Until not so long ago, music was something only played live by musicians in front of audiences. With the appearance of audio recording technology, the concept of the recording artist was born. Suddenly it was no longer just about the live performance, but rather about content that can be distributed globally, broadcast on the radio and later other media, and sell millions of copies worldwide. This paradigm shift is much more fundamental than we can grasp, being that we were all born into this new reality, but being successful at a musician used to be measured only in terms of live performances. Album sales and broadcast only became a part of the equation about 100 years ago. As mass media became a major force in shaping audiences taste, a symbiotic process began, which in turn is shaping the main stream of music making, and which is related more to market forces than it does to art.
Play-list makers and gate-keepers
We all heard about them, and maybe some of you reading this ARE them…
The radio and television play-list makers and the music industry gate-keepers. The people who have the power to decide what will be heard by audiences through the mass media, and what will remain anonymous and largely ignored and forgotten. The reality of composers in today’s music industry is that unless they were “approved” by the industry’s gate-keepers and selected by the play-list makers, their chances of commercial success by today’s standards, are slim.
In the old world, success in music was mostly local, and as a result, there was space for far more people to be included. With the globalization that the recording industry brought with it, there is space for much fewer artists, as each successful artist can reach a much wider and often global market instead of a highly localized one. On a single radio station, there is only enough air time for so many songs to be broadcast each day. It is simply impossible to share all of the music that is being created globally, all in one place. Furthermore, it is now widely known that people tend to enjoy listening to the same few songs over and over again and can only take in a few new songs at a time. This inevitably leads to the need for an aggressive selection process, which can only allow a very small percentage of the music submitted to them, to actually be broadcast and shared with the world on a wide scale. While often frustrating, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the existence of that process, but I’d like to suggest that more often than not, there is indeed something wrong with how this process is executed. I’d like to suggest that play-list makers and gate-keepers are not only responding to the taste of mass audience, but rather they also help shaping it. If there is hope for melody to make a meaningful comeback, it is largely depending on the active participation of those play-list makers and music industry gate keepers in reshaping audience taste.
But the way play-list makers and gate keepers affect the music industry is not limited to what they select to play and turn to what is referred to as mainstream, and shaping the taste of their audiences. Composers and songwriters, who write outside of that mainstream realm, find that their music cannot find a good outlet. It isn’t played in the mass media, so it isn’t sold by the major record labels, and so it doesn’t drive enough concert ticket sales, and basically does not generate enough money to make a living from, and certainly does not gain the attention many of us seek. What this vicious cycle usually means, is that if you are a professional composer or songwriter and you want to make a living off of your art and craft, you learn rather quickly, that in order to beat that cycle, you need to make music that will pass through the gate keepers and will fit into the style which shapes the mass media play-lists. This is a major issue to understand and take in. The selection of music to be included in mass-media play-lists directly affects which type of music is created. This means that even if there are alternative outlets, globally through the internet, or locally, the actual content for such alternative outlets is not created, and will not be created solely based on such alternative outlets, because those non-traditional outlets do not have the market power to translate into viable income. If you are a music industry gate-keeper or a play-list maker, please take this to heart. You have much more power over music creation than you might think. Play your part, and you can help reshape the direction in which the music industry is going.
The international market equation (and why everything is being dumbed-down)
While working on this article I randomly ran into a mixing engineer who works in one of Hollywood’s most prominent mainstream recording studios, just a few blocks away from where I live. I asked him if he had any thoughts that might shed light on the subject, and what he had to say rang very familiar, almost too familiar, but not from the music industry. What he said was mirroring almost identically what I’ve been hearing in the film industry in recent years. The major movie studios, which also own all US major television networks, as well as most of the major record labels, have recently came to the business conclusion, that in order to maximize the return on their investment, they need to make locally created content that will easily translate to foreign markets. In their minds, in film it means not relying on too much dialog or movies that depict the life unique to a certain local place, but rather keep the stories simple, and focus on visual storytelling, action driven and with a simple high-concept that can be described with a single short sentence. In music it means simple lyrics and minimal complexity of melody. Kipping it simple and catchy. An easily repeatable sound bite, that anybody everywhere in the world can understand and repeat without effort. The sad part is that it is an equation that reinforces itself, not because it’s true, but because these studios also have the control over almost all of the mass media, and can promote their content through their own play-lists.
