The Future of Music Is Doomed (and Why It Isn’t)
Oh, geez, not this crud again.
The December 2014 issue of the Atlantic Monthly includes an article entitled 'The Shazam Effect' by author Derek Thompson. We all know Shazam, the ubiquitous app for finding the title of the song playing at Starbucks while we wait for our triple-shot-double-half-decaf-no-whip-extra-cream-caramel-chocolate-extra-hot-iced frappiattos.
I would've given anything for an app like Shazam back in my record store days, when dazed customers would drift around the store looking for "That song, you know the one. The guy with the haircut who says 'love'?"
Anyway, the thrust of Thompson's article is that the music industry is using data gathered by Shazam and other apps not only to find new talent but to predict the next hit. That's no big deal; after all, the key word in music industry is "industry," and market research is an important aspect of selling products.
That market research, by the way, has reached its tendrils into tours and live performances. Thompson says:
Concert promoters study Spotify listens to route tours through towns with the most fans, and some artists look for patterns in Pandora streaming to figure out which songs to play at each stop on a tour.
That's great news for people who want to hear the same music from the same bands, but pretty depressing for the rest of us. Fleetwood Mac just rolled through my town, and I'll bet you I can guess most of their set list. Wouldn't it be cool to see Fleetwood Mac playing a bunch of obscure deep cuts rather than the same old hits?
Things that are familiar are comforting, particularly when you are feeling anxious.
When you're talking business, though, billions of Big Macs beat a handmade, grass fed, artisinal cheeseburger every time. The author quotes USC psychology professor Norbert Schwarz: "Things that are familiar are comforting, particularly when you are feeling anxious."
Another Schwartz addressed all of this back in 1973. I'm talking about Sherwood Schwartz, creator of 'The Brady Bunch.' In the premiere episode of the show's fifth season, oldest brother Greg is offered a chance at stardom. Unfortunately, he discovers that his new label doesn't want him for his musical talent, but rather because he fits the suit they made for a prefabricated star named Johnny Bravo.
'The Brady Bunch' was a terrible show, but I watched it every day when I got home from school because it was familiar and comforting, proving Schwarz right about Schwartz.
The Johnny Bravo episode foreshadowed the dominant '70s musical trend, only the suit was replaced with beats per minute. Really just an offshoot of funk and soul, there's nothing inherently wrong with disco. Who doesn't love funk? What eventually differentiated disco from its funky brethren, though, was standardization. Producers standardized the rhythm around 120 BPM so that club DJs could transition seamlessly from one track to the next without clearing the dance floor. Things that worked in big hits -- Barry White's string section, for example -- were replicated ad nauseam.
Dance music was reduced to a mathematical formula, and as Shazam would have predicted had it been around, disco became wildly popular. Thompson notes that "our brains are wired to prefer melodies that we already know," and the dark decade of the '70s supports that argument.
But something interesting happened. A backlash against what had become formula-driven music turned into a movement -- actually, into quite a few movements. "Disco Sucks" and "Death Before Disco" became battle cries for music fans who wanted some kind of genuine, organic experience. Tom Petty told Rolling Stone back in October 1978 that the Heartbreakers' goal was to combat "disco trance music," for example. Punk rock, heavy metal, the back to basics approach of Bruce Springsteen -- all existed to some extent in opposition to the commercial juggernaut of paint-by-numbers disco.
Frustration with formula-derived music reached its peak on July 12, 1979 at Chicago's Comiskey Park. Local radio station WLUP's 'Disco Demolition Night' turned into a full blown riot that did so much damage to the White Sox's playing field that the team had to forfeit the second game of a scheduled double header.
But here we are again, back to the same old crud.
Thompson cites a 2012 study by the Spanish National Research Council (motto: "What, You're Going To Trust the French National Research Council?") that found less variation among hits of the last decade than in any previous 10 year period stretching back to 1955. "The researchers concluded that old songs could be made 'novel and fashionable' just by freshening up the instrumentation and increasing 'the average loudness,'" writes the author.
Okay, so here's a quick summary. In our new data-driven world:
- Your favorite band won't be coming to your town
- And even if they do, they won't play your favorite deep cut
- And by the way, there won't be any more deep cuts because now we have the data necessary to program a hit.
The music industry has been looking for the magic formula that guarantees a hit since music became an industry.
With a prognosis like that, it's easy to assume that we're doomed to some kind of 'Gangnam Style' future, and that's somewhat true. That's always been true, though. The music industry has been looking for the magic formula that guarantees a hit since music became an industry.
On the other hand, here's why music isn't doomed: because you're reading this. We have data, too, and we know that Diffuser readers seek out alternative and independent music. You're the folks who start local scenes and play and listen to music because you love it. It isn't an industry for you, it's a passion. It is for us, too.
There will always be an audience for music that comes from the heart rather than the head. Adios, Johnny Bravo.