When I was young, the music that I was allowed to listen to was strictly limited by my parents. Any music purchases must first go through an approval process. The cover art was the first obstacle. My mother would look over the tape cover with a suspicious eye. Anything with pictures of demons, drugs, or violence was out. Anything that might otherwise suggest the devil’s handiwork would quickly get put back on the shelf. The same held true for any slight suggestion of sexuality. It’s not hard to imagine how many titles were restricted for this rock n roll fan in the early 80’s. Next, the song titles were scrutinized. The same rules applied as with the cover art; no drugs, sex, demons or violence. It was harder for her to check the lyrics. That is until that damnable woman Tipper Gore convinced the record labels to put a big black label on the album that said “EXPLICIT LYRICS”. Those two words were the purchasing death nail of many albums I desired. On rare occasion, I was able to sneak something through that wasn’t entirely squeaky clean. Once I was finally permitted to purchase an album it became a treasured possession. By the time I was a teenager with a job, I bought whatever I wanted and learned to hide my treasures. When this became the norm, the approval process was turned on its head. I actively sought out many of those Explicit Lyrics labeled albums. My album collection became a representation of me and how I viewed myself, instead of the idealized version of me that my mother wanted.
Things have changed alot since then. I can remember hanging out with my friends with the express intention of listening to an album. Listening to music was the thing we did together. We would dissect each album. I knew what equipment was used, how the guitars were tuned and the backstory of the lyrics usually. We liked to compare the musicians from this or that band. We knew the names of each album and all of the songs. To this day I remember the lyrics to most of the songs on those albums and can name the band, track, album and release year after hearing the first measure. I don’t think we were the exception to the rule. Nearly everyone listened to music that way. It doesn’t seem to happen any more.
Somewhere along the line music has become the soundtrack for whatever else we are doing. It gives us something to sing along with while we’re in the car. It plays softly while we are at work. Music has degenerated into our last defense against boredom. It is no longer something we do but instead it is background noise that guards against silence. Silence makes people uncomfortable. They nearly always find something to say instead of allowing it. Music is a nice convenient way of drowning out the possibility of having those forced conversations. Have you ever been in the car with someone who turned the music up so loud that you had to scream to talk to them? My favorite trick is headphones. I listen to music or books all day while wearing headphones. People are hesitant to talk to you while you are wearing them. Nothing says, “Please don’t disturb” quite like a good pair of headphones. The over the ear variety are even more effective. Somehow music has gone from connecting me to other people to helping me avoid them.
How did listening to music go from being the main event to a mere sideshow act? I think that there are several reasons. One of the big ones is that there is now nothing physical to cherish. There is nothing to touch. Every album feels the same to my fingers, exactly like my mobile phone. It is all ones and zeroes floating inside a mini computer. Before when I bought an album, I physically possessed it. It was mine and which ones I owned said something about me. I could only have so many with me at any one time. The albums I kept on hand defined me, especially while in my car. If I wanted to play music for a friend, I had to choose carefully what albums to bring. What I listened to was a representation of my musical tastes. My music collection was tangible proof of that. I can now keep as many albums as I want. There is no space limitation and no penalty for having even the worst music on my digital player. I may never listen to an album ever again and still have it on hand 24/7 without even a slight inconvenience. This seems like a good thing at first, but in reality it has trivialized the process of owning music. Many of us don’t even bother owning it anymore, instead we subscribe to music services which allow us to listen to what we want, when we want. It is much easier to take it for granted when it is so quick and simple to access.
This constant access to music has lead to the habit of listening to singles instead of albums. We now only listen to the equivalent of mix tapes, a personal greatest hits collection. The only problem is that this music is usually curated for us. We listen to what a computer algorithm tells us we will like. At best our friends suggest songs that they liked which the computer suggested to them. Albums in the past were meant to be listened to straight through. The single was essentially a gift we received via the radio to help us decide if we wanted to hear the entire album. You didn’t know which was your favorite song on an album until you listened to them all. The single got you through the door, the album helped you decide if you would stay or ever return again. Some albums ended up in our car and some ended up at the used record store. But now people mostly want to listen to singles. This requires that every song is available for individual purchase. It means that every song has to stand on its own. Musicians are in the business of selling music. No matter how much artistic integrity they have, ultimately they need to pay the bills like the rest of us. How many songs are now scrapped that don’t have an obvious market? Can you imagine if all of the tracks on Pink Floyd’s The Wall had to stand on their own? Even though the cost of creating a fully realized song is much lower, the time commitment is still substantial.
Another factor is competition. The cost of doing business has reached the point where anyone can start a band, record music and market it to the world for very little money. Of course these things alone do not guarantee success. It does guarantee that anyone can throw in their hat and try. This is another thing that seems like a good thing but has a negative impact on how we listen to music. In the past, it was so expensive to record that a band needed someone to fund their recording sessions. Record labels would invest in bands who obviously filled a market. Even though this process probably stifled creativity in general, it ensured for the most part that the music would be decent. Of course this depends on your tastes but the point is that there was less out and out bad music. The gatekeepers are now falling to the wayside. More and more musicians are picking themselves instead of waiting to be chosen by a record label. This has caused an entirely new problem, there is too much music.
For many bands, it is almost impossible to be heard. You have to really stand out to find any kind of mass audience. Signing with a major record label is still the best way to ensure that you will find an audience but ironically record labels want to sign bands who already have an audience. The latest strategy is for a band to give their music away to remove any kind of reason for fans to pass them by. This has created a race to the bottom, turning singles into nothing more than advertisements. The strategy seems to be to gain enough of a following so that record labels will want to sign you. The result has been that fans are given the impression that they are doing the band a favor by listening to their music.
All of the problems that I have pointed out are the direct result of technological changes that we consider innovations. How do we determine if a change was a positive one? In my opinion, to be deemed positive it has to improve the fans experience. The truth is that technology is almost always used to make things easier. Sometimes getting something easy just makes us lazy. I am not suggesting that we turn back time and go back to physical media. In order to succeed, bands will need to overcome these issues. In order to do this we must realize that the game has completely changed. I’ve read that the era of super bands like the Beatles is over and that the success of the future is only making a living. I don’t believe it. Mega successful bands will always exist as long as they connect listeners with music that moves them. The fan must respect and maybe even envy the musician. These people have the almost magical ability to manipulate our emotions with their creations. It’s hard to respect someone when you feel like you are doing them a favor by granting them your attention. It’s hard to cherish a possession that doesn’t actually exist. It’s even harder to pay for what is out there for free.
I don’t believe that the problems I’ve mentioned are fixable. More than likely music will never again be primarily sold enmass in physical packages. I wouldn’t be surprised if musical compositions ceased to be sold at all. Music will become more accessible, not less. The idea of the personal music collection will be explained in history books next to the section on cassette tapes. People will continue to listen to mostly to curated music in the background. The music industry as we know it has already died, we just don’t realize it.
The successful band of the future will involve its audience in every way imaginable. The fans contribution to the project will cloud the line separating the band from its audience. By combining social networking, crowdsourcing and crowdfunding, musicians will join with their fans to produce music that is meant to be enjoyed by those who created it. This band will give their fans more than a souvenir, it will give them a voice.