Why we need a natural music movement

Sam Smith

As part of a debate over people ripping off music downloads, the Trichordist ran a post by music economics professor David Lowery that made some striking points:

  • Recorded music revenue is down 64% since 1999.
  • Per capita spending on music is 47% lower than it was in 1973.
  • The number of professional musicians has fallen 25% since 2000.
  • Of the 75,000 albums released in 2010 only 2,000 sold more than 5,000 copies. Only 1,000 sold more than 10,000 copies.

As for the musicians, Lowery wrote:

“The average income of a musician that files taxes is something like $35k a year w/o benefits. The vast majority of artists do not make significant money on the road. Until recently, most touring activity was a money losing operation. The idea was the artists would make up the loss through recorded music sales. This has been reversed by the financial logic of file-sharing and streaming. You now tour to support making albums if you are very, very lucky. Otherwise, you pay for making albums out of your own pocket. Only the very top tier of musicians make any money on the road. And only the 1% of the 1% makes significant money on the road.”

The article – like nearly all I have seen on the topic – primarily discusses legal and financial problems and solutions. As a musician who has seen the role of music in our culture change drastically in his lifetime and as an anthropology major, I am grimly fascinated by how few people talk about music any more in its cultural context.

Once you reduce a matter simply to dollars and cents you effectively block out every other aspect of culture including community, religion, recreation, family and politics. And you play into the corporate urge to judge everything in life by its profitability.

This is not to say there is not a financial factor, but music historically has been the only art form not mainly assigned to artists but involving the deep participation of ordinary citizens – not to make money but to make life better.

That has dramatically changed for reasons that are seldom discussed. Among the suspects, for example, are

  • Moving from field and factory to quiet offices.
  • The shift from radio (listening) to TV (viewing). Music is sound, not sight.
  • Theater replacing performance (Miles Davis survived without billowing smoke, flashes of lights and sexy dancers behind him).
  • The decline of locales where participatory music is encouraged or featured.
  • The role of the megacorporations in deciding what and how we hear music.
  • The corporate driven obsession with electronic music
  • The Ipod as a form of musical solitary confinement

Bear in mind that the actual audience for music is still highly varied. Of albums sold in 2011, here are just some of the shares by genre:

  • 27% Rock
  • 14% R&B
  • 11% Country
  • 7% Rap
  • 6% Gospel/Christian
  • 3% Jazz

According to the media and recording industry, one would imagine that rock, R&B and rap cover the territory when, in fact, they make up less than half of album sales. And one third of the music audience isn’t even included in the list above.

Over the past half century, the most hyped popular music has also become strikingly less varied and complex. This is not to say that simple blues or folk songs don’t rightfully have deep appeal, but for the musical environment to end up with dramatically fewer chords, less dynamics, less melody and less general variety means that we have far less to enjoy than we might.

This is not unique to modern America nor to music. Follow any cultural development throughout its history and you may find a growth in both complexity and aesthetic quality that reaches a peak and then starts to deteriorate. The principle applies to music as well as to ancient Rome or Indian pottery.

In one of the great music books – How to Play the Piano Despite Years of Lessons – pianist Fred Marx and journalist Ward Camel conspired to simplify some of the mysteries of music. For example, one way to chart chords is to put them on a circle based on their common distance. And if you chart the use of these chords historically you find something interesting. Write Camel & Knox:

“For quite a long while it was possible for composers to cover the essentials by extending the backward jump from two stops to a quarter circle, then to four and then to five stops. Each longer jump backward over more intervening stops was a landmark development in its day. But today, the long jump of five stops sounds very pleasant and ordinary.”

That book was written in 1976. Today, in fact, many rock and roll numbers are happy with just three stops on the circle.

Coming of age in the 1950s, I perhaps became more aware of this shift in part because it was a time when modern jazz was burying the past, Part of its draw was a greater complexity of rhythm and chords.

My high school heroes – people like Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong and Gene Krupa – were passé. I was once lectured sternly by the jazz director of our college radio station for having played a record by Earl Bostic – now considered a pioneer of R&B. A few years later, the station played 168 hours straight of Art Blakey numbers. We were smug partisans of musical complexity – quite unaware that we were almost done for.

Things began to turn the other way. As a drummer I noticed it most sourly with the advent of the disco drum machine in the 1970s. I would argue futilely that human idiosyncrasy was preferable to electronic perfection and boredom.

But even earlier, in the late 1950s, I was on the scene as a newsman as Washington radio station WWDC became a top forty outlet. The concept was so new that the popular morning man was still allowed to ban all rock from his show. But massive change was on its way. A few years later WWDC would introduce a British band called the Beatles to an American audience for the first time, a band whose musician, Paul McCartney, had to wander around Liverpool to find someone to show him how to play a B7 chord. Things were changing and getting much simpler.

