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Suiting Up The Music
The Industry's Reframing Of Music's Role In Society
By Polar Levine, Polarity/1
(more articles from this author)
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Here are a couple of stories we might be reading about soon:

Article 1: Universities all over the globe are folding their music departments into their business and economics departments, mirroring the news departments of TV networks moving into their entertainment divisions. Conservatories and schools like Berklee will soon be bought and folded into the umbrella of larger universities.

Article 2: Archeologists have recently discovered that the development of expression in music and art was intended for the purpose of commerce much like trading animal hides and crockery -- not for the purpose of expressing praise to the spirits or other non-market related activities. Music programs in elementary school will be devoted to image creation and merchandising.

These fictional developments don't seem so far-fetched when we look at the role of music and the arts in America, and increasingly, in the global culture.

Payola has become the only route to mainstream airplay since the 1996 Telecommunications Act led to the Clear Channelling of American radio. Those precious spins have gone only to the highest bidder -- the ever-consolidating record label cartel. This corporate-sanctioned payola has come to light and mega-labels have been hit with less than mega fines. We await the new version of payola that will keep us narcoticized with money music well into the future. Payola has always been a determining factor in radio play, but the more recent extreme consolidation of the industry has elevated the issue beyond a critical mass.

At the other end of the American music world, the meat and potatoes for the vast majority of working musicians is turning into peanut butter and jelly. DJs have replaced live bands for weddings and bar mitzvahs. Occasionally, budget permitting, the canned music is accompanied by a live musician, giving the impression that living organisms are playing Celebration and Hava Nagila. The musicians union in NYC has been protesting in the past few years because pit orchestras for Broadway shows are increasingly being replaced by boxes of 1s and 0s.

This trend got me thinking about "American Idol" and episodes of "The Apprentice" I saw last year that illustrate how in our culture music no longer exists (to the extent that it ever did) in the realm of art and creativity. Rather, it's come to resemble competitive sports and assembly-line piecework -- more about dead presidents than live musicians.

Does it all matter? To most people it probably doesn't. I don't give much thought to what's under the hood of my car and the vast majority of music consumers don't want to be bothered with funny harmonies and time signatures or grooves that don't have a snare hit on the two and the four. But to those who do care and find profound meaning in music, this is a sad development. The problem is deeper than a gripe about the importance of fashion statements over musicianship -- it really goes to the very core of what value a society places on its musical culture, and the role it plays in a community of humans and the individual soul.

As the steadily calcifying music industry plots to shock and awe the emerging indy digital distribution system out of existence, the corporate media brain trust is doing a great job of reframing the very role that music plays in society. The value is no longer in music's ability to work up a sweat or work the brain cells or to summon divinity. Now it's about the contest, the celebrity watch, the eyeball factor and the new concept of hipness as epitomized by the bizniz class. The hipster is no longer the creative outsider who can feel and express the essence of things; now it's the moneyed consumerist trend-setter who owns the status of hiptitude.

In an era when virtually all songs that reach most ears are simplistic odes to romantic love or the fine art of f**king, vocal music has lost its once vital role as the unofficial (or anti-official) mouthpiece of a people. Like the songs of medieval European troubadours and West African griots, America's songs at one time sought to inform, to spiritually uplift and, of course, to entertain. And, yeah -- thankfully, to inspire f**king.

Before the 1930s, artists created the way humans always have, from Mozart to Shakespeare to Muddy Waters to Bob Dylan -- by reworking the stuff that came before them. Songs about current events, both national and local. Wars, natural disasters, love, murder, religion and cultural shifts like the advent of cars were treated with gravity or satire. In rural areas where the publishing industry was out of reach, melodies of older songs would be sung intact with completely different lyrics. The original authors of the songs were unknown -- possibly dead for a century or more.

The 1920s and ‘30s brought a revolution in volume and breadth of the music Americans were exposed to. Most notable were the advent of radio and the first commercial recordings of the music of Appalachia and the Mississippi River delta and jazz. Up till then, the music industry consisted primarily of music publishers who generated retail revenue through the sale of sheet music and a recording industry in its infancy. Sale of records and phonographs were limited by a narrow catalog of recordings that reached a relatively small portion of the country.

