Just yesterday I had a very brief Twitter exchange with Grant McCracken that centered on an HBR article he had written. Grant was gracious to even acknowledge and reply to my tweet since I don’t really have the credentials to criticize a published author, respected academic and experienced consultant. (Please excuse the use of the more familiar first name; it represents no claim to true familiarity.) I suppose all is fair in love, war, and the pursuit of knowledge.
Today I felt compelled to develop my argument at bit further than
160 140 characters and hence this post. Keep in mind there may only be a distinction without a difference between Grant and I; I am coming at this issue as a music fan only, not with a more circumspect ethnographic/anthropological perspective or the years of experience as a music writer that Simon Reynolds has (the latter of which might actually be more of a burden in the context of a paradigm shift).
The question I think Grant and I are exploring is, “Is innovation in pop music really on the decline?” I feel the answer is no, as I suspect Grant does too, but my reasoning is different.
The Long Tail
Pop music is being displaced by indie music to such effect that my indie music snob friends have a name for it: mindie (mainstream + indie). The Big 4 are losing their grip on power. Some of the brightest stars in the recent music firmament have come from a comparably small label. Top 40 has become formulaic. Sure, club bangers will still sell because they still have their place, but now much more other music has its place as well. In terms of innovation and what music does for culture and society, the long tail is the new pop.
By now most people are familiar enough with the concept of the long tail first introduced by Chris Anderson that is has entered popular lexicon. While Anderson explored the economic implications, the long tail is a social phenomenon as well. Small, spatially or temporally separate communities are able to form around interests and connect in way that before were prohibitively costly or difficult. This is as true of furries as it is of eclectic tastes in music.
The means of music production and distribution have become accessible to the masses enabling much more experimentation. Not everything is going to be good but that’s how innovation works. You try something, fail, learn, try again, fail, try again . . . hence the Silicon Valley adage, “Hurry up and fail so that you can succeed sooner.” With more experimentation comes more variety and more choice for the music consumers, the fans.
When I was in high school and college, big time music fans and festival goers wore hemp necklaces and traded bootleg tapes in the tradition of The Dead, and punk rockers and rude boys copied song lyrics on the school photocopier. It was all too much effort for most people so radio ruled.
Now, discovering and sharing music is so much easier everyone is participating in ways they never did before. People aren’t dependent on terrestrial radio to get turned on to new music. There has been a boom in the festival scene, and Bonnaroo is booking acts far removed from Phish and Widespread Panic (although Widespread brought the festival to a beautiful close this year if I don’t say so myself). As Perry Farrell noted at the recent Spotify party, reaching 1 million people with your music is doable in ways it never was before.
I have to admit, I haven’t listened to terrestrial radio in a long time so I’m not sure what really does or does not get a lot of play, but I’m pretty sure Skrillex isn’t getting play time on your average pop radio station. Has his music been any less influential? Is it any less innovative? Are the crowds any smaller for it? He’s still on the cover of SPIN. Popular is being redefined, not by payola and the “powers that be” but by the fans who are connecting with the music and one another in totally new ways.
Take the juggalos as another example. Scary perhaps but no less an American subculture created from music. I can’t say I really understand it or if I think it is really a good or bad thing that it exists. It seems as though being a juggalo has given them a way to overcome the intense social isolation and resentment that inspired the tragedy at Columbine years ago, without having to act out the violent imagery of the scare-core rap they all enjoy. The point here is that trends are still finding expression in sound, style and sensibility, however alarming they may be.
Maybe Reynolds feels that there’s no value, no meaning, cultural significance or social purpose to these new forms of music; it’s all vapid at best or deranged at worst. I haven’t had a chance to read his book. If so, he’s just as out of touch with youth culture as MTV. I wasn’t around to hear it, but I would venture to speculate the older generation were as dismissive of Woodstock hippies as Fox News has been of the Occupy Wall Street movement and others were of PLUR and the rave scene. This is a paradigm shift none of us are likely to really understand except in retrospect.
This post wouldn’t be complete without also defining the terms we’ve been using: pop and innovation. (I suppose if I was a better debater I would have defined my terms upfront but copying and pasting it all to rearrange this post is so much effort.)
The Cool Kids Lunch Table
In some sense, this entire conversation makes no sense because we’re mixing concepts of pop and subculture. By definition, a subculture is something other than popular culture – pop – so it might be argued that innovation in pop music isn’t on the decline since there’s never been all that much innovation in pop music to begin with. The innovation happens on the edges of what’s popular, only later to be assumed into pop culture. Grant makes reference to punk culture but with the exceptions of Rancid and Green Day, was punk ever really pop?
That might be where the greatest divide between Grant and I lies. I deny that popular music is or ever really was, “great lab bench for our culture.” I think the dissemination of cultural innovation happens in a way more similar to Malcolm Gladwell’s description in The Tipping Point. If we accept this premise, then my argument above can be synthesized and made more simply: music and subcultures are still doing what they always have for society only now the effects are being amplified by social technologies.
We also must be careful not to confuse innovation and originality. Innovation is a new way of thinking that creates value. Innovation does not require originality however. It can simply be a new perspective on something old and familiar that makes it fresh, more relevant or simply more accessible. To quote Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, “There are no original ideas.” (The irony is I remembered first hearing a quote to that effect somewhere else, from someone much further back in history. I thought it was Descartes but with a quick internet search could find nothing attributable to him so went with what was more accessible. Great quotes can be like that.)
After the recent, tragic loss of probably the greatest innovator in my lifetime (and perhaps many lifetimes to come), I am reminded of the context in which the iPod was launched. It wasn’t the first MP3 player on the market, and it didn’t introduce a revolutionary new technology per se. Apple and Steve Jobs took what was already out there and combined in a novel way that was very compelling for consumers. They created a simple, elegant, and revolutionary whole product.
Isn’t that what a mash-up essentially is? Does anyone deny Greg Gillis‘s talent as a musician and innovator? Watch Morgan Spurlock’s profile of him if you are a doubter. Better yet, experience the electricity of one of his performances. That sort of visceral, emotional experience is what binds people together into subcultures. It offers people the kind of social identity they crave, especially young people still trying to define who they are.
To be sure, I think this assessment of innovation is fairly consistent with the argument that Grant makes. Where we might part ways is the notion that innovation in music has been crowded out by other forms of innovative media. There is enough cognitive surplus to go around. If anything, music is more important than ever. In an always on, always connect world, with so much competing for our attention (read my blog!), the 24 hour news cycle and fretting about a generation that has lost its the ability to focus, fostering an emotional connection is essential, and emotionality is at the core of great music.
Music will always play an important role in culture and society. It has an expressive quality that is almost mysterious. It inspires and imparts meaning. We aren’t seeing a decline in innovation in music. We are seeing a proliferation. It’s a very exciting time in the music industry, full of disruption and opportunity. I have no doubt that artists around the world are working on the anthems to which we will all march (or dance) together into the future.
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. -Steve Jobs, 1955-2011