Is it the end of big label/commercial music as we know it?
March 3, 2002 3:17 PM   Subscribe

Is it the end of big label/commercial music as we know it? The generally dismal quality of America’s mass-marketed pop music is an esthetic national emergency. And last week’s Masque of the Red Death extravaganza at the Staples Center couldn’t disguise the dire portents. via Drudge
posted by Rastafari (52 comments total)
 
“It’s like a spiral,” says Peter Edge (no relation to U2’s The)...
posted by skwm at 3:35 PM on March 3, 2002


Is it the end of big label/commercial music as we know it?

...and i feel fine

its not going to be the end of the world if there were no more boybands and pop stars. i think it would actually be a good thing. get out there and support the local music scene in your area, there are some great artists out there that need to be recognized for the great music they are producing.
posted by hazelmeg at 4:07 PM on March 3, 2002


Oh great, now even MSNBC knows that pop music sucks. Record companies are going to read that tomorrow and then retool their product to go for the "disaffected music consumer who's fed up with sucky commercial radio" market.
posted by RylandDotNet at 4:14 PM on March 3, 2002


OOhh....Ryland is on to something here.

Can you imagine a top 40 with the Beta Band and Lucinda Williams in it? I can't see it ever happening. We'll go from pop - hard rock - pop - hard rock, as always. Goodbye New Kids, hello Alice in Chains, goodbye Alice in Chains, hello Backstreet......ad infinitum.

The trouble with the music scene is that thanks to marketers looking for that elusive market share (can a radio station be a category killer???) radio stations get more specialized, and it gets tougher to find music that doesn't fit a predetermined mold.

*hugs her radio* I love CBC.

*hugs her computer* I love webcasts from other stations and other countries.

*hugs her Lenny Kravitz t-shirt* ummmm.......never mind.
posted by Salmonberry at 4:26 PM on March 3, 2002


It's cyclical. Pop's out (though Britney and a few others are still bringing in the bucks) and something else will be "in". Before it was grunge, or hip-hop/r+b. It may be one of those again or something new.
posted by owillis at 4:27 PM on March 3, 2002


I'm surprised the article doesn't mention the ClearChannel monopoly is making it harder for anything different making it onto the radio, it's not like before 1995 when a band on a minor label, like "the offspring" were, could get airplay. Most stations won't take a chance on anything unless they get some 'payola' now, won't take requests unless the song is on the 'approved' list.
posted by bobo123 at 4:46 PM on March 3, 2002


I've said it before, I'll say it again: The "generally dismal quality of America’s mass-marketed pop music," while truly "an esthetic national emergency," is not the fault of the record companies, or the radio stations. The true culprits, the Satans lurking in the background, are SoundScan and Billboard magazine. You can literally pinpoint The Day the Music Died by looking at the last top 40 singles chart and top 200 album chart Billboard did before they switched to SoundScan and the first charts they did afterward. (I think it was around 1989.)

For those who don't know, SoundScan is a nationwide inventory-tracking system for music retailers. Thanks to it, every store, every record company, every radio stations knows precisely how many copies of a given album sell every day, or even every hour. You see, before SoundScan, Billboard just collected the information for its charts the old-fashioned way: they asked. Music chains and radio stations just filled out forms and sent them in to Billboard for tabluation. There was little way to fact-check the information they were given, and this allowed for lots of leeway in how every reporter "interpreted" his/her data. Even better, most record stores left the job of filling out the forms to one of their teenaged employees. So back in 1982, if Joe Blow running the register down at the local Tower thought that new Culture Club group was the coolest band to come down the pike since the Waitresses, he could simply write on the form that Culture Club's new album sold 50 copies, even if it only really sold 2. What this meant, of course, is that the Billboard charts were EXTREMELY influenced by whatever true pop music fans thought to be the coolest and hottest bands subjectively. It also meant that the charts were ruled by pop and rock, because these people weren't going to write on their reports that the latest Dolly Parton album was the #1 seller in their store that week, even when it really was. Thus, all sorts of cool and crazy new bands were able to get some traction.

With SoundScan, all that went out the window. All that matters now is how many copies a given album or single actually move in a given week, and the computers don't lie. Nor do they care whether the albums are pop, rock, rap, country crossover, or polka. The Billboard Top 200 Albums are the top 200 albums, and if every one of them is a goofy sound effects record, then so be it.

THIS is why American popular music has been destroyed. Those human "reporters" were wildly important middlemen (and middlewomen) when it came to influencing the tastes of the music-buying public. But the moment they were taken out of the picture (and like I said, it literally happened in a single day), the only thing that mattered was what was was truly selling the most copies. So the entire industry has ever since been stuck in a state of inertia between the teenyboppers who blindly buy millions of copies of rap albums and empty-calorie boy-band pop that all sounds exactly the same, and the records companies that are more than happy to continually fulfill those kids' mindnumblingly awful requests as long as they're the ones buying the most albums.

The solution, of course, is to get Billboard to stop using SoundScan as the basis for their charts (which they'll never do), or for some other magazine or organization to start their own weekly charts that puts back into the mix that all-important ingredient of subjectivity, and then manage to get those charts to actually be used by the music industry. The chances of either of these things happening are, unfortunately, zero.

Sometimes, technology really, REALLY sucks.

(BTW, this is a Newsweek article, not a MSNBC article. Sort-of-credit where sort-of-credit is due.)
posted by aaron at 4:59 PM on March 3, 2002


Of course, if radio stations started playing the so-called "good bands" the people who liked them would instantly start whining about "selling out" and how "commercial" they are.
posted by owillis at 5:08 PM on March 3, 2002


Of course, if radio stations started playing the so-called "good bands" the people who liked them would instantly start whining about "selling out" and how "commercial" they are.

