Does Todays Music Suck?

Nostalgia Goggles

I am often asked the question, “why does it seem like there is less good music these days?”, and the answer is a complicated one. There are a multitude of factors about why there is less good music today, but also why there can still be good music. Often times I ask the person asking me this question if they ever seen the movie “Midnight In Paris”. It’s a Woody Allen movie from a few years ago, that stars Owen Wilson as a man vacationing in Paris with his wife/fiancé/girlfriend. I’m a little hazy on some of the fine details of the movie, but the big idea behind this movie is that Owen Wilson’s character is a struggling artist who frequently, throughout the beginning of the movie, bemoans about being born in the wrong decade. After mulling about in Paris while constantly whining, as you would expect he would in a Woody Allen movie, Owen Wilson’s character then discovers a way to time travel through different decades and hang out in the Paris art scene. Through his time travel, he meets many different artists and creative types like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso, Hemingway, and others. The overall message that each and every character from the different decades conveys is that the current decade sucks, and the scene was way better 30 years ago because nothing bad came out of that era. My point in bringing up this movie is that we all (myself included) may romanticize different eras, and the music/art that came out of it.

I have often had the feeling that I would have been best suited to be a musician in the 60’s. I still firmly believe that some of the best non-classical music ever written came out of that era. Everyone knows The Beatles and The Stones were absolutely dominating the pop culture world at that time, and producing some of finest rock music ever written. Along with those two bands, as well as the rest of the 60’s rock music scene being timeless, Jazz was also at its’ height. Miles Davis gave birth to at least two new genres of Jazz, and was discovering some of the finest musicians in the world to play in his band. John Coltrane was expanding his palette constantly, and pushing himself in multiple directions. There really wasn’t a bad Coltrane record from ’60-’65 (though his avant-garde era is debatable). Jazz record sales were at their highest in the 60’s, and the genre was expanding artistically. I look at this era and absolutely revere it, and I frequently play a lot of the music from the aforementioned musicians for inspiration.

Let’s look at the top 40 chart from 1967:

1967

1967

And the top 40 chart from 2013:

2013

2013

There are definitely some classic time-tested songs on the 1967 list, but then there are also some songs that should be forgotten. I’m quite honestly shocked that the Lulu song is number 1. I actually had to go and listen to it, and quite frankly it’s really not that great of a song, but it sold for some reason. Now if you compare the quality of the songs from 1967 to 2013, there is undoubtedly a wider selection of better songs on the 1967 list. However, and I may be contradicting myself here, the point is that there was also shitty music that was popular in 1967 as well. Not everything that comes out of an era is timeless music.

Technology And Editing

A more obvious distinction between the two different decades is the technology. Recording and live sound equipment today is VASTLY different compared to the technology of the 1960’s. Today I have 100 times more technology and recording capability in my bedroom, than The Beatles had at Abbey Road. In modern studios, musicians today are afforded multitudes of tracks, ProTools editing capability, high definition monitoring, virtual instruments that sound incredibly realistic, and the top digital converters. Hell, a lot of successful musicians even have this equipment in their garage. This all sounds spectacular, doesn’t it? The creative possibilities are endless right?

In my opinion, the endless technological possibilities are not great for creativity. An artist friend once told me that he would rather have six paints and four brushes, than 300 paints and 250 brushes, because you spend more time concentrating on the perfect color and stroke than you actually spend on the painting itself. This idea perfectly translates to modern music creation as well. I’ve even come across this issue myself multiple times. I search and search for that perfect instrument, rather than actually just finding something that works, putting it down, and making great music. I realize that this may all sound ridiculous, because finding perfection can take time, and if you can afford the time do it, right? If you believe this concept, please go listen to “Chinese Democracy” by Guns’ N Roses, and research the recording process of this record.

