2013-07-24

Making Music Better

I have previously written a few posts on the decline of music. (See for example here and here.) This morning I was considering alternative explanations for why music has become a lot less thrilling than it has been in the past, in hopes of coming up with a viable solution. One thought I had was that creative innovation sometimes requires a scene, i.e. a community, in which to foster its development.

The most recent true music scene that I am aware of is the electronic music/DJ/techno scene that grew out of the late-90s rave community. While I am deeply skeptical of this kind of music in terms of its artistic merit, there is no denying the fact that a whole community grew out of electronic music, and that community rewarded the innovators, made them stars, and facilitated the development of what is now a complete and multi-faceted genre of music. In short, the scene was important.

The one major scene that existed prior to that was the alternative music scene that thrived from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s. Initially, that scene was an out-growth of 80s new wave bands, but it thrived and grew into what sounds to modern ears like many different genres: indie, grunge, adult alternative, and so forth. As I remember it, however, those "sub-genres" were more like a closely knit and interrelated community of bands that all somehow had a similar spirit despite the variety of styles involved. How else do you explain the close relationships held by such diverse bands as Soundgarden, Living Colour, Fishbone, Sarah McLaughlin, et al.? Take, for example, the widely varied roster that appeared on the classic 1993 compilation album No Alternative*:
  • Matthew Sweet
  • Buffalo Tom
  • Soul Asylum
  • Urge Overkill
  • Goo Goo Dolls
  • Pavement
  • Smashing Pumpkins
  • Bob Mould
  • Sarah MacLachlin
  • Soundgarden
  • Uncle Tupelo
  • Beastie Boys
  • The Breeders
  • Patti Smith
  • Nirvana
  • Sonic Youth
Some of the artists on this list typically get grouped together, but others do not. I recall that back in the early 90s I was able to discover many great bands simply by reading the liner notes of my favorite CDs. Every artist would thank a handful of other artists. I'd follow the chain of thank-yous and discover all kinds of fun music. Once again, the point is that a thriving community produces a thriving music scene.

And, of course, the same can be said of the Los Angeles glam metal scene of the 1980s, the late-70s punk scene, the early 70s prog-rock scene, the 60s rock scene, the Motown scene, the big band scene, and so on, all the way back. In all cases, we can clearly see that no period of musical innovation has ever existed independent of a community or scene supporting it.

Thus, if we want music to become innovative and passionate again, we have to think about creating a scene. This requires musicians to interact with each other - not just in terms of "liking" each other's Facebook pages, but actually getting together in person and listening to each other's musical ideas. Maybe even participating in the writing processes with each other, cross-pollinating, socializing.

This may have to come at the expense of "playing to the crowd." The crowd tends to like whatever is popular. The crowd doesn't facilitate the development of new ideas like a community does. When musicians interact, there is a sense of competitiveness, but also a keener sense of appreciation. The feedback a musician gives another artist always carries a deeper insight and a bit more clout than the feedback the artist receives from his girlfriend's BFFs, you know?

If we're not yet willing to say that music has kicked the bucket, then it seems to me that we ought to foster a better sense of community.
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* Note: I have omitted some of the more obscure acts.