That is to consider that there is no longer a standard of good music and everything is a matter of subjective choice.
posted by crog at 5:14 PM on March 3, 2002


Thats the way it always works, owillis. Here in Athens, we've had countless bands rise up and make it big (REM, to name one). Sure. they were the so-called "good band" in their hey day, but now they're huge so people whine they "sold out." I've seen it other times w/ other bands from Athens who kicked ass, and STILL do. Just happens they got noticed.
posted by jmd82 at 5:17 PM on March 3, 2002


Bobo:

It's got nothing to do with Clearchannel. My sister works at a reasonably independant radio station (one of about 5 that are owned by the same group) and the "listener requests" are just as much of a joke. From what I've been told, the DJ will often call his buddies and ask them to request a song from the Top-25 if the listening plebs don't do it themselves fast enough. Or, if the DJ is lazy enough, he'll just do the old "here's one for Jenny... The Backstreet Boys" gig. That one was probably obvious to everyone long ago.

Ever wonder why you still hear the same two dozen songs even during "request hour" or whatever? That's why. Remember Henry Ford's "you can have any color you want as long as it is black"? Same deal.
posted by Electric Jesus at 5:18 PM on March 3, 2002


I'm honestly confused when people say it's gotten worse, as I can't remember a time when the mainstream marketed idea of pop music wasn't banal and contrary to whatever was interesting at the time.

There was a time when the mass market wasn't aimed at the lowest common denominator? Seems unlikely. Rose colored hindsight seems more probable.
posted by dong_resin at 5:21 PM on March 3, 2002


Dong, you can argue the banality of pop music over the years compared with the more obscure, eclectic stuff that was being made around the same periods (though I believe that's a different argument), but I think it's obvious that pop music was never as brain-atrophyingly homogeneous as it's become post-SoundScan. Not only is every song and group indistinguishable from the one next to it, there's no progress or change. The song that hits it big today doesn't have a "2002 sound," because the sounds no longer change. Go listen to Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (1992) and watch the video, then go listen to, and watch the video of, P.O.D.'s "Youth of the Nation" (2002). Same song, same video, same look, same sound. Ten years apart.

At least in the past, nobody had trouble distinguishing Duran Duran from Bruce Springsteen. And songs from 1970 were readily distingushable from songs made in 1980.
posted by aaron at 6:09 PM on March 3, 2002


(I think it was around 1989.)

Thanks, aaron. I always wondered why most music sucked since then.
posted by HTuttle at 7:04 PM on March 3, 2002


I think the only way to tell if the music is good is to wait. Good music continues well beyond its time. Eagles, Fleetwood, Pink Floyd, Beatles, Satchmo... there's tons of great music that is still around, decades and decades after it was released.

I have a hard time thinking of any band over the past ten years that can say the same... (but, then, I'm not actually making much effort, either! :*) )
posted by five fresh fish at 7:36 PM on March 3, 2002


Sheesh, can you feel the elitism in the air? "If only we could bring back a chart system where record store employees lied about what albums people were buying, then we might get some real music! If only the dull, mindless public could hear real music, surely they would thank us!" But the days before SoundScan were no wonderland of music. It's just that you were in college then, and plugged into a community that was hungry for interesting and different music and had few preconceptions about what music "should" sound like (and those that you did have, you were anxious to reject). But you know what? Popular music has always been, well, popular, with all that implies. Who were the biggest acts in the decade that punk broke? The Carpenters. The Bee Gees. Donny and Marie. And worse. Shall I rest my case?
posted by kindall at 8:02 PM on March 3, 2002


I certainly don't want to be seen as arguing for SoundScan, aaron, but you can't seriously tell me that 1980's top 10 is in any way less panerding and dull than 2001's.

Duran Duran & Bruce Springsteen are two different styles of music, so I wouldn't confuse them, as I wouldn't mix up Destiny's Child with Coldplay.
I've only been buying music for 15 years or so, but I've never seen a time in that period, (and I'm not trying to be all cooler than thou indie boy or anything, I buy plenty of crapy music, i.e. I love Marilyn Manson), but the charts have never been, as far as I can tell, any kind of a source for interesting music, so I fail to see what change SoundScan has made.
Maybe I don't have the right frame of reference.
Top 40 has always played to the cheap seats, is it doing it differently somehow?
posted by dong_resin at 8:24 PM on March 3, 2002


aaron: A very interesting response. Very much enjoyed reading it.

I also entirely disagree with you.

The number one culprit for the state of pop music at the moment is the record-buying public. The record industry is in the business of producing what the public wishes to spend money on. Right now it's producing Britney Spears, O-Town and Linkin Park. It's doing so because swarms of individuals are willing to plink down cash for their tunes. Do I agree that the above three are mindless tripe? Yes. Is it any of my business? Only when I'm polishing my pedestal. The state of popular music at any given time is an interesting sociological fact, but its extension as proof of America's Phillistinism is smug, subjective and unproductive. People budy music for a wide range of reason, from the meaningless to the transcendental, and if someone buys a Top 40 record because they find it toe-tapping, fine. It makes them happy. Two days ago I listened to some Shakira in the morning. It was pretty meaningless pop music. Hummable, toe-tapping and vapid. It made me happy. I hardly see it as a national aesthetic crisis. Later that night I came home, listened to Sigur Ros for the umpteenth time, and had a nice, vaguely spiritual experience.

The record industry is, to be sure, putting out a lot of crap. It's also putting out Sigur Ros, Boards of Canada, Bjork, Sleater Kinney and Sunny Day (Full disclosure: I like their music. Read no more into that.). It's also putting out your particular brand of music. Cool. Whatever makes you happy. It should be of little concern to us what the unwashed masses choose to spend their aesthetic dollars on. We should also be cautious not to assume that the record-buying public considers Britney to actually be meaningful music: I don't consider Shakira terribly meaningful, and I'll spend money on her anyway. All that should concern us is whether or not there is still good music being made. And personally, I find that there is far more excellent music than time to investigate it.

