The decline of creativity in the music industry


#1

I was listening deeply to some of my favorite trip hop artists last night (Tricky, Portishead, Massive Attack), and found myself thinking about some of the reasons why music has felt so blah for the last two decades, with very little genuinely surprising novelty breaking through the mainstream.

Because, as a 45-year old aging hipster cliche, it is my obligation to let everyone know why I think music sucks these days. The Boomers always said things like “music went to shit after John Lennon died.” Well, here’s my version, except I can also use quadrants in order to make my point :wink:

And to own my possible bias at the start — I also acknowledge that, as we get older, it can be harder to appreciate whatever new forms of novelty are there. Not because our tastes get crusty or set in stone or anything, but rather because by the time we make it to 45 years old, we become less and less interested in the perspectives of 18 year olds. But still, even after owning that, I think my observations have some merit here.

Bottom line: as usual, the internet ruined everything.

Both in terms of financial incentives — it’s much more difficult to make a good living as even a popular musician these days. But I think it also goes beyond those economic selection pressures.

There are also cultural selection pressures, as well as creative selection pressures. And all three of these — economic, cultural, creative — shape each other at every moment.

I notice that many/most of my favorite artists emerged within a particular scene. And those “scenes” were typically local, and reflective of the regional subculture. Whether it’s the grunge scene growing out of Seattle, or the trip hop scene coming out of Bristol, or something like Quannum Projects coming out of north California, or even the whole East Coast/West Coast hip hop rivalry — there was almost always a sense of location in this music, packed full of local idioms and idiosyncrasies, which allowed the music to actually “transport” you somewhere while listening.

Before the internet, the creativity basically flowed upward — from local scenes to national mainstream to global appreciation. This allowed the larger music culture to constantly shift and evolve, as new music from different locations get selected for national or global taste-making.

But of course, the internet changed all that. Both in terms of a general sense of location (which is why most of today’s music sounds generically “cosmopolitan”, like it was produced in an airport), but also in terms of the overall direction of the creative current. What was once a bottom-up creative novelty, now feels much more like a top-down homogeneity.

Also the fact that the actual technologies of music-making are more accessible to more people. Which is great, I love the democratization of art, but it also puts a lot more low-quality, high-quantity noise into the system, which is yet another reason why the overall complexity of song structure, lyricism, etc. has been declining for decades, and reinforces the music industry’s race toward the lowest common denominator. (Which is how we get things like the “millennial whoop” and other repetitive tropes.)

These music corporations, we should remember, loathe unpredictability, just like all other corporations, even while they thrive from novelty. They are intrinsically resistant to something like “local scenes” taking over the mainstream, as happened in the early 90s when Nirvana came out of nowhere to single-handedly change people’s tastes overnight. Record companies lost a ton of money they had invested in other artists, who suddenly no one cared about, and had to scramble in order to refit themselves to the surprising creative explosion that had just taken place.

So when Napster came around 10 years later and the internet completely gutted the music industry, it’s no surprise they de-emphasized bottom-up novelty and replaced it with a much more predictable top-down homogeneity. They no longer want to sell an album that says something unique and help find an audience for it, they want to sell a single to as many consumers as they possibly can through the new distribution networks the internet provides.

And for the most part, this is where we’ve been for the last two decades. Which isn’t to say we don’t still have good shit out there, we certainly do. But we’ve also seen no new genres, or even exciting new movements in already-existing genres.

Which is why I often gloat to Millenials and Zoomers that Gen X was the last generation to invent new genres — hip hop, punk, and electronic — while future generations only subdivided those into a thousand different subgenres :wink:

Anyway, just some thoughts, I’m sure there’s a lot more meat to pack on them bones.


#2

Sure there is lots of “noise” and expressive “racket” being put out by not very talented and weakly trained musicians, but also lots of amazing stuff. We have access to music from around the globe and across all genres, and also from all times.
When I was growing up we didn’t expect to “make a living” from music. We made some cash doing gigs but had no illusions that we were owed a good living except for the few that were other worldly exceptional.


