I recently had the pleasure of attending a performance by the always-exceptional Utah Symphony. It was the evening of tribute to Frank Sinatra. Near the end of the show, the Sinatra sound-alike singer introduced a song quite cynically by saying, “This tune reminds me of what's missing from today's music: like, a melody, lyrics, feeling and romance.” An audience member sitting near me leaned over and said, “He’s so right!”
Is he? I love music. I live for music. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I even work in the music industry as an owner of a tiny record label.) And I personally have never felt as optimistic about music as I do now. I believe what the performer and my symphonic neighbor really mean is that they feel like music has moved outside the spectrum of what they personally enjoy. Hey, it happens to a lot of people. Even ardent music lovers may find at some point that they feel a bit lost and confused by where music is going. They may feel that music no longer speaks to them personally. But does that mean that the inherent quality of current music has deteriorated?
Certainly, the music landscape is quite different than when I was a teenager. In the golden '70s, a few large record labels had a tight grip on what music made it into the hands of teenaged listeners with money to spend. Because of the distribution model, there were fewer but more popular bands available for listening. My friends and I were very aware of when the next ZZ Top or David Bowie album would be released. We saved up for it, bought it, quickly memorized it and would be able to discuss each song in detail that week in school. Fewer bands to choose from meant more listeners per band.
But perhaps the music business contained, as Karl Marx famously said, "Capitalism contains the seed of its own destruction." Too much tight control over what music fans enjoy was a model that couldn’t survive. There’s simply too much creativity in the world’s musical artists, and so bands increasingly turned to alternative ways to get their music heard. Today any band with a laptop and GarageBand sofware can put together a song and have it listened to around the world on iTunes and YouTube. Just ask Justin Bieber.
What is certain is that the music industry now has less control over the availability of music. Creating and sharing music digitally as MP3 files have never been easier. And that makes it tough for record companies to control what music today’s fans have access to. But that’s a good thing, not bad. It means that we now have more options for enjoying our music than at any time in the past. There are hundreds of online sites I could visit today to hear music from hundreds of bands I’ve never heard of before.
But while the number of music listeners has increased proportionally from the '70s, the corresponding growth in bands means by definition that there are fewer listeners per band than in the past.
The model for listening to music today seems to have shifted. Rather than a monolithic model where the focus of listeners’ fervor is the band itself, the focus has shifted even beyond an album and onto the song. My young music-enjoying friends have iPods and iPhones loaded with huge numbers of songs, but only a couple of tracks from any one artist. In fact, the business model (fueled by iTunes) has shifted to selling individual tracks rather than selling albums.
When I get together for evenings of musical enjoyment with my college-aged daughters, it’s a litany of “have you heard of (fill in the blank ) before? Here’s their song.” It used to be a pejorative term to call a band a “one hit wonder,” but now it’s the way of the world. A band will have a hit with a single, sell a few hundred thousand copies of it through iTunes or Amazon.com and then never be heard from again. Performers like Adele who sell millions of copies of an entire album are increasingly rare.
I subscribe to a mailing list (and website) called Blalock’s Indie Rock Playlist. Each month, BIRP emails me a list of 100 new tracks from 100 new bands that I’ve never heard of. Every now and then I’ll beat BIRP to the punch and will have already heard of one or two of the bands, but for the most part they’re all new to me. One hundred new bands I’ve never met. Per month. And I’m in the music business! How is it possible? When I was a teenager, the music world would meet a few dozen new bands per year.
BIRP recently published its list of best indie tracks from 2011. Ever heard of these bands: Gem Club? Absofacto? Future Islands? Nope, and neither had I. In fact, it’s almost by design. If the band were popular enough to have reached my ears, given my fairly limited listening time, by definition they would be too “pop” to belong on BIRP.
The influx of new music is actually a bit intimidating. I make a conscious effort to listen through most of the songs on BIRP’s monthly lists at least once. It’s tough and takes a lot of time. Some I simply can’t abide and I move quickly on to the next song, but there are usually a few tracks per month where I feel a great response to the music. It usually has to do with what I personally judge as being the musicianship of the players: a very subjective assessment, I agree, but that’s what music is all about. What works for me may not work for you and vice versa.
The influx of new music is also challenging for another reason. Music is unique among the arts in that your enjoyment of a particular piece often deepens with each successive listen. We can only read a certain book so many times (except of course "Lord of the Rings," which I must read annually) or view a movie or play so many times before we tire of it. Yet you rarely hear “I don’t want to listen to that song again, I know how it ends.” It’s comforting to our ears to know where a song is heading — to have a sense for what lies just around the corner in the music we’re listening to.
Many (let’s be honest, most) music listeners end up cocooned in one particular “life play list” where they have certain songs, albums or artists that they have developed a relationship with and feel comfortable with. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. I play favorites like Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” or Arcade Fire’s “Funeral” once for each few hours I spend exploring new artists. I can’t deny that I find comfort in returning to the familiar.
But what if my music listening had petrified with Frank Sinatra, as my concert-going friend’s had. Or what if I’d gotten “stuck” on '80s rock as many people my age have, where it had to be Rush, AC/DC, Kiss or Journey, or I wasn’t interested? How could I survive a world without the simple pleasure of the Shin’s masterpiece “Chutes Too Narrow” or the panoramic scope of Death Cab for Cutie’s “Transatlanticism.” Goodness, I’m shivering as I picture a world without the truly moving beauty of the Icelandic band Sigur Ros’ album “Takk.”
If you love music as I love music, I urge you to re-open yourself to the amazing new bands, albums, singles from bands that you’ve never heard of before. Spend some time browsing Allmusic.com or Pitchfork.com (with a content advisory) looking for new tracks that have been rated highly and make a commitment to try them. Ask your kids to share their Spotify playlists with you.
Don’t listen through the filter of “Oh, it’s different than I’m used to.” Try to find the beauty of the new music, and I personally guarantee that you’ll open yourself up to an amazing amount of beautiful and moving (or stark and disturbing, or bouncy and energizing etc ) music. If you can get to the end of the single “My Tears Are Becoming a Sea” by the French band M83 off their stunning new album “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” without goosebumps, please see you’re doctor: You may be deceased.
How rewarding music is. How simply it enriches our lives. As long as we stay open to it, there are always new musical masterpieces just waiting for us. I agree with Shakespeare: “If music be the food of love, play on; Give me excess of it!”
Dave Taylor is an owner of BellBoy Music, a UK- and Utah-based record company that publishes uplifting music you'll actually love listening to.