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).

7 Responses to “The Thing”

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    Anne T Hartford Says:

    HI Moe….I found this so interesting – not only because I don’t know enough about the ‘guts’ of writing, singing, producing or selling music – but because it seems to me that having or being ‘the thing’ is something that pervades so many other areas (like ‘mom’ jeans – it’s ‘a thing’ now. Skinnies are out. Who said?? Anyhow, I found this super interesting and look forward to reading so much more from A

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    Garnet Says:

    As you suggest, this sort of thinking has a long history. It seems rooted in a belief, on the part of people who sell records for a living, that they can’t actually *sell* anybody on anything; they can just create minor variations on something that they already like, and serve it right back to them. You see it everywhere now from movies to chocolate bars.
    It’s interesting how contemporary technology abets it in the case of streaming, though — there are millions of music lovers who wish to be exposed to something genuinely new to them, whose quality is endorsed by someone, but there’s no algorithm for that.

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    Moe, you’re absolutely RIGHT! Music right now is in the trough, like Disco and the AMC Pacer.

    Record companies are looking for the next Big Thing, or the next Kirk Cobaine or Buddy Holly. Every quarter, the “commercial” music sector looks at financial statistics of themselves and other record companies, where an up tick; means a potential trend, and maybe their next multi-platinum album, and a down-tick; a potential problem. If white elephants could indicate a potential success story; white elephants would be the ticket, and there would be more record stores in Scarborough.

    Finding the “thing” seems to be either God’s will or luck. The sex pistols got known for the “Never mind the Bollocks” album because of the “real” socioeconomic trends and the connection with “real” fans. Elbow grease is part of the equation, but it’s nothing without the “luck” part, of getting “lucky” radio play/ music television, getting a “lucky” gig, or getting a “lucky” commercial contact or RECORD PRODUCER which can finally connect with fans, which is a synergy in itself.

    But the COVID-19 social isolation bug, and the overwhelming lack of interest in the internet by the record companies is making it difficult for pre-record deal singers /songwriters /guitarists to get known.

    I too confess to following the record companies “style” with one of my “Rap and Roll” songs, “Gonna Get Our Revenge” over the situation of bad cops killing “disadvantaged” people, and other glaring injustices. But if there is no on out there in social media to hear it, does it still make a sound?

    I’m really 3 / 4 alternative rock, and 1 / 4 folk rock, but I feel “left out” in the current infatuation with record company dictated “styles,” I hope to have at least a lot of fun anyway. God Bless!!!


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    Chris Butt Says:

    Caught you recently on the Walrus Was Paul Podcast with Paul Romanuk. I concur with what you have said and made me think of the interview with Frank Zappa on the decline of the modern music industry.
    I also thought of a recent Jim Cuddy album.I caught Jim on a TV special with this really great trumpet player playing from his new album, thought Oh my god Jim’s gone to Jazz, thought it was great. A friend purchased the album, absolutely the worst CD we could imagine. Zero dynamic range, sounded just like a compressed Blue Rodeo album, if there was a trumpet on there you wouldn’t know it. My friend I am sure tossed that one, he offered it to me but no way.I guess I’m one of the old guys that still like music and seek out diversity, only good sources for new non-MOR stuff are the university radio stations or independents (CIUT,CKUA)

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    Aderes Mann Says:

    Your opinion highly echoes some parallel perspectives of a musicologist named Ted Gioia who wrote a piece for the Atlantic earlier this year called “Old Music Is Killing New Music.” Although there’s a lot of great new stuff out there, labels no longer have the confidence to sign and nurture newer artists. That “Thing” you describe is a rather shallow method of trying to grab a share of an even more cynical consumer marketplace.

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    Kevin Carey Says:

    Hey Moe – Paul Gilbert is trying to track you down. Give him a call when you can. (I’m serious) – KCMN

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    David Bower Says:

    I agree – the consumption of and connection to music shouldn’t feel so dichotomic because of chart trend. Radio branding, and a pulling away from well rounded ‘top 40’ playlists has been another significant factor to how genre-driven the ‘thing’ can be. The art of music for art’s sake can still thrive through the vast options of availability now – YouTube took away most of the ‘out of print’ concerns of yesteryear. I have young children that now share links and playlists with me, comparable to the mixed tapes I used to share with friends in high school. It’s work to find the musical cream out there. It’s also fun. Here’s a cover of the Phil Harris classic that came to mind during the reading of your piece. Thank you for all that you do, Moe.

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