Note: aaron, this quickly turned from a response into a general, slightly irritable screed. No personal offense intended. But the Soundscan/Billboard partnership, I find, is no more insidious than a self-styled music lover defining what "good" music is, and what "drivel" is.

BUT, I suspect your point had more to do with ensuring musical diversity than ensuring that we all listen only to "meaningful" music. And it's a good point. But the state of pop music doesn't reflect diversity; only the state of music being produced can do that. And the diversity of music at the moment, on the whole, is (I suspect, I lack for numbers of course) higher than ever.
posted by apostasy at 8:27 PM on March 3, 2002


I'm honestly confused when people say it's gotten worse, as I can't remember a time when the mainstream marketed idea of pop music wasn't banal and contrary to whatever was interesting at the time.

True, dong, but back in the '50's and '60's the smarter major labels were at least astute enough to admit that they didn't have a clue and just pretty much signed anyone who seemed to have a possibilty(however remote) of turning a buck, which resulted in some bizarre gems being signed to fairly large labels. Captain Beefheart actually shared a label with the Archies, for instance.
These days every junior marketing flack fancies himself and expert on hip, so someone like the Captian would've had all the life "retooled" out of him before he got to record at all.
The major losers in all this is the American music listener, plenty of great and (highly commercial) acts are not given wide exposure because they are deemed "unsaleable" although many of them would be huge if people only got to hear them.
posted by jonmc at 8:56 PM on March 3, 2002


you know, there wouldn't be any aesthetic crisis if we all listened to obscure indie records. then everyone would be cool.
oh, and either pirate your music, or buy it on vinyl. anything else is tres outre.
posted by lemur at 9:01 PM on March 3, 2002


This is an interesting "chicken or the egg" question. Do people seem to prefer crappy music, or do they buy it because its well-marketed?

I think some posts misread the argument against Clear Channel, record companies, et al. Its not that we insist that all music on the air be cool indie stuff. Radio used to locally programmed, and if a DJ liked something, she'd put it on.

I seem to remember reading that bands like The Cars got their break when a DJ liked one of their songs and just played it. I've talked to DJs at Clear Channel stations, and they will tell you that this is nearly impossible. Everything is programmed so tightly that there is no room for a DJ's judgement.

A fantasy is that a Top 40 station gets its signal overloaded by a pirate station a couple times a day, replacing a Britney Spears song with something bold and subversive (think modern-day Steely Dan), then the station goes back to normal, and no one can figure out how to stop the pirate station from doing this.
posted by 4midori at 9:09 PM on March 3, 2002


So, to go off topic, who's turning it around? what is XXXX in the '00s as Grunge/Nirvana was to the '90s, Punk-New Wave/The Clash-Talking Heads were to the '80s, Disco-Album Rock/The Bee Gees-Fleetwood Mac were to the 70s, Rock-R&B/Rolling Stones-Aretha was to the 60's...

It's always been my theory that A: good music happens every ten years or so (and in between it's derivative crap [creed] or an agent's wet dream [britney]) and B: the turning point has always been recession (late 80s, early 70s) or war (60s [Vietnam] and 50s [Korea]). Well, we now have both recession an war. Seriously - something goods gonna come out of all this, it's gonna have a beat, and a few of you probably know what it is but don't have a clue that it's gonna get as big as its gonna get. So what is it?
posted by dchase at 9:28 PM on March 3, 2002


We need the stooges now more than ever
posted by Settle at 9:37 PM on March 3, 2002


4midori: This is true. So why do you continue to listen to the radio? There would seem to be reams of better, more diverse alternatives. And if you don't listen to it, is it relevant to you?

Good music is directly proportional to the amount of effort put into seeking it out. And that's just fine.
posted by apostasy at 9:48 PM on March 3, 2002


i think pop-rock's creative and artistic peak was actually in 1994, and not '89 and many people argue.

check out these records that came out in '94 that not only got radio play (most of them), but were quality music that, when presented to consumers, sold millions:

weezer's first record, hole "live through this", green day "dookie", soundgarden "superunknown", jesus and mary chain "stoned and dethroned", sheryl crow "tues. night music club", dinosaur jr. "without a sound", bad religion "stranger than fiction", beck "mellow gold", beastie boys "ill communication", pantera "far beyond driven", rancid "let's go", page and plant "no quarter", madonna "bedtime stories", and mazzy star's "so tonight i might see" all came out in '94.

the problem is, Boys II Men dominated the charts and instead of nurturing this huge creative surge in rock, pop and hiphop -- and whatever Beck was introducting -- the labels decided that the way to go was down the path of a Better Boys II Men: namely boy bands and girl groups. thus we found healthy doses of Spice Girls, et. al culminating in Britney and Christina.

i blame the labels. instead of taking the grunge thing and the Beck thing and learning that these trends weren't a sound that should be reproduced, but a vote by the listeners for creative music, they just went back to what they always do and spent their time and monies at O-Town, where hopefully they will all rest in pieces.
posted by tsarfan at 10:17 PM on March 3, 2002


i blame the labels.

Well obviously. It's not the consumers' fault that boy/girl bands became popular, right?

IMHO, wrong. In fact, think back to Motown in its heyday. Or the Beatles, Beach Boys...clean, boy/girl band shite. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE Motown, have respect for the Beach Boys, and tolerate the Beatles, but they were the same pop crap we have now. Which, I think, is the scarier thing. In another 20-30 years, are we going to say, "Wow, N'Sync, Eminem, Britney were/are great."?