#3

I am speaking more to the shape of the “mainstream”, which I continue to think is an important and fascinating surface current in pop culture, but undernourished by the industries that sustain it. I totally agree there’s still plenty of signal in the noise, and plenty of amazing music being made. That’s why I tried to sprinkle some caveats throughout these paragraphs. But again, I’m talking more about the mainstream itself, what floats to the top, what gets selected for by the largest number of people. The musical facet of the Pop Culture gem. The soundtrack to the American Tantra :slight_smile:

And it really comes down to depth vs. span. I also agree that these days we have nearly infinite span, in terms of the sheer quantity of sounds we have access to. But alongside that rapidly widening span, there is also a diminished appreciation for depth, especially as our music becomes more and more abstracted, and as prior curators and taste-makers (local radio djs, for example) have been replaced by standardized playlists and impersonal algorithms.

The “album”, for example, which I consider to be one of the most significant and distinct 20th-century art forms, continues to change every time the technology changes, becoming less physical and more subtle. From vinyl records, to cassette tapes, to CDs, to digital mp3s with no physical “location”, the medium changes our experience of/relationship with the music at every step. Even the experience of obtaining the music — the difference between going to a store, digging through the stacks, finding what you’re looking for or being surprise by something you weren’t — was very different than simply streaming or downloading a song on your phone. The technology influences how we think about albums, which influences how future albums are made.

As music becomes increasingly more accessible, it tends to simultaneously become less valuable — economically, culturally, and even personally. Sorting through a music collection on a phone is a radically different experience than sorting through a record collection, and that itself influences how we listen. Hell, these days fewer and fewer people relate to having a “music collection” at all. These are the days of Spotify, where we stream everything and own nothing.

The music becomes further removed from us, less tactile, less personal. I can remember that summer evening in '97 when I bought Hello Nasty by the Beastie Boys. I can remember the absolutely insane night in high school when I bought, listened to, and then lost The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails. But I have no memory of downloading any of their most recent albums.

I’m not sure how old you are, but am guessing older than me or around the same age, and therefore have spent part of your life in the analogue world and one in the digital world – and therefore in a unique position to appreciate the virtues of the new, as well as what gets lost when we move beyond the old.

If anything, it’s a deeply conservative argument — especially considering my observations about a healthier pop culture resulting from botom-up, local-to-global creative currents, rather than top-down global-to-local homogenization :wink:

And beyond these sorts of nostalgia-tinted views, there’s also the very real economics of the music industry itself, as well as the wider consequences of the internet, and how they influence our cultural pressures and processes of selection. Which is really my major point here.

I also often think about how access to technology changes our actual 1st-person creativity, as well as our outlets for expressing that creativity. Creativity is being democratized, which again, is awesome, and am obviously in full support of that. But it changes things. There are more plentiful and immediate places for that creativity to go, offering more instant gratification in the form of social credit. YouTube, for example. Which is one of several reasons why we see fewer and fewer people buying guitars, I reckon.


#4

We could look at our music selection process as a normalization of culture, which isnt always negative.
Christmas caroling in the neighborhood with a rendition of Silent Night provides something entirely different than a new Rap song on getting revenge against a rival gang for injustices.
Of these two songs, clearly Silent Night would be Conservative with the Rap song as Progessive. We might look at Silent Night as Exterior Collective with Internal soothing. Would Silent Night be considered Amber Literal Mythic and perhaps Ethnocentric?
In our Existential Crisis of Meaning can music be a force to bring us together? Or perhaps its best to poke at our Interior Individual dark spaces?


#5

#6

Still enjoying the Hu! Thanks for sharing.


#7

That’s a really interesting article.

I also thought I’d mention this study, which tracks the complexity of instrumentation over the decades:

