The Thinking Man's Take On: Transient Modern Music



I’ve talked to a lot of my music loving friends recently about transformations that are going on in music – a topic that I find completely fascinating.There are so many changes happening at such a rapid pace that it’s nearly impossible to keep up with where music is let alone where it’s going.But we know for sure it is going – CDs are nearly dead, digital formats are taking over, and vinyl is experiencing an oddly timed resurgence.Everything is all a-flutter.

But the shifts go beyond the physical media of music.They lie in the very essence of music – the way we experience it, interact with it, approach it and understand it.We no longer buy an album a month at the record store down the street.Our mindset and understanding of music has become warped, thrown in fast forward, and swirled around.But will it blend?Regardless, the eventual product is a radical shift in our perception and connection with the songs that soundtrack our lives – the permanence of music is irrevocably altered.

There have been drastic arguments that music has been de-legitimized as an art form.There have been brilliant classifications of music as a commodity; pay a monthly bill and it’s always at your fingertips.There are schools of thought that believe music is becoming more of a shared dialog – artists create, fans remix, share, mash-up, and re-create.All of these things are true, to varying extents, and are indicative that we live in hectic, dangerous, and often exciting times as music fans.

And when really studied, many of the metamorphoses being undergone by music are revealed as important, necessary, and long overdue.As distribution has quickly approached instantaneous, record companies have lagged six months behind.As production costs have decreased, consumer-facing prices have often inexplicably risen.And as millions predicted the upcoming demise of the music ‘industry’, people in positions to effect preemptive change did nothing.Whoops.

But there are some changes that come less on the heels of necessity and more out of our actions.Changes that are less welcome in my world.And number one on that list is the changing permanence of music.I’ve lamented the short cycles of music and music buzz on this site before, and the speed of that cycle has a profound effect on whether or not we remember music.And that permanence effects what music will survive the test of time.

I guess I’m really talking about two types of permanence here – the permanence of a song during a given year, and the permanence of specific bands across the years.Essentially, we’ve all but eliminated the permanence of songs in the short term.Think about how up you were on “My Girls” at the beginning of this year, or the new TV On The Radio album last year. And now what has happened?They’ve been shuffled to the side for newer, shinier songs and bands.Sure, you’ll revisit them once in a while and enjoy listening to them, but they probably won’t soundtrack your entire year the way they might have 40 years ago.

And those are just the good songs we’re talking about here.What about the bad ones?We are inundated with so much music from so many artists that if a song doesn’t catch you on the first or second listen, it’s probably off the radar within a week or two.Thousands of tracks are posted on thousands of blogs on a single day, and only a select few get noticed.And tomorrow?Lather, rinse, repeat.There’s transience for you.

As for the other time frame, the “who’s going to be playing on the ‘Oldies from the ‘00s’ radio station?” permanence, I have dire predictions.

Think about it this way: when my grandparents and parents were growing up, there were – and this is completely a ballpark guess with no factual basis – maybe 70 popular music artists at any given time?100? Max 150? It was a time when there were a few big names cranking out a ton of records, and few little names doing much else.And as a result, everyone from earlier generations has some musically shared experience – everyone listened to Frank Sinatra, Elvis, The Beatles or The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, etc.

Who is our Bob Dylan?Is it Kanye?Coldplay? Green Day?Eminem? Britney?Kris Allen? Nickelback?Daughtry? The thought of any/all of those names representing our time’s popular music to future generations gives me the willies.

My Dad recently gave me an article from the Philadelphia Inquirer that commented on older bands still on tour (often with replacement players).The opening paragraphs from the article describe an odd scene: “The slate of bands stopping in Philadelphia, Camden, and Atlantic City this year looks mostly the same as it did 25 years ago.Jimmy Buffett. Jackson Browne. Chicago. The Allman Brothers. Def Leppard is touring with Poison and Cheap Trick. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Eric Clapton is out with Steve Winwood. The Doobie Brothers. Peter Frampton. REO Speedwagon. Fleetwood Mac. Aerosmith.”

Are our current stars not better than old bands’ backup/replacement players?Isn’t this entire situation just totally bizarre? What happens when Mick Jagger kicks the bucket and goes to the great Castle in the Sky (or the Altamont down below)?When Jimmy Buffett has his last margarita and The Boss can’t dance in the dark anymore?25 years from now will Katy Perry and Lady GaGa be playing summer festivals? Will Jay-Z have a comeback tour at age 60?Will Coldplay be wooing middle-aged people in 2040?WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO SOULJA BOY???

We’ve taken our grandparents’ hundred artists and multiplied them by another hundred.In a given decade, thousands of artists launch, fail, find success, fade into oblivion, continue stardom, and briefly get some buzz in the blogosphere.We’ve created cozy niches for ourselves in music, a practice which I see as an instant gratification/delayed punishment situation.Because for now we can listen to exactly what we want to listen to, whenever we want.But in 30 years, when digital music is a joyless commodity and live shows are the only place to get good music from our generation, it will be The Lowest Common Denominator performing on stage.

Chris Barth writes a weekly Thinking Man feature here at Pretty Much Amazing. You can read his more succinct daily posts at his music blog, The Stu Reid Experiment.  He will buy tickets to see the Soulja Boy Comeback Tour in 2035.