When talented musicians from previous eras of popular music lament the downfall of contemporary music, you should be extremely suspicious. Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan said not too long ago that nobody today makes alternative rock like he used to. Keith Richards poked fun at rap (though perhaps more surprisingly, denounced Black Sabbath and Metallica, calling them “great jokes.”). Prince recently contributed to that discussion, saying he believes there is an upsetting lack of creativity in today’s music in a recent interview with the New York Post, he said:
“There might be music that sounds like me, but what good is that? You’re essentially in the feedback loop. It’s a bad time for music in general. There’s not a lot of pop music in the mainstream that makes you feel scared, that makes you wonder what’s happening.”
How can such visionaries sound so close-minded?
First, credit where it’s due: over the course of his near-40-year career, Prince has always found ways to update his style for modern sensibilities, and that’s a big part of why he’s still a relevant and mythic figure today. But the sentiment of his statement is a widely-held grievance that is ultimately unfounded. To say that right now is a bad time for music as a whole is a bold claim, since right now, technology has allowed music to flourish, both in terms of creation and consumption.
Artists are still making the type of music that you like, guaranteed.
Let’s look at Car Seat Headrest, the musical project of Will Toledo, a 22-year-old from Virginia. Under that moniker, he has already released 11 albums using Bandcamp, a DIY music store website that allows artists to sell (or give away) their music in a way that’s very easy for both creators and listeners. I can attest to that personally, having used the service on both ends and encountering virtually no problems. Thanks to Bandcamp, his social media pages and live performances, Toledo built himself a solid fan base and has been able to share his creative work. He is one example of many.
Yesterday, it was announced that Car Seat Headrest signed to Matador Records, a significant record label whose other artists include Interpol, Belle and Sebastian, Kurt Vile, and a bunch of other acts you probably love. This was all made possible thanks to, aside from Toledo’s incredible prolificness and work ethic, the ability to find and grow an audience for his music online, and for an audience to find and share his music through online word-of-mouth.
(And for the record, we highly recommend Car Seat Headrest’s 2014 album How To Leave Town, which you can listen to and download for free right now via Bandcamp.)
There are tons of similar examples (streaming is the new frontier after all), and even though the profusion of platforms can be daunting, the possibilities for creation are astounding. But let’s say that Prince’s statement hinged more on his issues with contemporary pop music. As easy a punching bag as pop music can be for lazy critics, it’s tough to deny that even pop, the lowest common denominator, is evolving every day.
“Lowest common denominator” is not meant disparagingly: it is a fact that pop music is produced to be consumed by the largest possible audience, so it is ultimately boiled down and rid of most objectionable content so it can satisfy the most people. That doesn’t mean pop music is bad, just that it tends to take fewer risks for the sake of popularity and sales.
Yet, pop music is still undergoing exciting changes. We will forgive Prince for not citing Miley Cyrus’ excitingly madcap and experimental new album, which was probably released after the interview in question was conducted. Beyond Miley, though, plenty of popular artists are changing the course for pop music as it stands today: Kanye West’s constant reinventions (Prince should listen to Yeezus if he wants to feel scared) always create a new wave of artists who take his aesthetic-of-the-day into intriguing new directions. Before her full-blown pop transformation, Taylor Swift helped bridge the gap between pop and country. Lady Gaga’s 2013 album ARTPOP, though not very well received, was darkly and aggressively electronic in a way that pop had not often been before that point. Pop music, as controlled as it is, has no choice but to change to accommodate diminishing attention spans and diversifying audiences.
Perhaps what people, including Prince, mean when they say that today’s music is no good is that contemporary music doesn’t sound exactly like the music they enjoy. That is solely indicative of changing popular interests, and it’s also an easy problem to combat, because the issue is imaginary.
Artists are still making the type of music that you like, guaranteed, even if your preferred genre isn’t dominating the charts. Thanks to the beautifully fragmented music landscape, it is so easy to find a niche website or online community that caters to very specific interests. If listeners aren’t down with the mainstream, creating their own mainstream–or finding the already existing community most relevant to their interests–can be effortless. In fact the idea of creating new unified mainstream outside of radio is precisely the mission of Apple Music’s Beats 1. But beyond that corporate entity, an infinite amount of alternatives exist for any type of music fan.
In 2015, consumers have the ability to enjoy the type of music they love and to discover new sounds every day, while creators are always finding new ways to reach, grow and engage their audiences. How is this a bad state for music to be in?
Featured image courtesy of deviantArt // TSOR1