Facing the Music

Amia Korman

It’s Friday night, you’re at a party in someone’s basement. Surrounded by the same red solo cups and dimmed lights as every other night like this, you realize that perhaps a few people are new, but that’s about it. The music, too, maybe—but then you notice that each new song sounds oddly familiar. Everyone is moving to the same rhythms over and over again, as though they’re really getting something new and unique every time. Something isn’t connecting… are they aware of how similar it all sounds? And if they are, do they care? How did so much of the same manage to work its way into all these Friday nights in the first place? It doesn’t seem to line up, but there’s a steady force filling the gap: producers.

These are the true masterminds behind the every move of the music industry- the people deciding what that Friday night sounds like. To a large extent, they determine who and what gets pushed to the public. In the past, they’ve played a huge role in the various movements  of American music– the swing era, rock ‘n’ roll, and the popularization of hip hop, to name a few. Each generation took pride in its own musical rebellion; an unprecedented sound that set them apart from the tastes of their parents. But in recent years, it seems that no such uprising has occurred. Even though today’s young people seem to hold more power than ever before through the use of social media, they rarely have anything to do with who we ultimately end up hearing. Granted, producers have always made the final decisions, but once upon a time, they drew directly from the public’s untouched sources.

Bigger record labels were previously more interested in the active search for dynamic, raw talent that they could polish and package themselves. When labels had to dig into the gold mines of small, private venues, the musicians they found were representative of the music the public paid money and took the time to hear. As such, the symbiosis between public and producer took hold in each generation’s pop revolution. Each artist provided valuable insight into the music the public wanted to hear, and every signed artist gave their label access to this information. Take Ella Fitzgerald, for example. At the age of 17, a last-minute decision to take the stage on amateur night at the famed Apollo Theater lead to an industry connection in saxophonist Benny Carter, who introduced her to the producers who would ultimately kick-start her career. Once signed, her record sales soared through the roof, propelling the pop charts to reflect the public’s love for swing jazz. Since then, Chuck Berry, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Carole King have all followed similar paths to stardom. More recently, though, it seems that a lot of this raw, untouched talent is being overlooked. I had the pleasure of speaking with music production veteran Rob Adam, who has worked with such pop sensations as Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Neil Diamond and seen this gradual shift firsthand. He explained,

“Record labels used to spend a lot of money to develop new artists, create their musical products, and market them.  This was always a risky venture. Rather than take this gamble anymore, labels now search for a ‘sure thing.’ They have the luxury of being flooded with radio-ready music by new artists who have already built their own followings, and this has allowed them to reduce risks and costs while figuring out which artists to put their weight behind.”

Music has always been a risky business. The usual trope of the starving artist exists for a reason: in order to ensure successful sales, record labels turn their energy towards “sure things.” As these labels become increasingly fixated on cash flow, they tend to shy away from taking any gambles on artists whose consumer appeal isn’t certain. Instead, they direct their time and money to artists who have already polished and packaged themselves into cookie-cutter pop sensations. These are the artists who are going to bring in the big bucks, and they’ve engineered their music and their brand to do just that. Following this new model, Adam observes that “all the record label cares about is how you relate to what the public already knows.” And when these safe-choice tracks are supported by the most influential labels in the industry, the charts reflect their profit-driven ventures.

For the better part of the twentieth century, the charts were primarily determined by record sales. However, once consumers gained the ability to stream music digitally in the 2000s, they began buying less and less. Years later, the songs and artists deemed popular tend to be determined by how many people are listening, as opposed to how many are buying. One of the main ways we listen to music now is through streaming services such as Spotify or Apple Music, and while we ultimately choose what we listen to, these mega-producers have more influence than ever before. Those same labels that pick up pre-polished, pre-packaged pop sensations are the ones with the budgets capable of supporting constant mass advertising. These ad campaigns get their artists increased visibility and airplay, and consequently, more people hear their music, whether they end up committing to an album purchase or not. This kind of top-down marketing scheme means that people don’t need to be as active or as committed to their tastes to determine the rankings, and without their input, producers have some ability to predetermine the hierarchy themselves.

However well-oiled this marketing machine may be, at first glance, it doesn’t make total sense. If the artists we hear truly are artists, why do they keep cranking out strikingly similar music, and why hasn’t any kind of uprising taken hold as it has in previous generations? Well, the short answer is that artists need money and producers call the shots, but the way the average person finds, accesses, and reacts to music hasn’t exactly helped. The hits we’re used to hearing at parties have always been the songs everyone in the room knows and loves, but now it seems that producers have a better idea of what we know than what we love. Of course, there are clear exceptions to this rule– the increasing power of SoundCloud to kick off the careers of budding hip-hop stars has everything to do with the deliberate choices of its listeners. But as far as big-name pop is concerned, little semblance of any generational identity is visible. Maybe this is a consequence of abandoning our record collections for the instant gratification streaming provides, or maybe not. Irregardless, when the green is the goal, producers and artists alike tailor their work to fit the status quo.

So, how does Friday night happen? The producers are leading the charge as much as they always have, but artist and audience alike support the cycle. Should we continue to take new music for granted, we will have relinquished the right to our own musical rebellion. The way things are going, we have a long future of neatly canned background noise ahead of us. If the sound of each generation is a window into its own unique spirit, surely ours must evoke a spirit of its own. Production moguls, mass advertising, and sure-things aside, if our parents and grandparents could define their own soundtrack, so can we.