The Nation's Pulse

Out of Tune

Popular music has never been so unpopular -- and the music industry is blaming consumers!

By 9.2.10

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Sales of albums fell in August to their lowest weekly level since Neilsen Soundscan began comprehensively tracking purchases in 1991. Merchants sold just 4.95 million albums during the week of August 8-14. Being number one isn't what it used to be.

Who's to blame? The music business points to a peculiar scapegoat: consumers. The recording industry rails against their market audience for illegally downloading tunes. The customer, apparently, isn't always right.

Trust them. It's not their fault people don't buy their product. It's ours.

Certainly people won't pay for what they can get for free. But people won't pay for an inferior product, either. Pointing the figure at consumers dodges the most obvious reason music isn't selling like it used to: most of it is not very good.

The 2000s witnessed a precipitous decline in albums sales. The volume moved in 2010 -- a figure that includes digital albums -- is projected to be less than half of that of 2000.

The best-selling album of the 2000s illustrates that the cash-register rebellion chafes not against paying for music, but against paying for bad music. The Beatles "1," a greatest hits collection whose most recent track reached number one on the charts more than forty years ago, outsold every album released in the United States during this past decade. It's analogous to Andy Griffith Show reruns generating higher ratings than everything currently in prime time or The Sound of Music triumphing at the box office over premieres in their opening weekends. That's how out of tune today's music industry is.

A combination of pop music settling for a niche- rather than a mass-audience, visually obsessed marketers dictating the sounds you hear, and corporate efficiency imposed upon art has conspired to undermine album sales. Laying all the blame on illegal downloads is an excuse that may make industry executives feel good temporarily, but ultimately prevents them from solving the problem.

Popular music has never been so unpopular. The top three songs in America right now are (3) Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream," (2) Taio Cruz's "Dynamite," and (1) Eminem's "Love the Way You Lie." Have you heard any of them? If you haven't, it's not because you live in a cave. It's because allegedly popular music now plays in caves sealed off from the rest of us. Pop music caters to a niche market of especially superficial suburban teens, urban denizens, and club-goers stuck in extended adolescence. Everybody else is pretty much left out, which explains the market void.

The music industry has been taken over by marketers who know image but not sound. Are Katy Perry and Brittney Spears really the best singers or just the best-looking singers? The massive promotional budgets propelling such acts suggest the degree to which tin-eared industry insiders think visual trumps audio even in a purely sonic commodity. Consumers have responded in kind to this insult to their intelligence.

Where would the plus-sized Meatloaf or Aretha Franklin, or the cartoonishly ugly circa-'64 Rolling Stones, fit into such eye-candy marketing schemes? They wouldn't. Only on American Idol, where the people's vote decides, do visually challenged performers get a fair shake. The noise pollution listeners have been subjected to since video killed the radio star tells the obvious part of the story. The greatness red-lighted because visually appealing inferiority got green-lighted is the overlooked greater tragedy.

Contemporary music trades efficiency for authenticity. Like so many other industries, the music industry has outsourced human talent to machines. Consumers may tolerate a computerized answering service usurping the receptionist's position, but replacing Keith Moon with C3PO hasn't made for a rush on record stores. Only slightly less offensive than drum-machine automation resulting in pink slips for actual drummers is the impulse to use synthesizers in place of musicians. Would it erase profit margins to hire a horn section instead of a keyboardist imitating a horn section? Synthesizers are to a string quartet what orange drink is to orange juice, what Cheez Whiz is to cheese, what Splenda is to sugar.

And then there are the soulless computer-perfected vocals. Would listeners really find it more appealing had a computer smoothed over John Lennon's hoarseness in "Twist & Shout"? A machine wouldn't improve Sam Cooke's vocal in "A Change Is Gonna Come"; it would only strip it of its humanity. Passion, more so than perfection, has always moved listeners of popular music. Pitch correctors and other studio gizmos remove emotions from an art form that attracts fans by appealing not to their intellect but to their feelings. Plato knew as much when he banished music from his ideal republic; 2,500 years later studio wizards don't grasp that elemental point. 

One can still find good music. What's changed is that good music doesn't find you. MTV no longer stands for "music television," with its corporate moniker finally catching up to its programming. Rolling Stone is just another celebrity magazine. Once-mighty rock-radio-ratings juggernauts, such as Boston's WBCN, New York's K-Rock, and Washington, D.C.'s WHFS, have gone extinct over the last decade. One could rationalize these developments as causes of the music industry's slump. But they are primarily symptoms of it. For the same reasons listeners have shunned new music, they have shunned television stations, magazines, and radio promoting that music.

About one percent of Americans purchased albums during the August sales nadir. I confess that I am among that lonely percentile rather than the crowded ninety-nine. Eschewing illegal digital downloads for a physical compact disc, I am not part of the problem -- at least according to the recording industry. Alas, my purchase, 1979's "Repeat When Necessary," Dave Edmunds' rockabilly/power pop album considered a guitar-bass-drums throwback even upon its release 31 years ago, suggests that their self-serving self-diagnosis misses what truly ails their industry.

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About the Author
Daniel J. Flynn, the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game, edits Breitbart Sports.