Surely by now we must all know that titling an article ‘Is ‘x’ dead?’ is simply a ploy to garner attention from the trigger-happy twitterati, offering the opportunity for kneejerk condemnation in 140 characters or less. How one converts this viral equivalent of Chinese whispers into any sort of material or spiritual gain, I have no idea, but it seems that social networkers are still happy to participate.
Last week’s example took aim at rock music. Should we accept rock music as a dead format? If so, by which criteria do we make such a pronouncement? Falling sales? It seems an inappropriate methodology. Rock music shouldn’t ever have become a dominant musical form, what with its conflict in sonic frequency range between the lead singer (85 – 255hz) and the lead guitar (82-660hz). By rights, the unit should have long disintegrated beneath the weight of competing egos. String quartets manage to survive a similar sonic battleground between violins, but only by adhering to a strict definition of roles – first and second violin (hence the term ‘second fiddle’). Rock bands, in general, do not enforce such strict role definitions, at least not formally. Inherent in the creation of rock music (and I must generalise here, otherwise this piece will metasize horribly), is a democratic process by which voice, bass, percussion and guitar create a coherent musical whole. To help them do this, there are structures of harmony, arrangement and time which allow certain elements of songwriting and performance to be pre-supposed. Rock musicians largely stay within a small number of those structures. Whilst at its worst, this can constrict and restrain the creative process (and at its worst, rock music is truly awful), at other times the diversity of influence brought to the songwriting process by four independent sonic elements allows for a Darwinian adaptation that can be alchemical.
Take pop though, and although the genre is too wide to allow the same generalisation as can be applied to rock, there is a branch of the pop format which can be mentioned. I’m referring to producer-led records, in which the personality contributing the vocals and imagery plays a secondary role in the creation of the music. Singling out any one example is almost futile at this point, which is exactly the genre’s weakness. Taylor Swift, Rhianna, Justin Bieber, Lady GaGa. Essentially (and at this point I realize I am about to write something controversial) they are interchangeable. A zeitgeist producer creates a soundbed, usually using tricks of arrangement picked up via an unhealthy amount of time spent in Ibiza superclubs in the early 90s, molds that tension/release house anthem formula into an arrangement which can support a verse-chorus-verse vocal, applies a couple of fashionable sonic effects onto what are quite simple major chord progressions and then, this is the cynical part, drops the vocal track over the top. Forget whether the vocal took advantage of auto-tuning software or not (another day’s article), the simple fact is that in most of these records, there is no sonic or emotional integration between vocal and song. If anything is to kill pop, it is cynical, mass-produced pap of this ilk.
Pop will survive as long as people continue to buy records. It’s slippery definition is simply that it is ‘popular’ enough to sell units. By such definitions, a great deal of rock music is pop, as is metal, jazz, opera etc. For clarity, I’m lazily defining pop music as any piece of music which had as its primary stated goal the objective of selling units. Some pop becomes popular without this aim, some other forms seek primarily to sell units, but are called rock. Whichever way we look at the sales figures of the past decade though, it is abundantly clear that it is pop music which is being decimated by recorded music’s falling sales. It must be obvious to anyone with an internet connection that the opening up of sales channels to musicians without label intervention has allowed niche acts to benefit from cheap online distribution and retailing. With the marketing channels open to all, the very concept of a hit record has changed. Artists selling twenty-thousand albums via their own website can now net more monetary reward than if they had sold a million records via a major label. Where this has hit hardest is at the entity that is a ‘popstar’. In an online marketplace where the smallest niches of musical taste are catered for, the role of the hyped and mass-marketed pop act is threatened. Competing for attention is expensive and time-consuming, and although major labels can still beat mileage out of a constricted number of high-profile pop acts, or create formats such as The X Factor to circumvent traditional marketing approaches,, the investment/return ratio is becoming less attractive every year. Take Taylor Swift’s US number one album from last week ‘Speak Now’. A vindication of pop, one might say? A pop album at number one, surely that proves dominance? The record topped the US chart with the lowest ever number of sales for an album in that position – 52,000. Legacy albums such as Dark Side of the Moon sell that many units every few months, despite being over three decades old. Nightmares on Wax’s ‘Smokers Delight’, whilst nowhere near Pink Floyd’s level, continues to sell units fifteen years after release. Pop, pure pop, which has at its heart the celebration of the immediate, and makes no claims to being composed for posterity, can never hope for the ‘long-tail’ sales profile which is enjoyed by other genres. I won’t say it’s dead, it certainly isn’t. Nor will I accept that rock is either.