“Listening habits are strongly influenced by two opposing aspects, the desire for variety and the demand for uniformity in music. In this work we quantify these two notions in terms of instrumentation and production technologies that are typically involved in crafting popular music. We assign an ‘instrumentational complexity value’ to each music style. Styles of low instrumentational complexity tend to have generic instrumentations that can also be found in many other styles. Styles of high complexity, on the other hand, are characterized by a large variety of instruments that can only be found in a small number of other styles. To model these results we propose a simple stochastic model that explicitly takes the capabilities of artists into account. We find empirical evidence that individual styles show dramatic changes in their instrumentational complexity over the last fifty years. ‘New wave’ or ‘disco’ quickly climbed towards higher complexity in the 70s and fell back to low complexity levels shortly afterwards, whereas styles like ‘folk rock’ remained at constant high instrumentational complexity levels. We show that changes in the instrumentational complexity of a style are related to its number of sales and to the number of artists contributing to that style. As a style attracts a growing number of artists, its instrumentational variety usually increases. At the same time the instrumentational uniformity of a style decreases, i.e. a unique stylistic and increasingly complex expression pattern emerges. In contrast, album sales of a given style typically increase with decreasing instrumentational complexity. This can be interpreted as music becoming increasingly formulaic in terms of instrumentation once commercial or mainstream success sets in.


#8

And let’s make sure we are being very clear here — there are also regressive/transgressive Christmas carols (Baby It’s Cold Outside), and there are deeply spiritual hip hop tracks. I don’t think we can really ever say “this genre is an expression of this altitude”. Heavy metal music, for example, which many people think of as being “red”, is often loaded with late-orange or even green lyrical content.

However, there are exceptions. “Traditional” music — things like Christmas carols, or She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain, stuff like that — can often times be easily enacted as “amber”. But no, that doesn’t make it “ethnocentric” (I can’t think of many exclusionary Christmas carols, for example, unless the performer is really adding a lot of weight to the line “I’m dreaming of a WHITE Christmas…”).

In our Existential Crisis of Meaning can music be a force to bring us together?

I think music has always had that power :slight_smile: I’ve always loved Walter Savage Landor’s quote:

“Music is God’s gift to man, the only art of Heaven given to earth, the only art of earth we take to Heaven.”


#9

“Baby it’s cold outside” being assessed as “regressive” would appear to be an in appropriately literal interpretation. Literally, as you’ve done, you could claim it’s “Fear” based. Yet if you listen to the song it’s clearly playful banter between both the male and female leads, regardless of how sings it. The playful banter IS the essence of the song, yet your literal interpretation completely misses the essence.

Meanwhile claiming that some HipHop is “deeply spiritual”, I’m sure is technically correct in that there is some HipHop that transforms lives. Just how much HipHop would fall into your “deeply spiritual” assessment?

Is this one of those “framing” examples you’ve referred so often to introducing? A teaching moment for myself perhaps?


#10

I’m starting to feel like you are always looking for an excuse to disagree with me :slight_smile:

It’s not a claim, it’s verifiable reality :slight_smile: And I am speaking to the actual content of the hip hop songs, not just its secondary effects like “transforming lives”. Hip hop, like many/most other genres, can come from anywhere on the developmental spiral, and can be expressive of any number of states — spiritual states, emotional states, etc. Not too surprising, that art will reflect the kosmic address of the artist.

Here is a sampling from one of my all time favorite artists, Blackalicious, doing some gorgeous spiritually-infused hip hop.

Some other “conscious” hip hop artists you may enjoy:

Saul Williams
Latryx
Mos Def
Zion I
DJ Shadow
Lupe Fiasco

And really, should it be at all surprising that yet another art form that originated with African Americans would be so capable of transmuting pain into astonishing beauty and meaning, just as we saw with Jazz, Blues, Gospel, R&B, Soul, and so forth?


#11

What makes your interpretation more “appropriate” than mine? It’s a song that, if anything, has become known as fairly inappropriate when it comes to the whole concept of consent :slight_smile:

“Say what’s in this drink? No cabs to be had out there” — Yikes. Surely in the age of Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein, you can see why lyrics like that might make some people uncomfortable.

I don’t have a whole lot of emotional investment in the issue myself, but it turns out the song has always been controversial since it was first released. Turns out it made Amber folks very uncomfortable back in the day :wink:


#12

My concern is with your harsh and seemingly arbitrary application of literal interpretation, which you know very well completely misses the essence of “Baby it’s Cold Outside”.

And I’m happy you’ve found “deeply spiritual” Hip Hop. I think you can find deeply spiritual anywhere you want to find it.

What percentage of Hip Hop would you consider as “deeply spiritual”?

