A Commentary: A Zeitgeist of Insignificance – The Problem with Our Musical Values

We are the ones who hold the means to reverse this destructive and dehumanizing trend – and all humanity will suffer if we fail.

By Dawoud Kringle

The economics of the digital age have had an unfortunate effect upon the music business. Digital piracy and the futility of competing with free downloads, and the payments offered by streaming services such as Spotify or Apple Music have contributed to a constant economic devaluation of music. Progress is being made toward new models for rights and royalties in the new music economy that favor the professional musician as equally as the non-musician in the music business.

This is, unfortunately, not enough. The phenomenon of music devaluation is not only a problem between artists and corporation. Music as an art form and a profession cannot exist without a symbiotic relationship between musicians and the people who actually listen to music. Digital technology has altered this interaction in ways that can be as obscure as they are unprecedented.

The popular song formats that one hears on commercial radio, streaming sites, music videos, and other outlets aside, music as a sonic art form that incorporates  imaginative, conceptual musical ideas no longer has a place in the corporate infrastructure of the music business.

In fact, the modern music business lacks the conceptual framework to even define music as an art form. In earlier decades, and in classical and ancient civilizations, music related to mathematics, architecture, symbolism and philosophy. And while the concept of emotional context is vitally important in music, the concentration upon emotion to the ultimate exclusion of all other ideas has become the order of the day.  The balance between emotion, intellect, and spirituality (spirituality itself often being mistaken for emotion – they are not the same thing) is ignored or ridiculed. The result is that our collective ability to relate to music through the lens of the humanities has atrophied. Audiences are satisfied to engage with music on the exclusive level of a demographically defined and spiritually impoverished set of emotional reactions.

The media hold no small culpability in this. There was a time when mainstream publications took the arts seriously. Covering and promoting exceptional talents of all styles of music was once the norm. An ethos of musical discovery and the uniqueness of musical experience have been replaced by an almost Orwellian manipulation of demographics based on the lowest and most base common denominator.

Around the beginning of the 21st century, music coverage was prioritized by the prior name recognition of the subject. Articles in music publications once exposed audiences to new and high quality art and music. This has become subordinate to the systemic purveyance of celebrity news, chart position, and concert ticket sales as the only criterion by which musical value is measured. The institutionalized feedback loop of pop music has discouraged and neutralized any meaningful engagement with music as a real art form.

Radio has profoundly changed over the last 30 years. Independent stations are either being forced out of the market (due to outrageous operating costs), or are assimilated by large corporations such as Clear Channel. Playlists are short, containing a handful of singles which are repeated incessantly until the corporate oligarchy decides to change it. On air personalities such as producers and DJs are not permitted by the corporate heads to choose music based on their musical expertise. A narrative around the records has become a thing of the past; or at least an anomaly one would be hard pressed to find.

The result is a passive and indiscriminating listening audience, whose musical choices consist of a handful of industrialized hit songs (most of which are indistinguishable form each other). Most audiences are not even aware of the existence of any musical alternatives; and most have been damaged by this to the point where anything outside of this corporate musical diet is incomprehensible to them (I recall some years ago, speaking to a young woman who disliked a certain artist for no reason other than that the artist “doesn’t sound like anybody else”).

The digital age has altered the way we interface with music and with all other forms of media and entertainment. There is no longer any separation between the source of music and TV, movies, games, podcasts, apps, etc. The fact that a device is no longer exclusively for music has contributed to the devaluation of music. It has become a cause and effect of the diminished meaning of music within the industrialized multi-media that permeates – and defines – our culture (one reason vinyl is reemerging in  popularity is that people of a musical orientation seek to regain the exclusivity of music reproduction, and abandon the dilution of music as it is presented in a multi-media outlet). Granted, the new technology makes access to these things through a single outlet convenient – it’s difficult and expensive to have multiple devices with specialized functions. But audiences and corporations alike give no reflection to the subconscious effect this has on the listener. This lazy-way-out thinking causes the artists and serious listeners to suffer.

The concert hall is no longer the exclusive domain of composed instrumental (i.e. “classical”) music. It has been forced to expand to the  movie score and video game. This ubiquitous expansion has proven a double edged sword. On one hand, composers have the means to earn a living, and the interaction between two magnificent art forms – music and cinema – often form the catalyst for some very imaginative music which can easily stand on its own apart from the visuals it is meant to augment. But there’s an undesirable side effect. An immense lexicon of musical ideas, motifs and moods has become a cliché (I was guilty of this when I recently composed music for a horror / comedy film. My use of tritones and flat 2nds constantly threatened to degenerate into cheap musical gimmicks).

The cumulative emotional association instilled by exposure to background music (with specific musical processes assigned to evoke specific emotional and visceral responses) has imposed calloused barriers upon our ability to feel a genuine and authentic emotion when exposed to new symphonic music. It is not even like when Stravinsky premiered Le Sacre Du Printemps; the audience of early 20th century Paris felt anger and outrage. Among the dulled and excessively conditioned audiences of a century later, a similarly innovative and unprecedented composition would probably produce no felling at all.

The question of music education is inescapable. Music is a language like any other. The young are most readily able to absorb its structures and meanings. The decimation of music education has been a steady process, reaching its nadir with the tyranny and outrages against decency and reason of the Trump administration. The evidence that music education has a positive effect on overall academic performance is beyond dispute. Yet our culture has lost sight of the value of music. Those who internalize the processes, concepts, techniques, and rituals of music early in life will be more likely to support the arts and bring a more astute and discriminating ear to their musical choices in adulthood.

Those who care about the future of the music business often decry the economic imbalances and injustices of the digital domain. And they should not stop until we artists are afforded a fair share of the profits from music sales. There can be no compromise; there is no question that the music professional must be aware of, and in control of, the economic dimensions of his / her art. However, equal effort must be expended in the vigorous education of the public’s awareness of quality music.

Quality music is marginalized and devalued almost out of existence when reduced to an artifact of lifestyle and celebrity. The long term result is that all aspects of human existence are concurrently devalued. The corporate music industry cannot understand the danger of this; they can only define “value” in terms of profits. We are the ones who hold the means to reverse this destructive and dehumanizing trend – and all humanity will suffer if we fail.