the core ways we derive value from the web. Consider:

  • The most interesting social areas of the web (especially but not exclusively horizontal networks) have diverse user bases.

  • Popular platforms aggregate by design — or if they don’t — external parties are building technologies on top of them to allow for easy aggregation (think Twitter’s discovery tab, Techmeme/Technorati (previously) for blogs, Google News for news, etc).

  • There are multiple incentives for participation — either personal branding, a passion for the subject matter, sharing of ideas/art or desire to build permission with an audience.

The next great music startup will use these key tenets that power everything from Facebook feed algos to Google search and YouTube content recs. They work for all other media. Music is not special.

Unknown artists should not have to sweat more than other content creator types. They should be given chances. It’s life changing, the feedback, the knowing that your work touches others. Their art being withheld needlessly by gatekeepers and big labels dampens our culture and diversity of thought.

Hang the tastemakers and dinosaur execs. Let diversity, aggregation and incentives decide winners. 30k songs are now released every day. Labels are in theory now useless middlemen, if and when the technology was better and/or the platforms were more open. 1000s are now making music in home studios that is far more creative and interesting than major labels, software has come a long way. Big labels have simply conditioned people to believe mass enculturation of music is somehow the ‘natural’ order of things (when actually the opposite is true, music used to be highly individual, local, tribal, personal - we knew the artists - social media has re-created this!). No one who is passionate about the art form is really ‘happy’ with the general state of streaming or pop music.

In summation, I believe exposure of the problem is the first major step to solving this. Awareness of high quality indie music is what will ultimately be the David vs Goliath story against big labels. And when it gets out, they have no defenses. The quality is simply better.