McWorther and Peterson have some interesting thoughts on Music somewhat similar to your Complexity vs Familiarity paper. “All art aspires to the condition of music.” Music is immune to rational criticism.


#13

Why do you keep putting “deeply spiritual” in scare quotes?

It is undeniably deep spiritual lyricism. Literally describing subtle, causal, and nondual states, as well as the effortless effort that arises from them.

What’s the percentage? Who knows, I have absolutely no way to make an assessment such as that. I’m guessing it would be a very similar percentage of the total population who is capable of having and describing the same sorts of state experiences. Low quantity, high quality. Massive depth, much less span. Exactly the dynamics I am exploring in my paragraphs above.

“your harsh and seemingly arbitrary application of literal interpretation,”

I mean, reading the lyrics, taking them at face value, and noticing how our moral standards have changed over time is hardly “arbitrary”. I wonder if you are holding hip hop songs to the same standard, looking past the surface features to find the inner spirit of the song?


#14

This is exactly my point. You completely and seemingly intentionally dodged the essence of “Baby it’s cold outside” by choosing to apply your oft used Literal Analysis technique. Odd that you’re jiggy with intentionally misinterpreting a song but if it works for you, stick with it.

I listened to your first clip of Blackalicious and found it complex with multiple simultaneous hopper lines. Something that would require headphones and some concentration to look past the clearly ethnocentric surface of the band’s name.

I’ve never said Hip Hop is not nor cannot be deeply spiritual. It’s not a genre that calls to me, so that’s why I asked “how much of Hip Hop is deeply spiritual”?

But I am more intrigued simply because you’re very complimentary of it.

Do you think Hip Hop might perhaps be one of the more “rational” genres?


#15

I mean, I would never, ever, ever say I was “jiggy” with anything, but whatever. :wink:

And again, I really don’t think I am “intentionally misinterpreting” anything — the song is plainly about a man “playfully” pressuring a woman into sex. Yes, it was playful — according to the standards of the time, which have since changed. Maybe the idea that those standards have changed makes you uncomfortable, but change they have. And really, even by the standards of the time, it was already controversial, as mentioned in the article above. Turns out it was making the Amber fuddy-duddies furrow their eyebrows back then, just as much as it is for woke fuddy-duddies today.

Again, I am not nearly as emotionally invested in that song as you seem to be, so you do you. But if a woman says “that song is actually kinda fucked up,” I’d be prone to agree :slight_smile:

I mean, it’s just as ethnocentric as me going to the Polish Falcons of America with my family back in the day. In other words, it’s not ethnocentric in a bigoted sense, but rather an expression of a particular process of identity formation. Simply stating one’s ethnicity is not itself “ethnocentric” in a derogatory sense (though we could say it’s “ethnocentric” in a neutral sense, describing that overall sequence of ego-centric -> ethnocentric -> worldcentric.) Would it be as off-putting if they were called “Germanlicious”?

“Do you think Hip Hop might perhaps be one of the more “rational” genres?”

Again, I don’t think many genres can be pegged to a particular stage of development, in terms of content.

However, I do think that different stages of development can produce new genres. The orange industrial stage produced electric guitars. But that doesn’t make Rock music an “orange genre.” Hip hop was born on the one hand from repurposing record players as musical instruments and using samples in order to create a sonic pastiche, mosaic, or collage — and on the other hand from the god-given voice that all human beings are born with. The former is a somewhat postmodern use of a listening device as sort of meta-instrument, while the latter could even be described as a modern universal synthesis of voice, rhythm, and poetry. I could also describe hip hop as a whole as being somewhat “proto-integral” in that it tries to pull together and synthesize multiple genres, and became one of the world’s first multi-genre or even trans-genre musical cultures (we now see hip hop on every continent, performed by every imaginable ethnic and cultural combination, from India to Japan to Pakistan to Argentina to Libya and beyond).

Blackalicious is actually a perfect artist to explore this with. Their album, Nia, is one of my all-time favorite albums from any genre. A real desert-island album for me. And what I particularly love about it, is that the themes shift seamlessly from ego-centric (“battle lyrics”) to ethnocentric (a form of healthy afro-centrism) to worldcentric (universal love + social and systemic issues) to kosmocentric (describing and transmitting 1st-person states of spiritual experience).

