Music Doesn’t Matter

As the main face and evangelist of ccMixter I have compiled a rather large list of the excuses to not participate in the site from both music appreciators and musicians. All the excuses seem to stem from a constellation of symptoms one might call boomer-itis. The boomers’ view on remixing, sampling, commercialization, sharing and the creative process in regards to music is the reason why music, of all transitions from analog to digital, has been the most wrenching. At the psychological core is the buried, traumatic truth that music as a cultural influence has completely dropped off the radar.

Boomers who lived through the 1960’s and still hold sway in the halls of politics and culture were so heavily influenced by the popular musicians of their day it is impossible for them to conceive (i.e. they live in complete denial) of a world where 99% of teen males are gaming and only a tiny percentage identifies in any culturally significant way to musicians. On the other hand, for people born after 1980 there is no sense of this loss at all, buried or otherwise. They have no reference point and therefore no understanding of the enormity of say, every release of a Beatles 45 RPM record. To them, the festival at Woodstock is at most “a concert” or more likely, an entry in Wikipedia about a concert some pony-tailed out-of-touch teacher made them look up.

The loss of teen-angst projection onto celebrity musicians is nothing but a favorable development to everybody else but a loss to the boomer’s point of view. On the shallow end of the hand-wringing over this shift, once acknowledged, is nothing more than the sentimental self-aggrandizing that boomers have perfected. The most valid case is the front and center ideology, no matter how naive or contrived, of a John Lennon has been replaced by what Jason Rohrer calls “murder simulators” like Grand Theft Auto. “Today’s pop-rock is a paradigm of a society that has no values; it is ubiquitous even though the record companies admit that most of it loses money,” mourns Donald Clarke in The Rise and Fall of Popular Music (1995, out of print) even before the advent of Halo and GTA.

Clarke is a boomer in every sense. His passion for music and what it represented in his life inspired him to devote his life (once laid off from his unionized auto factory job) to writing and critiquing modern pop music. Unfortunately, by the time he looked up from his assembly line to follow his muse in the mid-1990’s, he found the once powerful and influential world of Elvis, Dylan, Lennon and Morrison to be less relevant than a $3 cup of burnt espresso drowning in milk. (Note that by 2008 this transition is complete as it’s commonplace to get boomer music by Sir Paul, Ray and Joni while buying a latte at Starbucks and unheard of the other way around.)

“The economic machine unwittingly created by the counterculture,” Clarke continues, “sees to it that pop-rock is aimed at each generation of new customers, yet each year not only is it of less musical value, but the market gets smaller, so it is not selling very well these days.” 
Even though Clarke had no real way of predicting the rise of PC-based home recording or the Internet his diagnosis is shockingly relevant today. That these words were written when the ultra-boomerific Jonas Brothers were zygotes can be seen as prescient or depressing. Or both. Focusing strictly on the business model that became prevalent in music since the 1970’s he still manages to nail the cause on the head, still relevant 15 years later: “Perhaps the problem begins with the fact that nowadays we have less input into our own popular culture.”

Some marketing assholes with way too much time on their hands (is there any other kind?) are happy to declare that user generated content is dead. (FTR: if you actually use the term ‘user generated content’ you are already suffering from one-meeting-too-many-itis and need to find a real job.) As long as net neutrality holds I think it’s pretty obvious that any group of musicians that are sincere about their art will find an audience, including fans who tip, film producers who license and sponsors who sponsor. We just have to hang in there and remember where we really are in the cultural food chain. Hint: Not John Lennon circa 1970.

Happy and healthy new year to everybody!

9 thoughts on “Music Doesn’t Matter

  1. John Pazdan

    When d’ shite, which is just beginning to hit the fan, gets switched to HI velocity mode, I don’t think people will have a whole lotta time to be playing video games, which may or may not be perceived for what they may or may not be ..a waste of one’s productive, creative time, a usueless diversion at best. However, people still might be innerested in listening to music while they work growing/harvesting food.

    as far as BB culture..”don’t follow leaders, watch yer parking meters”. I have some larger issues with an over generalization of “anyone born after 1980”, but I’ll wait for that.

    I am now returning to making some user generated content in my expansive recording complex, most of which involves modal improvisation over West African by way of James Brown based rhythms.

    Happy New Year Victor, and stop by Chicago sometime this year, ok? Bring your Les Paul and Wah. We can “play some music”..I mean generate some user content.

  2. teru

    “Music Doesn’t Matter”

    You take that back!

    Music matters, it’s just not worth anything based on supply and demand. OTOH I’d kill for a coffee right now. ; )

    Happy and healthy New Year!

