John Loken, a former record label marketing exec posted an intriguing blog last February (2011) titled “The Death of Pop Music?” where he talks about the decline of, well, Pop Music. In particular, the industry “defined as the commercialization of short form songwriting, a historic aberration that lasted for the better part of the 20th century” is what he’s referring to here. He gives a short run-down of that industry’s history that’s a counterpoint to the history of how the Cost Disease has shaped Pop Music that I outlined in a previous post.
The pop music era started with ragtime and the player piano roll, evolved with composers like Gilbert & Sullivan and George Gershwin, and flourished with the advent of broadcast radio which popularized recording artists during WWII. Pop music reached its creative zenith in the 60s through 80s (a completely subjective analysis, I’ll grant you), and hit its commercial peak in 2000 when the inflated returns from CDs masked the creative stagnation underneath. (Again, ‘stagnation’ may be too strong a term, but I think digital recording tools removed all barriers to entry, effectively diluting the market with mediocre artistry; a separate post, I suppose). Napster’s disintermediation and Apple’s unbundling of the album hastened the collapse of concentrated/controlled music distribution – the engine of economic rents for decades.
This isn’t a topic I thought I would be revisiting in relation to Greg Sandow’s “rebirth of Classical Music” ideas but it’s such a perennial discussion amongst local pop musicians as to warrant mention. I posted a response in the Greg Sandow’s blog post I mentioned previously to the most recent response. I’m posting it below, though, as it will take some time for my post to get approved by Greg.
Yeah, that’s a common enough story amongst many musicians (the mandolinist in one of my bands practically put himself through school playing in cover bands) that I find it interesting that in the “Pop vs. Classical” debate so few folks want to discuss, much less acknowledge this not-so-“creative” aspect of the pop music scene.
Not that cover bands can’t be creative–one of my favorite local “cover bands” is the Liesure Kings who basically do lounge versions of Rock, Hip-Hop and Heavy Metal tunes and they are really great at creatively adapting the lyrics/melodies into that format.
And hell, some of the greatest tribute bands make a damn good living doing what they do in attempting to “perfectly” recreate a particular artists’ oeuvre and stage show. Not a whole lot different than the performing standards of the Orchestras we’re claiming to be not so innovative. Hell, the running joke amongst the original band musicians is that Orchestras are just glorified cover bands.
And yet, they are usually the better paid bands locally and regionally (much to the chagrin of the local/regional original band musicians). And the given reasons for that are precisely many of the same given reasons that Symphonic organizations program the tried and true warhorses that they do–the oft stated, “it’s what the audiences want.”
It’s good and all to make the claim that the pop music industry as a whole is more innovative than the classical music industry, but if the sample is biased towards referencing the, well, innovative pop musicians as the stand ins for the pop musician industry as a whole then we’ve already stacked the deck against classical music, I think.
Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with stacking the deck, per se, but by neglecting the cover band side of popular music culture it’s far easier to prop up a straw man argument against Classical Music and in favor of Pop Music especially when one of the main criteria for discussing the two happens to be innovation (or lack thereof) and sustainability!