Again, this is not an argument against simplicity. I love blues as much as the next guy. It’s just that variety got lost in the shift. It’s just that there are audiences out there being ignored or forgotten. And they’re not illegal downloaders.

The other night I watched a 1987 documentary on Paul Simon’s Graceland and found myself wondering whether Simon could have found anyone interested in his project today.

There are other little noted problems. Take, for example, the issue of electronic music. That the acoustic had defined music until about a half century ago suggests that it may still have some virtues. But it is coming out the short end.

Besides, electronic sounds have downsides that may chase some music listeners away:

It tends to be much louder
It tends not to vary as much in dynamics
It tends to be less melodic
It creates sub-sounds that in another context would not even be considered music

Among those who have noted such problems has been the US military and intelligence services. From a few news clips:

– United States 361st Psychological Operations Company’s Sergeant Mark Hadsell: “These people haven’t heard heavy metal. They can’t take it. If you play it for 24 hours, your brain and body functions start to slide, your train of thought slows down and your will is broken. That’s when we come in and talk to them.”

– “When the United States invaded Panama in December 1989, Noriega took refuge in the Holy See’s embassy on December 24, which was immediately surrounded by U.S. troops. After being continually bombarded by hard rock music . . .Noriega surrendered on January 3, 1990.”

– The Washington Post: “The physical tactics noted by the Red Cross included placing detainees in extremely cold rooms with loud music blaring, and forcing them to kneel for long periods of time, the source familiar with the report said.”

“Several days after Paris Hilton announced that she will release a music album, the Pentagon has decided to buy 50,000 copies of her upcoming album to use against insurgents in the volatile Anbar province in western Iraq.”

And this from the LA Times last May:

“Music exposure can cause noise-induced hearing loss, or NIHL; people with this condition often have ‘increased feelings of isolation, depression, loneliness, anger, and fear,’ according to the study.

Yet loud, electronic sounds have become the musical marker of our times and not just as a result of popular choice. You find it as the background to fairs, festivals, and other events where it is simply assumed that this is what music is meant to be about.

Recently I was at a fundraiser attended mainly by those in their thirties and forties. Playing was a trio that was electronic, repetitive and unrelenting in volume. I was struck by how little effect it had on those present.

Then, for just one song in the whole evening, the trio played a classic country tune with a bit of age on it. Suddenly people began turning around, mouthing the words, and smiling. For the first time, the music had had become part of the event rather than just a sonic back drop

Why? In part because it was something most everyone could share. It struck me as a metaphor for what is wrong with music these days: it has been taken away from us.

The secret of music used to be that it was something that, when we heard it, was already a part of us.

One of the most revealing terms for what has happened to music is the word “cover” – playing a song that has already been made popular by some other artist.

What is significant about this phrase is the assumption that it is the artist and not the music that really counts. While this may work well for the business model of the music industry, in fact it makes music increasingly a transitory phenomenon comprised of hits that are here today and gone tomorrow. It reduces your choices to a constantly shifting top 40 or their equivalent.

Besides, the artist can never be us – we can only admire and enjoy them. But music can be ours forever.

The other night I saw the difference live and in person at an outdoor performance by Chris Izaak as part of LL Bean’s 100th birthday celebration in Freeport, Maine. The first hour was classic loud, electronic rock. Competent but unexciting. I got bored enough that I walked into Bean’s, wandered around a bit and then went to the bathroom. Then Izaak switched to songs from his latest album of covers recorded at Sun Studio in Memphis.

The sounds and audience reactions changed abruptly with the music. It was possible to hear the piano and some fine guitar work. There was even a real standing string bass. Volume no longer substituted for quality. For both Izaak – who recalled discs in his father’s slim collection that had inspired him – and for the crowd, the music had come home. It had become ours again. The music may have been covers, but the covers uncovered us and why we love music.

And I’m not talking recent hits. Here are some of the tunes that were played:

– “Ring of Fire” (Johnny Cash 1963)

– “Great Balls of Fire” (Jerry Lee Lewis 1957)

– “Can’t Help Falling in Love” (Elvis Presley 1961)

– “Dixie Fried” (Carl Perkins 1956)

– “Miss Pearl” (Jimmy Wages 1957)

– “Oh, Pretty Woman” (Roy Orbison 1964)

The dismissal of something as a mere “cover” reveals much about what has happened to music. What the recording industry wants is stars and an ever changing Top Something. The music just has to fend for itself.

Could this be one reason that lawyers, RIAA execs, and economists don’t understand why 10 years ago the average American spent almost three times as much on recorded music as they do today?

