Why is Music Dying?

 Dominic Vautier
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Where's the new music?  My kids ask me this question all the time.  They listen to rap of course, but what they like comes from the 60's and 70's, i.e. specifically and grudgingly MY KIND OF MUSIC; Beatles, Rolling Stones, Hermanís Hermits, Steve Miller, Beach Boys, Credence--all those guys.  I do sometimes feel that Don McLean's prediction may finally be coming true.  Real good music is disappearing.  

Why?  Here is some of my thinking:

Popular Music - A Rapid Rise and a More Rapid Fall

Popular songs average about three minutes.  Some background on the three minutes.  Originally American popular music was on song sheets and were about three minutes in length.  Sheet music started up big time around 1892 and costs depended somewhat on the way song sheets were put together and published.  Maybe three minutes was part of the Foster tradition or just our attention span or the average time needed for dancing or something else.  When recorded music started, songs continued to support this same three minute length more or less, so cylinders and disks were engineered to handle that same playing time.  Cylinder records disappeared and hard shellac disk records standardized at 7 inches in diameter and played for, you guessed it, about three minutes.  I do have a few 10 inch 78 records that play 5 minutes, but these kind contain mostly classical music and were not very popular, besides, not all phonographs at that time could handle the 10 inch record size.  Record companies also attempted to sell collections of the standard 7 inch shellac records in big book formats with each page being a jacket with a record inside.  It was not practical to get longer classical pieces like Beethoven movements on one record so the industry lived with the three minute rule and had to split poor old Beethoven movements up into chunks on separate records.



But nature did not like to live in three minutes and market pressure for longer playing records always existed to support collections, classical pieces, plays, musicals, recitals and, most importantly, popular songs (remember American Pie and You can't make a five minute song).  Experiments as early as 1931 with extended play records proved unprofitable, but in 1948, The Columbia Record Company came out with what we now know as the LP. It consisted of vinyl rubber and had a much smaller grove.  It was manufactured in several sizes, but the 12 inch size eventually won out.  The vinyl disk rotated slower at 33 1/3 Inches per second, which is less than half as fast as the 78 RPM records and the groves were much closer together also.  This record could therefore easily play for an astonishing 25 continuous minutes on each side, enough to contain most classical pieces or offer 12 to 14 standard three minute popular songs in one beautifully blended bundle, or maybe not so beautifully blended.

This was not just a big technological breakthrough but a super great marketing strategy.  Artists could develop music without time limitations.  Albums became the ideal as well as the goal of music development and organization, like a chain of molecules are to an atom.  Once an artist had developed a body of music, that work could be repackaged and remarketed on different album releases making everybody more money.  Of course there was always a tendency to produce albums with one or two hits and the rest just filler.  Such was life.  Sometimes the filler songs turned out to be good music. But the public readily bought into the album thing and music was able to flourish.

1. The Demise of Albums

Suddenly the internet came along and changed everything.  Record companies made a huge, gynormous mistake and basically self-destructed before our very eyes by selling individual songs that could be downloaded directly to listening devices.  This generated huge short term profits for greedy producers by allowing people to buy individual songs, naturally the ones they liked, and nobody had to buy songs they didn't like.  Think about it.  This was huge.  Gone was the album and the flip side.  Lost forever was all that additional public exposure created by albums, CDs, and collections of songs.  Record companies did the worst possible thing and destroyed their own market, all for short term gains.

Good albums often linked songs together into sort of a collection or symphony as it were, like the White Album or Rumours.  I can't even imagine a world without Sergeant Pepper.  It wasnít just individual songs that were important.  It was the album itself.  When I think of Norwegian Wood I think automatically of Rubber Soul.  I think in terms of an entire collection or group of music.  Without this grouping new songs don't get the exposure they always got before.  Music lost this collective dimension that had been so successful in the past.

This is not even to mention all the fantastic artwork that was to be lost.







It is reasonable to question if single song download sales could cause such serious damage to the music industry.  After all were not single song sales existing well before albums and wasn't the 1930's and 1940's kind of a heyday for popular music?  The truth is single song sales never existed except in sheet music, and even sheet music advertised a lot of other stuff on the sheets as well.  Records of that day had flip sides which exposed the public to other music whether they liked it or not.  So the mechanics were always around to promote additional musical exposure, which turned out to be a self perpetuating cycle of inspiration and profit.

2. Brain Bunching

I call it "brain bunching."  Think Brahms, Bach, Beethoven and Mozart.  Think Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, or think Michelangelo and Da Vinci, a whole bunch of smart guys packed together in time with all that mutual support, jealousy, competition, osmosis and symbiosis.  It does happen.  Then think of the talent occurring during the 60's and 70's.  Artists of that era were astonishingly exceptional and all in a bunch.  We never had such a collection of excellence ever, ever in our short American musical history.  How often do these episodes of genius come along.  Not too often, as can be described in my own work on Modern American Music.


3. Technology

By 1960 recording technology had attained a level never before seen.  Frequency response finally broke the human ear barrier by producing a recording and playback range beyond human hearing (20-2000 cps) and stereo sound was able to generate a type of 3D sound, a depth dimension as it were in which a panorama of music was presented.  Since that time and over the last 50 years sound reproduction has incrementally improved but not by such a huge step.  By 1960 we had emerged virtually from a caveman era of sound quality.


4. Content Control.

When I was young it seemed to me music was everywhere.  "Turn that damn thing down" was the frequent watchword.  Kids drove around in cars blasting Beach Boys.  The Beatles went everywhere you and I went.  Elevator music pervaded stores and hamburger joints.  Nothing was safe from CCR, Pink Floyd and The Doors.

