Fast Food and the Music Industry
Since I am known as a person who usually sings about serious issues, I figured I had better keep things very serious here today. I’d like to begin by relating a story to you about…Arbey’s Roast Beef.
I like fast food, I think it is a good product and a great invention. Last week I was standing in line looking over the simple menu and I decided I would get the #1 value meal. Then I realized my craving for lots of fries and I said “Can I have a large fries with that instead”? The cashier said: “Why don’t you just supersize? After I said okay, she reached for the supersize cola and I saw that this thing was the size of a small trash can. Who can drink that much cola? Who can carry it? You would have to strap it in, to a child-restraint harness, if you ordered it at the drive-thru window. I said, “That’s okay, I just want a regular cola but keep the supersize fries”. This is the point that all hell broke loose. The cashier said: “UUUUMMMM, we can’t do that sir. It was as if I asked her to derive Kepler’s law of orbital rotation or something! Apparently, the keypad on the cash register didn’t include an option that allowed a supersized fries without a supersized cola. Three other employees came forth from their posts to help out their confused co-worker. None of them could figure out how to accurately charge me for my simple request. I said “Don’t worry about it, just give me the regular sized drink and I’ll pay the full price of a supersized number one value meal. All of the co- workers, let out an appreciative sigh of relief. And the people behind me in line were relieved too: “Who is this guy holding up the line, taking all the employees for his own special needs? “That’s when it dawned on me: Things in our society have become too efficient. There is an over-efficiency problem to the extent that institutions offer you only a limited set of choices and what results is a subtle determinism of your behavior. I believe that this isn’t what people want. They want to be more free. They want to exercise their freedom of choice. Do you remember the old marketing slogan of Burger King? “Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us. Today, special orders might not upset them, they just short-circuit their brain synapses. The “Have it your way” mentality of the past is no longer valid. Today, virtually all of the fast food chains are saying “Have it our way”. You are not free to choose. And this is a serious issue.
The music industry itself is not immune to this kind of simplistic, over-efficient, marketing mentality unfortunately. And I think this is something that needs to be addressed. It requires a lot more discussion than we can have here today, but I will break it down for you quickly and add some of my own analysis and maybe inspire some change.
Step One: Is there a problem?
I think so. Why do so many bands and artists sound the same? Artists have always emulated other artists, that’s not exactly the problem. Today, it seems, the similarities are getting profound. Lead singers are sounding identical to other singers on other labels. Combine that with the producers, using the same techniques for different bands, and we are left with: singers sounding the same, production sounding the same, two different labels, the same product, value meal mentality. Consider this: Epic has Pearl Jam, BMG has Creed, Sony music has Silverchair, Epitaph has NOFX, but MCA has Blink 182, Interscope has NIN but they figured they could amplify that so they offered us Marilyn Manson, WEA has Pantera, SONY has Korn, Geffen had Berlin in the 80’s so 10 years later they figured they could offer it to us again in the form of Garbage, WEA has Alanis Morrisette, ULG has Meredith Brooks, Arista has Sarah McLaughlin, WEA has Paula Cole. The list could go on and on….
Why is this the case?
I think it’s because art is hard to make, so artists copy other artists. But art is even harder to sell to the public, so the sellers copy the marketing strategies of other sellers. The artist and seller then form a bond of self-congratulation that destroys their desire to try something novel. The result is a lower diversity of musical styles and a more programmed, less realistic image of the artist. The other result is higher, more predictable sales, and thus a greater proportion of signed bands selling boat loads of cds. Why do we buy it? The music lover doesn’t have much of a choice. We either buy the music that is presented to us or give up listening to it. Most of us would choose the former.
Part Two: How does this problem come to be?
I will attempt to illustrate the process of how I think this problem is perpetuated through the industry. I would like to borrow an analogy from biology to show how evolutionary systems can progressively enhance efficiency through time, but only at a high cost…the cost of diversity. The music industry evolves just as a species evolve. In nature there is natural selection: Species must adapt, or they become extinct. In the music business, bands have to either sell records (a form of adaptation itself) or they get dropped (a form of extinction). Evolution depends not only on natural selection, but also on probability. The variety of animals that can be created in the next stage of evolution are not a random sample. They are determined to some degree by the variety of animals that exist today.