Travis Morrison was in a band back then called The Dismemberment Plan, and he wrote recently about how his crowd also pirated music:

.“I would psychopathically hound DJs at Q107 or WAVA to play this or that song. I would call the request line until my finger fell off from dialing. Please Please Please play Life In A Northern Town by Dream Academy in the next 20 minutes I have soccer practice at 4!!!! And then I’d sit. With my finger on the record button on my boombox. … Please don’t let the preceding song overlap too much; Please don’t talk over the intro you douchebag DJ; Please no ads for Jerry’s Ford ruining the ending. I always kept a tape ready in my boombox in case of surprises. The day that Q107 played “Ship Of Fools” by World Party–an unusual tune in the context of 80s pop radio, with weird sounds and misanthropic lyrics, my idea of a good time and probably an error that got a DJ fired–I swear to god I knocked over every piece of furniture in my room to hit record. . .

“Public libraries were one of the most important–and strangest–sources of old-school pirated music. You took them home to dub, but of course like anything from the library, getting them back was a titanic mental struggle and often times you’d just end up with it in your collection. . .

“Now, all of this happened well before Napster, which showed up when I was 26.”

And here are a few other things about which Napster bears no responsibility:

– The number of New York state students in 8th grade in 1975-76 taking music classes were 74,000. By 2010-11 it was 24,000. The number taking guitar classes declined from 11,000 to 7,000.

– According to the NEA, the percentage of those between 18 and 24 who attended a jazz concert declined 58% between 1982 and 2008. Attendance at musicals dropped 13%.

– The average age of a jazz concert attendee in 1982 was 29. By 2008 it was 46.

– Those who listened to jazz radio (free) were three times as likely to go to a jazz concert.

What’s really happening

If you turn away from the complaints of the lawyers and the RIAA execs and look at the facts, one thing becomes clear: music is no longer the major part of American life that it once was. To create a market for something, you need some enthusiasm and that enthusiasm can only be minimally and transitorily created by megacorporations shoving something our way for a few months and then replacing it with something else. Count the number of times you hear a person sing in the next week and you’ll see the problem which is that we have a musical economy but not a musical culture. The public has been essentially read out of the concert as major participants.

Worse, what has happened to music has happened to other aspects of our lives and can perhaps be best described as the corporatization of communal culture. In each case matters of non-fiscal but enormous common value have been translated into just another market item controlled by megacorporations. For example:

– America is politically defined by its Declaration of Independence and Constitution but these have become merely marketing icons in a political culture now overwhelmingly controlled by corporations and wealthy individuals. Our freedom and independence have just become another item on the syntactical shelf. What counts is money.

– Physical play has followed a similar path. As budgets for playgrounds and parks come under attack, the definition of good sports is no longer Olympian or back yard but determined by Olympian sponsors and major league owners. As with music, we have turned over much of our cultural property to the money grabbers.

– Corporations have seized control of public education through various cons ranging from No Child Left Behind to charter schools and for profit universities. Among the victims, incidentally, is time for music.

– Corporations have commercialized that most basic connection we have with nature: food – through pesticides, genetic modification, industrial farming and additives that make us less healthy and gain more weight.

– And in a similar fashion corporations have seized the culture of music making it theirs in as many ways possible.

In each case our lives within a community have suffered.

Interestingly, the earliest and most impressive rebellion against all this came with the natural food movement, which began a half century ago. It has been far from fully successful but it offers hints and hope that things can change if we take it from the top.

Just as the natural food movement has done, we need a natural music movement to return the sounds of America to its communities. Just as with the natural food movement, there is plenty of money to be made by those willing to play by the community’s rather than the corporate rules. You can make money either way, what changes is who makes the money and with what.

And one reason there is money to be made is because people once more would put music into their lives, just as many still do in their churches.

A recent USA Today story gives a sense of what has happened with natural foods:

“Used to be this was all very faddish,” said Gregg Proctor, who heads up natural foods for Kroger’s central division, which includes Indiana. “Not anymore. We’re adding new items constantly because if we don’t get it when it comes out, our competition will.”

There seems to be a race to pure foods among the nation’s largest supermarkets as they ramp up their offerings, even launch their own brands of organics and naturals, and then heavily advertise the healthy choice.

It all makes sense, considering sales of this segment of groceries are outpacing traditional grocery sales.

Nationwide, natural and organic food sales grew 8 percent in 2010 versus the less than 1 percent growth in the $630 billion total U.S. food market, according to the Nutrition Business Journal. It grew at about a 5 percent rate each year from 2005 to 2009.

Cincinnati-based Kroger, which in the past four years has seen sales in its natural foods division double, has made it a point to focus on the segment.

Decades after corporate America started to grab both, natural food is booming, but natural music is struggling.

For some time I’ve argued that local democracy is as important as local lettuce, and that Citizens United is the Monsanto like plague of politics.

We need to add local and natural music to the metaphor. We need to establish rules that distinguish between honest business and cynical ripoff. We need to value the organic just like the environmental movement does. And we need natural sounds to accompany our natural meals and in all those other places in our lives where a big corporation should have no right to interfere.

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