Record labels don't control our minds. The fact is, people love to buy into the "chaste" Britney and Justin. We control our tastes; labels, like TV, simply adapt to our preferences. And once again, music is COMPLETELY SUBJECTIVE. There is no right or wrong here people. There never has been a right or wrong. Some people still think that Mozart sucks. Are they stupid? Maybe, or may they simply have different tastes.
posted by BlueTrain at 10:29 PM on March 3, 2002


So if we don't buy any more records Bjork will disappear?
Yayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!!!!!!!!
Who's with me?
posted by ttrendel at 10:59 PM on March 3, 2002


Since I'm not excited by much I've been hearing in the mainstream lately, I've decided to use this time to go back and mine the past for things I missed and should've checked out. Artists like Magazine, Bark Psychosis, Howlin' Wolf, Shuggie Otis, Pharoah Sanders. I've also discovered that I love Mariachi music.
I've long argued that there are only two kinds of music, good and bad. Unless you own every recording that's ever been released, there's plenty of good stuff out there...you just hafta look a little harder.
posted by black8 at 11:17 PM on March 3, 2002


I've become amazingly disinterested in this topic since I stopped listening to the radio. I actually couldn't name 1 top 40 song, and it feels great.
posted by statusquo at 12:28 AM on March 4, 2002


I'm honestly confused when people say it's gotten worse, as I can't remember a time when the mainstream marketed idea of pop music wasn't banal and contrary to whatever was interesting at the time.

Well put. Funny when this discussion usually comes up someone is quick to name the music they discovered in their late teens and grant it permanent nostalgic perfection. Should I even bother listing examples?

First off, there is very little wrong with the music industry today (ignoring business practices regarding artists and radio monopoly). It delivers hooky tunes to those who don't want get out there and "find it," or whatever the new indie rock call to arms is.

Why should a suburban kid take the train to the city to some juice bar or all ages venue to see 20 bands in a month which might pan out to be 3 or 4 really good acts when Dave Matthews is just a radio away and will eventually come down and play at the largest venue in his area? If this kid has an interest in music and wants to explore, more power to em, but there's no need to push what you think is good music or at least good business (hey theyre not on a big evil label).

Let the self-congratulatory Grammys continue with their manufactured pop-stars. It doesn't bother me and I'm a music elitist. Newsweek coming out and suddenly realizing the absolute fake artistry in pop-culture defines "non-story."
posted by skallas at 12:31 AM on March 4, 2002


I always figured on three kinds of music myself. Good music, better music and really great music. I am sure my opinions about what belongs in each section will be different from anyone else, but then I have interesting taste in music. I like stuff from nearly every genre you can think of. I like Hank Williams, Sr. and Jr., Jessye Norman, AC/DC, Frank Sinatra, John Lee Hooker, ect......
posted by bjgeiger at 12:56 AM on March 4, 2002


One thing I find kind of interesting is that people claim that boy bands and pop girls are just released and since "the kids" are sheep - they just buy them. I find it kind of a simplistic pov that doesn't take into account the fact that for every N'Sync and Backstreet Boys or Britney and Christina that sells a bajillion copies, there are five carbon copy groups whose albums sell diddly poo. I guess I find elitism in music taste rather silly.

Now back to my Ice, Ice, Baby CD...
posted by owillis at 3:18 AM on March 4, 2002


Money-making radio blows. Almost anything that plays to an audience big enough to pay for the station and talent and greedy investors has to be a bottom-feeding venture. Turn off your radios. Give them to people you don't like.

> Of course, if radio stations started playing the so-called
> "good bands" the people who liked them would instantly
> start whining about "selling out" and how "commercial"
> they are.

Perhaps by the time the slower learners and the timid have caught up to where the pioneers were two or three years earlier, most of the pioneers have always moved on. Few musicians and composers are creative enough to stay interesting recording after recording unless you're interested in the recycled.

> I guess I find elitism in music taste rather silly.

I guess you do, owillis. That's your favorite complaint: elitism. But creative elitism is good. If you're a composer, you should want to write the best music and you should be prepared to produce some awful failures as you experiment. If you're a listener, you should want to listen to the best music and you should be prepared to try some awful stuff as you search for the best. A composer or performer always looking at the bottom line and shooting for the safe LCD is shameful. A listener wallowing in listening to the bottom line and being as average as possible is man-become-cheeseburger.
posted by pracowity at 4:07 AM on March 4, 2002


most of the pioneers have always moved on
Yes, this may be true. But I'm more apt to believe jmd82's reasoning in my experience.


If you're a listener, you should want to listen to the best music and you should be prepared to try some awful stuff as you search for the best

Do you think I disagree with you? Because I don't. The elitism I don't like is the idea of discounting music before you even listen to it because of its lineage - ditto for movies. While my personal tastes certainly trend towards more "mainstream" fare, I at least sample non-mainstream stuff. Just because I don't like it doesn't mean you should make the leap that I'm wallowing in cheeseburger-ness.

My problem with elitism is that it tends to discount things not based on the item's merit but because of who produces it. An independent movie isn't automatically "better" in my eyes just because its indie. I like to say "x is a good movie" because it is a good movie and not because it was financed with the director's mom's credit cards or a $200 million budget from Warner Bros. The work, not the other mishmash, is the thing.
posted by owillis at 4:30 AM on March 4, 2002


> doesn't mean you should make the leap that I'm
> wallowing in cheeseburger-ness.

I'm sorry if that sounded like I meant you in particular as a cheeseburger. (Mayor McWillis?) For all I know, Stockhausen and Ives are too tame for you. Equally, for all I know, you are Britney Spears. I was talking folks and not you.

> My problem with elitism is that it tends to discount
> things not based on the item's merit but because of
> who produces it.

It's true that people should try to judge each work independently, and not to choose things only according to their sources, but it would be silly to walk into a McDonald's and expect even a small chance of a surprise.

