“Think back to the last time you heard a song that made the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Made you want to dance, or go out and kick somebody’s ass,”
A demand made by coked-to-the-gills record executive Richie Finestra to his baffled A + R team. He’s just punched Ray Romano in the face and reneged on a lucrative deal that would have seen American Century, the company he built from the ground up, be sold off to a German conglomerate. They walk away with a hefty sum, but they lose their footing and ability to impact on the music industry.
After a bender of a night out, including a New York Dolls show that literally brought the house down, Finestra has had an epiphany:
They should be focusing on the music instead of the dollar signs.
The setting might be 40 years ago and also entirely fictional, but watching that episode of Martin Scorcese and Mick Jagger’s toast to the music industry of the 70s in Vinyl, I began to see how the stagnation of rock ‘n’ roll Finestra (played magnificently by Bobby Cannavale) was railing against had actually become our reality.
I asked myself the same question: When was the last time music made me feel like that? I get that feeling all the time at live shows and listening to old songs that trigger memories. The last time I heard something for the first time and got the kind of chills and awe that Richie Finestra wants his A + R team to chase was an Australian band by the name of Spookyland and their song God’s Eyes.
It’s an utterly fantastic track. Full of feeling and emotion, big riffs that grab you by the heartstrings and well-written lyrics that provoke so much thought. It was the first thing I’d ever heard from them and it instantly made me want to hear more and now has me beyond anxious for their debut album to hurry up and get here (It’s called Beauty Already Beautiful and it’s out May 6th incidentally).
The more I thought about it though, I realised that I’m fairly unique in my position as a music writer, in that my eyes and ears are open and bombarded with so much more new music on a weekly basis than an average person. I probably wouldn’t have heard Spookyland if I wasn’t a music writer, which most average people aren’t.
What about that average person, whose exposure to new music comes in the form of social media and whatever they hear on the radio in the car on their way to and from work? How different and how frequent is that feeling for them when their musical forays are almost entirely mainstream? Are they looking forward to any albums the way I’m looking forward to Spookyland’s?
Much has been made of the atomic bomb the Internet and file sharing detonated on the simple but effective business model of the 20th century music industry: where record sales were the chief source of income for artists. Barely anybody pays for albums anymore and those who do pay for music do so in the form of streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music.
Playlists are the new albums, because why limit yourself to one single artist or genre when you can whip up a loosely-connected musical shitstorm of whoever and whatever you want? Think about how nonsensical it is that you can create yourself an hour or more of controllable music ranging from Nick Cave to Slayer to late-90s Eurodance trio Eiffel 65 and not even bat an eyelid. Enough people might agree that a combination like that is a great idea instead of an auditory fever dream and follow your playlist too.
As a result, radio and playlist-friendly singles are what a great deal of artists and their representatives now focus a lot of their energy on. You can hardly blame them either, not when the rug was completely swept out from under them less than 20 years ago and they were left with really only royalties, touring and merchandising as viable income streams. They do still release albums though, it just seems as if nobody really cares anymore.
What’s that? You’re spluttering into your cup of tea ‘I care!’? Yeah I’m sure you do, if you’ve taken the time to read a niche music blog like this one then the chances are that you’re one of the minority out there passionate enough about music to still truly care about albums. Maybe even still buy physical copies of them and get weird looks from JB HiFi sales assistants.
Unfortunately we live in a world where social media and especially Twitter has condensed everything into 140 characters or less, music included. New music being released is now a much huger event than ever before. There’s press releases, announcements on entertainment websites, endless social media posts hyping the living shit out of it, carefully-timed singles dropping every few months to an uproar of anticipation for the final record.
And then? Once the dust has settled and the album has been released? It’s on to the next one, because the journey is now more popular than the destination.
Sure, the record will get reviewed by music publications in case anyone is reading them and needs their own opinion validated but, as Noisey pointed out the other day, even these are becoming a thing of the past. Very few albums these days enjoy continued discussion after they’re released, and generally these discussions are usually framed within the context of which awards they might win.
Remember in Wayne’s World 2 where Wayne rambles on about Frampton Comes Alive and how everybody in the world had a copy of it? What’s today’s equivalent of that? What album released in the last ten years has resonated so deeply with so many people that owning a copy is considered the standard? If you were following social media for your answer you’d probably think it was 25 by Adele.
I don’t hate Adele, but fuck that.
Hello by Adele and Hotline Bling by Drake were last year’s biggest examples of what music has become – quick little slices of catchy pop that can be bent and twisted and meme-d to death until they fit a social media narrative. Individually, the impact of Hello eclipsed the entire 25 record it was a part of by a mile, and Hotline Bling has done exactly the same to an even greater extent before Views From The 6 is even out.
It’s like we love our music to be crammed into forms that are clickable and sharable. We like to click it and share it and add our own funny little spin to it so that other people can see that we’ve clicked it and shared it and that we like it enough to put our own funny little spin on it. It’s like music isn’t to be listened to any more, it’s there just to validate our image and the image of ourselves we want broadcasted to the world. It’s much easier and more acceptable to share a dancing Drake Vine on your socials than it is to post your take on an entire album.
