By Jack Sharkey, June 9, 2014
Before we get started, I'd like to remind you that I wholeheartedly reject the categorization of music for the purpose of making one genre "better" or "more important" over another. To limit oneself to one specific type of music is akin to limiting oneself to one specific type of food. We can discuss genres in order to help a musical conversation (French cuisine tastes different than Cajun food, but both are enjoyable to eat) but to only allow art to live in one specific cubbyhole does a disservice to the artist and the consumer of the art.
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I recently had an off-the-record sitting-in-a-bar conversation (the best kind of conversation) with a super-well respected music producer about the current state of the music industry. Basically he told me that he views the current music industry as a direct mirror-image of what it was in 1963 – just before the Beatles broke.
The Music Industry in 1963:
• A few record labels controlled everything
• Labels were mostly run by "money-men" and sales people from other industries (did you ever wonder why Music Row in Manhattan and the center of the early-Sixties music industry grew just a few blocks north of the Garment District?)
• Homogenized musical stylization that consumers mindlessly consumed because they assumed nothing better existed
• Pre-packaged stars and tours blotted the musical landscape as corporate types took all that was good about the rock rebellion of the Fifties and turned it into something you and your mom could all enjoy together whilst driving to the A&P in dad's Skylark
• Meanwhile, white America was pretty much unaware of the Delta Blues while British teenagers were injecting the sounds of the Mississippi Delta into their heads on a daily basis. Good music is always available if you know where to find it.
My earliest memory is watching JFK's funeral on television with my brother. My second earliest memory is a Beatles' song coming on the radio while driving with my parents (in a Ford). They weren't happy.
Can you imagine the bloodshed and screaming if someone ever forced them to get a haircut?
I don't really know what my mom meant by this (I was like four), but I do know my mother had an unparalleled talent for cracking wise, so it's anyone's guess. Unfortunately for years afterward I thought if you let your hair grow too long and got it cut, your head would bleed and it would hurt.
Besides the uncomfortable memory of an impressionable youth, I don't need to tell you the impact the Beatles had on modern music, but what I will say is that because of the state of the politics and culture, something was going to break at that particular moment in time. Maybe the Beatles got lucky or maybe they made it happen, but either way, we can rightly say that the Beatles changed everything for the next 45 years.
Musical microgenres and the monogenre are not new, it's just that the current music industry resident-geniuses-in-charge have successfully eliminated micro-genres from mass distribution in their myopic pursuit of mass appeal artists and quick returns on their investments.
Regional and Time-Specific Music
American music grew from five distinct genres: Gospel/Spiritual, African folk music, British/Irish folk music, Military music and classical. Military music which was very popular in the years between the Civil War and the turn of the 20th Century has since been enveloped into American Classical, while the best examples of current American classical and orchestral music are found in theatrical soundtracks, which are not to be confused with Broadway-type music which comes from an amalgamation of early-American broadside music, minstrel music and the European Renaissance.
Delta Blues is different from Chicago Blues, even though the initial musical practitioners of Chicago Blues were all emigrants from the Mississippi Delta. New York jazz, in the form of be-bop, is markedly different from New Orleans Dixieland. Bluegrass music, specific to the Appalachian region, is completely different from the Bakersfield Sound, yet each of these aforementioned sub-genres are instantly recognizable as belonging to their main genre.
Take some time and play with your Pandora or Spotify account; listen to a history of popular American music and you will see trends develop. The American music scene has always been rich because of its regionalization: The Beach Boys (Southern California) were completely different from the Standells (Boston). The O'Jays (Philadelphia via Canton, OH) were altogether different than the Isley Brothers (New York via Cincinnati, OH). In both cases, the music was recognizable as being similar in genre, but the individual talents and the vibe of the scene the music was being made in resulted in completely different feels.
ZZ Top (pre-Eliminator) and Stevie Ray Vaughn sound like they sound because of where they come from and where most of their music was developed (Texas), while George Thorogood and His Delaware Destroyers play the same music but don't sound anything like them.
