The musically fragmented decade – a few thoughts

I’ve been posting my 100 albums from the noughties recently (more tomorrow) with a year-by-year selection. Others (and there are many, many others!) have been doing top 20s, 50s, 100s etc as a decade long overview. Simon Reynolds noticed a very marked tendency for albums from the first half of the decade to garner 80-90% of the top ten placings in the various listings and offered some compelling reasons why in this Guardian article.

I pretty much agree with nearly all of his points. The internet and download culture has made it cheap and easy for musicians of all stripes to self-release their music. Some in a hope of attracting the attention of a record company, some just because they want the fruits of their labours heard. As a result the number of releases have reached unprecedented levels. I have no scientific basis for saying this, but I bet there was more music issued in 2009 than in all the years up to the end of the seventies combined if you include both physical releases (and the endless repackaging of old material) and the rapidly expanding download cottage industries.

The results of this hyperbolic increase in music released has led to the mainstream and the majors becoming more and more safe and conservative. They realise that their most reliable income streams are from a) ‘fifty quid bloke’ – the Mojo reading male with ready cash whose tastes are firmly planted in ‘classic’ rock, and will happily fork out for remastered reissues, box sets and all manner of fancy but pricey special and limited editions: things like the Neil Young Archives, the Pixies’ Minotaur and the rest. Then there’s b), the great majority for whom music isn’t central to their lives, but they like a nice tune. These are the people who buy Susan Boyle, X Factor and Katherine Jenkins records as well as the more conservative and tasteful indie rock such as Keane and Coldplay. Outside of that, the music industry knows that its consumers are picky and risky to market to and are no longer willing to invest in music for its own intrinsic value.

So we have a self-perpetuating circle. The more adventurous music enthusiasts are finding less and less new stuff that interests them in their local HMV, and are finding that more and more of it comes from small labels, both physical and web based.

Is this a problem? Well, for consumers, no. For bands who dream of being the next Radiohead, very likely. I can’t see there ever being a next Radiohead – a band who appeal to the masses and yet remain sonically adventurous. It’s a divide that will soon become impossible to bridge. This is something that has already happened with classical music and jazz, where people who pushed the music forward ended up losing the mass audience. Most enthusiasts of both those genres probably listen to very little that’s contemporary.

Returning to Reynolds’s article, I think it’s inevitable and unavoidable that the idea of any kind of consensus is doomed. People are zooming off in their own directions, picking tips up in their own virtual communities, and finding music that feels personal to them and that’s their own discovery. They’ll have favourites, but it’s unlikely that their list will tally with anyone else’s, simply because it’s unlikely that any two people will have heard the same things. You can see this in the end of year lists (tallied with admirable patience by DJ Martian). There’s very little sense of any pattern.

Rock (in its broadest sense) isn’t dead – far from it. But its days of being a mainstream cultural force are. Whether that matters or not is beside the point. I can see there being no let up of interesting, creative and terrific music during 2010 and beyond. Just don’t expect any of it to really penetrate the mainstream.

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2 responses to “The musically fragmented decade – a few thoughts

  1. I was going to write how I agreed with this, then I saw the Boomkat top 100 of 2009 and all the artist lists they got to contribute, talk about nepotism!

    If you get a minute check Bvdub’s list, he’s has three of his own in slots 1, 2 and 3, followed by number 4 which was released through his own label, while Grouper has also listed her own album in her top 10!

  2. I seem to recall reading or hearing somewhere that there was an opera singer back in the fifties or sixties who was a guest on Desert Island Discs and all the records they chose were by themselves. It may be apocryphal, but it proves that nepotism and self-publicising aren’t new.

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