2013-03-18

The Decline Of Music Continues

In a surprisingly interesting article covering the SXSW Festival, Mikael Wood of the Los Angeles Times is full of fascinating observations, culminating in this beauty:
All these overlapping agendas led to an atmosphere of frenzied excess, and they raised a question: If everyone comes to be noticed at SXSW, isn't the net effect the same as if no one came?
He's right, of course. SXSW began as a local music festival. When I was growing up in the 90s, I remember reading it as a place where "local" undiscovered talent went to be part of the indie music scene. Of course, back then you simply weren't cool if you weren't an independent artist. Bands lost their cool the moment they  were signed to a major label. (Those of you who are young enough to be curious about where the phrase "indie" comes from, that's it. "Indie" didn't used to be a musical genre, it was an indicator of whether your were a corporate sellout or a true artist.) So they all flocked to SXSW, or NXNW, or etc. etc. in order to have a celebration of the music that was really cool.

Of course, since it really was cool, it didn't take long for the recording industry to start siphoning off the most corporate-ready acts. Festivals like SXSW became the fertile waters from which the "best" would be culled by corporate talent scouts, and awarded with a recording contract. Thus "independent music" became the victim of precisely that which it was attempting to avoid; SXSW became commercialized. First came the talent scouts, then came the corporate sponsors, then came the bands that had already been signed by labels, and now... well, most of the article linked above discusses Prince's set (one of the most commercially successful songwriters of all time).

Mr. Wood makes the point that, in today's musical environment, even the established hit-makers must clamor for attention, on seemingly equal footing with the independent plebes. Thus we gain exposure to yet another artist-driven source of modern music's decline: the desperate, pleading, whining, clamoring for attention. Think about the most beautiful woman you've ever seen. Does she clamor for your attention, desperately trying to be the most-noticed thing in the room?

Great art, like great beauty doesn't beg to be noticed. But turn on the radio and your ears will feast on over-compression, bass frequencies boosted beyond the capacity of stock audio speakers, non-existent high frequencies, and a blaring midrange. Female voices dominate, with their more-piercing vocal timbre, and of those females, the ones with the most accosting bleats - Beyonce, Rihanna, Demi Lovato, et al - are greatly preferred. What few male voices remain are nearly all tenors, the most womanly of male singers.

Midrange. Distortion. Compression. Piercing voices. All of this is designed to grab you by the ears and dominate every thought you have; and just when you think it can't get any worse, the song ends and the radio advertisements begin to play - at a higher volume, a greater level of audio compression, and a spectral skew even further toward the midrange frequencies.

It's all such a desperate cry for attention. Records are produced that way, songs are written that way, festivals are designed that way. With each passing year, every aspect of music creation is nudged further toward a desperate whine for more attention, calling to mind memories of your college friend's, whining, begging, scheming to get you to come out to their next show. You don't want to listen to the radio anymore, and you feel this way for precisely the same reason you didn't want to go to that college friend's gig: It's all a bunch of unpleasant noise.

And please note: I don't mean this in the crotchety-old-codger sense of the term "noise." I mean it in the literal sense: fewer sonic options spread across fewer sonic frequencies, every artist clamoring for your undivided attention, using every aspect of modern audio production to grip you and force you into listening to it, this is what produces terrible, gut-wrenching, mind-obliterating white noise.

Good music doesn't require coercion. Great art doesn't demand your attention. It doesn't beg to get noticed. It doesn't travel around to little-fish festivals to present itself as the pond's undisputed leviathan.

Great music is simply beautiful when you hear it, and it matters little whether the artist responsible for it is rich or poor, famous or obscure, young or old, cool or uncool. But in today's world, artists care more about fame, success, getting noticed, and generally being the center of attention than they do about the quality of their art.

The artists themselves, though, continue to blame the faceless specter of corporate involvement. Please! No more whining.