The Race To Quality

Has turned most musicians into hobbyists.

I feel like I grew up in the dark ages. When getting a record deal was nearly impossible and if you did, especially if you were on Warner Brothers, you got reviews, airplay and consideration. In other words, we cared about novelty acts like Devo and the B-52s. They were sui generis, one of a kind. Now there are dozens of imitators, many good, few superlative.

And there comes the dilemma.

Most in music are myopic. They can see what is in front of them and not much more. They care about their music, which has a modicum of fans, they’re frustrated they can’t reach more, that they can’t make more money, the problem is Spotify or piracy or some other red herring when the truth is in a marketplace overrun with options, everyone races to quality. Or hits. Which may or may not be one and the same, but your best way to achieve a hit is to work with those of quality, which means if you turn down a chance to work with Max Martin, you want to be broke.

I’m not saying there’s not good music out there, but there’s little context. Unless it’s anointed, you may feel like you’re the only fan, and we live in a social world. In the pre-internet era you clung to the fringes to establish your identity, you were anti-hit. Today when you’re on the fringes you might as well be in the asteroid belt beyond Pluto, it’s cold and lonely, and unfulfilling.

But that does not mean people out there don’t yell. There’s a lot of yelling in music, but those who are not musicians, who are not living for it, tune out, and listen to the hits if they listen to anything at all.

That’s the problem in today’s music business, hit establishment, not getting paid. There’s a fiction that if everybody just paid for a subscription harmony would reign.

But look at television. If you’ve got time to watch everything, not only do you have no life, you’re lying. But the barrier to entry in music is so much lower that the tsunami of choice buries most listeners.

So now you know why the business people are so much more powerful than the artists. Because the business people last, and they have the power to make you successful. In the last decade you could have a viral hit, but today that’d be like finding your friend at Lollapalooza without a cellphone, good luck. The acts come and go, the business people remain. Except for a very thin layer of superstars.

So what does this mean?

Don’t expect to get rich making music. Don’t expect to even make a living. Blame the internet, but not piracy, apathy is a bigger problem.

The industry still operates by old rules. Which means get it on the radio. So those on the radio gain traction and everybody else is nearly ignored. Radio not only reaches many, it creates coherence for the listener.

Press is irrelevant unless there’s radio or other attendant success.

Those from my era lament the loss of that which did not hit radio yet was successful. But that was in an era of relative scarcity, you could know all the records, you could make sense of what was going on. But now every week there’s a new number one, many times heretofore unknown by many, which quickly slides off the chart and is replaced by another. It’s like every week there’s a new math, but no one in the industry is trying to make sense of it, for fear of losing out.

We need attention paid to even fewer records.

We need to promote them in areas other than radio.

We must prop up the winners and forget the losers.

Music is not America at large, there is no safety net, no guaranteed lunch. And as soon as we get rid of that fiction, the better off we’ll be.

Close the doors to the music business colleges. Stop reviewing so many records in print. Stop pointing fingers at everybody but yourself.

Either be a part of the problem or part of the solution.

Even better, lead or get out of the way.

P.S. I just listened to Apple Music’s “A-List: Indie” playlist. De Lux’s “LA Threshold” was really good. But unlike a classic radio hit, it didn’t grab me immediately, I had to listen for a while, which doesn’t undercut its quality, but its ability to succeed in an instant satiation, click-away world. Furthermore, I’ve never heard of this act before, who can I talk about it with? And is it so good that I want to hear it again? In this case, yes, but a lot of what was on the same playlist was not.

P.P.S. The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” is probably the best track on the playlist, the Weeknd made it, are you as good as he is? If not, don’t give up your day job.

P.P.P.S. Kacey Musgraves’s “Family Is Family” is positively B-level work, stuff we had time for in the seventies, but not today. That’s what’s confronting not only Ms. Musgraves, but Alabama Shakes and Mumford & Sons, attention is so focused, expectations so high, that if you don’t deliver something just as good as what made your rep…GOOD LUCK!

P.P.P.P.S. Have you ever heard of Bob Moses? Certainly not I. Wasn’t he a basketball player, or a jazzer? But his track “Talk” reminds you of the Beatles testing limits in 1966, only the Beatles were there first, so this is not a brand new sound, but it is very good, but how can it compete in a world where stuff is hyped ad infinitum, like Ms. Musgraves and Jamie xx.

P.P.P.P.P.S. I’ve already forgotten the cutesy track that reminded me of the B-52’s, intelligent and irreverent. Once upon a time we sought out Jonathan Richman because there was no one like him, he was the brave outlier, now there are a zillion Jonathan Richmans, none quite as good, none deserving our attention.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S. This is only one of a PLETHORA of playlists on Apple Music. No one can know everything, and the more you listen the more frustrated you get, you gain knowledge but you really just want to retreat to the ten tracks you need to hear, crossing all genres, so you can talk with intelligence, so you can feel plugged in. That’s right, too many music fans are now outsiders.

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