Friday, April 13, 2007

The Decline of Excellence (at the Behest of Perfection)

I’ve tried to fight it, tried to convince myself that it isn’t true, but it seems too pervasive to ignore any longer: music is suffering from a horrendous lack of excellence. More records are produced each year than the one before it, but the amount of variety is no more than usual, if not less. We’ve got genres, sub-genres, sub-sub-genres, and niche bands so exclusive that they do whatever possible to remain inaccessible (I’m looking at you, Deerhoof). Despite all this, though, we are forced to suffer through a whole lot of “perfect” albums and too few great ones. Or, hell, even good ones. Too many bands appear to have peaked previously (MxPx, anyone?), though most still keep slogging it out. Big bands always have enduring fanbases, though, which is as it should be. No matter how mediocre each successive Foo Fighters album gets, I will still buy it (and let’s not forget, Gil Norton’s at the helm this summer, for the first time since TCATS! Get excited!). What is of concern is the growing number of bands, and their overall attitude of turpitude. (Yes, it’s that bad.)

The internet explosion, particularly the MySpace explosion, resulted in the worst possible outcome: children of the Internet Age have come to view instant gratification as a right. The result for the music world is that no one is forced to put any effort into the music they create – what they ARE forced to put effort into is the means of creating said music. Once people started realizing that they could record their songs in the basement or the bedroom, they started doing so, at first with great results. Artists that had been striving for years unsuccessfully to get wider exposure were able to record their songs for cheap, on their own timetable, and then upload them to the internet for a (potentially) global audience to access. This positive soon turned into a negative, as any joker with a Dell could make a recording; a fair number even learned to make their recordings sound comparable to an album from a signed musician – at least, sonically speaking. What is largely missing, unfortunately, is the craft of songwriting. (I do not mean to limit the understanding of “songwriting craft” to traditional pop structures; this applies across the board.) Instant gratification now comes into play in reverse, as well: an artist now has to wait approximately 1 second before his finished work is available to a wide audience. This lack of effort on both sides (artist and listener) creates a synergy of dis-appreciation: the artist does not have to put any effort into getting his voice heard, and the listener does not have to expend any time, energy, or money to hear the artist’s voice. Phrased another way, the artist doesn’t care if the listener hears, and the listener doesn’t care if the artist speaks. Or , for that mater, is silent. Ambivalence reigns.

As this trend continues, it gets steadily worse. Pop any album into a CD player – err, I mean, download any album and import it into your iTunes – and you will be graced with crisp vocals, huge guitars, fat bass, and drums so steady you could set your watch by them. The production values are higher than ever – they’re almost unrealistic, in fact, and certainly rarely lifelike. And, after a while, boring. But this is what we have come to expect from albums – not good songs, but a good sound. Albums have muscle but no mind; they’re hip but heartless.

Has everyone already forgotten the fifth Beatle? Not Pete – George. George Martin, that is. His name is synonymous with every major Beatles release, and for good reason. While he didn’t write the songs, he proved to be an invaluable sounding board and resource. Who knows how the Beatles records would have sounded without him? For that matter, how would Nevermind have sounded without Butch Vig producing and Andy Wallace mixing? Would Nirvana still have exploded like that? Would Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary still sound fresh and alive without Brad Wood at the mixing board? Would The Get Up Kids’ On a Wire been a better album without Scott Litt? Who knows? The point is that the role of the engineer/producer/mixer can be literally incalculable. While there are a number of artists that can successfully operate as a self-contained unit – and here I use the phrase “successful” to denote artistic achievement, not necessarily financial – most can benefit from the outside, more-impartial ear of a producer. As a musical unit, it is in an artist’s best interest to believe wholeheartedly in the goodness and merit of his music. As a producer, it is in his best interest to highlight the strengths of an artist and strengthen or eliminate his weaknesses. This role can be an immediate boon to the artist, as no one can be fully aware of their strengths and weaknesses, and to the artist’s audience as well. I hate to use the word “synergy,” but it seems appropriate. When bands forego the influence of a producer they risk wallowing in their own ineptitude, and this happens more often than not. Sadly, the George Martins of the world are disappearing.

Now, I know I appear to be contradicting myself, first stating concern for the overproduced nature of current music and then bemoaning the demise of the record producer. But it must be understood that the difference between “production” and “overproduction” is as important as the one between “cooked” and “overcooked” – one is tasty, the other, not so much. What is missing from music is humility and a desire for excellence – this is where producers first came in, offering an outside opinion with the goal of producing the best album possible. What is all too common in music is pride and bad ideas that go unchecked. In the process, albums lack soul and individuality. I know many “indie” artists and fans in particular like to praise the DIY ethic, but what I am lamenting is not the disappearance of major-label control or producer input; what is disheartening is the acceptance of mediocrity that has become commonplace. Any professional and dedicated visual artist is aware that his work is best served when he has an outside source of critique – whether a friend, a gallery operator, or even a complete stranger. The current music climate of self-production and promotion too often creates an insular world without commentary, creating self-absorbed “artistes” who really have nothing of value to say or share. The volume of music today (in both geometric and audio senses) is not enough to belie the dearth of talent, skill and work ethic (and this should play a factor). There are too many voices vying for attention, valuing self-expression over objective self-critique. The current musical landscape does a grave disservice to music by allowing any weed to flourish.

There is an additional aspect to this debacle: the value of investment and maturity. I hate to imply that it can be boiled down to an economic principle, but there are some similarities. In the pre-digital age, record production was largely reserved for the artists that earned it – for the ones that put everything they had into their music, worked their asses off, and had the talent and skills to handle it. This meant that many garage bands stayed in the garage, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. This also meant that artists were forced to mature, through time spent writing, performing, and honing their craft. They were forced to look at their work as any other artist or craftsman would. To return to the beginning of this whole sermon, the current climate allows a record to be created with little or no forethought or effort; as a result there is an increasing lack of afterthought, as well, and the (often realized) potential for no laboring to occur over the input or output of an album.

There is a potential danger for reaching a state of critical mass in the amount of music available to the global audience. When music becomes so prevalent it is not a conscious joy but instead an unconscious afterthought, the true artists will continue their labors and the rest will find fulfillment elsewhere.


Ek said...

Good points. I think the decline of rock radio (which was happening before most of the phenomenon mentioned here) has also played a role - when I was growing up, you could be at least casually familiar with 85-90% of the relevant rock bands of the day just by listening to Q101 and 103.5. In addition, all of the rock stations weren't owned by the same people back then, so the stations in Indianapolis and Milwaukee would be featuring different bands more heavily.

And because rock stations are now fairly homogenized and DJs have little to no control over what's played, current rock radio has absolutely no idea how to handle the explosion of garage bands producing studio-calibur (at least in terms of production) recordings.

Oh, and you're a dork.

Lewis said...

I hope their is a new entry this friday.