Big record and film companies tend to make purposely unadventurous products intended only to make money with which to make more money. Small companies, sometimes intentionally and sometimes otherwise, tend to make more of the crazy decisions (and non-decisions) that sometimes result in art.

Big Hollywood puts out a good thing or two here and there, but that's the corn in the crap, and I'm not going to eat all that crap to get to the corn. I'd rather get my corn before it's been through the system.
posted by pracowity at 5:38 AM on March 4, 2002


soundscan entered the picture in 1991. what you're leaving out of your analysis, aaron, was that soundscan also showed that people were buying hip-hop records (the first record to debut at #1 on the soundscan chart was nwa's 'efil4zaggin')—one could argue that this discovery led to the demographic lensing of mainstream radio in the US, because there were many people who just would not listen to hip-hop, no matter what you surrounded it with. so now there are 'pop' stations that don't play hip-hop and edit any bits of rap out of their songs, stations that advertise 'all the hits, and no rap.' the advent of rap, which has undeniable popularity and at the same time a sound that, even when couched by the most pop trappings, a lot of people just cannot listen to for whatever reason, had a bigger blanding effect on the radio landscape than soundscan.

(the introduction of soundscan also, at first, left a lot of lower-profile stores off the charts because they couldn't afford to set up the equipment (larger chains like the wall and sam goody were already using bar code scanning).

what also isn't being mentioned is that the singles chart of right now is less dependent on what consumers buy than ever before. the calculation for where a single is on the chart is derived from both airplay and sales, but a rule was lifted about a year ago that allowed 'album cuts' to make the top 100. this means that the role of the independent promoter has become more important—and that means that the labels who have the bucks to shell out to these people are at a clear advantage, especially in the days of programming a time zone's worth of stations out of one city.

also: all the pictures painted of bygone years are a bit too romanticized. for those who are proclaiming 'the '80s were awesomer!!' i point you in the direction of loverboy and journey, not to mention billy effing joel and phil collins; for those who love '94, i would like to show you dink, and dig, and fury in the slaughterhouse, and all those other crap one-hit wonders who clogged the alternative rock airwaves.

the problem that the record industry's having right now can be boiled down to simple economics. the prices for cds have gone up (most list at $18.99 now, and some at $19.99), and what returns have consumers seen? the industry isn't releasing albums that will catch on like viral wildfire, bands aren't being developed beyond one-hit wonder status, every artist, male or female, needs a woman taking off her shirt to get attention. i'm not sure what the 'salvation' of the industry will be—i sure as hell don't think it will be indie rock, although emo seems to be getting pillaged for street cred in hopes of a 'next nirvana'-type situation, the sheer concept of which is rockist, proto-born again christian bollocks. i do have a feeling it will have something to do with one of the big 5 ceasing operations, or merging with one of their competitors.
posted by maura at 5:55 AM on March 4, 2002


I seem to recall that one of the big surprises that SoundScan revealed in its early days was that a Metallica album hit #1 the week it was released. Until then nobody really knew that metal was that big. The Top 40 was largely a self-fulfilling prophecy until SoundScan: record stores tendend to report selling the things they thought they should be selling, and metal just wasn't one of those things. Neither was hip-hop. Yeah, people were bringing a lot of those kinds of records to the counter, but it wasn't on the Top 40, so surely it must rank lower than those other albums! Of course I find it incomprehensible that any record store didn't have computerized inventory control already by the early 1990s, especially independents, if only to track shrinkage.
posted by kindall at 7:14 AM on March 4, 2002


Mm. Shrinkage. Didn't we just have a shoplifting thread?
posted by pracowity at 7:51 AM on March 4, 2002


hmm. I'd think that johnmc would be here defending the taste of the public from the music snobs.... but he's not so I'm going to. JEESUS! The "public" will buy whatever it wants. And they should! Just because you don't like boy-bands and almost everyone else does doesn't mean that boy bands are the problem. That is what most of the people want, just like they wanted Hammer and Paula Abdul when I was in high school.

The music industry, if defined to include _all_ lables and independant music-makers is doing great! We have the internet allowing people in my hometown to buy any record imaginable at dusty groove, aquarius records, other music, etc. (I had to drive 2.5 hours to go to a B-grade indie record store when I was 18.) We have $800 digital studios that can make records better than $15,000 good indie studios in 1992 could, we have $15,000 home studios that can make records that sound better than $1,000,000 pro studios in 1992. The revolution is on.

Use the internet, find the artists and support them. They are there, the NAMM group (music equipment manufacturers) report that they are selling more equipment to make music than ever, so there are people out there doing it.

The only "problem" that I can see is that there is too much indie music to build a solid indie-stream like there was in '89-'92 when you had 4AD, Matador, Rough Trade and 20-30 other inde labels leading the scene like a small version of the pop music industry. The put out the records, the magazines reviewed them, I read that My Bloody Valentine was great in Select and bought "Loveless" and Enchanted and the rest is history. Because so many people are making music that scene has shattered. That puts the onus on you to use your hyper internet research abilities to find sites that review music you like and to buy it and in turn expose it to your friends.
posted by n9 at 8:01 AM on March 4, 2002


actually, kindall, it was skid row's 'slave to the grind.' and the success of that album wasn't nearly as surprising as the success of all the hip-hop acts that showed up in the upper reaches of the chart out of nowhere—demographic profiling had filtered down to the record store reporting level, and those who were reporting in large chain stores didn't realize just how many white consumers were buying rap albums.
posted by maura at 8:56 AM on March 4, 2002


hmm. I'd think that johnmc would be here defending the taste of the public from the music snobs....