Once again, complex music by original artists with integrity are not rewarded but rather repressed. This didn’t use to be that way, and ironically, a lot of the most popular and well played music on the play-lists is music from past decades that became popular prior to those industry-wide business changes, and which would probably not have gotten through the gate keepers of the music industry today. Moreover, even those older, richer pieces of music that survived through time, are now often being remixed, to distil and reduce them to repackaged sound-bites, removing anything other than the most memorable element in them. The horrifying result is that most new music simply doesn’t bother with development or such complexity anymore, as our ears are getting accustomed to that simplified form often created by non-musicians DJs.
This type of strictly business driven industry is a rather new phenomenon, and has to do with the takeover of business people who are not at all artistically driven at most if not all of the major stidios which control the production and distribution of content worldwide.
The de-centralizing of media (and other false promises)
Ok, I know what you’re thinking. There are other ways of making and distributing music. With today’s technology artists are no longer dependent on the big record labels to produce and distribute their music. Music production is simpler and cheaper than ever. Independent artists can record their albums in their home studios with extremely good and commercially viable results, and the internet has changed the way people buy music, and even the way they listen to it.
Major albums are released independently by hugely popular bands and very established artists, and are selling extremely well without the interference of the big studios, right? Well, not exactly.
Back to the bonfire
While it is possible to record albums independently in extremely low budgets and quite impressive technical quality, which means that good music can be produced and recorded regardless of the major labels, and while it is technologically possible to distribute music as digital content on a personal website or even on major platforms such as Amazon and iTunes without needing the major studios to open the doors to that possibility, the truth is that for the most part, the only artists and bands that are able to translate such self-distribution to viable commercial success, are those who have already achieved stardom prior to their independent endeavors, with the help of the major studios and the embrace of mass media. The truth is that while technology enables de-centralizing, the human animal is a social one, and has needs embedded in it through thousands of years of a certain social structure. In a sense just like music must have begun thousands of years ago around the bonfire, mass media such as network television and radio have become the modern time bonfire around which we all sit. The centralizing of media is not only a result of economy and technology, but rather is rooted in a social need. When we all listen to the same songs and watch the same shows, it makes us feel like we are a part of a community, like we’re all connected. Sitting around the bonfire and having a shared experience is a basic human need, and technology cannot change that all by itself.
In order to truly let independent voices into the mainstream, that music needs to be played in major mass media. Web services like Pandora Radio, Amazon and iTunes do help the cause, but they are only an incomplete part of the ecosystem of the music industry. There was a time when the major record labels were run by music professionals who new music and were passionate about finding, producing and distributing great music. That is no longer so. The major record labels were all acquired by the few major movie studios which also control all major mass media, and are now being run by business people without the background of music making or even film making. They are driven and passionate about one thing – making money, and they are guided not by the artistic qualities of the music offered to them or even the social message it might carry, but rather they are guided by market forces and financial models.
Music industry gate keepers and the mass media playlist makers must understand that they aren’t merely responding to the taste of their audiences, but rather help shape that taste, and also, being a major market force themselves, they affect not only what music is played in their own network/station/label, but rather they have a tremendous influence on what kind of music is being created by artists. We humans have a strong need for the sense of free will, but live most of our lives with free will as merely an illusion. By being passive and “responding to market forces” there is no exercising of free will. That goes to audiences, music creators and the gate-keepers and playlist makers that connect between them. Audience taste is constantly shaped by mainstream media, therefore mainstream media must take the responsibility for shaping it well. Mainstream media can only play what they are given by music creators, so music creators must acknowledge their responsibility in keeping their creative integrity, and being aware of what it is they are creating and sending out to the world. When money and market forces are what drive the creation of music, it results with a product – not art. This is true for other form of creative expression, from film to theater and even visual arts and novels. Creative artists are few who have the power to affect many. It is through art, that people understand the world. It is art that shape perception. Being far less than 1% of the population, what each and every one of us “content creators” chooses to do with our time on this earth, and what we choose to put out to the world, truly matters. By surrounding ourselves with like-minded people and being a part of the artistic community or the media community, we have the illusion of being one of many, and it makes us reduce the sense of responsibility. It feels like we are more like 20% of the population or even more, but the truth is we are only a fraction of a single percent, and what we choose to put out there matters.
Melody may still have a chance to make a comeback, but it can only happen if we all do our part, from creating music, selecting and playing music in mass media, financing music and educating the new generation with the capacity for language and the ability to process complex and intricate concepts and ideas. It depends on our willingness to be active in our exercising of free will, and not passive and reactive. Will it happen? Well, it’s up to you.