Comments On The Decline Of Music

As may have been evident from my previous posts, I place much of the blame for "the decline of music" on musicians themselves. We can argue at length about whether copyright issues, Big Records (the music-industrial complex?), waning human attention spans, or Anything Else is to blame. Nonetheless, I think there are several musician-specific problems with music "these days" that have impeded a robust music scene.

In this post, I'd like to discuss some of these artist-specific problems a bit. 

Historical Trends
Homer: The hardest-working man in show business, 2600 years running.
Bards were essentially the world's first "touring musicians." In the days of Homer, a bard made a living travelling from town to town and singing. Bards lived off the kindness of strangers. Rather than comparing them to touring musicians, we should probably think of them more as travelling buskers. Second of all, bards didn't just play music, they also delivered news from the surrounding areas they had encountered along the way. They delivered messages and letters, when possible.

Even as recently as the 19th Century, books like The Last of the Mohicans were depicting the characters of travelling musicians as essentially poor but noble artists who live by their means and don't expect much in the way of riches to ever come their way. 

So, looking historically, not only has being a musician never really been a financially lucrative line of work, but what little money musicians were able to make wasn't solely a function of their being musicians; they offered other services, too. 

The whole concept of the "millionaire musician" is not only a modern construct, but it is seemingly a product of only the last 75 years or so. The music industry is now suffering from shrinking profits, and a logical person can probably suggest that music-sans-money is what we can more realistically suspect.

The Austrian School economist in me would suggest that modern music millionaires were probably able to generate their fortunes thanks to patent/copyright rules, record company/radio station collusion, and other such rent-seeking behavior. The music business is famously corrupt, and I think it's clear to most people that the biggest difference between the most popular artists and everyone else is often little more than the strength of the marketing campaign behind each group.

Hard Work and Musical Output
No music act in this day and age - at least none that I am aware of - works as hard as musicians used to. Consider the following excerpt of an interview with Geddy Lee of Rush.

You can plenty of other interviews with members of that band to corroborate the story told in this one. In the early days, Rush was touring 50 weeks of the year. In the Rush documentary, one of the reasons cited for replacing original drummer John Rutsey with Neil Peart is because Rutsey - a type 1 diabetic - could not possibly have kept up with the grueling tour schedule and pace of hard work that Geddy and Alex Lifeson were interested in, for health reasons. (How might music history have changed if Rutsey had had access to modern synthetic insulin at the time he was in the band!)

Of course, stories of Frank Zappa's work ethic are legendary. This is a man who, according to those who spent significant time with him, never stopped working. He was apparently "always writing," and of course he produced a catalogue of music that could only have been produced by a man who worked harder than anyone else. The number of albums he produced during his lifetime was well over 60, and on top of that he founded and ran his own record label and business to distribute his own music, produced films, became involved television and politics, and toured relentlessly.

I use the examples of Rush and Frank Zappa because they are arguably two of the last music acts that achieved their success without major record label funding. Perhaps Rush benefited from Canada's "Canadian content legislation," but no such thing can be said of Frank Zappa. Their success was gained for the most part through an unyielding tour schedule and a herculean creative output.

Compare that to the average artist today. The most ambitious of them release a few CDs, perhaps print some supporting merchandise (t-shirts and such), play a steady amount of local tours, and disband in a few years when it becomes obvious that they will not be signed to a major record label any time soon. They will film music videos for YouTube, sometimes run a small and not-so-grueling tour out of the back of a van, come home with many stories, but few new fans. But the hard work that was present in the early days of Rush or Zappa just isn't there. Sure, they think they're working hard, but measured in objective markers, there is no real comparison.

Part of this may be that music venues don't pay as much to live musicians anymore, and there are fewer such venues anyway. Without a doubt, the music market has changed, and the venues that traditionally offered live music acts can now meet the same need with a local DJ spinning the international hits over the PA system. But what have musicians done to respond to the changing musical dynamic?

This leads me to my next point...

Music Is No Longer About The Audience
Any casual glance at this year's (or last year's, or next year's) American Idol contestants will show you a group of people who want desperately to be stars. When you watch them perform, it is perfectly obvious that they are showcasing themselves, that they believe they have what it takes to be loved by everyone. They seek fame and adulation.

To some degree, music is always about fame and adulation in the sense that all musicians want the audience to love what they do. However, there is a big difference between wanting to do good work and wanting to be a star.

Today's musicians no longer think about what it takes to first draw, and second maintain, an audience. When they perform, few make direct eye contact with their fans. They are always complaining about the poor musical taste of the masses. They lament their low gig rates and poor turnout, but do nothing to address either of those problems. Aside from hanging a few posters and doing the rounds on various social networking websites, musicians don't work for their audience.

During a performance, virtually no modern musical act that I am aware of actually seeks to win the crowd over with performance antics and intra-song "routines." Frank Zappa, on the other hand, had countless ways to generate interest. He used to smash vegetables on stage, create an "audience participation segment" for every show, have "secret words" that he would use to prompt audience cheers, and so on. His band would also engage in routines - something like a short skit - between songs, often over the top of a simple, quiet musical accompaniment.

Take for example the gorilla routine that begins at 4:51 of the following video:

It's nothing major, but it is something that offers the audience a chance to see more than just a group of sweaty guys playing rock and roll. There is some care put into what the audience experiences. Even if an audience member isn't a fan of lengthy guitar solos, he or she still has something to see during that portion of the concert, even if it's just a guy in a gorilla suit acting goofy.

I repeat: such stage antics are not in the repertoire of the modern musical act. Modern musicians want simply to show up, do their thing, and receive praise. In the moment, the audience is the furthest thing from their minds. In the old days, though, musicians sought to offer entertainment that was audience-oriented.

These are only a few examples of how I feel that musicians themselves are bringing down the quality of modern music. There are certainly more. Does every problem with the music industry come down to the poor quality of the artists? Definitely not. Nonetheless, I feel that musicians are no longer pulling their own weight in the industry. Until they do, we can expect a continuing decline of music in general.


  1. I understand what you are saying here Ryan, but I think that you may be falling victim to your own narrowed music world.

    There are any number of musicians who tour relentlessly throughout the year. Just because they don't have big label backing, they don't get heard in top 40 radio.

    I would encourage you to check out Matthew Ebel. He's one of the hardest working musicians that I know of, and he's managed to make a pretty great living, even though very few people know who he is (relatively speaking).

    Besides him, just off the top of my head, there's the Fishtank Ensemble, Vagabond Opera, John Frusciante (before he joined back up with the Chili Peppers), Corinne Bailey Rae (before she went all Jazz, she had a rock band that toured heavily).

    In short, the Internet has caused a massive change in the way the industry operates. Music is no longer as big of a national shared experience. There are now hundreds of niches, and an artist is unlikely to break out of their smaller niche unless a major label decides to represent them. Unfortunately, labels only represent artists that have lowest common denominator appeal.

    There are lots of great musicians out there that are doing amazing things, working really hard - you just have to be proactive about finding them.

    1. I don't think what I'm saying is incompatible with what you're saying, Cory. A multitude of small, niche markets means less money and harder work. Sounds like a perfect case-study of what I've just described.

      I'm also incredibly surprised that you'd say my music world is narrow!

      Oh well...