Actually, I'll freely admit to being a music snob. Like you and some other folks, I'll scour music mags and the 'net and try out whatever sounds interesting. Other people may not have the time or be so inclined. They get their primary exposure to new stuff comes from the radio and MTV. Generally, they'll just pick out whatever sounds halfway-decent, which is how relative mediocrities like Creed and Three Doors Down have been elevated to superstar level. The major labels and radio stations are aware this is how it works so they stick with very "safe" stuff often to their and our detriment.

That puts the onus on you to use your hyper internet research abilities to find sites that review music you like and to buy it and in turn expose it to your friends.

Absolutely. back when I worked in the bookstore, we got to take turns putting our own stuff at closing time. One night, I put on something by the Fastbacks. Several people(of very mainstream tastes) came up and asked me "Who are these guys and why haven't I heard of them?"
So, I guess I am defending the public, in that I believe certain acts would be huge if only the major outlets would play them.
posted by jonmc at 9:05 AM on March 4, 2002


for those who are proclaiming 'the '80s were awesomer!!' i point you in the direction of loverboy and journey
Well, they were awesome compared to N'Sync and their ilk. New Kids on the Block and Menudo would have been a better illustration of the point that crap has always been King of Pop (oh wait, that's Michael Jackson).
I still listen to Journey, even though they were critically panned as "corporate Rock Lite." I really don't know who's making good music these days. I turn on the radio when I'm on the road, and the choices are Top 40, country, or "classic rock." So I hear the done-to-death "classics" from Clear Channel Inc.'s playlist. Enough of the Steve Miller Band, Queen, Supertramp...
Oh, one more point. MTV. Things really started going to hell when music became all about videos.
posted by StOne at 9:57 AM on March 4, 2002


good points, johnmc. My friend tells me that what I was trying to do is say that if your relationship with music is an _artistic_ relationship, than you are a patron and should feel a certain responsibility to find the right artists to pay.

Which brings up an interesting thought -- this thread is asserting that music in general is sculpted by the mean of production and distribution (the Music Industry). Makes me think that buying your music directly from the artists preferably via mp3, cdr or some near-zero cost medium, and also having a 'tip jar' system be the *normal* way of buying music in 3-10 years might swing the ol pendulum back. I'd gladly buy my stereolab discs from the band, so they get $15 instead of <$1 _and_ give them $30-40 a year on a patronage subscription, but I have to pay the Fat Cats at the labels in between if I want to financially support the artists in anyway. Otherwise I'd be stealing. It is quite a dilemma and shows just how abstracted from "value" "money" has become today.

Anyway.
posted by n9 at 10:04 AM on March 4, 2002


So I hear the done-to-death "classics" from Clear Channel Inc.'s playlist. Enough of the Steve Miller Band, Queen, Supertramp...

Exactly st0ne. Like most people around my age, I grew up listening to all that stuff and by the time I was 18 or so stupendously sick of it. So for about 5 or 6 years, I listened to just about nothing but esoteric, underground stuff.
Then me and my current girlfreind hooked up. She had always liked rock and roll, but as a classical musician she hadn't really had much chance to learn much about it. Right after we started dating, the local rock station did one of those "Top 500 of all time" deals and we had a great time listening to the songs and talking about their history and whatnot. It was like hearing them for the first time and rediscovering what made them "classics" in the first place. Perhaps laying off those old warhorses for a while would be the best thing those radio stations could do for them.
posted by jonmc at 10:36 AM on March 4, 2002


"Of course, if radio stations started playing the so-called "good bands" the people who liked them would instantly start whining about "selling out" and how "commercial" they are."

"That is to consider that there is no longer a standard of good music and everything is a matter of subjective choice."



When was there ever a so-called standard of good music? Was it when the Beatles were good and everyone knew it? Was it long before the notorious Big 5? Did Billboard send the record down to earth from on high? Was Dick Clark the arbiter of music justice?

Of course good music has always existed, and it's always been highly subjective--like all art is and should be. We don't need mediators to tell us what's good...file-sharing proves that.

And as for the "selling out" argument, when the Big 5 labels are dead and gone--and buried deeply, I hope--there will be no such thing as selling out, if there ever was in the first place.
posted by thelahungingeet at 10:47 AM on March 4, 2002


Q: Isn't "music that people like" the best definition of "good music"?

There seems to be a big hate-on in this thread for popular music. I'm not sure I entirely understand why.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:11 AM on March 4, 2002


five_fresh_fish: the problem is not "music that people like", it's "music that a mass market likes". Music potent enough to move people is also potent enough to offend them. The music industry doesn't need you to say "wow, this is the greatest thing ever"; they just need you to say "hmm, that's alright". To a radio station, the quality of piece of music is only important as far as it keeps you from changing the station. A piece of music that moves you to tears, but pisses off your neighbor, is no good; the station would rather play something that doesn't bother either of you too much, and keep you both tuned in.

It's the very hugeness of the music industry that causes the problem. Independent labels are able to provide better music not because there's something magical about being independent, but because they're smaller companies, able to make a profit in a smaller niche. They don't need to sell half a million copies just to break even, so they don't have to worry about making sure some percentage of the listening public finds it pleasantly inoffensive.

-Mars
posted by Mars Saxman at 12:00 PM on March 4, 2002


Thoughts, in no particular order since this thread has gone in so many different directions since I posted (warning: long-ass mofo post ahead...)

I certainly don't want to be seen as arguing for SoundScan, aaron, but you can't seriously tell me that 1980's top 10 is in any way less panerding and dull than 2001's. [...]

Well, yes and no. All popular music charts are going to be pandering to some extent, because obviously the record companies have always wanted to maximize sales. But DULL? Oh, I can definitely argue that. (You picked the wrong charts to link to, BTW, mixing a year-end singles chart from 1980 with a single-week album chart from 2001. So let's go with two year-end album charts, and for sake of argument let's stick with the top 10. Here's 2001's, and here's 1980's.)

but the charts have never been, as far as I can tell, any kind of a source for interesting music, so I fail to see what change SoundScan has made. Maybe I don't have the right frame of reference. Top 40 has always played to the cheap seats, is it doing it differently somehow?