Now, the publishers were joined by an exploding market for records and the growing radio industry: the market began to rule. As a result, songwriters narrowed their scope of topics and focused their creations on bland narratives of romantic love -- lost, found and dreamed of. Current events were left to the print media.

Country music and its offspring -- the folk movement of the ‘50s and early ‘60s which then begat the singer/songwriter genre -- have stubbornly maintained an interest in topical songs. Rap appeared to be the new force for meaningful music before it got stuck in the gangsta mode by the same market forces that stagnate other genres. The Spanish language music that broke out into salsa in the ‘70s was full of social commentary and was fed by the improvised toasting competitions of plena from Puerto Rico. But it, too, succumbed to the gravitational pull of romance and the prettiness of the artist.

Yes, there's conscious rap, and political rock, and a vast population of visionary and literate artists. But they don't get heard on commercial radio, where almost everybody hears new music. When a small cartel of corporations owns stations in every regional market and has legislation pending in Congress that will affect its bottom line, CEOs become America's new radio jocks. And they want to make nice with politicians and advertisers. Here we are again stuck in a military quagmire and anti-war songs are off the radar screen.

The gradual commodification of America's music began in earnest in the 1920s, took off its training wheels when it learned how to co-opt the late-‘60s counter culture, and reached maturity in the ‘90s with consolidation of global record labels and radio stations. The music industry is now merely a "synergy" partner of other content providers owned by media conglomerates. The media has been planting in the public consciousness the notion of music as a species of business rather than art form. It's born of market research, like movies, not the mystery of human creativity.

“American Idol” has followed on the heels of the VH1's “Divas Live” smackdowns that had a brief run in 1998. Vocally muscled stars competed in the craft of melismatics, a style of phrasing born in the African-American church. Singers who could creatively clear its technical hurdles, such as Aretha Franklin, achieved near royal status. Asian religious singers like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the West African singers in the griot tradition like Salif Keita and Baba Maal have attained similar status and, in some cases, actually descend from long lineages of master musicians. But the art of melismatic singing eventually become a predictable convention that no longer expresses "soul" as much as it symbolizes it. If you can sing just as soulfully about a detergent as about the quest for the blessings of a deity or a love interest, then what does "soul" really mean?

The “Divas Live” shows might couple Aretha Franklin with Celine Dion. Ostensibly a performance, it becomes clear during the song's climax that we're observing a competition over who can jam more syllables into the words "love" and "baby." American Idol is premised on those Diva climaxes, except that now the medium is specifically designed as a competition for a major label recording contract.

And then there's the burning musical issue of what image American Idol's winner and newly-signed major label artist should adopt. Is the new star to be a rebel with a rock look or straight pop singer with the suitable-for-red-state clean-cut look? I can't help but doubt that Doc Boggs, Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Chuck D needed help figuring out who they were and what type of music would be suitable for them to perform.

Donald Trump has provided the last word on the value of musicianship. If the punk movement was the first voice to proclaim that anybody can be a musician -- with or without bourgeois signifiers like technique or talent -- Trump turned that cultural equation on its head: the field is now open for the suits to be musicians -- without weirdo signifiers like funny hair in addition to musical technique or talent. Trump's latest hedge against his failing empire – “The Apprentice” -- is a weekly infomercial touting his allegedly prodigious talents as a businessman in the guise of a reality show. Each episode has two teams of attractive young biz whizzes competing in assigned business projects that will ultimately reward the lone survivor with a job in the Trump organization. Two episodes have been based on music-oriented projects.

One involved a promo campaign for a Hollywood film. The winning team got to perform on the recording of the film's theme song. This crew of retailers and corporate lawyers -- not a musician among them -- went into a recording studio with Wyclef Jean to record the song. It's too easy to slam the pathetic posturing of these people pretending to be rappers and rockers. The point is that I know some of the best players on the planet, and they'll probably never get to work with the likes of Wyclef Jean, let alone perform on prime time TV.

