I meant to get to this topic much later, but No Depression has beat me to it and forces my hand: the the idea of minimalism. The author of the piece is Kieran Ridge. For those who travel in the indie/Alt Country world, the topic has been around for quite sometime. Indie star Jack White started a record label that only deals in analog recording, and produces music only on vinyl. The reason is one of aesthetics: it sounds better to listen to music in analog and on vinyl than in digital.
But the article goes further than that in claiming the current music world, as controlled by the big record companies, has done us a great disservice, and they are making bad music. One thing that draws thinking people to the indie/alt country (small label) world, is that creativity is not lost, and real beauty has a chance to flourish. True, there are more risks and mistakes made in this world, but the music is more genuine, and when an artist creates a work of beauty, it shines. Few things of beauty come out of the major labels today. There are exceptions to this rule, of course. However, more often than not, the big labels stifle good music and beauty more than they encourage it. The result is a banal product, and much dubbing, over-dubbing, and digital tweaking that masks the artist’s poor talent, and the bad song writing that accompanies it.
In essence, No Depression states that the small labels we find in the indie and alt country world encourage experimentation, and art, as it ever has, does not apologize for not being mass produced, or critical, or whatever.
If I could draw, for a moment, from my own experience: In the 1980s a Pacific Northwest band called the Crazy 8s were simply the best band in the region, and perhaps the entire west coast. At the time I was a disc jockey and music director, and in that role, I spoke to record labels and promoters often. The 8s were a rock/ska/eclectic band.
They were never signed by a big label. Why? Because they could not be categorized. They spoke to no one genre. Yet, they packed the house. Imagine thousands of young college students from U of O and OSU flocking to their concerts. It happened. As No Depression notes, the big labels have a penchant to pigeon hole all bands. Once pigeon holed, it is very difficult to impossible for the band to break out of the mold and do something creative. In those days, there would be no Ryan Adams doing a stone cold country album, and then a metal album next. There would be no Shooter Jennings doing what he is doing with his latest release. One of the reasons for the online and extraterrestrial explosion is that the big labels have killed music. They have killed rock/rock-n-roll/country, etc. The proliferation of bands and labels today is a result of their continuing colossal mistake.
In some way, it is a good thing the 8s were never signed–it would have killed their creativity. The band never knew my feeble efforts to get them signed, but I thought a great band is a great band–and they wrote their own music thus further demonstrating their real talent.
Back to the Kieran Ridge article, some snips:
A similar movement has begun in opposition to mainstream, corporate music. Stripped down, American roots music is finding an enthusiastic audience with the success of the movie “Crazy Heart.” One of the main elements of the New Orleans based TV show Treme is the richly textured musical tradition of one of America’s greatest music cities. What is perhaps most promising is that Jack White has opened his own record label, Third Man Records, which records exclusively on analog tape, and distributes their music solely on vinyl. …
It’s my belief and assertion that the record industry in America is on the verge of a momentous and inevitable change that may very well be against its will, but not against its best interests. This change is the result of a shift that is taking place in American society, and in the American zeitgeist. Many Americans have grown increasingly disturbed by the overly corporate and industrial nature of so many aspects of our lives. From food to entertainment, big business has destroyed much of what we love and a general momentum for change is building.
These changes are also the inescapable consequence of the enormous financial failure of the record industry in the last decade. Let’s just start out with the assumption that popular music is not what it used to be. Argue if you will, but the evidence is in sales of recorded music and concert tickets. According to IFPI, the international representative of the recording industry, profits from sales of recorded music fell 7.2% in 2009. Of course, that might be expected in one of the worst years for the overall economy in decades. However, sales have fallen from $38 billion in 2000, to $17 billion in 2009, a catastrophic decline of 55.3%.
The record industry no longer grooms artists for long-term success, and so, music released by young acts on major labels is of very poor quality and it does not sell. What is called entertainment is failing to entertain. What is called popular music is unpopular. Instead of grooming acts for long-term success, record companies find or create a band or singer that conforms to their current marketing strategy with a one dimensional, easily definable, easily categorized sound. This act will have a hit or two and quickly be forgotten as another band or singer takes their place. This is music without thought, depth, or artistry, and the drop in profits is proof that this system is failing. Consequently – with the one possible exception of Country music – there are few young superstars with long careers in popular music today. …
Good music doesn’t come out of Protools or any other software program. It doesn’t come from effective marketing. It doesn’t come from some rarefied, effete notion of poesy, and art, and divine inspiration either. Good music is about grinding away with pencil and paper, and wood and strings. It’s earthy and comes out of real human experience. It whispers, it howls, it weeps, it dances, and it shakes. It’s about heart and soul and goose bumps up your spine. It comes from the place where our animal and spiritual natures converge. And so, it’s sometimes ambiguous and indefinable, maybe the words don’t make any logical sense. But there’s a part deep within that understands, and so you’re overjoyed, or you find you have tears in your eyes that you can’t explain. Great art and music are about creating something that the world has never experienced, but has always somehow known. You can see it when a previously indifferent audience suddenly catches fire in unison and starts moving, shaking, hollering at the band.
Music is not about sonic perfection, it’s about being moved: physically, emotionally, in your feet, and in your soul. No Pro Tools trick, no vocal effect, no onstage loops or lighting or device of any kind can send a chill up your spine like James Brown howling “Please, Please, Please.” No matter how good the technology gets, it’ll never be capable of that. Live music is where it’s at: the spontaneous vitality of a great performance by a great performer. Old records were, for the most part, a recording of a live performance. Today, the musicians play their parts separately and the spark of live performance is gone. A good record should sound like a great live performance without any special effects to come between the instruments and your ear. Digital perfection removes the raw emotion of the performance. A barrier between song, performer, and listener is created and the spell is broken. The sound of digital music is sterile, antiseptic, slick, but dull. Much of life has become too fast and depersonalized, overrun by technology. Music is a restorative that speaks to the best part of us. But music has become as inauthentic, computerized, and depersonalized as everything else. If this continues, the art of writing and playing great music will be further diminished and lost, just as painting was diminished and eclipsed by photography. I’m sure nobody in the year 1800 could have imagined that any technology could so quickly make painting irrelevant. The same thing is happening to song writing and performing that happened to painting. Digital music is to music what photography is to painting. They may bear a resemblance to the older art form, but they are not the same: they’re a quick and easy substitute that rely on technology rather than the human heart, mind, soul, as well as our creativity. People want the illusion that the band is in the room, that the singer is singing right in their ear, to them alone. That’s the magical element that makes a song timeless.
Read the whole thing.
One caveat: I am not so sure, as the author notes, that good music is always contrarian. Is great art always contrarian and challenging the standards of the time. Sometimes perhaps, but always? Great art is uplifting. Great music can be too, if it is allowed to do it and the artists are allowed to seek. There is also the problem with rock, and other music that has a basic four chords and under 4/4 time, but I will get to that much later. For the moment, digest Ridge’s interesting piece posted at No Depression.