As I stated earlier, ProTools’ editing capabilities have allowed musicians to increasingly painstakingly edit performances. It’s not always a bad thing to be able to edit a performance in my opinion, because if you get an otherwise great vocal recording, but perhaps the singer hits a flat note at the end, you can fix it if you think that it will salvage or improve the track. The bottom line here is that the performance must be great, otherwise it’s not worth fixing in my opinion. I fear however that many musicians today use this editing capability as a crutch to fix or hide poor performances, which is a shame, or they just plain can’t cut it talent wise without it.

Today’s editing capabilities have also taken a lot of soul away from music, thus cutting off an emotional connection. Call me old fashioned here, but I’d still rather hear a singer give an emotionally gripping performance with some slight tuning issues, rather than a cold sterile performance that hits every note. Tuning issues were frequent in the decades before ProTools arrived, and therefore artists had to rely on talent and emotionally gripping performances instead, because that is what drew the listener in. It is what still draws listeners in to the classics. Take a listen to Marvin Gaye’s soloed vocal track of “Heard It Through the Grapevine”. There are very, very small tuning issues, but does it really bother you in the raw original track? Hopefully not, because it his raw vocal soul that should draw you in.

Now compare that to this unedited Britney Spears track. When this track was leaked, it was surrounded in controversy, and I will also say that it was an extremely unprofessional thing to leak by whoever did it. The producer did come back and state that this was only a warm-up track for her, and that it should be taken as such. Most singers don’t sound great on their first track without a warm-up, and I’d be willing to bet that Marvin Gaye warmed up at least a little before recording the above posted track. However the point of posting this is to show you the vast difference between the two singers. I’ll give Britney a break if this is really a warm-up track, but you can obviously tell the difference between the two tracks.

Now if we’re editing everything today in ProTools, and the music is still selling, what does it matter right? Again, I ask that you reference the top 40 charts from above, and tell me how many songs from 1967 are still with you, compared with anything from 2013. I know that 2013 was just last year, and that we have not yet allowed history to take its course, but really think about how many songs from 2013 will really stand the test of time and stick with you. I personally have a hard time thinking of many that will stick with me.

Paint By Numbers

Aside from singers being overly edited, it’s obvious that songs are also not as well written as they once were, and we’re heading down a road of paint-by-numbers lowest common denominator music. I’m sure that everyone is aware of this, but the music industry today is completely different than it was back in the 60’s. Today musicians are expected to produce a top selling album on their first effort, rather than being allowed time to develop creatively as artists or being seen as a long term commitment by the label. As I stated in my earlier essay, music is a long-term maturation process, and some of these labels really could spend more time developing these musicians, but they do not have the financial wiggle room to do so anymore. This is why you see more of the canned EDM genre taking a strong hold on the music business. I’m sure there are EDM flops out there, but in general EDM is easily replicated from musician to musician, and there are less people to pay in the process. Let’s be honest, EDM is selling, and product placements at EDM events are huge advertisement revenues as well. Labels, promoters, and venues are not going to give up on this cash cow until it fades like other musical fads. I have read various articles stating that EDM is on its way out, but the events are still going strong for right now. Plus trust me, it’s a lot cheaper to get one guy with a few turntables and laptop to play than a full band.

In Conclusion

I still argue with everyone that there is good music out there, but damn does it take a hell of a lot to find it. Every band can put their music up on streaming sites, and pay for a million promotions on social media for you to see/hear it, but that’s not always a great thing. I was pleasantly surprised by the new album by Spoon. The songs are pretty solid, and it sounds “new” and inventive. It’s refreshing to hear this, but I recalled that these guys have been around for a while, and have gained massive popularity in the UK but not the US. There are other bands out there that I have legitimately enjoyed new records by, for instance Tame Impala comes to mind, the Fleet Foxes’ first record was pretty great, and there are some other bands, but I’m coming to grips with the fact that I’m losing an emotional connection with a lot of new music these days and it’s generally pretty homogenized. If anyone out there is reading this, please aspire to make some sort of murky classic like “Exile On Main Street”, or dare to put out a live album like The Allman Brothers “Live At the Fillmore East”, we’re all hungry for a connection.

© 2014 by LA Rob, All Rights Reserved

 

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