  3. fourstones Post author

    heh, I didn’t mean it doesn’t have value, I’m just saying it doesn’t carry the weight it used to in society – and I’m not even saying whether it should or not – just that boomers seem to assume it still does and kids don’t know what the big deal is about music.

    @john If 99% is over generalized then I’m guilty ;) Gaming matters to kids, music, not so much.

  4. joe

    Music is embedded in the youth experience in ways that wasn’t possible in my youth of the 70s. Music still completely matters. Monetization of music might be a another story.

    Subliminally, music is still a big deal, whether the youth realize it or not. That’s why the new avenues of revenue are where content producers are spending their time, be it mobile; GtrHero, bioshock et al; ringtones; commercials; or any modern film.

    So, kids might not be the crate diggers of yesterday, or even turn on the radio any longer. But they hear music, and need music. It’s finding the one’s that get it and then our job to keep turning them on to music. Those who want to Discover, will.

    It also seems sad but true that for a lot of youth, “music” is confused with “celebrity”, thanks to Diddy, Brit, Jessica and co. One can only hope that’s a phase that youth will grow out of.

    I look at the past like this. The pre-teens who liked Tiffany and Debbie Gibson moved to Nirvana and Pearl Jam when their hormones kicked in. It’s got to start somewhere.

  5. fourstones Post author

    despite the provocative title and implied premise, really what I’m saying is that the release of a standalone piece of music (album or single), not embedded in a game, ad or film simply isn’t the cultural event it was for a brief boomerific period.

    Joe, I think your comment makes my point for me.

    In addition I’m asserting that there is nothing culturally relevant coming from musicians through the media esp. when compared to a world where youth culture was the most important movement of the times and the musicians were its chief spokesmen.

    That and the fact that boomers refuse to get over themselves.

  6. gurdonark

    Music doesn’t matter in the way that it did–but that’s in more than one sense.

    The day when corporate megaliths could create comic book heroes “subversively” selling records to tell us “’bout a revolution” at 7 dollars/LP are over. People are much more to apt to wait at Best Buy at 2 a.m. than to wait outside a stage door after the concert.

    The days of 4 TV channels and early FM radio are over. No more “In Concert”, no Altamont, no Holland/Dozier, none of that.

    A certain kind of mass-produced music is gone.

    Music will matter in different ways. Niche ways. It will define cultures, and no longer define Culture.

    The boomers had a way of commodifying everything. It’s easy to understand why the things marketed to their children are pure commodity.

    Yet the music that arises after the death of the god of 60s music may be a more authentic music. It may be made by more people, and may be a truer “folk” music.

    I can live with that change.

  7. spinmeister

    thx for your kind note! —

    “boomers refuse to get over themselves” lol – isn’t that pretty much the trouble with our entire species – every ethnicity, religion, orientation and generation?

    btw. thanks for posting your blog entry. I think you’re moving the conversation to a place where it should be had.

    The conversation about music most often seems to be getting stuck on issues of business models. Even the questions of copyright end up being a bit of a distraction.

    Although I believe that CC licensing is a huge and vitally important liberation, it arguably also is a bit of a distraction, because it is so intrinsically intertwined with business model questions.

    Another thing you’re hinting at with your blog post is to flip the viewpoint from the producer of this commodity called music to the user. (I’m deliberately not using the terms consumer or customer, since they are strongly linked to commerce and business models).

    To abuse the term, there’s an “inconvenient truth” around music and how it fits or doesn’t fit into current times purely culturally, rather than what it used to represent in the 60s and early 70s and maybe on the outside into the early days of MTV. Maybe the Buggles actually had it right? :-)

    Once we accept that music means something totally different today in the cultural context, some interesting follow-up questions arise. And what happens to the conversation if we remove the assumption of / desire for business models entirely? What if we even exclude the dimension of copyrights?

    Might make for a few more interesting blog posts… :-)

  8. dkeifer

    As much as I love Joe Strummer, irrelevance is probably good for music. In fact, irrelevance to the general culture is most likely its default state. Music, after all, itself is pretty (entirely?) abstract, and only seems to gain “meaning” through perceived attachments to broader cultural upheavals. So maybe the dust up surrounding the Rite of Spring wasn’t so much about weird rhythms as about the growing tensions between Eastern and Western European cultures. And the BeBop revolution wasn’t so much about double-time solos and 11th chords as about post-war American culture displacing pre-war American culture. And boomer music, by and large, only mattered because boomers mattered.
    Sorry if this sounds ponderous or pretentious. My sense of humor seems to be running late this morning.

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