Tommy James grew up in Michigan and played pop music in the vein of Fabian and Bobby Rydell until he moved to New York and immersed himself in the scene there in the late 60s and subsequently produced such classics as Crimson and Clover and Crystal Blue Persuasion. Both are pure pop songs but both are also unmistakably counter-culture in message.
Every good musician and songwriter will tell you openly that they steal (borrow) from their influences. As a musician you take the best of what you've heard and been influenced by and through some strange alchemy of talent turn it into something (hopefully) uniquely your own.
As positive as I am about the future of music, I can't help but wonder if the current state of the industry and the reliance on the two supergenres for revenue is going to stifle musical creativity going forward. There are some who say that music in general is in a downward spiral because of this, but I still tend to disagree.
The Supergenre and the Monogenre
Have you noticed that pretty much every male person between the ages of 25 and 38 all pretty much have a beard, the same haircut, the same plaid shirts, the same skinny jeans and the same suede desert boots? This is what I like to call the "fashion monogenre." Fashion (and music) is always in a struggle between being hip and fitting in or serving the individual. (Note: To those of you in the above picked on demographic who don't dress this way - I'm just making a silly allegory to help me make my point. I'm not saying every guy this age dresses this way, in fact some don't even have beards).
To show you how 'hip' works, here's a handy chart I like to call The Cycle of Hip:
The best thing that ever happened to Bruce Springsteen was that he became a major rockstar. The worst thing that ever happened to the Jersey Shore music scene was Bruce Springsteen. Starting in about 1979, if you didn't look or sound like The Boss you didn't fit in to what people thought New Jersey Music should look and sound like. Some genius even coined a name for it: SOAP (Sound of Asbury Park). Every local songwriter thought they were the next Bruce and every local act searched high-and-low for a sax player. It sucked. Bruce is really good and he even waved at me once in downtown Freehold, but really, everybody has to be Bruce Jr. now? You might say that the very unique and compelling microgenre of Springsteen soon became the boring and trite supergenre of SOAP as non-artists chased after Bruce's magic money-making musical elixir.
Now that the people who are forcing bro-country on us have discovered hip-hop, the last two distinct musical movements in this country have been gene-spliced together into something that is bland and boring while at the same time completely devoid of any redeeming musical qualities. But who cares? A couple of acts are making scads of money off of it.
Over the past few years, the only genre that saw a general increase in sales is rap. While there are a lot of factors playing into the overall decline in music industry sales (streaming, less interest in physical product, piracy, boredom) we really can't ignore the fact that maybe the industry is producing product nobody really wants. It's easy for the music industry to blame everyone else for their problems because it keeps the powers that be from having to take a long hard look at the mirrors in their collective executive washrooms, but I would suggest maybe they take stock in their product offerings and business model before they blame us for their problems.
Do you remember the 2002 Lincoln Blackwood Pickup Truck? Of course you don't, at $52,000 it was a lame excuse for a truck and an ugly car, so this horrible product that nobody wanted was only produced for one year.
Right now, in what was once known as popular music but is now more correctly referred to as corporate music, there are two supergenres: corporate rap and corporate country (derisively referred to as bro-country).
Back when I was hip and up on things like current culture, I always looked forward to when our moms would start copping our clothing and music, because then I knew it was time for a new movement to break out. (Dads are generally too annoyed to cop our styles and our songs overtly – they do it clandestinely, like when they're driving you and your friends to the movies)
Now the Today Show, and every other corporate entity chasing after every mom's expendable cash, is pushing homogenized rap and bro-country down our throats under the guise of full-package entertainment. Have you ever noticed how completely similar every single corporate artist's stage show is anymore?
• Overly synchronized dancers that are trying to be sexy but are really just boring
• A long-haired, grungy guitar player with lots of hip tattoos
• A smirky drummer
• Everybody plays at least two measures on some giant drum just before the hook
We are fast approaching a time when every song will have the following:
• A heavy kick drum and synthesized bass line with a snare that falls only on 2 and 4
• Droning instrumentation with very few (if any) chord changes
• A hook that can be shouted at high-volume by drunken concert-goers and is sung by a "crossover" artist who supplies a loop of his or her voice
• A rap section
• Upwards of thirty people all banging on large drums while swaying back and forth and looking dreamy
There you have it. I have just written and arranged every popular song for the next three years. Welcome back to 1963, now if we could just fast-forward from there...