And all of this is woven together on a single album, which I find absolutely extraordinary. Some parts are for me, some parts are not for me, some parts are for everybody, and some parts get us out of the whole identity game altogether. That’s about as “integral” as it gets, I think — not just honing in on a particular wavelength, but including the full spectrum of our incarnation. Such a perfect, wise, and incredibly fun album, beginning to end.

And all these multiple stages are bookended by the following pieces of mystical poetry, a gorgeous integration of masculine and feminine, as if the songs are self-emerging and self-liberating across the empty expanse of witness consciousness:

Searching

Finding

All of which is to say, no, I wouldn’t describe hip hop as itself being a “rational” genre, because right from its inception in New York in the late 1970s it has been populated with egocentric, ethnocentric, and worldcentric content. Which is why I simultaneously do consider it to be a “universal donor” kind of art form, one that can be participated in by anyone, regardless of their kosmic address, and one that relentlessly seeks to integrate just about every musical influence it can find.


#16

If I’m reading you correctly, you’re applying your moral values in this moment very literally to a song written in the 40’s. You then equate playful banter to Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein drugging their rape victims. Wow Corey, you’re one harsh judgemental dude.

Ah, but wait, I just found your #MeToo controversy sources Noosphere Bruhaha. So this is akin to your walk through Conservatives to Christianity to Amber Literal Mythic into softly defined Ethnocentricity into (lower case) white nationalists into racists into Qanon into Nazi’s. Did I miss any steps along the way?

Interesting modus operandi. Seems like a bit of “bad faith” dialog Corey.


#17

And speaking personally, my own relationship with hip hop has been deeply integrative.

One of my major artistic vehicles of self-expression in my life was when I decided to purchase a couple turntables and a mixer back in the early 00’s, as my obsessive love of music hit a sort of tipping point. I found myself spending all my spare time making mix tapes for people — so carefully curated, almost making new “concept albums” from my vast music library, trying to integrate the songs I loved so much into some kind of larger whole.

And it got to the point where I was so fixated on curating these mixes, and then giving the tapes to other people, I finally said to myself, “why don’t I do this in real time?” It hit me like a revelation, and I went out the next day to purchase my first turntable.

So for me, becoming a “trans-genre hip hop dj” was a way to use this instrument — two turntables and a mixer — as a sort of crucible, a melting pot where I could bring all my disparate tastes together, and try to create some more joy in people’s lives. (Also so I could go to parties and have fun without ever needing to actually talk to anybody.) And hip hop was basically the overarching musical idiom I used to mix anything and everything I want together, from rap to rock to new wave to electronic, downtempo, swing, etc. It’s a genre that transcends genre, if you want it to, and that’s one of the major reasons I fell in love with it.


#18

What’s “bad faith”, I think, is you fixating on this point, arguing straw men, and ignoring the vast majority of everything else I am communicating to you. It’s why I said I feel like you are often looking for excuses to disagree with me.

Yes, I am applying today’s morals to yesterday’s art. I described it as a regressive/transgressive song, by today’s standards. I repeatedly said it’s an opportunity to observe our changing moral codes, which is why I said “in the age of Cosby and Weinstein”, while pointing to a line that literally says “what’s in my drink?”. And I even pointed out that the song was even controversial back then in the 1940s, by the same Amber crowd that likes classic songs like Silent Night (which I find to be the most beautiful of the carols).

Because we are talking about how music gets selected for by culture. When it gets selected for long enough — and continues to be inoffensive to the prevailing moral sentiments of the time — it becomes a cliche, like Silent Night or Jingle Bells, for example. But if it has content that becomes offensive — or in this case, a song that was already a bit provocative when it was originally released — that song no longer gets selected for by culture. Just like Disney’s Song of the South, or any number of other art works. This is the entire point I’ve been trying to make.

In 1963, the Beatles sang “she’s just seventeen, if you know what I mean”. It was seen as provocative, but not really transgressive. McCartney was only 20 or 21 years old when he wrote it, after all.

