What if I told you the conclusion was not so clear?
When my parents grew up they were surrounded by music that they thought was absolutely great! And don’t get me wrong, a lot of that music was great and still remains great to this day. There was a lot of music that was popular then that was plain ridiculous. Even some of the greatest bands of all time had a couple songs here and there that were outright embarrassing if the goal is “quality music.” Public perception of the quality of music seems pretty consistent if you look through all sources of media. I am a huge fan of the era of music that is currently respected above all else, but I seriously believe that there are contributing factors that make this perception not exactly reality and factors that have in many area’s caused the collapse of music into something that cannot stand the test of time.
One of the largest critiques of modern music is that when compared to prior era’s (used mostly when talking about rock and modern pop music) the music simply is no longer original. There are a number of factors and mistakes of perception in this comparison. Anyone who knows anything about the depth and breadth of music since the turn of this century could tell you that there are thousands, if not tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of bands today. There is more interest in making music then there has been in this country in its history. Why? Technology. The spread of tablature. Recently, youtube instructional video’s and video games. Dare you to look for covers of relatively unknown bands and be absolutely shocked at the sheer number of attempts at recreating music. When you combine these facts with the popular misconception that quality music was ever the intent of those who “decide” which songs and artists make it onto the radio and sell out concerts it creates a bit of a perfect storm. To try to prove my point I will show you some music that I believe proves it even from previous era’s of music.
Just two examples of many.
The next question you must ask is who decides what songs and artists make it? Regardless of what you think of major record labels and their advertising and other tactics… in the end the only people who decide what is played particular nowadays is the consumer. The music that is played is the music a majority of those who listen to the radio, buy cd’s, or go to concerts want to listen to. So we have more bands then ever playing music, we have an easier route to getting exposed to the general public, and unlike in past era’s it is harder then ever before to find a sound that is unique. You see, any person who plays music has previously listened to music. The music that person listens to and that which he practiced to become as proficient as he currently is at whatever instrument has a marked influence on the music that individual would inherently make. I mean look at any band’s bio. They come out and admit exactly who influenced their music most of the time even if I believe the list is often incomplete because they don’t even realize some of the influences they have had.
This truly gets to the root of the originality problem. There is a finite number of musical combinations with the instruments that are out there today. I can probably count on my fingers how many acceptable timing patterns there are from a musicians perspective. While everyone is unique, if you were to shake hands with a million people today I guarantee you you will meet a few people that look and/or sound similar to you. Quite a few that share nearly every interest you have, and even the most rare things when you get to large enough numbers repeat themselves throughout life. Say you do come out with an original sounding concept for a band like I believe at their genesis the following did that very well.
Two of these three for all intents and purposes are at best underground music. They don’t play on the radio. Would never sell out a large venue. But each of the three brought something to the table that I hadn’t seen before. Mae predated the popular emo music expanse. Celldweller really had a lot of influence on what is currently called “dubstep” and also on many facets of alt-rock and alt-pop. Muse of course is one of the few bands that I could consider to be able to sell out a large stadium that is not a thirty year running band right now. Even Muse has bands that have become popular that sound a lot like them. Modest Mouse was the first one to come to mind. The second something gets popular in any way now it starts a clock on how many people will adapt to the style and get played on the radio. Sometimes, and maybe even most of the time original music is played by bands who never are heard on radio at all. In the end, at this point the phrase “nothing new under the sun” is indubitably applicable.
These perceptions of music likely will not get better. http://thisisschematic.com/ is a great project by a friend and former front-man for the band Mae. The project attempts to empower artists to work without the strings normally attached to major record label contracts. His project is one of the first, but I fully believe that in the end major record labels will largely cease to exist in their current form. On the surface this may seem that it may increase the quality of popular music, but the gains made in quality will largely be made inconsequential by the inevitable increase in depth and breadth of the artistic community able to record and promote their own music further then they ever have in the past. Youtube, facebook, and other websites that have music content will have far ranging effects that we are already seeing.
I contend that the reason that artists that have supreme talent were a part of the popular music scene in past era’s is because of the lack of depth and breadth in the availability of the music. The next great song was much harder to find then. The record labels actually had to frequent night clubs, look out at weddings, church’s or have the artists come to them to try out (which is much harder for an individual to do). Not only this, but with today’s media the music is often truly popular before anyone even thinks of putting it on the radio so it takes the search for music almost completely out of the equation. If Eric Clapton was born in the 80’s and put his music on youtube to try to garner attention I do not believe that he would have made it in today’s music. Gone are the days where talent is the driving force behind what makes it, and I would challenge even that assertion. It never was the driving force behind popular music.
It is my assertion that many modern bands if they were discovered in a time with limited availability of music would be considered as great now as many of the past icons. There is always more value placed on things that are more rare. If music talent were indeed in a steep decline across the board, we would see more coming to the top. The problem is that there are more catchy, commercial, contagious songs out there leaving less room for those bands that have real musical talent to be heard by the masses. Even my favorite oldies bands would likely never see commercial success today. The only reason they do now is because there are those who remember that music as being the popular music in times that developed their taste for music. I tend to think that 90’s and early 2000’s music is superior to now, but again that is because of what I liked while I was developing my taste for music.
Unless you can eliminate flawed perception you can not objectively judge the quality of music. There are many different factors that go into that perception. Some I believe are based in reality, others I believe are based on rose tinted nostalgia. We will not know until about 40 years from now. It is just now that people are in my mind accurately judging the value of 80’s music. The same will likely hold for every era of music. You cannot be objective about the music you grew up on its just not possible.