The Microgenre, Or What We Used To Call "Music"
In the past three years I have spent a lot of time (14 trips) traveling between New Jersey and Nashville. This has done three things for me: a) broaden my current musical horizon, and b) remind me how much I despise bro-country and the pre-packaged whiskey drinkin', joint tokin', women who compete with them (aka Corporate Country), and 3) helped me memorize the location of every Cracker Barrel between Carlisle, PA, and Lebanon, TN.
You might say that eating and fueling up on the current Great American Road Trip is a monogenre of indistinct, overly starchy food, interspersed with the occasional Flying J or Sheetz. At least in New Jersey we have Wawa where the help is rude, the gas is pumped for you, and the Shorties are delicious. But alas, Wawa is expanding nationwide. You might say that the peculiarly regional microgenre of the rude employee and the Shortie is becoming a monogenre of boring and annoying travel experience.
I've Been Prattling On About the Corporatization of Anything and the Decline of Everything, So Where's the Good News?
The old business model of distribution, promotion and artist development is dying a rapid death. All of those boring songs with lots of bass and kick and nary a melodic instrument among them all popping along crisply at 120 beats per minute while throbbing beneath an auto-tuned photogenic personality are in reality the frantic death rattle of an industry that has lost its ability to survive in the modern market. The monogenre does not mean that all music will be nothing more than boring samples of everything that came before it. On the contrary, as people grow tired of the same formulaic cookie-cutter corporate "act" they will (as they have always done) seek out music that fits their tastes and needs on their own.
Just because its on television or on the radio doesn't mean its good. In fact, nowadays you could make the argument that the people who produce television and radio are so devoid of creative thought that they think they are doing the creative thing by copying the other creative people a few notches down the dial from them (see the Cycle of Hip).
The Microgenre Revolution Has Begun
Nashville, not the city but the concept, is a perfect allegory of what is happening across the industry. The expensive offices filled with uncreative accounting types are scrambling to stay alive by throwing the same old tired music at a complacent public, while in bars and house shows across the city independent musicians are building followings and honing their craft one low-paying show at a time.
This might be a good time to remind you that the Beatles played many of their first shows at a club called the Casbah, which was in the basement of drummer Pete Best's mom's house.
While we can't deny that most popular music will always be a derivation of something that has come before it, there are still an awful lot of chord progressions matched with melody lines that haven't been played yet. There are still songwriters out there with something unique to say who will invariably say something that touches us. We just have to find them in different ways now than we have for the past half century and that's actually a good thing. We're on our own now without being told what we should be listening to by faceless media moguls a thousand miles away. What's proving to be very bad for giant media corporations is fantastic for us regular people.
Fans and musicians will continue to coin names for their specific styles of music (vaporwave or seapunk anyone?) but at the end of the day it's about taste and what hits you psychically, not about what some radio programmer or television producer or record label accountant thinks is good music. I've always reserved the right to listen to Five Finger Death Punch or Daft Punk depending on my mood and not my hipster identification card.
The death of the 20th Century record industry (and subsequent rebirth) will result in an artistic backlash that leaves all of us music lovers with more choices and more good music. That is not a bad thing.
Right now, my most played Spotify station is my St. Paul & the Broken Bones station. This is because I am currently in the mood for a bit of Southern soul and funk mixed in with some plain-old roots rock. Next month I may be on a reggae kick, but to me its all just music. When a Carpenter's song comes on my Sirius/XM 70s station I listen to it with joy. That is, until I get to a traffic light, then I turn it way down lest someone think I'm totally into the Carpenters. (So much for my not caring about not fitting in with the hipsters)
Have no fear, the monogenre will only eat your brain if you let it. The best defense against a boring corporate take over of your brain is to find the stuff that suits your mood and your tastes and not worry about the genre.
Who cares if some corporate beancounter turns their product into a monogenre as long as we can still find good music to listen to on our own? Each and every one of us is a microgenre of tastes and interests onto ourselves and it's nice to know there's a variety of music available to fit our own personal microgenre.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and not necessarily those of KEF or its employees.