In 1988, Winger sang “She’s only seventeen”. By that point, it already started to feel kinda icky. But culture still allowed it, and even today it’s still seen as a glam-rock staple.

Today, people see both lyrics as transgressive and kinda gross. And for good reason — our moral standards have changed. I for one think that’s a good thing. Does that mean I won’t listen to “I Saw Her Standing There” when I play the first Beatles record? Nope, it’s still a great song. But I can definitely notice the shifting standards of culture since it was first released, and how that influences the way we enact the song today. One of the reasons that art is never inert, but forever alive, and often gets reenacted very differently from generation to generation, while giving us insight into the interiors of previous generations.

I also still listen to Michael Jackson, by the way. I can’t watch Kevin Spacey movies though, the ick factor is simply too high. Which is an interesting conversation in itself — why we hold artists to different moral standards, depending on the kind of art they make. I think we are most judgmental of actors, because it’s harder to separate their person from their on-screen persona.

So, yeah. The song you seem so insistent on defending no longer fits the moral standards of a culture that has chosen to emphasize consent in sexual relationships, and no longer thinks that trying to pressure a woman to have sex with him is appropriate or “playful”. Which I think is probably a very good thing. Does it go too far? Absolutely it does, and I’ve talked about that many times. But our morality does indeed change over time, and what was once conventional or even progressive, eventually becomes regressive, and that’s not always a bad thing.

But I think you know that’s the point I’ve been trying to make this entire time.

In the end, it’s just a silly, trivial song that I’ve always found obnoxious. Not sure how you got so worked up about it. As you say:

“We could look at our music selection process as a normalization of culture, which isnt always negative.”


#19

It’s so odd to me that you would write a paragraph like that, and then accuse me of bad faith in your next breath.


#20

Let’s actually take a look at the bad faith frame you offered, which promoted this entire discussion.

“Christmas caroling in the neighborhood with a rendition of Silent Night provides something entirely different than a new Rap song on getting revenge against a rival gang for injustices.
Of these two songs, clearly Silent Night would be Conservative with the Rap song as Progessive.”

So “clearly” what you describe as “conservative music” like Christmas carols are, by definition, pure and spiritual. While what you describe as “progressive” music like rap music is by definition coarse and violent. Nice framing there.

By the way, Ted Nugent sang this:

“Well, I don’t care if you’re just thirteen
You look too good to be true
I just know that you’re probably clean
There’s one little thing I got do to you”

That is clearly “conservative music”, right? Or am I trying to cherry pick the worst possible example of “conservative music”, which I will then compare to, I don’t know, let’s say “All You Need Is Love” by The Beatles, in order to make it sound like I’ve scored a political point? Let’s give it a try.

Of these two songs, clearly Jailbait by Ted Nugent would be conservative, with the Beatles song as Progressive.

Ah, I can see why you used this tactic :wink:

And then I pointed out, “well there are some fucked up ‘conservative’ carols that are regressive by today’s standards, and some deeply spiritual ‘progressive’ hip hop on the other side”.

This point seemed to annoy you. You became hyper defensive of a cringey Christmas carol from the 1940s, and dismissive of the idea that a music like hip hop could be seen as spiritual. How can I tell you were being dismissive? You said it right in this sentence:

“Meanwhile claiming that some HipHop is 'deeply spiritual”, I’m sure is technically correct in that there is some HipHop that transforms lives.”

Can you see the dismissal? “I’m sure is technically correct”, within your own purposely narrowed definition of the word.

So, to summarize, in this thread about music, you:

a) decided to twist it into a partisan left vs. right conversation,

b) got weirdly defensive and fixated on a trivial Christmas carol, resulting in numerous accusations about my interiors and my motives,

c) ignored the multiple other paragraphs I spent time writing, in good faith, in order to better communicate my views and enactment of art,

d) tried to engage in silly win-lose debate with me at every step.

And then, after all that, you accused me of bad faith.

Again, I ask you, are you capable of having a conversation without twisting it into a narrow ideological debate? Can you tolerate people disagreeing with you without resorting to unfounded accusations about their interiors? Can you engage in healthy discourse with others in this community, or are you committed only to win-lose debate in order to let people know how wrong you think they are?