We can't argue "interesting" in terms of All Music. Obviously there's always going to be more eclectic stuff out there than whatever's most popular, and no two people would agree on what qualifies anyway. What I'm arguing is that within the realm of top 40 itself, the concept of "interesting" - mere variety, really - has gone out the window. Yes, they're doing it differently, because of SoundScan.

First of all, note the genres of the albums. In 1980, there were eight rock albums, one pop (Michael Jackson), and one Kenny Rogers (he had two big crossover hits on that album, so it's arguably pop too). The top 40 chart consisted of just what it was supposed to be: rock and pop. And of those albums, seven of them are indisputable classics. (Maybe "Kenny" is too, who knows; I'm not a country fan and don't know where country fans rank it on the all-time list.) More importantly to my argument, the sound and style of every single one of those artists, with one exception, is completely different. (I define this as: If you played songs from the albums to someone who'd never heard of the artists before or any of their music, they would at least be able to tell that songs X and Y came from two different artists.) Someone who listened to nothing but Indian sitar music his entire life would be able to tell you that any two random songs from an Eagles album and a Pink Floyd album were from two different groups. I admit, though, that a completely clueless listener might have trouble distinguishing Blondie from Pat Benatar.

Now, 2001 (and let's strip out the Beatles aberration and go with #2-11 instead): four rock albums, one all-over-the-road compilation, two hip-hop, two pop (from competing yet utterly indistinguishable groups), and one new-agey Celtic type. The amount of actual pop and rock was cut in half. And of these albums, my guesstimate (FWIW, I don't claim to be God here) is that only two or three of them have even an outside shot of being considered classics 20 years from now, and quite possibly none of them will be; none truly stand out at this point in time. Now, the variety question: Out comes the man from Mars. Could he tell, based on two random songs, that one was from Staind and the other Creed? Backstreet Boys vs N'Sync? Limp Bizkit vs. Linkin Park? Nelly vs Shaggy? (Well, maybe Nelly vs Shaggy, depending on which two songs, but it's a toss-up.) And of course the NOW 5 album is just a compilation of all these groups, which just makes it worse. 2001 is far, FAR more homogenous.

aaron: A very interesting response. Very much enjoyed reading it. I also entirely disagree with you.

Heh! You just summed up my entire Metafilter career in two lines. I just added that to my profile page.

But I don't think we disagree as much as you think. I did note in my original post that at least half the blame for today's bad pop music scene can be laid right at the feet of the record-buying public. I absolutely agree that most people buy music for reasons far less ... intellectual, shall we say, than the average MeFite. In fact, I'm one of those "most people." My parents had me when they were in their early 20s. Both parents were big music fans, and I was exposed to 70s pop and rock for hours every day as a little kid. My dad thought - still does - that Peter Noone was God. (He also developed a strange interest in Erasure in the 80s, but let's not get into that now.) My first concert was, yes, the BEE GEES! In 1977, when I was 7 years old. I saw 'em all, dozens of concerts: Springsteen, Heart, Hall & Oates, Bob Seger, even Barry Manilow (three times!), before I even hit puberty. I love mainstream pop and rock, and am not ashamed to admit it. And it's why the homogenization/destruction of these two genres grates on me so much. MY music is largely gone. And I think it's mainly because SoundScan now guarantees that most new unique groups will never be heard by a critical mass of the music-buying public. How can they buy what they don't know exists?

The record industry is, to be sure, putting out a lot of crap. It's also putting out Sigur Ros, Boards of Canada, Bjork, Sleater Kinney and Sunny Day (Full disclosure: I like their music. Read no more into that.).

Yes, they are. But I believe that if those bands existed 15 years ago, or if SoundScan didn't exist today, they'd all stand a better than even chance of being top 10 artists. Today, they're doomed to niche status.

BUT, I suspect your point had more to do with ensuring musical diversity than ensuring that we all listen only to "meaningful" music. And it's a good point. But the state of pop music doesn't reflect diversity; only the state of music being produced can do that. And the diversity of music at the moment, on the whole, is (I suspect, I lack for numbers of course) higher than ever.

Yes, you are dead on about my point: It's all about the diversity and variety. But you're leaving out something that to me, at least, is very important (and I realize that, for reasons I've never understood, I seem to be in the extreme minority on this): A BIG part of what makes music great to me is the way it brings people together. While it's fun to sit in my living room alone and listen the latest really cool song by some unsigned band, it's a lot MORE fun to be able to share music communally with others. To be able to sing along with your friends in the dorm room, people you might meet at a party, or just a group of old friends blasting 80s pop at full volume and singing and dancing along, because they're the songs we ALL know and love. That ability is eroding away. You need a top 40 to be able to create that critical mass, and it no longer exists. Sure, Billboard lists the top 40 songs every week, but because those songs are in 15 different genres now, there are no longer any top 40 radio stations. There's CHR, and the nasty KISS format, and hip-hop ... it's all compartmentalized. I really wonder if today's teens are going to be able to easily gather and reminisce about '90s and '00s music in twenty years, or if they'll all end up in different corners of the room, talking only about the individual genres, or even individual groups, they liked Way Back When ... which means they won't really be gathering together at all, just splitting off into little focus groups.

So, to go off topic, who's turning it around? what is XXXX in the '00s as Grunge/Nirvana was to the '90s...

Nothing. At all. Like I said yesterday, after SoundScan, progress and change CEASED. If anything's going to come along, it's only going to be because someone at MTV or Clear Channel with actual power to overrule the programming robots forces them to start giving some new genre a chance. And that means risking at least a temporary loss of ratings and profits, which means it won't happen. I hope I'm wrong, but I haven't seen anything budge in ten years now, and that's longer than it's ever taken before in my lifetime.

what you're leaving out of your analysis, aaron, was that soundscan also showed that people were buying hip-hop records...

