Music’s Limited Menu

A bland diet

Great chefs can create so many dishes even with a limited set of ingredients. They can produce meals that require you to step out of your comfort zone and acquire tastes. Some dishes might not be your natural inclination, but they would acculture your palate.

Unfortunately, establishing a regular restaurant clientele based on experimentation is improbable. “Go with what you know”, custom states. Most people aren’t looking for perpetual culinary adventures. To make money, it’s expedient to reinforce a limited menu with a few standard dishes and drinks (always seeming to include a few vomit-worthy light beers), offered with enthusiasm, attractive packaging, and daily specials.

In other words, one relies on how the options are presented to sell them, rather than the inherent quality of the options themselves.

Manipulating the market

Sensational music performances are everywhere. Yet, like a limited menu, the contemporary music industry relies on marketing to sell its products. Marketing has the power to present consumers with an option that they may not be inclined to pick, and present it as desirable.

This way, a music label can offer you a product that is average and tell you it’s great until you believe them. Once you’ve lowered your own standards, they’ve got you. The industry can sell you any average artist because you’ve been led to believe they’re all fantastic.

The truth is, the music industry:

  1. Sees music as a product.
  2. Sees fans as consumers.
  3. Trains consumers to desire their product.
  4. Manipulates their product to appeal to the greatest consumer market possible.

It sounds disturbingly mechanical. It sounds nothing like art.

Changing clientele

A great shift in purchasing took place in the last century. Products used to be marketed to adults; they were the only ones with purchasing power. Products were advertised in sensible, grown-up places like the newspaper. But in the 20th century, companies began to open the untapped youth market. Marketers found the youth were the most impressionable, and could be groomed to continue to purchase from them for years to come. It made a perfect business strategy. Glossy colour images, jingles, and catchy slogans came into force. Parents were encouraged to give children disposable income, and to purchase youth-targeted products (toys, candy, apparel, music, etc). You’ll probably notice that music has a definite youth edge to it nowadays. It’s not encouraging anyone to mature, but to buy stuff, party hard, and live with no regrets (even though some of the consequences are dire).

Dictating choice

A trick of the trade is to present customers with options and convince them of the importance of their choice. A radio station/music label/television channel will offer an option it has picked (for example, Justin Bieber) and expose consumers to it until it catches on. When Justin Bieber began his rise to fame, a lot of people snubbed him, saying, “Ha. Some twelve-year old kid singing about love. How ridiculous is that?” But Justin Bieber has been snapped up by one of the most powerful labels in the world with virtually limitless marketing potential. He’s been advertised as aggressively as the iPhone. Now, Bieber’s “BABY, BABY, BABY, OH” and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” are in the air like second-hand smoke, and we’re all breathing them in, mystified by their infectious, ubiquitous power. Struggle as you might, you’re still going to wake up with that chorus in your head morning after morning.

Oh! Look at that, they’re doing a duet! Never saw that coming. The fans will adore that.

If you enjoy being told what you should like and why you should like it, this is fine. But deep down, you don’t.

Before The Music Dies

Several years ago, some music fans were reaching a climax in their concern about where the music industry was headed. They noticed declining creativity and increased repetition in music. They took action by producing a fantastic expository documentary titled “Before The Music Dies“. The award-winning film investigated the issue of a stifling music industry. It features some pretty surprising interviews with a host of famous names like Dave Matthews, Eric Clapton, ?uestlove, Arykah Badu, radio hosts, and music industry executives who have the inside scoop on exactly what’s going on. It’s worth a watch below.

Distracting us from the decay

It seems improbable that in today’s world of mass media and social mobility that our music industry would be decaying, especially since the cream is supposed to rise to the top. Furthermore, there are more music artists than ever in history. It’s quality we need to worry about, not quantity. Lyrics are reduced to the lowest common denominator. Mainstream music sounds repetitive and unoriginal. The focus is on providing a groove you can “just dance” to. You can’t do anything but dance. If you even pay attention to the words, let alone think, it begins to scare you.

The industry doesn’t want us to think. Thinking is bad for the current business model, which centres on whimsical spending. Consumers are most pliable when they are distracted and anaesthetized. If music encouraged us to think, we might begin to call into question what is happening. We might realize we are not in actual need of the products they are selling us. We would be critics of the art, not consumers of a brand.

Today, great artists are emulated, but never surpassed. As it is today, the music industry will not support another Bob Dylan or another Tupac. Artists like Soulja Boy appear, glorifying the things they once lambasted. Who cares whether you have something thought-provoking or revolutionary to say? It’s not important. It’s peripheral to the system. The bottom line is money. Don’t upset the balance. Don’t stir the pot unless you are following their recipe.

Escaping the system

I don’t want to say that big-label artists are inherently bad, uncreative, stifled, emasculated, or to be avoided. I don’t want to say that entire music industry fits the description I’ve given. What I do want to say is that we’ll all be better off if we continue to think creatively about music, which, I will remind you, is art. The point of art is to challenge. To think differently.

Right now, we’re in desperate need of some art.

Video courtesy of Sam McLoughlin, a writer friend of mine whose innovative multimedia publication “The Default Life” this clip comes from. Read and watch it by visiting here:


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