There are many issues, debates, and challenges facing the music industry today at every level. Ticket sales are down, not only at the national level, but also at the local level; yet there are considerably more public performances available to see today than there were only a decade ago. CD sales are down at the national level, yet there are tens of thousands of more titles available today then there ever were, and new models of distribution mean that the quantity of titles available will only increase, not decrease.
Today we hear the argument made by many people that tastes in music are subjective and left open to the interpretation of how individuals perceive it. It can be argued, by way of definition, that subjective tastes in music are an inherently individual and biased or prejudicial point of view. In this case, the argument that tastes in music are subjective is true. However, while individual tastes in music may be subjective, what about the skill demonstrated in the performance of music?
An objective or fair assessment of performance skill would say that some people play their instruments more proficiently than other people. It is then left up to individual biases whether the more proficient performer is “better” than or more aesthetic than that of the less skilled performer. Is the work of the Ramones more tasteful, beautiful, pleasing, elegant, artistic, cultured, refined, polished, or more discriminating than the work of someone like Dave Brubeck or Joe Satriani? In other words, does it contain more aesthetic qualities? Again, it depends strictly on the more subjective elements used in determining what is and what is not good music and what is and what is not a good performance. And that boils down to our emotional sense of what is and what is not “quality” when it comes to art.
At one time music was a pastime, an activity one did in the parlor or on the front porch with friends and family. It was considered music of the people, or folk music and only the most accomplished of trained musicians took the stage professionally. Webster defines folk music as the “traditional and typically anonymous music that is an expression of the life of the people in a community.” Music of, by, and for the people is another way of looking at what folk music was and is rapidly becoming again, due to modern technologies.
In the “long-haired” “high brow” world of academia, folk music was once considered dirty and low life, or from the “street” in orientation. It lacked the skill of those who were academically trained to play their instrument; although it resonated so mightily with the average person on the street that it became popular hence, the pop music of the era. But, being originally music of the streets, this music rarely if ever had any direct or intrinsic economic value, since it was most often played in parlors and on porches for ones own self enjoyment or for the enjoyment of families and friends. In his day, the pop / folk musician was considered an amateur, unskilled, untrained, inexperienced, and as compared to a professional musician, incompetent.
Today, it seems as though every style of music has become a form of pop or popularly accepted music, with the exception of those forms of music that are often deemed to be too academically challenging for the average person to accomplish, i.e. jazz and “classical.” Neither of these styles of music fall within the pantheon of popularly accepted forms based on record sales or radio or television presentation. The punk rock movement dictated that anyone, regardless of training or skill, could perform music. It was an assault on the idea that only trained professional musicians could and should present musical ideas to a public audience. Is it easy to advance the idea that Tin Pan Alley, bluegrass, blues, country, RocknRoll, Punk Rock and HipHop have all been forms of popular or pop music over the course of the twentieth century, and by extension, folk music.
Rapid advances in both the creation of and marketing of new recording technologies have allowed the average person to record and distribute music freely. As recently as 1970 one had to purchase the recording of their favorite song or album, since no duplication technologies were readily available to the general population. As recently as 1980 it was truly cost prohibitive for the average person to record, manufacture and distribute music. Today, computer technology and the Internet have allowed both the amateur and the professional musician to not only record, but distribute music freely and near effortlessly. In short, control and power over the music industry has returned to the people, making it as nearly anonymous as it was prior to the creation of recording devices in the early part of the twentieth century.
The basic laws of supply and demand dictate that as the supply of a product increases, its economic value decreases as the demand remains constant. As the supply of music around us increases, so does its economic value decrease. Why pay to see music if you can see it for free? Why pay to purchase a cd if it can be copied and distributed for free? Why pay to hear music if there are technologies available that will allow us to listen for free? Why pay to learn how to perform an instrument professionally, if the technology exists that will let you “play” what an instrument sounds like without having to play the instrument itself?
In essence, what we are returning to is what record producer Steve Albini calls the “triumph of the amateur.” Albini contends that technology has “democratized” the process by which music is made, manufactured and distributed.
However, Albini also contends that aesthetics have been negatively affected because amateurs are making poor sounding recordings because of a lack of audio engineering knowledge. If we have become an industry wherein the professional is being replaced by the amateur, and where, by definition, an amateur is an nonprofessional, unskilled, inexperienced, incompetent person who engages in a pursuit as a pastime rather than as a profession, and is one who is lacking in experience and competence in an art or science, where does that leave our industry as it relates to the public presentation of music?
Can it be determined that the recent downturn in the economic value of our industry is directly related to the “triumph of the amateur” or the return of music in general to the status of “folk music?” To date, since no amateur artist has risen to “super-star” status as a result of new technologies, it is difficult to imagine that such is possible. And since we see with our own eyes that the intrinsic value of the industry has decreased with the proliferation of technology, we stand only in fear that soon there may not be any economic value attached to it at all, that it may in fact revert to what music once truly was a form of self expression for self fulfillment and personal enjoyment.