Cover Story: You Say You Want a Devolution?

Despite good work still being done in 2003, the meaning of 'music' is devolving

Dec 17, 2003 at 2:06 pm

Surveying the 2003 happenings in the Music World, there's a disconcerting trend going on in the mainstream that's common among the music news headlines of the year. The big news stories of the year have little to do with the creativity and merit of what an artist actually produces. Today, more than ever, music is being devalued by big corporations who look at musical acts as commodities rather than artists.

Bubblegum Pop music has its place in popular culture and always has. The successes of Britney Spears and her ilk, where the actual music produced is merely the marketing angle companies use to exploit an image, are only a small part of the problem.

Technology and our culture's increased fascination with celebritydom have made music, for many people, less important. Entertainment options today are unlimited and, with each new Generation (X, Y, Z, etc.), a growing apathy encouraged by corporate force-feeding and "user-friendly" technology has helps destroy important elements of music, like passion, mystery and magic.

As major labels seem to be headed toward one "universal" owner (no pun intended), patience is out the window. It's a trend that's been getting worse over the past decade: The concept of a "career artist" is virtually non-existent at the major level. Not that the majors are incapable of allowing for the release of quality music, but without an immediate hit artists who have the potential to be legends are given pink slips quicker than ever.

It doesn't bode well for the general musical climate of the future. It's a chicken/egg quandary: Are major labels adjusting to the quick-fix culture, or are they ones who have helped create that culture in order to better their bottom line?

Today's biggest names don't even have to sell a lot of records to be considered Pop Stars. The crossover successes of Ozzy Osbourne and Jessica Simpson/Nick Lachey in the television world have given those artists a far bigger status than they could ever have accomplished in music. Reality TV has become the brass ring for music publicists: If you can pull a television show, who cares if your music isn't any good?

American Idol has created instant celebrities who sing, but the actual singing part is secondary. The Fox series is like Punk Rock in a sense — kids who work on variety shows at amusement parks are now convinced they too can become superstars in an instant, much like Punk in the '70s (and beyond) encouraged the "If they can do it, so can I" mindset. But instead of fresh, new young bands, we'll end up with a Billboard chart full of moderately talented karaoke singers.

The downloading/file-sharing problem grew to epidemic proportions in 2003, at least if you believe what the big labels say. The issue of piracy is a roadblock the industry will figure out eventually, but the desperate overreaction by big-time artists and corporations is rightfully off-putting to the general public.

In the face of lower sales, the biz has tried everything from legal downloading services to promised lowered prices to drastic lawsuits against pre-teens who illegally fire-share. But with the lack of nurturing for young talent with lasting potential, perhaps the companies need to look into adding "Quality Control" departments instead.

Legal downloads are becoming the new model for music selling, thanks to the unexpected success of Apple's iTunes. The "ease of use" element of legal downloading is its biggest allure, but it's also feeding into the increasing consumer laziness.

You can't blame them — give the people what they want and all — but downloading is further making the process of finding and enjoying music less important. It's been said with each new format from cassettes to CDs, but the diminishing physicality of music product is lessening its importance. "Hey man, wanna come over and check out the new MP3s I bought?"

Things like liner notes and album artwork — things that add to the mystique of music — are becoming completely insignificant and obsolete. If you think it's weird that "kids today" don't know what a vinyl record is, wait until the youth start asking about the days when artists made full albums and not just the random sound files they have on their computer. And what exactly were these "record store" things?

By 2020, people might just take a pill to listen to music. And we'll probably be longing for the days of those little MP3 icons that sit on our desktops.

The overabundance of "warts and all" bonus footage and music on CDs and DVDs now is also helping music's devolution. Even the most casual music fan can now experience every single moment surrounding a project. It's too much information and takes away another important element of the listening experience: imagination.

The same was said about music videos, that they didn't allow for the listeners' interpretations of songs. Similarly, being brought along on every step of recording an album or being brought backstage and behind the scenes of a concert ruins the image of what you thought it might be like. And if a director cuts a scene from a movie or a producer or artist cuts a song from an album, isn't there probably a good reason and shouldn't that reason be respected?

Putting "bonus cuts" on newly released CDs is one of the more ridiculous things going on right now. Why are they a "bonus"? If they're on the first pressing of a disc, aren't they just a part of the album now?

Having said all of this, there's as much good music out there today as there's ever been (just take a gander at the Top 10 lists in this issue from the CityBeat music staff and some other local music know-it-alls — and find more lists online at You just have to look for it and find it in your own time.

And you know what? That's fine by me.