I'm very aware of the importance of SoundScan to the hip-hop explosion. But I was talking about top 40 pop and rock, so I didn't mention it. In fact, though the sudden extra weight given to hip-hop is a big part of why pop music has been destroyed. Billboard always ran country charts, black/soul/hip-hop/rap charts (the name has changed many times over the years), etc. And the stations that played those sorts of music followed their own charts, just as the top 40 stations followed the top 40 chart. But SoundScan only really fucked over the top 40 charts. The country stations still follow the country charts, the hip-hop stations still follow the hip-hop chart, but the top 40 became an agglomeration of ALL these genres, making it useful to nobody at all except record company executives. No station would ever actually play a 2002 top 40 format, because listeners would flip the dial in disgust after every single song. It is only the mainstream pop/rock fans that had their genres destroyed.

also: all the pictures painted of bygone years are a bit too romanticized. for those who are proclaiming 'the '80s were awesomer!!' i point you in the direction of loverboy and journey, not to mention billy effing joel and phil collins; for those who love '94, i would like to show you dink, and dig, and fury in the slaughterhouse, and all those other crap one-hit wonders who clogged the alternative rock airwaves.

I happen to like at least some songs from all those 80s artists (yes, they're crap, but hell, they're FUN crap), and I would guess that those of us old enough have at least recognize the names and know their music. Conversely, I've never even heard of any of the circa-1994 groups you mention. Which I think proves part of my point.

Right after we started dating, the local rock station did one of those "Top 500 of all time" deals and we had a great time listening to the songs and talking about their history and whatnot.

Yes, and this will be impossible twenty years from now, unless the two people hooking up are both fans of the same subgenre and are listening to the right subgenre station. At the very least, the chances of it happening will be far lower than the near-100% it is today. Music used to bring people together; all it does now is divide them.
posted by aaron at 1:51 PM on March 4, 2002


Well said, aaron. I especially agree with the distinction you made between general "top 40 hatred" and hatred of what's happened to the top 40. Making terrific pop-freindly songs is a time honored craft. To borrow a term from an earlier exchange in this thread, popular music can be compared to cheeseburgers, but there are cheeseburgers and there are cheeseburgers, know what I mean.
The problem isn't so much SoundScan per se, as the datacrunching mentality it engenders. Every hiccup in the charts is analyzed by teams of publicists and executives and almost all the material released(by the major labels, at least) is reengineered accordingly with scientific precision, which is what leads to the prefab aftertaste of a lot of today's pop-oriented stuff.

Now If you'll excuse me, I'm gonna go get a cheeseburger.
posted by jonmc at 2:11 PM on March 4, 2002


"Well, [Loverboy and Journey] were awesome compared to N'Sync and their ilk."

This statement is so ridiculous that I don't even know where to start. Have you even heard the latest NSync record? It's a hell of a lot more adventurous than "Separate Ways," I'll tell you that.
posted by maura at 2:55 PM on March 4, 2002


jonmc, the execs are definitely into the numbercrunchin' stats that these machines provide. But I would disagree that they have had the impact that aaron suggests; both sides can play the same game.

When i graduated in the UK in '95, I soon managed to fulfill my 'lifes ambition' by, er, getting a job in a record shop. It happened to be a small independent (but not 'indie') chain that happened to be part of the UK chart return network. We had a scanner that fed info back to GALLUP, the polling organisation that compiles the UK Top 40.

But you know what? That damn scanner never seemed to work properly the first time i scanned an album I liked. i'd always have to go back and scan it later (double scans are immediately removed). Or i'd test to see if it was working with.... an album I liked. Another kid in buying the Boyzone single? Damn, forgot to scan it again.

And it wasn't just myself and my colleagues playing this game. The Catherine wheel were just one of many UK indie bands that learned to play the system - see "How to purchase the Live Album" to see that it's not just the majors who appreciate the holy grail of 'Chart Returns'.

If there really has been a decline in the quality of the top 40 in recent years, it has been due to the increasing amounts of money that the majors are willing to put into 'campaigns' these days. The week the Sp*ce G*rls first single was released, we received 40 copies of it on CD Single and 40 on Cassete Single - for free. We would normally sell about 10-15 copies of a number one single in a week. We were just given them by EMI - none of us working in the shop had heard of them. But they had been number one choice on 'The Box' for weeks before that - favourite TV Chart show of the pre- and early-teen girl market. Their pocket money took the SG's to number one that week - more free CD's arrived next week. Momentum took hold and a 'legend' was born.

And yet.... one of our Reps bought in at around the same time a few 12 inches of a track called 'Santa Cruz' by 'Fatboy Slim'. Never heard of him, but it was a good track. We kept a copy for ourselves, played it to our friends who came in, even sold a couple of copies. Word of mouth got out and now we can't imagine a time when Norman Cook was the bassist in a guitar band with vaguely amusing Northern band. I tended to order seven inches by scottish guitar bands like the Delgados - I could only order the one copy, but I was always well chuffed when it got sold.

In the UK at least, the 'Charts aren't what they used to be' mentality is one that, to me, indicates a reluctance to move past that initial gut feeling of horror when you realise the guy sneering at you while you buy a CD at the Megachain Megastore has never heard of, let alone heard the band that changed your life as a teenager. There's still loads of great music out there - but theres always been even more crap in the Top 40.
posted by barnsoir at 3:28 PM on March 4, 2002


Hey, doesn't mentioning Phil C*llins invoke Godwins law?

If it doesn't, it damn well should.

Shudder.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:37 PM on March 4, 2002


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