Apr 27 2021

The Thing

I recently listened to a podcast which featured an old friend of mine from the music business. In the course of the interview he proclaimed that, “music right now is basically trap, you know 808’s with fast hi hats. That’s all that’s happening, really.”

This gave me pause. There has always been this idea especially in the straight music business, that music is dominated by one thing, I feel like this is part of the hangover of the blockbuster. I once heard Todd Rundgren talk about the beginning of the blockbuster. The origins are typically Frampton Comes Alive and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Before Frampton Comes Alive, no record had sold 10 million copies, not The Beatles, not Elvis not The Stones. So, to memory quote Todd, “the record companies figured, well if one record can sell 10 million copies, why can’t all of them?” I think that was the moment when sales became the only meaningful way to for the industry to judge music. Not that sales weren’t very important before. Just other things were also important.

The ‘thing’ has been many things, which is why the ‘thing’ is such a meaningless thing. In the late 80’s it was hair metal, then it was grunge, then it was post grunge, then it was pop punk, then it was EDM, then it was new folk, then it was a mix of EDM and new folk, “folktronica” like Wake Me Up by Avicci.

Several years ago, I took a meeting with an A&R guy to play him some stuff I had produced. He said to me, “the records we are doing are this. We are recording, (what he called) Warped Tour Bands, (meaning pop punk) but in every song there has to be 12 lines of ‘rap’. So that was the current ‘thing’, pretty specific if you ask me but it was that month’s get rich quick scheme for record companies and bands that wanted to play along. He said it in a way that made it seem like this was mandatory. So a, ‘punk band’ needed to pause to become a hip hop band momentarily and this was the key to success.

I remember thinking how this played into the belief that many have that music is largely manipulated by the record companies. That record companies come up with a sell-a-ble formula and feed it to the masses, and as Todd Rundgren once said to me, “the masses will eat whatever you put in front of them.” That the top 40 is whatever the people in charge decide it is and in some way, what they decide it is, is largely random. At the same meeting, I played him a track by a young blues man I had produced. He really liked it. But he didn’t have any interest in it. “I like this music but the fact that I like it is irrelevant,” is what I inferred. There was never a thought that, ‘well I responded positively to this, I wonder if other people would?’

It has always been my belief that The Pursuit of Happiness sprung to success largely because there wasn’t a ‘thing’ at the time. There was no prevailing music trend that anyone was forcing down your throat. Hair metal was sort of a thing but there was enough resistance to it from taste makers that you could still create music outside of it and ‘make it’. I think the fact that there wasn’t anyone else doing a power pop/hard rock/punk curry with female vocals was what got people’s attention.

The problem with ‘the thing’ is there are usually a few artists who do the thing well and everyone else is sort of average at it. If you pull up the weekly releases on Spotify, it will be mostly trap and hip hop oriented stuff and out of 40 songs, about 4 or 5 will be good. But all 40 get this coveted support from Spotify or record companies or Apple or whoever is controlling music that day, mostly because it conforms to the style happening that week. And it’s shocking how difficult it is to escape the ‘thing’ in 2021. With radio playing so few songs and streaming services creating algorithms that basically force current trends on you no matter what you are looking for, you really have to try to find music outside of what they want you to hear. The irony being, with the internet opening up a universe of music to anyone who can afford a computer and a modem, it still feels like we are walking into a virtual record store that is only stocking the top 40 albums.

The reason most ‘thing’ music is crap is because it’s written and performed by people who aren’t original, copying people who are authentic. The people copying would have copied any kind of music that was popular so there isn’t anything real about their music.

Sometimes, something comes along and blows the ‘thing’ out of the water and ruins the music business’s plans. Like Nevermind did. But then that started another thing. Everything needed to be that ‘thing’ and some of it was good and most of it was terrible.

Going back to the opening of this, the part that bothers me the most is that the ‘thing’ being the only thing isn’t true. There is so much music that isn’t trap or trap influenced pop, that millions of people like. My 15 year old daughter’s favorite band is called Peach Pit. Describing them simplistically, they are a guitar based alt rock group. They have over 2 and a half million monthly listeners on their Spotify page and one of their songs has almost 55 million streams. Those numbers seem good to me and I’m guessing no one in Peach Pit has a day job. I went ahead and clicked on the first artist in the Fans Also Like sidebar to Peach Pit’s Spotify page. The band is called Dayglow and they have over 6 million monthly listeners and the first song in their Popular column has 187,496,407 streams. And I’m guessing these are artists most of you have never heard of. Rise Against, a band that plays music that many people believe is dead, most popular song Savior has 382,208,626 streams. I randomly came across a band called Glass Animals when I searched Indie Music. They have over 16 million monthly listeners and their top track has over 221 million streams. They have 37 and a half million views of their video, Youth, on youtube. I had never heard of them. I had also never heard of Clairo until a student of mine mentioned her to me. I’m now listening to one of her tracks that has 238 million streams. No one is pushing people towards these artists, people are discovering them on their own. Do those people not count?

Now of course, these aren’t Drake or The Weeknd or Bad Bunny numbers. But for every Drake there is 10 Pooh Shiesty’s, who are essentially along for the ride.

And please don’t think, “Moe doesn’t like trap or hip hop,” or that I’m trying to imply that this particular form of hip hop isn’t the most popular form of music right now. I’m saying a lot of people want you to think that it’s the ONLY type of music right now. and that there aren’t hundreds of millions of people listening to music that isn’t that.

How has chasing the new thing over the past 40 or so years helped? Music has the tiniest place in our culture right now. Most people barely give a crap about it. The people who really care about music are old and listen to their old records because they remember a time when music was everything. They are the people who pay a $250 premium for a meet and greet with Aerosmith or Bruce Springsteen, who buy $300 Motley Crue leather jackets. The people who listen to trap stream it on Spotify along with 1000 other tracks. I’m not saying that the top pop/trap artists don’t generate the most income or most streams but, I wonder, how big is the pie and how much do people really care about them outside of their celebrity? One more time with the Todd Rundgren, he recently said most artist’s music is like their theme music. Just music to accompany their celebrity.

Why does dismissing the tastes of the vast majority of people make business sense? (It probably does but I just can’t see it). What I also can’t see is, why offer your consumers only one ‘thing’? Wouldn’t a variety of ‘things’ be a more successful business? (Probably not).