As digital music programming grows, so does lack of originality
As the music industry evolves – or devolves some may argue – the business model inevitably and understandably must adapt with the incessant output and creation of new age technologies. But what happens when that robotic monotony gradually compromises the creativity, foundational instrumentation and overall artistic ingenuity the industry has been built upon? No more “what if” – it’s happening.
Recently I was reminded of this ever-growing musical mundanity by a throwback snippet video (above) of Grammy-winning rock legend Joe Walsh from his guest episode on Daryl Hall’s (Hall & Oates) digital and VH1 show Live From Daryl’s House in 2012. The former Eagles guitarist led an hour-long special of both performance and interview but the most poignant moment came about halfway through when Walsh frustratingly explains technology’s demise of authentic musicianship and a subsequent lack of originality:
“Records, record stores, record sales, it’s all gone. And it’s up to the young musicians to try and figure it out. There’s no money in it, no record companies. It’s free, you can download it. Nobody gets paid, so they can’t afford to make music. That’s what’s happening. And they’re just cranking out music that is just a recipe. You know, nobody is playing at the same time. Everybody’s adding on virtual instruments that don’t exist on to a drum machine that somebody programmed. And you can tell in the music that’s out now. It’s all been programmed. There’s no mojo. There’s nobody testifying. There’s not the magic of a human performance, which is never perfect. And the magic of a human performance is what we all know and love in the old records, by the way they were made. And it’s all gone. So we’ll see what the digital age has in store.”
While the argument of whether music is “good” or “bad” remains mostly subjective, it’s undeniable the process in which much of modern “hit” music made is essentially pre-packaged, remixed or sampled and thus deficient in truly organic content. It’s as though we’ve taken advice from stale Hollywood film studios who seem to have nothing left in their billion-dollar think tank besides a 17th Spiderman sequel.
Although Walsh’s statement may appear to negatively highlight specific genres like electronic/dance, pop and even hip hop, the breadth of his meaning spans to all musical styles. Everything we listen to today is technically “electronic music,” even rock which is mastered through electronic programs – especially since the mid-2000s when computer-based technology made it easier for any type of music production to be created from emerging music software on just a laptop. For example, Nine Inch Nails’ 2007 album Year Zero was produced almost entirely using a laptop; the band’s frontman, Trent Reznor, detailed his reasoning in a 2008 New York Times article saying, “I didn’t have guitars around because it was too much hassle … It was another creative limitation … If I were in my studio, I would have done things the way I normally do them. But not having the ability to do that forced me into trying some things that were fun to do.”
Ever wonder why you find yourself constantly asking “why do all these songs sound the same?” Because they do. The emphasis is no longer on music theory or the ability to read and comprehend music, but to lazily rely on the same programmed machines that inevitably see each of its users repurposing the same sounds over and over and over. This is best exemplified by a recent Facebook post from indie-electronic rock project, RAC, who explains “the proliferation of cheaper recording devices and marketing tools has blown off the doors to the music industry.” The post continues, “Any kid with a laptop can build an empire with an internet connection. More artists means more competition, which means the product has less value.”
This isn’t to say that great music can’t be produced using the technological advances bestowed upon today’s bedroom “musicians” but at what point do we completely and utterly lose the human element in music? The human error that highlights the beauty of artistic imperfection. With The Prodigy recently telling Rolling Stone the current EDM climate is “lazy” and “monotonous,” one has to ask: where do we go from here? Electronic artists like Porter Robinson, Disclosure, Duke Dumont and Gorgon City, among others, are spearheading the current push for a live element when performing – not only because fans are demanding it, but they too are afflicted by the scene’s growing stagnant artistry.
What’s frightening though is while many dance fans understand this is nothing new, millions of young impressionable teens and twenty-somethings are being raised to appreciate lackluster productions from their favorite button-pushing mainstage sellouts and subsequently realize how easy it is to recreate those sounds themselves when they get home. Is it just me, or was even mainstage music better from 2008-2011? What happened? Hopefully Thump‘s “gateway drug music theory” is right – maybe all this bad EDM will lead fans to ask these same questions and challenge themselves to explore arguably better alternatives.
Maybe it’s not their fault though. Maybe we just don’t care enough about music today like we used to and I can’t come to terms with it. Maybe that’s why almost every school’s music department has fallen victim to budget cuts and cancellations. Maybe popular music now is meant merely as a soundtrack to party to or be used as a joke in the background of a pompous Donald Trump campaign speech.
As a writer, and more importantly, a lover of music – especially electronic – I peruse daily through the press release abyss of artist pitches and Soundcloud links that clutter my email and I find the hairs on my arms and neck no longer stand up as frequently. I miss the soul, risk-taking tenacity and musical ingenuity… and I’d like to think so do you.
The intent here isn’t to justify who’s making good or bad music because there is literally something for everybody. The purpose is also not to say there aren’t still artists and musicians preserving the elemental principles because there are. The purpose here is to simply encourage music makers and lovers alike to help keep music honest and to advocate for a “sonic ear rape”-less society.