We are heading for a day when the music could well die

(April 02, 2010)

How is it right that outstanding musicians struggle to make a living doing what they are clearly ‘born to do’ while hyper-marketed drivel from talentless twerps overpopulates the airwaves, downloads and music stores?

Most modern so-called ‘music’ that pours out of the speakers of the world is unmitigated crap. It’s performed by people who understand nothing about music – just about ‘celebrity’. Such performers know little about composition, display limited musical ability, and reveal a severe paucity of noticeable talent. So why are we in this sorry situation? Where did it all go wrong? How do ‘manufactured’ groups (I can’t bring myself to call them bands) of single or multiple gender individuals manage to rise to their moment of fickle stardom? And who the hell let this happen?

It’s not the result of one isolated incident that’s for sure. It’s a combination of actions and effects. It’s down to laziness, apathy. It’s the relentless march of mediocrity. It’s the power of marketing over merit. It’s the ever-burgeoning power of ‘give me as much as possible for as little effort as I can manage’. It’s music becoming something that less of us recognise.

When I was a child, music surrounded us. I don’t mean mindless computer-generated pap that emanates from the ceiling-mounted tin boxes in most malls and high street shops. Neither do I mean the low bass thud the courses from black boxes the size of Leeds mounted in a ridiculously tarted up pile of junk driven by a spotty oik. And I certainly don’t mean talent-free twits prancing about on television. I mean music played by human beings on instruments. From people that learned to play instruments. Not only did some of us play instruments, many of us danced and most of us sang (although poorly in some cases). However, the point remains there was music all around us. And it was proper music. No one made it through marketing and no one suffered permanent damage to their internal organs caused by low frequency vibrations.

There was a wealth of available music whatever your taste and as the years passed the available catalogue grew wider. It was there, from Beatles to Bacharach through Grapelli to Zappa. Like, love, loath, despise it was music. Then somewhere along the way the musicians vanished and the corporation took over. Computer-generated took the place of instrument-created. And ‘new’ talent was only accessible through questionable television shows.

“I wanna be famous” and other forgettable quotes

There was a time when we celebrated music for its own sake not for the 15 minutes of celebrity it gives the individual communicating it to the unwary. It seems composing music has fallen before the plastic gods of celebrity. This came home to me last week. I heard one of the new breed of artificial performers reply to the question: “What drives you to perform?” And what was their reply? “Coz I wanna’ be famous.” Groan!

I’ve asked that question of thousands of bands, artists, musicians, singers, songwriters. The answers are wide and varied but I’ve never heard “Coz I wanna’ be famous.” That in itself is enlightening. The inexorable rise of fame and celebrity are an insidious poison that increasingly ferments in popular Western culture. The public fascination with celebrities (in the music industry or not) though not technically a religion or a cult, leads to idolatry. It becomes the worship of the idol rather than the substance. This worship and adoration pours on to the individual not their art. And as many so-called ‘music celebrities’ have no recognisable art to offer, one might reasonably ask what else remains?

Constant publicity and exposure in published media and across the broadcast airways creates fame and fame is creating celebrity. Interestingly though, the reason for the fame attached to these vacuous individuals is that most are merely ‘famous for being famous’. This form of ‘musical fame’ is often reserved for failed soap stars, reality television contestants and pop star show entrants. Notice that I said ‘entrants’ – there is no requirement to win. You can be absolute shite and still get your 15 minutes of fame.

And what is to blame? The constant dumbing-down of every aspect of intellectual thought to the lowest common denominator? Is it our rabid desire to replace everything with the latest? Or is it the relentless aspiration to trash tradition and replace it with something new?

The gods of music-celebrity are ignorance, sloth, apathy and trivia. They exist to feed on the indifference that permeates popular culture. Celebrity is nothing new – but there was a time when you had to do something to become one. Unfortunately, music, that all-time mass communicator, falls ever deeper into this pit of despair while with equal speed the trite, superficial and shallow filter to the surface.

True and sad facts

Making a living is more than ‘hand-to-mouth’ existence. Yet it is less than superior hotel suites and private jets (lovely though that thought may be). It’s supporting yourself and your family without worry. If you can do that based on something you love doing then that’s wonderful. The problem with supporting yourself and your loved ones through music is unless one falls into that ‘intergalactic’ category of stardom achieved by only a few, most are hard-pressed to make a living as musicians.