Today, because of the huge mass of data invading us from every direction, music and otherwise, people now want to limit the information getting into their private space.  We see this with prerecorded movies and talk shows--any way to skip the commercials and limit the bla, bla factor.  Prerecord is the key.  Fast forward becomes a way of life.  So too it is with our music.  You see, we now have the means to control what we hear and we control it well.  

I collect records and I have many songs on my personal listening device.  I certainly have not listened to all of it because I capture music in complete album form by Artist or genre.  When I go to sleep or use the treadmill or drive a fair distance I select the type of music I want to listen to.  Sometimes itís early 50's or 40's swing.  Sometimes itís mushy Carpenter 70's or talk show or Broadway--all good stuff.  The important thing is that I totally control content and if I donít like a song I skip to the next one.

Another thing is also happening--concentration of music.  Let me explain.  I reduce lead in and end times on my recordings to about one half second, just like they do on radio--any more that one half second dead time between pieces or you lose the listener along with your sponsors.  Albums have several seconds between songs as a practice.  With me there is no pause, no gap, no dead time.  All has to be on fast forward.

Statistics show that about 40 percent of music purchased today is stuff that people are familiar with.  That's awful disturbing.  It used to be a lot less less and this has much to do with the demise of albums, and the ability to single select.  It is killing the music industry in a lot of ways by not exposing people to new music, and it seems people don't mind it and don't want to listen to new music because of shear data overload and fear of dead time.  Everything else is crowding out new forms of musical expression and experimentation.  Artists that are good never get a break.  Artists that get a break never experiment by adding more content to their albums because albums no longer exist.  If it's not a hit it's nothing.  There are no open spots left.

With advanced computerization, melodies are actually digitized and checked for authenticity and if just a few bars of new music by chance resemble published music that is copyrighted then the lawyers come and interfere in the publication and royalty process of new material.  This acts as a tremendous restraint on original musical creation.    

6. Cultural Shifts

As a child I listened to music, all kinds of music.  I could not stop listening to music.  It was motherís milk to me.  My life really started eight years after I was born when I got a radio around 1949 and listened to Vaughn Monroe's "riders in the sky".

I donít listen to the radio anymore.  Why.  The information invasion has caused me to turn off the constant flow when I can't control it.  Go to any mall.  There is no elevator music except maybe during Christmas.  Retailers have found out that customers don't like it and will go somewhere else rather than be invaded by unwelcome sound.  People do like live music, such as real piano players at Nordstrom's, but it's an exception, like Christmas season.  We value private space, our moving "man caves", that three foot invisible bubble around us when venturing into public.  The car is a most sacred "man cave" as well as the treadmill or bicycle.  


5. Distribution

Sales of CDs are dying fast.  The entire distribution system is going extinct. Last year CD sales declined 5% world wide.  This is an eight year trend.  CDs will soon be gone but the LP stays on mostly because of novilty.

The CD was a direct replacement for LP record albums.  CDs were designed specifically to hold about the same as an LP.  A digital CDS format was designed on purpose as the right size to hold 10 to 14 three minute songs.  The distribution system was a vital part of popular music's very survival because it was in the middle between markets and producers.

So why would people want albums of songs anymore when they can get individual songs that they like at less cost? 


7. Profit

In 1960 a dollar was worth $7.50 in 2011 dollars.  I remember paying $3.50 for a hot record album.  Stereo albums were a dollar more.  I would buy a stereo album if it was really hot but as it was I could just afford to buy two or three albums a month.  There was no second hand record market yet.  I bought singles only when the song was not available on an album, and singles were a lot of trouble.  Singles cost 99 cents.  So today a single (actually 2 songs) should cost $7.50.  Albums should cost around $30 but CDs now cost about $10 or less.  There are usually 12 songs on an album so each song could cost somewhere around $3 apiece.  But people buy albums to get the two or three good songs, not all the songs.  You can get a perfectly good used CD for one dollar.  This means that music is historically very inexpensive.

In the 60's a big investment was a reel-to-reel tape recorder.  If you owned one you had the world as your oyster, for it was then possible to copy all your albums plus borrow all your friends' albums and make copies of them.

When I was in the Army in Germany we often packed up our tape recorders and made weekend trips over to Bitburg, the big tri-base area because the Air Force maintained a large library of popular records and tapes.  We spent entire weekends copying music.  The cost of music was high and this was a way we could afford it.  We got lots of music that way.  

Everybody knows the cost of songs have gotten a lot less just like computers.  Advancement in technology and manufacturing always drives down the cost curve, but we are talking about art, not computers or technology.  So where's the profit or the incentive for new material?  There is none. What does that mean for the music industry.  Think buggy whips.  But with buggy whips manufacturers and distributors were able to switch to other similar products, like computers.  Not so with music creation, production and distribution.  There's no longer any profit in music for producing companies, recording artists, CD manufacturers and CD stores.  CDs will follow LPs and buggy whips into oblivion.

Buddy Holly died in 1959 when "the music died" or was supposed to die according to McLean, although he was talking about a certain innocence and simplicity and not an industry.  After all there were still many great bands to come. But now  think the music really did die 50 years later in 2007 when Napster first offered downloads of individual songs.  We are condemned to live in a musical future where there is no future, only Groundhog days. and all that will be produced is rehashed, re-mastered, spin-off copies of older music, or until such time when we get a new brain bunching.  In the meantime enjoy the rap.