On another episode our CEO wannabees were assigned the task of "discovering" a singer/songwriter who would be most appropriate for a tightly formatted alt-rock satellite radio show. The young suited ones would select an artist and then write and produce a song to be recorded by the artist and submitted for airplay. The artists chosen were actually really good in a lite-pop kind of way.

In a "bold" attempt to be outside the box (a highly prized but rarely attempted goal on the show or in real life) one team leader chose an African-born singer who specialized in lite R&B/funk. The other team chose a Billy Joel type. As the results showed, "outside the box" is not something that works for commercial radio. Each artist's recording was played on the air and listeners were asked to respond. Response was positive for the white guy, but listeners were a bit confused by the alien sounds of the R&B guy. When the final verdict came down, the station's staff couldn't figure out why an R&B guy was chosen for a soft rock format.

The losing team was scolded for not giving the show what it could "sell to the people. [They] didn't give them alternative rock. The audience didn't know what they were listening to." I'm not suggesting that the listeners or program directors were racists, but their limited musical awareness and aesthetic biases are, in some measure, the consequence of niche programming that delivers one flavor only. There actually was a time when rock, blues, singer-songwriter, funk, soul, country and even fusion jazz were played on the same show. Even in New York's competitive media market there was little worry about white listeners suffering vertigo if confronted with something funky. That format worked because the playlists were created by the jocks who spun the discs and who actually had a passion for music.

The opening of the “Apprentice” episode should have tipped off anyone who would consider loitering outside of the "box." Trump's sidekick, a tough old pro named George, proudly asserted his music biz creds by saying that he used to own radio stations. When he started out he asked his partner what kind of music his station specialized in. Hard rock was the reply. "I think it's terrible," George recalled saying. His partner then added that "we sell a lot of commercials." George laughed heartedly as he recalled his newly updated perspective, "I LOVE the music."

Music has been "boxed" since Top 40 AM radio was concocted. The advent of freeform FM radio in the sixties let the air back in for a while, but the boxes have been subdividing in ever-smaller units of genres and sub-genres in the past twenty years. What's been forgotten is that the music that most moves people is made by artists whose creative instincts don't recognize boxes, and whose vision is an inspired creative synthesis informed by exposure to a broad range of music. As the music-as-commodity vision establishes itself in the public consciousness -- just as the political horse race in an election has become a bigger concern for voters than the issues -- how many aspiring musicians will be deeply pondering The Box while they're writing their first songs in their bedrooms?

There's still much to be optimistic about -- at least for the serious music geek: the emerging new paradigm for distributing music online will mature at a faster pace as the current system continues to calcify. Also, while the U.S. promotes planned obsolescence in our new music -- that bold bizniz model that ultimately lost America its leadership of the auto, electronics and appliance industries to the Pacific rim -- the rest of the world's music is getting some well-deserved light.

The best rock is coming out of Latin America; the most adventurous hip hop comes out of Great Britain. The most creative jazz and electronica is coming out of Europe, where post-bebop traditions, hip hop and electronica easily mingle and electronica has not defaulted to metronomic house grooves. Paris has become a magnet for the great music of the north and west African Diaspora, and the griot tradition of Mali and Senegal has produced some of the best music on the planet. And even our own home-grown weirdoes are receiving strong underground recognition as mainstream popularity falls further out of reach.

For those who care about the music more than the bottom line, the idea of amassing a global audience of music geek consumers is a dream come true. And it's a healthy byproduct of capitalism gone berserk -- that is, if the alternative system is allowed to perpetuate.

America's decaying education system and the relentless corporate entertainment-bombing of our youth is pre-empting our leadership in the realms of technological creativity, human rights and general political enlightenment -- we now see our arts culture calcify and fall behind in a world that has not yet come to value creativity only in terms of how much commercial time gets sold by radio stations. American freedom is still the beacon that draws people of all nations; thankfully it allows Americans the freedom to find a still vital creative music culture elsewhere.

It's not illegal downloading that will cause the fall of the music industry as we know it; it's the industry's enslavement to inside-the-box thinking. The industry is aping America's Big Three auto companies' descent into oblivion for the same reasons -- the inclination to invest in lawsuits and lobbyists instead of looking toward the future and investing in creativity.

For more information and to contact the author, click on the author’s name at the top of the page.

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