“And where do we go from here?” -David Essex, ‘Rock On’
[Forgive my faulty recollection; my memory is neither eidetic nor iTunic]:
In the faraway times of my misspent youth, it seemed almost everyone listened to AM radio. Music of many genres crowded for attention and almost everybody had the same tunes jangling in their heads. Top Forty was the medium, and any type of song could make it up there as long as it was good (for a given value of good), or somebody paid enough money to get it started – novelty songs, country and western, lounge, rock and roll, doo-wop, ballads, story songs, etc. Even the bossa nova, for God’s sake.
I don’t want to suggest that this was a better time…there was mob control of record companies and radio stations and there was payola (St. Francis of Paola is my favorite saint), and musicians got screwed. But there was a panoply of musical styles and everybody was in the same musical environment. There was a homogeneity to the culture, for good or ill, that kept us all stirred together. We hummed the same tunes. It was a melting pot, as they say, instead of a salad, although the contents could stay lumpy and might burn your ears.
Then came FM, and my generation took to album rock, and things began to specialize. However, the coolest radio station was still the medium of choice. In my teen years the thing was Album Rock: King Biscuit Flower Hour, whole sides of bands like Pink Floyd and Led Zep. The DJs talked really softly and were the embodiment of hip. But even then, within my subculture, we were all listening to the same thing. The radio was still singing that siren song, even if fewer people were piling up on the rocks, and in separate clumps.
And then the interwebs and satellite radio happened, and things began to schism and splinter and fall apart. There are probably now more musical subgenres and channels than there are people to listen to them. And the freedom for each of us to choose exactly what we want to hear has to some extent fragmented our society. I’m not some Huxleyan saying that people should all be humming the same tunes and marching in lockstep, but I am saying that when people share music, we have more commonality. Now we put in our ear buds and tune into our own private musical Idahoes. No wonder we seem to be each of us adrift in a tiny lifeboat, in danger not of running aground but of running amuck.
The record companies are in deep copro, as one of Terry Pratchett’s trolls would say. They rely on a few heavies like Billy Joel to try to keep their tenuous hold on our money and attention, and they are failing miserably. Not that this is a bad thing, at least for musicians. Douglas Adams wrote a while back about a band that could have been the next Beatles, but didn’t pursue it because they had better legal advice.
So we rely, or us old guys do, on a base of music that came out in our salad days (or at least back when MTV played music), spiced with the odd internet find or something we got by word of mouth (and so much of music is transferred by word of mouth these days).
Finally there is the viral video, perhaps the only thing left that ties us together. Even if it’s crap, at least it’s reasonably honest in its popularity, unlike the somewhat manufactured hits back when they were stoking the star-maker machinery behind the popular songs. Everybody knows it. Its hands are clean (except for maybe something like Chocolate Rain).
And last, if a musician can get funding for production and find people who will buy his music, he may finally be able to lay claim to a decent portion of the money he earns. Eat it, RIAA.