Because who’s got time to listen to entire albums anymore? I have a 40 hour work week and Vinyl, The Walking Dead, 11.22.63, Better Call Saul and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia are all on TV at the moment.
The former was a fantastic album, something I can comfortably admit despite my general aversion to Rihanna’s music. Was the talking point of its release how good an album it was? Hardly. It was all about the fact that it was dropped by Rihanna with almost no warning (thanks to a Tidal stuff up and someone probably losing their job somewhere), and also Work features Drake!
That’s one of the other things that bugged me, was nobody talking about how one of music’s biggest names put out an entire album with only two features on it (SZA was the other), something unheard of today, where the more features the merrier from a marketing perspective at least.
The Life Of Pablo was absolutely unprecedented as far as album releases go. ‘Clusterfuck’ is the word I could best use to describe the entire process. Endless Twitter rants from ‘Ye, ranging in subject from name changes, Wiz Khalifa public draggings, Cosby guilt-denial, and a whole lot of other nonsensical shithattery preceded its release (these are all separate links, by the way). There was enough madness that by the time TLOP was actually released, it was in conjunction with a fashion show and people were talking less about the album itself and more about whether or not Kanye was mentally unstable. Or whether or not Kanye and Taylor Swift round 2 was about to kick off based on a single line in one song on the album. Or about the Frank Ocean feature and how come Frank’s got time to do Kanye features but he doesn’t have time to put his next album out?
The Life Of Pablo ended up a great album by and large, but after all that hype and insanity surrounding its release the album itself felt like an anticlimax, the actual music at the very bottom of the list of people’s talking points.
Look at someone like Ed Sheeran. You don’t need to be Professor X to be able to look into the future and determine that his next album is going to be dogshit awful. It doesn’t even matter how rancidly bad it is though, he could change his name to Ed Hitler and title it Fuck Everyone and it would still perform better than almost anyone else’s hard work out there, simply because he’s so malleable to social media and he fits the current image of what a modern artist is, however gross that might be.
Compare this with incoming albums this year by artists like the aforementioned Spookyland or PJ Harvey, Yeasayer or M83 or so many others: all albums that will be unquestionably better than whatever collection of Top 40 radio garbage wedding songs Ed comes up with, and none will sell nearly as well or be talked about nearly as much, because instead of being judged on their music, they’re being judged on their social media presence and their place within that universe.
And you can’t make memes out of PJ Harvey.
‘Social media is ruining music’ is hardly a new argument, and the seeming hypocrisy of a music website that relies heavily on social media for public eyeballs loudly bemoaning the impact that social media is having on music is not lost on me at all. For better or worse though we, and many other small music websites like us, are just following the trend. It’s what we have to do to survive.
As far as turning this trend around though? Maybe if albums weren’t released piece by piece as singles the way they are now, the whole album would regain some of its impact. All too often albums now end up preluded by three, four, even five singles where in the past you’d see the album released and then the singles would follow. By the time the finished record comes out now the listener has heard half of it already, and usually the better half too. Where’s the excitement there? How are you supposed to hear a record and get chills throughout it when it’s been leaked to you one bit at a time instead of arriving as the entire finished product it was originally intended to be?
Snowball’s chance of this changing, not when each single release gives a new opportunity for more clicks and more hype and more opportunity to shine the spotlight on the artist instead of on their music.
I’m not going to pretend there’s some easy fix to this at all because there really isn’t. This is how record labels and advertisers and streaming services and yes, even the artists themselves all make their money today, and at its core the music industry is absolutely still all about making money. Even in the very next episode of Vinyl, Richie Finestra has come down off his cocaine binge and is arguing that they should cut Status Quo from the label because they aren’t making them any money.
Aside from being an incredibly nifty little metaphor and some subtle exposition of what’s going on by the writers of the episode, it seems kind of ruthless and greedy on the surface, but it’s because they were stagnating the direction of music and stifling the trajectory Richie wants his label to be on. They weren’t making any money because they weren’t new and fresh and they didn’t make anyone’s (except maybe your dad’s) hair stand up on the back of their neck. Richie wants to find the next big thing, the newest wave of music that’s going to excite people, and get right behind it.
It’s the complete opposite today, where safety and mediocrity are rewarded (see: Grammys, 2016 and Sam Smith’s career: all) and music is molded to fit current trends instead of starting those trends on its own. When this happened in the past and music stagnated there was always a counter for it: 70s arena rock with punk, 80s hair metal with grunge, 90s nu-metal with a renaissance of garage rock. I just don’t see a counter coming for the horrendous state of our mainstream music at present, not when the impact of artists has been so forcibly dulled and their art compressed and compacted to fit into a neat little compartment within the hulking giant of social media.
Again, there’s no easy fix to all of this. The Internet took away the best way to make money, so the business people found new and less musically-oriented ways to make that money back. Survival you could call it. Someone would have to take a hit to the hip pocket, and even if they did it would still take a collective revolution in the industry from top to bottom and including the fans to ever change it permanently.
It would just be nice if at least some of those same business people and record executives would start chasing the feeling of unbridled euphoria again, the kind that comes when you first hear music that shakes you to your very soul, instead of chasing Facebook likes and easy dollar signs.
Main Image: The Guardian, Gifs: Giphy