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June 5, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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Chorus Verse Chorus Profit

Peering into the jaws of the music machine

Our world today is run on money—the bottom line pervades our lives, our society and our culture. With this mindset, we turn to music. Increasingly, music is made to generate revenue, creating two sets of distinctions upon which music exists. These distinctions encompass all aspects of music today, and exist on continua which affect the role profit has on the aims of music. On one hand, we have a range of intentions that fall anywhere between artistic integrity and consumerist profiteering. On the other, we have the (albeit oversimplified) adjective spectrum from indie to mainstream. These scopes are interwoven, and have implications on the music we hear, the processes which govern the industry, and the way music will evolve through time.

At one end, music is made for its own sake. It is artist-based, organic, and starts at the grassroots level as self-expression or to pursue meaning-making. At the other end, there is music made to make money. Usually executive- or producer-based, the music is a product of a particular record company’s strategy, aimed at generating maximum album sales from a target market. As the proliferation of mass-marketed, Top 40 music continues unabated, the divide deepens. Art and integrity grow disparate from business and profit, shifting the independent and the mainstream further apart.

It’s not hard to see what could fall at either end of this spectrum. We have the Biebers and the Rihannas, acts which sell millions of units and fill stadiums on world tours. Let’s call this the mainstream—excuse the hipster cliché. The other end of the spectrum is less clear; it exists underground, and is more likely to have a disparate online or regional following. There is also the middle ground: an enormous grey area into which most music falls, yet which will be largely ignored by this article in favour of the extremities.

If you listen to mainstream music, you will notice similarities between songs across genres and artists. Large recording companies can (and do) exert a huge amount of influence over the creative process, which has resulted in the homogenisation of the sound produced. This influence pervades all levels of the creative process; song writing, musicality, themes, production, engineering, album artwork, even the ‘feel’ of the record. Depending on each individual contract, artists’ creative freedom varies, but the mainstream is noted for creating a monopoly on the choices of an artist, stifling variations in favour of sales and the status quo. Would Universal Music let Justin Bieber make a horror-core record? Probably not.

Thus, homogeneous song structure and production techniques epitomise the mainstream: verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus musicianship is the norm, and one production technique you’ve undoubtedly heard of is Auto-Tune. Its vocoder effects were made famous by Cher, and more recently T-Pain, but at its core Auto-Tune is an audio processor which corrects pitch helping artists hit every note in the recording studio and (more recently) in live concerts. A Grammy-winning recording engineer confided to Time magazine that “a majority…of artists are using pitch correction”, the result being a consistent fetish with pitch-perfect sound across most major releases.

These similarities are partly what makes the music successful. Music of the mainstream ilk is generally easy to listen to—throw-away tracks written for the masses. Consumers feel comfortable with this; it’s identifiable, and often obviously relatable to common subjects. Mainstream music is targeted very successfully towards certain groups, such as club-goers (LMFAO), aching-heart teens (Taylor Swift), or faux-alternatives (Foster the People). Preteen girls are an especially important and fantastically lucrative market, a demographic One Direction brilliantly captured.

There are various implications of having a music industry which revolves around profit. Industry reports from the mid-2000s estimate the percentage of major-label releases which break even is between 0.2 per cent and 1 per cent—current figures may be even lower, with the advent of illegal downloading. This means incentives exist for squeezing as much profit as possible out of successful formulae, so it’s in the interests of music companies to stick with what works.

How does the mainstream compare to underground music in relation to the other continuum, that of art versus business? Take mainstream darlings One Direction: they don’t make music as an art form, they are purely a marketing master-stroke who follow a winning formula very successfully. They exist to appeal to the masses and make a lot of people rich in the process. Take another mainstream darling, Pitbull, in a recent interview with GQ magazine: “Pitbull is a product. Don’t get it fucked up—I’m a businessman. This industry is 90 per cent business, 10 per cent talent.” Does that make his music less legitimate than underground music?

As we have seen more recently, the mainstream can appropriate buzz-worthy underground aesthetics—say, fuzzy lyrical crypticisms and lomography-based visual media—to mimic tropes of underground artistic integrity (read: hipster vibes). Foster the People and Lana Del Ray are two mainstream, mass-marketed takes on the indie scene: an organic persona was constructed for one Elizabeth Grant to become Lana Del Ray, after her millionaire father signed relevant cheques. Should we feel cheated if we unwittingly buy into the Del Ray back story, without knowing it has been constructed by executives to make us feel we are discovering something new and hip, to aid the purchase of her music?

One source within the music industry Salient spoke to believes that an “alternative creative economy” is emerging, to “counteract an increasingly amalgamated world…[brought on by the] homogenising effect that media culture and advertising are having on all aspects of contemporary life”. This has manifested in a number of ways: many artists may give away their music for free, or employ counter-measures in the face of mainstream sound: for example, imperfect, raw vocals in opposition to Auto-Tune.

The problems with the approach this article has taken are numerous. The mainstream-underground continuum model alone has flaws abound. What decides where music falls on the spectrum? How can one define artistic integrity? If someone writes and/or produces their own artistic vision and creates mainstream music (e.g. Bruno Mars), how does this affect artistic integrity? What of those who have crossed the boundary between mass consumption and artistic integrity—The Beatles, the Beach Boys, Kanye West, or Radiohead?

The artistic integrity continuum has flaws of its own. Music’s value is inherently subjective, yet this article is based on the pretext that artistic integrity is desirable. Mainstream is not ‘bad’ or artistically devoid by definition, it just tends to lack these features (whatever they are). Not all mainstream music is produced by major labels, nor do major labels solely produce mainstream music. Neil Young once said, “what I like about record companies is that they present and nurture artists,” something which does coexist with the production of sound for profit and shouldn’t be overlooked.

As a subjective experience, music cannot be ‘better’ than other music. Yet differences exist between music, the sonic art, compared to music, the product; differences which map onto a mainstream-indie spectrum. At the end of the day, it is all just sound. Go listen to it. ▲

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