Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Death of Pop Music?

I haven't posted here in a long time, but an article I read in Digital Music News about a panel at Digital Music Forum East seemed to beg for a response. Apparently an NPD analyst was complaining - I wasn't there, so this could be out of context - that the record labels had done all kinds of things to lure customers back to paying for music, all to no avail.

It got me thinking about my lifelong love affair with pop music, and how, when I stopped working for record labels several years ago, I would explain to friends, "I didn't leave the music business, the music business left me."

More to the point, it may be time to accept the fact that the pop music era - defined as the commercialization of short form songwriting, a historic aberration that lasted for the better part of the 20th century - is in decline. I say 'aberration' because music had for centuries been funded by wealthy patrons before the more recent practice of selling directly to consumers.

The pop music era started with ragtime and the player piano roll, evolved with composers like Gilbert & Sullivan and George Gershwin, and flourished with the advent of broadcast radio which popularized recording artists during WWII. Pop music reached its creative zenith in the 60s through 80s (a completely subjective analysis, I'll grant you), and hit its commercial peak in 2000 when the inflated returns from CDs masked the creative stagnation underneath. (Again, 'stagnation' may be too strong a term, but I think digital recording tools removed all barriers to entry, effectively diluting the market with mediocre artistry; a separate post, I suppose). Napster's disintermediation and Apple's unbundling of the album hastened the collapse of concentrated/controlled music distribution - the engine of economic rents for decades.

Fast forward 10 years and we have an explosion of personal entertainment substitutes: videogames, social media, mobile, tablets. Not only have the devices taken center stage, but the content pumped through them has evolved. The zeitgeist has moved on. Have you seen the latest ads for Chevy's Cruze? They're personalizing the automobile not with a killer sound system, but with functionality that allows you to get your Facebook updates read to you while you drive.

The revolution will definitely be monetized.

Need more evidence? A Wilkofksy Gruen Associates study showed that between 2000 and 2005, leisure hours spent consuming music dropped a precipitous 37%, while videogame and internet consumption increased 30% and 20%, respectively. The study did not take into account multi-tasking - arguably the prime mode of consumption these days - but what can you say of an art form that is best enjoyed "in the background" while engaging in more compelling activities like posting status updates or slaying digital dragons?

It's not that there isn't plenty of great music being made. It just isn't as central to the culture as it was in 1969. Each artistic movement, be it Gothic cathedrals or American Primitives, has an arc of popularity that eventually diminishes.

Blaming the consumer is not the answer. That's like getting angry that municipalities stopped commissioning public statues. Or lamenting that folks stopped buying Scott Joplin piano rolls. It's time to iterate. Innovate., who knows a thing or two about reinvention, talks about digital entrepreneurs being the artists of tomorrow. What he's describing is simply a new form of creativity.

It's not that we should stop making music - I still sit down at the piano and bang out tunes all the time. But if you want to make money doing something you love, it may be time to find a new muse.