Music is a social phenomenon that’s influenced and modeled off prior art. As a result, popular music genres often do become homogenized, recycling the same themes, structure and lyrics over and over again. Pop music is famously dominated by only four chords, and an ungodly amount of music lyrics are written in the same poetic meter (which is why, for example, you can sing the theme of “Gilligan’s Island” perfectly to the tune of “Stairway to Heaven”).
Many critics laud the “democratization of music,” cheering on the often Internet-based strategies that allow amateur musicians to access the art form and wrestle music out of the hands of the corporate few. Only through these outside-in attempts, democratizers argue, can we liberate the general public from the boring, old formulas we hear all the time. Democratization has already given a leg up to the independent music scene — just look at Arctic Monkeys, the U.K. band that generated wild success while shirking the traditional relationships with established record companies.
But there’s a reason to be skeptical of the new setup. Record companies have long played an important role in the music industry. The average listener doesn’t have the time to seek out innovative music and instead relies on record companies to sift through the increasingly crowded market and pick out the good stuff. What’s wrong with that?
I’m not convinced that Internet democratization will revolutionize music, and not only because I enjoy much of the music criticized as “unoriginal.” To expect the Internet — or any other innovation, for that matter — to rapidly change the content of popular music would be unreasonable.
Let’s learn from history. At the turn of the 20th century, there was a similar, though more academic, revolt against the norms of music. A group of composers, including Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, set out on a mission to reinvent music, throwing out conventional concepts such as tonality and harmony. They rejected the notion that music should sound a certain way and were frustrated by being confined to the same keys that had been used for centuries.
The result was certainly influential, but not necessarily well received. Stravinsky’s atonal ballet, “The Rite of Spring,” was so avant garde that the audience at its premiere erupted into a riot, throwing vegetables onto the orchestra and forcing the concert hall to expel more than 40 people. The debacle led composer Giacomo Puccini to refer to “The Rite of Spring” as “the work of a madman” and “sheer cacophony.”
Of course, “The Rite of Spring” is now considered by music historians to be one of Stravinsky’s seminal masterpieces. And certainly other “atonal” works produced by Stravinsky’s contemporaries have fantastic artistic value. Personally, I never understood the genre until I listened to Alexander Scriabin’s Impromptus piano pieces and Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.” These compositions center around deconstructing meaning and challenging our understanding of form.
But appreciating this kind of music takes time and often a lot of effort, more than we’re usually hoping to spend on popular music. Pop music is about relaying a personal message quickly and easily, and so its success seems to be guided by the path of least resistance.
Often, this means copying previously published art. On his blog “Everything Is a Remix,” Kirby Ferguson argues that there’s a broad spectrum of art ranging from the novel to the familiar. Both extremes are attractive for different reasons: Novel art gives us a sense of excitement; familiar art comforts and reminds us of similar themes and ideas. New ideas are developed and tested in smaller and riskier markets (such as the independent music scene) while older ideas are rehashed and recombined with another in ways that please the casual listener and can reach broader markets.
Iconic art — or music that defines a generation — finds a way to balance novelty with the familiar. I’m talking about the music of Elvis Presley, who took old folk music and transitioned it into the new rock era, or Michael Jackson, who grabbed the sounds of Motown and turned them into contemporary pop.
Both of these examples relied on the corporate music industry to achieve success, so neither would be considered as “democratic” as new music theorists might hope (ironically, both were nicknamed “kings” of their genres). But they do illustrate how music evolves.
It will be interesting to see how the Internet affects music creation in the future. I suspect it will continue to create a range of new, smaller markets where innovative artists will be able to produce novel sounds and reach more people. In that vein, the Internet might end up looking like the innovation of phonographic records, which caused the musicians of a bunch of genres — jazz, folk, traditional pop, etc. — to clash into the pop scenes we have today.
Still, I don’t think the Internet will overthrow the current music industry. In the end, it’s often the “formulas” that make music genres what they are.