Recorded Music, Award Shows & Choice

15 Feb

As futurist William Gibson describes it,

if you had a yardstick that represented the total lifetime of the human species, the amount of time you could hear a dead man sing is thinner than the finest hair. It is very recent in human experience…

Barely one hundred years recent.1

Everyone one who is interested in recorded music ought to read Dead Man Sings (or Dead Man Speaks depending on the version of the article) by William Gibson.

When we turn on the radio in a New York hotel room and hear Elvis singing “Heartbreak Hotel,” we are seldom struck by the peculiarity of our situation: that a dead man sings.

I watched the Grammys last week and I’m teaching Business of Music 2 at Ryerson

I never watch the Grammys. I especially never watched them when I was at Berklee. In fact my only interest at that time was finding out which alum had won awards the next day.2 Knowing that my peers would soon be winning Grammys was mildly inspiring. Its already happened, my RA when I first went has won a few.

Anyway since I’m teaching Business of Music I felt a professional obligation to watch. Plus my friend and mentor Steven who is generously responsible for allowing me to co-teach the course with him asked that the students watch a bit, and write a little something on the class blog.

Reading the responses first of all I was just happy they wrote something and second I was somewhat pleased with the output – some good thoughts and reactions. All on the negative side of the spectrum – but who can blame then, its the fucking Grammys. If you want to eat good food don’t go to McDonalds – or something…

Anyway the general consensus was “boring and completely out of touch with “youthful” and culturally relevant music”. I had the same opinion when I was younger.

But that brings me to Dead Man Sings. The further we move through time the more popular older music will become.

Our “now” has become at once more unforgivingly brief and unprecedentedly elastic. The half-life of media product grows shorter still, till it threatens to vanish altogether, everything into some weird quantum logic of its own, the Warholian Fifteen Minutes becoming a quarklike blink. Yet once admitted to the culture’s consensus pantheon, certain things seem destined to be with us for a very long time indeed. This is a function, in large part, of the Rewind button. And we would all of us, to some extent, wish to be in heavy rotation.

The recorded music industry is inherently about the past. Recording captures events for posterity.

Live music is about the present and the future. Live music can only take place in the present. Live music inherently pushes us into the future with the passing of time.

The more recorded music that comes into existence, the more we as a culture will fetishize the past. The more recorded music we have, the more music we will have to listen to at any point – more artists, more genres, more eras, more choice.

The era of Elvis or the Beatles can never exist again.3

It was the dawn of mature recording technology. Popular artists for the first time could record multiple tracks with multiple takes and they had plenty of tape to experiment with. Unlike the era of Robert Johnson or the early days of Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five. The technology only allowed recordings of around 3 minutes and wax was expensive. Mostly, the first take was the only take.

It is unlikely that we will ever see albums as “good” as classics from the 60s and 70s. It is unlikely that albums will ever sell as well as those classics because of technology and taste diversification.

Therefore pop music is by necessity the absolute lowest common denominator.

Taste diversification, the abundance of low cost recording solutions and the internet facilitating the cost of distribution moving to zero has meant that record companies have less money to take risks and develop artists. To create a return on investment they must market music with the broadest possible appeal.

The biggest selling tours and albums today are for the Jonas Brothers and Justin Bieber and at the very high end Lady Gaga.

I like Lady Gaga a lot. It seems that she has been able to combine mass appeal and artistry. She references many past artists in her work including Madonna, Andy Warhol and more recently in her work with Tony Bennet Jazz diva’s like Lena Horn. I think these references to the past have much to do with her massive success. She realizes our 2000s cultural obsession with the fetishization of the past. Just listen to the lyrics on Applause from her Artpop Album.

I’ve overheard your theory “Nostalgia’s for geeks”
I guess sir, if you say so, some of us just like to read
One second I’m a Koons, then suddenly the Koons is me
Pop culture was in art, now art’s in pop culture, in me.

As Steven puts it,

Think of 1973 and 1974. Think of the albums and tours during those years. Inner Visions, Houses of the Holy, Dark Side of the Moon, Billion Dollar Babies. There was something going on, The Eagles drop their first album that year too. I’m glad I was there, can you imagine? I was 22.

I respond, “I’m glad you were there too, I can’t really imagine it to be honest. But I can listen, to you, and to the music.”

I think taste is subjective. What is “good” is individual choice. But for me its really hard to make the argument that the pop artists of today compare to Stevie Wonder, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper and The Eagles. I love Gaga, I think she’s a timeless artist but I think it might be hard for her to make that argument too.

Do I think music is as “good” now as music was in the 1960s and 1970s? Unequivocally yes.

Do I think the same amount of people will ever agree on what music is “good” now? Unequivocally no. Its impossible there is just too much choice.

Too many artists, too many eras and too much to choose from – and I think that’s fucking great!


  1. Translation – recorded music is a new phenomenon, a relatively very new phenomenon. 

  2. Every year alum win awards without fail. 14 awards were won in 2015. 

  3. This obviously does not mean there will never be another “heyday” for other art forms. In fact it may have already come and gone for smartphone apps.