As the way mass entertainment changes almost before our eyes Getintothis’ Gary Aster reflects on the role music plays in our lives and wonders if it’s still all that signficant.
If you haven’t seen Mad Men then you really should y’know.
It’s a warts-and-all re-telling of the turbulence and upheavals of the US during the ‘60s touching on feminism, civil rights, sexuality and the gradual loosening of social mores which accompanied that decade. Crucially, the story is told largely from the privileged perspective of the powerful white men whose authority was slowly beginning to fade.
They are men struggling to adapt, and who appear bewildered by the changes happening around them. ;How did music become so important…and when’s everything going to get back to normal?‘ one of them wonders aloud in a memorable episode when the ad men of Madison Avenue try (and fail) to get The Rolling Stones to endorse a product. Well, here and now in 2018 I’d say that things have finally returned to normal, because it seems to me that music isn’t so important anymore.
Recently there was a bit of a fuss in the pages of the music press about the so called “death of rock”. When music industry revenues for 2016 emerged last year they showed that, apparently for the first time, hip-hop had supplanted rock as the most commercially successful genre of music, internationally.
This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone paying attention. But for me the really note-worthy aspect of last year’s figures (and the figures for quite some time now) is not the relative size of the slices of pie split between different genres of music, but the extent to which the overall pie itself has shrunk.
Of course the true value of music cannot be judged solely by such a crude measure as its commercial potential to generate revenues or, err, ‘pies’, not even in Wigan.
But it is a measure that is indicative of a parlous state for music. Music is not something that we’re prepared to invest in anymore. Coincidentally, or perhaps consequently, music is no longer the great cultural force and influencer that it once was. It seems to matter less to us, and many of us have found other things to do with our time, especially the young.
Much of this story will be familiar, even overly familiar. As ordinary music fans went online in the mid to late 90s the opportunity to greatly increase one’s music collection with free (illegal) downloads proved too big a temptation for most. A generation grew up unaccustomed to the idea of paying for music – and that generation is now reaching adulthood.
From a purely commercial point of view, this was a game-changer and one that the industry has never overcome, or is likely to anytime soon. But, it’s not just music industry profits which have shrunk. The cultural capital of popular music as a whole also appears to be in permanent decline. So how did we get here and will things ever get back to “normal”?
MP3s didn’t just detract from the commercial value of music. They inadvertently did much to reduce the aesthetic value of music too, I would argue. To be sure, this is a difficult, if not impossible thing to quantify and its causes are multiple and interconnected. Naturally any argument along these lines is necessarily subjective and speculative.
One thing that was striking about the false dawn of Napster and the other pre-millennial free downloading sites was how quickly they lost their appeal. It’s common-place to read or hear accounts of excited music fans who could scarcely believe their luck spending days downloading all the music they’d ever desired but previously been unable to afford. This quickly wore off however. Very soon people were logging on then staring blankly at their computer screens unable to think of a single track to download. We were spoilt for choice and became jaded by the easily available endless possibilities.
The first things I went looking for when I installed Napster were bootlegs and rare or currently unavailable recordings of my favourite artists that I’d never been able to track down, or that had been prohibitively expensive. Of course I found them all quite easily and within a few days had plugged the obvious gaps in my music collection that any passing completist might alert me to.
But instead of feeling the familiar joy and satisfaction of finding a much sought-after album at a record fair, I soon began to feel rather disappointed. It wasn’t just that I had previously enjoyed the thrill of the hunt and downloading made it all too easy, although I’m sure that did play a part.
Most of the actual music I had spent so long searching for also disappointed me. The easy availability somehow made it seem less special or magical, perhaps even less elitist. There was a certain delicious thrill to be had in listening to a newly discovered recording that was unheard and unknown to most fans. Older readers familiar with Liverpool’s many record shops of yore might recall names like Back Tracks, The Vinyl Frontier and Pink Moon Records – places where collectable 2nd hand records could be found in abundance alongside international imports and the odd bootleg.
The most exciting record my teenage self ever picked up from one of those shops was a Pink Floyd bootleg that crammed an hour-long BBC radio concert from 1971 onto a single piece of vinyl. The sound quality, though not great, was certainly passable.
That night I listened to it over and over, terribly pleased with myself for tracking down a recording that most fans would never get to hear. It was like being told a jealously-guarded secret. These days of course, it’s officially available to buy or download in spruced-up form, or you can listen to it all on Youtube and probably elsewhere too. Consequently it’s somehow less special – less valuable both literally and metaphorically.
Those record shops and, to some extent, the subcultures that sustained them, are now all long gone. Despite the much-hyped, recent revival in sales of vinyl, current sales figures are a mere fraction of what they once were and can’t realistically be described as a recovery judged against that measure. We’ve become accustomed to getting music for free. Few of us can now be expected to switch from that to an expensive alternative utilising the very same technology used by our grandparents.