This can be stated simply in the following way “whatever comes next in any evolutionary system is dependent on what is available at present”. Biologists call this phenomenon a markovian process, a process of non-random probability that constrains the outcome of the evolutionary sequence of events. Think of how monkeys came to be. They didn’t just appear suddenly like some aliens landing from outer space. They were derived from animals in a previous stage of evolution that looked similar, but weren’t quite monkeys. The music industry also has evolved through a markovian process. For instance, it is not a random chance that we have Alanis Morrissette. She didn’t evolve out of the null-and-void. She came from a former template. She borrowed styles and sounds from a very limited set of other artists. The important thing to be learned is that it is possible to predict with some degree of accuracy what the next stage of evolution will look like, based on what things look like today. And if the music industry doesn’t cultivate a diverse array of artists today, they will extinguish the possibility of future musical revolutions.
Every time a species becomes extinct, its genes are removed from the gene-pool of the future and they don’t re-appear. Likewise, every time a band is dropped, or an artist’s catalog is discontinued, there is a negative effect on the next stage of music-industry evolution. Dropping bands severely limits the range of choices from which the next generation will take its inspiration. The crop of artists-to-be of the future is determined by the artists that exist today. Inspiration is analogous to hereditary.
So the question in the music industry is the same as the biggest question in modern biology: “How do we maintain diversity”?
If we continue to clear natural habitats, and pave them over with cities or agricultural land, we will cause a lot of species to go extinct because they cannot adapt to our rapid destruction. The net result: Fewer types of organisms in the next stage of evolution. Likewise, if the record labels only promote carbon copies of each other’s artists rosters, and ignore bands and artists that are qualitatively unique, there will be a very restrictive set of artistic styles available in the next decade. And a limited array of products is bad for any institution’s long-term prospectus. Now comes the difficult part: Suggesting reparations.
I think our values are askew. We have come to measure quality in the wrong way, usually in terms of dollars and cents and not in intellectual or emotional stimulation. This is probably both a symptom of our society, as well as an arrogant irreverence by those who wield the power. There is a common attitude among music industry people. I’ve heard numerous executives say: “Who are we to judge the music we release? The kids love it! We are just giving the people what they want to hear”.
In short this means that the reason they are putting out crappy music is because it is what the people really want. I don’t agree with this. I think it is logical to ask: Is it what they really want to hear, or does the industry determine what the people hear through “un-natural” selection? I think there has to be a set of quality standards other than how much money an artist generates. Less-popular bands deserve to be sustained. Their value should be measured by projecting their influence forward, into the future, and not merely by calculating last year’s profit and loss statement.
In order to maintain diversity, we need label executives who are willing to stick their necks out and say “This is good music, and this is poor quality. This has integrity, and this is a blatant rip off”. Artists need to be told when they sound like someone else. It helps them recognize what is and isn’t unique about themselves. It helps them develop. I think there has to be a more sophisticated approach to developing artists and bands. I know that bands need to be educated. They don’t need the pressure of their labels simply throwing money at them while they cross their fingers and hope for a hit. This isn’t real development.
Bad Religion took a long time to develop into gold-record- status artists. Every step of the way we learned and applied our knowledge. Atlantic helped us reach a larger audience all along the way. And although we are a unique situation, I still think we prove that real development can occur in the industry without sacrificing artistic integrity.
In conclusion then, I think there has to be an acknowledgment by the people who sell the music that they play a significant role in determining the public’s musical taste. By overlooking unique artists in the search for superstars, and by forsaking long- term development in lieu of instant one-hit wonders, industry executives actively winnow the choices of the musical styles and images that are presented to the public. Thus, the industry, through a markovian evolutionary process, facilitates its own demise, and contributes to the progressive senility of our society. It is as much a truism in music, as in politics: If you offer the people nothing but mediocrity, you will create a mediocre people.