The Musical Biz


Carlton Wilkinson reflects on the nature of music, arriving at a fundamental principle, which helps him think about the future of music:

Music is inherently live and therefore inherently local. The future of the music business is not in product sales, but in the service of that artist-listener relationship. Artists are thinking about tech. They’re embracing it and using it to reach their audiences directly.

He does this in “Pandora’s Box Is Open and the Music Biz Will Never Be the Same“, which develops a fascinating argument about how music is not a commodity:

It’s not a product that can be assembled in a production line or held in your hands. It’s something that comes naturally from every living person — some better than others — and can be enjoyed by every living person, for free as long as the musician is willing, with no other assistance needed.

The standard business model, perfected in the age of vinyl recordings, presented music as a tangible thing — a record — that a businessman could manufacture and sell like any other widget. But the music on those records is only a captured bit of the ephemeral, constantly changing musical experience.

A Bruce Springsteen song is never exactly the same two concerts in a row. A performance of Beethoven or Bach sounds different depending on who is playing, and were those composers themselves to play their most famous music for us, we would likely hear shocking differences from the versions we know — more radical than any modern interpreter would dare.

The experience of music is determined by its creators and by its listeners. By definition it is never completely recreated, but is created anew every time. It happens in the moment and will change in the next moment.

The traditional music business, built around the sale of fixed music recordings, handles manufacturing, packaging and distributing, middlemen selling something they didn’t make themselves, something never really theirs to begin with.

These days, though, tech is trashing that model, by fits and starts turning the business of music from a product-based market into something more like a social media service directly connecting artists and listeners.

Wilkinson earlier made his impassioned point that music is not a commodity in an insightful review of the music that Obama put on display for his second inaugural, “Obama’s Hit Parade“:

… I can overlook the lip-synching. What’s more disturbing, what I find harder to forgive, is the programming emphasis on pop music performers, including Beyonce and Kelly Clarkson, at the ceremony and elsewhere. …

The world of pop music has always revolved around money, the more the better. Money’s influence alters not just the way the music is presented, but the way it is created and the expectations of the creators and the audience. Success in this field is a dollar figure.

Classical and jazz don’t work that way. The musicians need to get paid, sure, and most aren’t above playing weddings or in some ways tailoring their music to suit their audience. Money pressures exist, but they don’t dominate the art form. Success here is rooted in technical accomplishment and in the musical experience itself.

When a classical artist verges on mass popularity, like Yo-Yo Ma, companies like Sony will maneuver themselves into a position to profit from it. But Ma didn’t get where he is by thinking about money — he got there by being a terrific cellist, and an inquisitive musician, constantly challenging himself, branching into new areas. His success was established long before big money entered the picture and continues largely because he is able to rely on his true artistic nature and ignore the role of money.

Pop musicians sometimes emulate that model, ignoring the financial rewards and following where talent and curiosity lead. Often they find themselves in a better place as a result, connecting more easily and honestly with audiences, developing a longer career trajectory.

They don’t let the money get in the way. …

Early in his first term, Obama made a commitment to present the U.S. cultural landscape in all its diversity. At that first inauguration, he shared the podium with Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Gabriela Montero and Anthony McGill playing a John Williams variation on the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts.” He followed up on his promise by hosting workshops and concerts in various styles at the White House during the first year or two he was in office.

But at this year’s inaugural, that broader cultural perspective seems to have gone missing, narrowed to focus more fully on the most common commercial tendencies, music as a commodity.

Geddy Lee recently appeared on a TV sitcom in which the episode mocked Canadian culture as backwards, the fictional case in point being that its culture was transformed only much later by grunge. (In reality, of course, Rush’s prog metal had already allowed Canada to transform the musical world. Thus, Lee’s fake testimony on the sitcom imparts a delicious taste of irony to the self-deprecating joke being made at Canada’s expense.) Part of being able to get the joke was being able to comprehend the standard narrative that grunge changed the world of rock forever.

But Jason Notte, inspired by Wilkinson, debunks that standard narrative in “Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ and The Death of Guy Rock” by arguing that Nirvana in fact provided a negative example, by making clear only what rock cannot exclusively become—namely, grunge and grunge alone:

So where does Nirvana fit into all of this? Well, the familiar narrative says they did the world a big, huge favor by ridding it of hair bands and arena rock and making it safe for garage bands again. That’s not quite how it played out. The grunge and post-grunge era music world was filled with as much belabored growling, on-stage preening and aggro nonsense as ever, as evidenced by the lineup, fires and ensuing rioting and rapes that engulfed the ill-fated Woodstock ’99.

What Kurt Cobain and, later, Dave Grohl taught and most folks didn’t hear until Napster gave away much of the music and Woodstock ’99 made it very clear was that “rock” and, more importantly, pop music can’t be an exclusionary club filled with angry boys. …

Without making a concerted effort to do so, Cobain was being as inclusionary as he could within the confines of his genre. It’s something you hear echoes of in Jack White’s work and in his previous albums with the White Stripes and it’s something the Black Keys have reached for in their own blues-based fuzz rock and their collaborations with artists from various genres.

Inclusion is the common thread. …

That’s ultimately the key lesson from Nirvana and Smells Like Teen Spirit: It changed music and, more specifically, rock music by making “rock” sound nothing like Nirvana.

In other words, rock continues to progress. And it does so in its history by discovering innovative ways to facilitate inclusion and participation.

And that, arguably, is why progressive rock is the exemplary flower of the rock genre. Because, as is suggested by its lengthy songs and its display of musical virtuosity within the framework of group dynamics, it offers the greatest musical space for the flowering of inclusion and participation and a satisfying local experience.

Witness the relationship between the artists and the listeners of progressive rock. In our own time, Big Big Train is showing us how music, not as a commodity, but as a work of art that invites listeners to an immersive and unrepeatable experience, can bypass the music industry and allow rock to be what it is supposed to be according to its essence: namely, a musical experience of transcendence.

As Greg Spawton has observed:

In The Music’s All That Matters, Paul Stump makes some very interesting observations. Early on in the book, he correctly identifies that the main problem with progressive rock is its name (he calls it ‘the most self-consciously adjectival genre in all rock’). Another point that Paul Stump makes is about what unites the musicians of the genre. He says they have ‘a hankering after the transcendent’. I really like that phrase as it can take on a broader meaning than ‘progressive’. In Big Big Train, we combine our influences in a way, which is often original. But trying to do something different isn’t the be-all-and-end-all. What we are really trying to do is to make extraordinary music.

There’s only one way that prog rock can touch you.

And that is: in the present moment.

So why don’t you let it?

Now, now, now…

3 thoughts on “The Musical Biz

  1. Very interesting post! I was just thinking how much I’m looking forward to Big Big Train’s reworking of some older material. Why should one recorded version of a song be the ONLY version ever released? As bands mature, they should feel free to update old favorites, and their audience should welcome new performances. If you’re a classical music fan, you probably have more than one cycle of Beethoven’s symphonies. I would imagine prog fans would be the same way.



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