Are we shooting too low?
Once upon a time music dominated the conversation, it does not today.
Could it be that the labels are too insular, the artists without dreams, have we sacrificed the track to branding and sponsorship and that which has nothing to do with music?
There’s only been one worldwide dominant track since last summer, and that’s Pharrell’s “Happy.”
An interesting case, because most people still have no idea who Pharrell is, other than the guy who wore the hat at the Oscars. Where’d he grow up? Who is he dating? Who are his sponsors? Pharrell seems to be doing it all wrong, yet he’s the only one who did it right, he’s the only one who created a worldwide dominant hit, with staying power, one that penetrated all cultures. That’s the power of music. That’s the power of the track.
Furthermore, “Happy” did not fit the format, it did not sound like everything else on Top Forty radio, rather than sounding me-too, it sounded fresh. The public wants new and different, people don’t care about Windows XP, but in the music business we’ve been executing variations on the paradigm for far too long. We’ve got the usual suspects honing material to play within our tightly controlled game, and as a result most people just don’t care, which leaves money and social impact on the table.
Now “Happy” didn’t happen overnight. It was featured in “Despicable Me 2″ last summer, but wasn’t available as a single until late fall. Proving that everything meant to last takes time to get there.
Kind of like “Gone Girl.” It’s still penetrating society years later. Eventually the film will make the book a household item. That’s how it happens in the twenty first century, that which arrives instantly, with a lot of hoopla, rarely lasts. However, let’s be honest, that which lasts usually has marketing help, as did “Happy” with “Despicable Me 2.”
But let’s return to the sixties, when the Beatles and the British Invasion dominated not only the airwaves, but public consciousness.
And then in the seventies the FM radio format became dominant, and stars extended their tentacles into popular culture.
And then in the 80s, that juggernaut known as MTV had the whole world watching.
But in the twenty first century, when everybody in the world can be reached for free music is quite often an artistic stepchild, relegated to television competition shows, something used to sell something else, while so many of its makers can’t stop complaining that the game has changed. We hear about Spotify more than most individual artists. Is it because Spotify tests limits and captures the popular zeitgeist in a way new music does not?
Look at the Tom Petty hype. Without a dominant track, it’s speaking to the already converted.
And Weird Al made a splash, but it’s about novelty much more than music. There’s no original track to get people to turn their heads.
But there could be.
If only artists and labels stopped playing by the rules.
Because there’s really only one rule. That which travels is always an instant listen that grows on people over time. Are we shooting for this target? I’d say no.
Yes, we want singles. But do they have to sound like every other single? Even Taylor Swift… An original as a country artist, she worked with the hitmakers of the day to release the entirely forgettable “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” When our biggest artist blinks, we know we’re in trouble.
Yes, Ms. Swift is more notable for her dating travails than she is for her music, at least by the general public, how do we flip this switch?
By realizing that artists are not like businessmen. That music is not the tech game. That artists do it different.
Pharrell was not young and shiny, he’s far from Justin Bieber.
Yet the conceit is tweens drive the market so we should market to them.
And too many acts want us to get down into the pit they’re in, they don’t entice us. Let me see, you’ve got a mediocre voice with little to say but you’re king of your genre so the rest of us should care?
I challenge artists to create world dominating music that does not depend upon endless hype to get people to pay attention as they would to a wreck on the freeway.
It’s possible. We’ve got more tools at our disposal than ever before.
But we’re blinking, we’re punting.
Malcolm Gladwell creates a whole new non-fiction genre, he popularizes the 10,000 hour rule, but in music all we’ve got is drum machines and auto-tuned vocals with young people singing the most banal lyrics possible.
Sure, it might be profitable.
But you really want to get rich? Make something everyone can consume. And if you think this means dumbing down, you’ve never heard of the Beatles.