Even bands regarded as ‘famous’ still argue there is little chance to forge financial security from album sales alone. The only way to keep Mr Bank Manager happy is tour ‘like a crazy son of a bitch’ – not my words - those of a successful folk musician who wishes to remain unsung (intentional and poor pun).

Narrowing from music in the wide sense to folk music the issues only worsen. The opportunities to ‘reach the heights’ are less. The genre is smaller, the field narrower, the potential to sell the product massively reduced, there is limited mass appeal. No need to continue with that thread – everyone knows the limits. This is folk music we’re talking about. There could be a revival and resurgence every damn day of the week, yet even with associated marketing and media muscle there is no way that folk will command the same mass appeal. The venues that present folk acts are mostly smaller (yes I know Show of Hands filled the Albert Hall) in fact most are small to middle-sized clubs; plus a scattering of festivals.

There are thousands of folk artists – bands, singers, and musicians - each of them driven by a need to write and perform their music. Most have ‘other jobs’ that pay the mortgage and put food on the table. They recognise all too well that had they decided to follow another musical career then things could be different. Had they formed a boy or a girl-group with mass popular appeal (and taken part in the X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent) they might have received more recognition or should that be notoriety?

However, if you ask any of them would they care to give up or change their music the answer is no. The drive to compose and perform in a genre that instantly restricts potential and appeal is hard to define. The best reason came from another musician who also wishes to remain as a shadow in the dark recesses of their comment. “Folk music is something I have to do. Working is something I have to do. The first makes me feel good (and hopefully makes other people feel good too). The second puts bread on the table. And by the way the second enables me to achieve the first.” Now there’s a pragmatist if I ever heard one.

Culture in retreat and tradition ignored

It’s argued diluting distinctive culture and recognisable tradition is another nail in the coffin of music. That’s because the music that lives and breathes around us is often, increasingly swamped by any tradition other than our own. That is one reason perhaps why feeble-minded, young middle-class white boys adopt the street language and movements of Trenchtown or Harlem. Using ‘street argot’ is fine if it’s the street argot of your own culture but when it’s from another culture it’s not only bonkers it makes the user look like a jerk. And it’s probably insulting to the ‘real’ owners of the culture.

Tradition is no sacred cow. The boundaries must extend. The established should be challenged. That’s how musical expression and form develop, grow and remain relevant. Yet most of the modern challenge appears to be to the method of distribution rather than content. The method of getting to the ‘end-user’ (ghastly phrase) is more relevant and important than the content. See the earlier remarks on celebrity. And it’s that delivery method that has also contributed to the erosion. Technology increasingly removes the need to ‘learn and master’ an instrument. Most instruments can be emulated by electronics and most samples can drop in at any point in a tune. So the ‘quick fix, want it now’ bracket have no need to refine and work on their art. They just bash it out. The experts of the airwaves respond to the ever-increasing need for new at the expense of content by broadcasting this stuff and like lambs to the slaughter the unsuspecting populous gobble it up.

One day we’ll look and find it’s all gone

The future is something none of us can see. We can only recognise only trends that could lead to a possible outcome. Nevertheless, we are heading for a day when the music could well die – not simply Don McLean’s tribute to Buddy but the death of music performed by humans. Perhaps music could fall so far ‘underground’ - the term applied to artistic movements, counter-cultures and the music of the 60’s and 70’s - could come to mean any music played by humans on instruments. The loyal few, like French Resistance fighters, would sit huddled around a radio listening to Mike Harding, while roving bands of Music Police try to ferret out the offenders.

And that my friends is not a far-fetched prediction. It’s a trend already and like some trends it could well become a fact. Already bands and artists ‘chuck it in’ because they can’t make a living. The frustration of feeling they are on a road to nowhere or at least a road less travelled makes them question their drive to write and perform music. Others keep on slaving away (thank goodness) and continue to create wonderful music while juggling other jobs as well.

Does this observation offer anything other than comment? Not really, but if it strikes a chord (and another one) then we had better start recognising that one day it could all be gone.


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