This week I talk about the death of American music.
I don't mean that music is literally dying in America - I'm talking about the popularity of music as a whole being on a downward trend.
Music was such an important part of American culture from the beginning of the nation through the late 1990s. Since then, I haven't really seen any trends toward a resurgence or "rebellion" against the current status quo of popular music, which seems to be a mix of cookie-cutter music coming out of Nashville that sounds all the same to me - mainly because it's being played by the same 40 or so studio musicians; country music that is little more than warmed over or microwaved Southern rock; pop star divas with pitch-corrected voices; music being made by machines that sounds like, well, it's being made by machines; tired, old gangsta hip-hop where the newest D.J. tries to be more about bling and money than the last worthless and artless MC; the the proliferation of metal bands that tune their guitars down to infinity, scream how mad they are at everything with the same old "chugga-chugga" in drop C tuning; and everything so Pro Tooled to perfection the human element is nearly gone.
It's not that great music isn't out there being made by great musicians with great ideas - the problem is it isn't being heard or appreciated by the masses. There are probably more performers and bands today than at any time in American history. But you can forget about hearing 99.99 percent of that on automated, corporate radio stations or released by major labels. They just don't care anymore because they are now run exclusively by accountants rather than real music fans or musicians.
The music industry in America is, for all purposes, dead. Labels are practically non-existent, don't give any tour or promotional support or nurture artists the way they used to. What few major labels that remain do now is rely on re-issues of older material or throw new market-tested crap against the wall to see what sticks. If it doesn't sell big, too bad. Goodbye. There's no grand vision of the artist as, well ... an artist. They now are little more than a commodity, a number on a spread sheet.
Part of this is simple economics in that a generation is now used to getting music for free through downloading, illegal sharing sites and the proliferation of mp3s, which to my ears generally sound like poo. Part of it is the way music is packaged and marketed now. An mp3 is a digital format that leaves no room for the imagination - it's a highly compressed bit file of degraded ones and zeros that sounds as artificial and soulless as the format implies.
There's no art with an mp3 in the form of a cover or sleeve. So, I begin to think of music as less a work of art, or an album as a series of songs that are cohesive and collected in some way. It's called "dumbing it down."
Many could argue this is the fault of the masses, and that they just don't care about music the way they used to. And there is merit in this argument, because an entire generation has been taught and brainwashed to believe that being really, really great on a video game is really cool, rather than picking up an instrument and learning how to play music. Why should I appreciate art when a computer can create better music than a real person?
While modern technology has now brought about the ability of anyone with musical vision to create great art without the need of a record company or even recording studio, it's also been a double-edged sword that artists with little talent can "sound" great, even while their music might be absolute crap. In the old days, you had to prove your mettle with a record company, that you could deliver the goods with an audience of real live people at a real live show. And, you had music A&R men and women who really "knew" good or great music rather than worry about how it would sell.
There has been a backlash of sorts against the trends that be - vinyl sales are way up, while the CD format is dying a slow, painful death. This is because hipper, more insightful younger people discover their parents' record collections in the attic and also because older music fans like myself prefer the sound of a nice slab of vinyl, which sounds human, has an honest-to-God cover you can hold in your hands and seems like a work of art.
I don't pretend to know what the trend of modern music will be. I just am lamenting a depressing trend that began about 10 to 15 years ago with no end in sight.
Wake up, people! It's time for a music revolution!
Throw off the yoke of your corporate music-inflicted junk and begin to listen for yourself. The vinyl revolution is a good start, but more of the public needs to wake up out of its self-induced music coma in a land where more and more corporations control what you hear. Go out there and find the good stuff for yourself. And don't settle for anything less than listening to excellence.
(Mark Miller is co-editor of Weekender.)