A few weeks back I read an interesting op ed on Mashable regarding Rebecca Black’s ode to everyone’s favorite day of the week. Despite the fact it’s about as engaging as a Barney sing-a-long and twice as cringe-worthy with its insipid, hackneyed mangling of rhythm and meter, It made me ponder an unsung casualty in the music industry.
The crux of the Mashable story was both a) how the song’s popularity was a testament to mediocrity in mainstream pop music and b) how the democratization of music and the free tools at our disposal to create music, has enabled “everyone” to feel that they need to share “everything” no matter how humiliating it is (the cornerstone of reality programming) and despite how little talent and artistry is brought to bear.
Let’s face it, no one (artists, indie labels) mourns the multi-nationals losing control of their monopoly on distribution. Much like the heyday of the studio system, monopolies like MGM, Paramount, Fox and RKO owned and operated the film distribution pipeline (film theaters). Ironically this shift in power gave rise to an unprecedented proliferation of a new form of artistic film making whose aftershocks still hold sway in art house, auteur and indie film making to this day. MGM musicals, Andy Hardy films, and 40s war pictures ceded territory to the “method”and the Actor’s Studio’s contribution to film making. Their singular and uncompromising approach to the art of film reshaped the film landscape with dramas that espoused the human struggle, social conscience pieces, and psychological dramas, most notably by filmmakers like Nicholas Ray, Elia Kazan and Edward Dmytryk (the latter two paid for their intransigence by being blacklisted and caught up in the net of HUAC and the Hollywood 10).
Where the studio system’s demise in the 1950s gave rise to a greater form of artistic film expression, the same can’t be said for the major labels implosion throughout the 2000s. The most conspicuously overlooked casualty of the majors relinquishing their hegemony over popular music was not control over production and distribution, but their loss of the gate-keeping mechanism of quality control. Now before you roll on the ground in fits of laughter think again. During the 90s, for every American Idol also-ran, there were bands like Sonic Youth, Rage Against the Machine, Pearl Jam, Flaming Lips and countless others that were fostered by the record companies and developed over time. This effort in time and money, and its incumbent business model, is now completely untenable in 2011, why? Because there’s no incentive to the majors and its shareholders, to develop the long tail of talent, and instead it has given way to easily marketed You Tube sensations, reality TV stars turned pop singers, oh.....and mall urchins like Rebecca Black.
Look, I’m the last person to defend the major labels. I think the hole they’ve dug for themselves, starting with completely missing the boat with digital, is a text book case of hubris. I laugh when I think of the majors failed efforts to control digital distribution in the early to mid-2000s. And while they stumbled around in the dark firing blanks (Press Play, Music Net et.al) a slick computer manufacturer surreptitiously stepped in and gerrymandered the digital map and yanked the proverbial rug from under them. That said, even with its blinkered obstinacy and Eric Clapton Christmas box set releases, you have to believe that a Rebecca Black wouldn’t get a job as an errand girl let alone get a record deal. Say what you will, but there is a great legacy of folks like John Hammond, Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun that engendered a real meritocracy for artist development. Sadly the pop music landscape, as it exists today, is anathema to this credo.
YouTube, Flipcams, iPhones, Facebook and Twitter have become the great equalizers in pop music culture. They are Andy Warhols’s 15 minutes of fame re-defined and re-aligned for a new empowered generation of expression. But just because you can say anything you want, ask yourself this: is adding your pithy narrative to the clutter empowering creative expression or merely your own narcissism.