I’ve been thinking a lot about sound and how it relates to social context, sophistication and mastery.
Every era has a sound. If you listen to enough music it becomes pretty easy to place an individual recording in its decade of origin based on the sonic qualities, instrumentation and playing techniques you perceive. (It’s now popular to use our seemingly infinite access to recordings of the past to shape our music and make clear where our influences lay).
Likewise, every era is attached to a loose set of social developments (and regressions). Depending on your views, we’re always taking steps forward in certain areas and steps back in others.
There is no doubt that standards for musical success and appreciation change over time. There is always doubt regarding whether or not these changes are good.
Metaphors comparing “what you hear on the radio” to fast food abound. This sentiment has existed for probably as long as people have had had radios in their homes. With several exceptions, the most technically demanding and sensitive music is just not going to surf the airwaves on a regular basis due to the amount of specialized knowledge fully appreciating it requires.
The difference today is that what you hear on the radio–minus the industry-grade mixing, mastering and overall vocal manicuring—could technically be made by a kid on their parent’s computer (or phone).
The genesis of this simplicity is beautiful. Hip hop is the pop sound of today. It’s an art form that exists because a lot of artists have had a lot of important things to teach the world, and their lack of access to the resources, mentors and stable environment required to learn to shred Liszt etudes and Charlie Parker transcriptions make creating art through traditional institutional means an inefficient option at best.
The bad part is that business executives have recognized the simplification of the sonic pallet as an opportunity to pedal algorithmically determined musical product to the masses. ‘People liked EDM drops and now they also love 808s, so let’s find a voice that fits each consumer segment’s brand preferences, slap each of them on a trap-inspired track and something that DJs can spin at Ultra, and watch the bread roll in.’
The most sophisticated hip hop, r&b, and songwriting etc. is not on the radio, but if you didn’t know that you amazingly have managed not to spend a second away from the center of the FM dial.
Where this gets tricky for musicians, and me in particular, is where (or if) to draw the line at all between staying relevant and pursuing some sort of mastery. There’s more work in backing up vocalists than there are spots in the national touring circuit for jazz quintets. There’s also a huge experiential difference between playing for an audience who totally doesn’t appreciate the hours of practice you put into the licks you played to set up the transition to the bridge, but said they loved dancing to your music and feel that the lyrics in the second verse prove that you totally ‘get’ them—versus playing intensely demanding music for a dedicated group of experts, who can identify a record and it’s personnel based on the last 30 seconds of the trombone solo, and will encourage you by saying something like, “You sound beautiful. In 20 years I know you’ll start to almost be among the masters.”
Maybe it’s easier for me because I started as a DIY musician playing mostly rock and have gradually embraced headier musical concepts over time, but I choose to see the wonder in our current musical landscape. Yes, it is possible now for the Bhad Bhabies of the world to capitalize on a trend and gain fame and fortune despite having spent little time honing their craft—ughhhhh frustrating. However, I feel fortunate to live in a time where the most relevant music doesn’t need to come from a handful of superstar genius composers backed by the patronage of a duke or baron… Or a record label for that matter.
Not every new trend or breakthrough going forward will advance the sophistication of music, but the art will continue to directly address more and more issues that require discussion in the public sphere. The product might be simpler and more processed, but that’s the way of our Uber-Venmo / Amazon-drone-drop-delivery world, and it’s our job as artists to capture that to be preserved for future generations, just as the old masters captured an energy before us.
Besides, we need to increase inclusion more than we need to increase shredding, though shredding is nice too. There are more entry points to music than ever, and people can choose to investigate more sophisticated concepts as their musical journeys progress. Don’t believe me? Just head to your local underground live-band hip hop show or improvised electronics + painting show and you’ll see what I mean.
Here’s to embracing the present and appreciating the past!
A couple notes:
1. This rant is heavily influenced by predominantly American and European commercial trends and leaves out lots of perspectives. Look up West African tape and MP3 sharing culture as just one example of dedicated listenership around the world.
2. Just a thought, but I regularly wonder if and how sonic perception of music was different before recording technology. When hearing non-folk music was an event you had to seek out, and humans weren’t conditioned with so much noise pollution. Sounds refreshing to me.