Perhaps age factors into all of this too. I’m old enough to remember reading various tributes to the late John Peel on the occasion of his 50th birthday. Most of them were written by Peel’s contemporaries who were simply agog that a man in his fifth decade could still be interested in new music by young, emerging artists. The unspoken assumption then was that popular music was an essentially juvenile thing that one put away with other childish things upon reaching adulthood, and at that time there was some truth in that.
A big factor in my own teenage devotion to, say, the edgy sounds of Extreme Noise Terror or the Future Sound of London (both of whom I first heard on Peel’s Radio 1 programme) was that my parents hated them. But popular music is no longer the exclusive preserve of youth. Consequently it has lost some of its ‘forbidden fruit’ appeal, along with its ability to shock and challenge its audience.
Today, inter-generational discord arising from divergent music tastes is increasingly a thing of the past. This process appears to be working in both directions. I’m no longer surprised to see the likes of The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Metallica etc. on the personal playlists of the 6th formers I work with, although I previously was. Of course they’re still listening to new music too, but as Dylan once remarked, ‘there’s more of the old stuff to choose from’
If you’re not persuaded on this point then consider the rapturous (and to be frank, often undeserved) receptions enjoyed by ‘vintage’ performers in the Sunday afternoon slots at Glastonbury. And look at the number of 40, 50 and even 60 somethings in attendance there year after year. Despite this apparent broadening of its appeal though, popular music has paradoxically become less vital.
The influence of popular music today rarely extends beyond the narrow fields of music and fashion when once it would spill over into wider culture and society.
Consider the legacies of bygone youth sub-cultures like the hippies, punks and ravers. The impact of these movements spread far and wide exerting their influence in areas as diverse as identity politics, the media, and commerce, as well as other art forms including literature, poetry and film.
They also fuelled endless moral panics in certain sections of the media. Today it’s difficult to imagine a new music-led youth movement that could unsettle the authorities to such an extent that they would actively legislate against it, as happened with the hippies, punks and ravers. There has been a bit of (probably racist) huffing and tutting about Grime and Drill, but nothing like the ire which bygone subcultures have provoked.
Changes aren’t permanent, but change is, so it’s entirely possible that we’ll see popular music restored to its former glory again although that looks increasingly unlikely at present. There will never be another Beatles, we’re often told and I’m inclined to believe it. That’s not to say that we’ll never hear music as good as that again, but rather that we’ll never see another band make quite the same impression or have quite as much of an impact on popular culture.
Similarly, despite the reservations some might have about such a charitable venture (not least former Czech spies), it’s hard to imagine an event like 1985’s Live Aid ever having quite the same global reach, influence and appeal to international audiences. An equivalent event held today would garner nothing like that much interest because popular music just doesn’t have that much pulling-power anymore. Many of us wouldn’t bother to look up from our phones. It’s unlikely that a line-up of contemporary popular musicians could make half the world stop what it was doing, look around and give it their attention, or that such an event today could dominate a whole day’s news cycle.
What of the other indicators of the current state of popular music? It’s been a very long time since anyone cared what was at number one in the weekly singles chart – are the charts even still a thing? Today’s teenagers generally aren’t listening to the weekly chart countdown; I know for a fact that those I work with certainly don’t. Top of the Pops is long gone and music on television is now banished to the margins of specialist programming on minor or dedicated channels watched mainly by people above a certain age.
The days of three thriving and influential weekly music papers, all with respectable readerships, alongside a host of glossy monthlies that people would actually go out and buy appear to be slowly drawing to a close. The weeklies are long gone; the monthlies read only by an aging demographic. But you know that already – you’re reading this instead.
Is it all bad news?
Well, the decline in sales of recorded music which began in the late 90s were offset to some extent by a renewed interest in live music. This was seen most clearly here in the UK with an unprecedented growth in the numbers of those attending music festivals, and the number of festivals from which consumers could choose still seems to be growing every year. However, for several years now, those in the festival business have been confidently declaring that we’ve reached ‘peak festival’ and we’re likely to see some level of decline.
Today the young are arguably more likely to copy the style of a reality TV star or youtuber than a pop star. Serious, earnest teenagers are not getting their values, politics and ideas about vegetarianism etc. from pop stars but from memes and Ted Talks. Angry, young dudes are more likely to turn to GTA 5 or Call of Duty than to punk or heavy metal as an outlet for their teenage angst. Crucially, they have better things to spend their money on than music which, in any case, they could still obtain free of charge elsewhere.
Music still matters of course, but it seems to matter less now. Popular music was one of the great, defining art forms of the late 20th century but its star has fallen. Some might argue that this is because the quality of the music has declined but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case.
The cultural landscape in which music previously flourished has changed almost beyond recognition and now it faces so much competition.
When I speak with evident nostalgia for a time when there were record shops in every major town and scores of them in our cities, I can see those too young to remember such a thing looking at me indulgently in the same way that I would look at my parents as they described listening booths and wind-up Dansette record players. It’s unwise to wish that things could once more be like they used to be, but also probably unavoidable.