State of the Industry Address: Taking a look at the music industry and counter-culture as we head into another decade.
by Jon C. Ireson
Where are we now? Where…are…we…now?
I’m Jon Ireson and this is to be a “State of the Industry” address, taking a look at where music is as we are about to roll over into the next decade of this young millennium. Sadly for Will Smith’s music career, it has not been the “Willennium” he so boldly predicted with his 1999 album. So, as of right now, what is the state of pop music? What is the state of counter-culture? Are they on a collision course or could the two not be further from one another? Technology is inexorably intertwined with not only how music is consumed but what music is consumed. Where could the industry possibly go now that streaming has seemingly broken down all barriers? What is live performance anymore? How long can guitar, bass, drums and a singer on a dimly lit stage survive? Finally, what are we saying with our art? Is music encouraging thought on a deep and challenging level? Is our appreciation of music embracing the more complex and subtle? Pop music is almost always going to be inherently simple but is the music counter-culture pushing back enough? Where do we go from here?
Rock n roll has been dwindling from the pop charts for some time now but it seems to have lost its final foothold. Scrolling through Billboard’s Hot 100 this week, there are zero rock acts in its ranks. The closest one could possibly come to a rock outfit is Panic! At the Disco who at their most “rock” were a horrendous expulsion of whiney, emo-pop sap but now do not have any remnants of rock left. Seventeen-year-old electropop sensation (and Dave Grohl and Thom Yorke approved star) Billie Eilish is exponentially more rock n roll than the babies in Panic! however, without guitars and a drum kit holding it down, we can’t exactly classify it as rock. Grohl infamously compared Eilish to Nirvana, a misrepresented comment that had more to do with her meteoric rise and attitude than the style of her music.
Barring the charting of a 10-minute epic upon the release of Tool’s exercise in tantric anticipation of a new album, rock is no longer hot in the eyes of the general masses. So what is? The usual electro-tinged pop fare is peppered throughout the 100, as is the expected amount of country. Lil’ Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ broke all kinds of records and was supposedly a “crossover” hit but it IS really just trap in a cowboy hat. The rest of the list is filled up with the scourge of South America, reggaeton and trap. Not an errant bit of musical exceptionalism or progressive thought in the bunch. That is disheartening but not at all surprising. However, the more troubling thing is that the songs on the Billboard chart are largely devoid of any soulful emotion. A voice like Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, the BeeGees, or even Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston is noticeably absent from the list. Pop has never depended heavily on substance but right now it is vacuous unlike any time before.
Politics and culture have a complicated relationship. At times, a political establishment can stir up deep-rooted anger propelling a nation-wide movement against the sitting administration. Vietnam inspired a tsunami of protest music that still lives on to this day as some of the best ever made. The Bush-era policies post-911 including the Iraq war drew ire from all genres from The Dixie Chicks to System of a Down, filling the charts with music that shined a light on the hegemony of American power. But the less obvious and more insidious way that politics curbs the direction of art is by its normalizing of social mores. The leader’s values inevitably leech into the groundwater and society’s goals, standards and perception itself are moulded by whoever is at the wheel. Two and a half years into having one of the world’s most shallow narcissists as leader of the Free World, it’s becoming obvious that western culture’s priorities at the moment are frivolous, caddy and vain. I could write a book on this subject but we’ll just leave it at that for now. It is something to always keep in mind, the sway of the great cultural pendulum.
Now that we’ve established where pop is these days, how is the counter-culture doing? Extremely well, in fact. The range, level of creative achievement and sheer volume of killer acts has never been higher. Although, the presence of hip-hop on the pop charts is an utter embarrassment with talent-less mumble rappers exercising their 50-word vocabularies over the same four or five beats, there are real musical geniuses at work out there. Multi-instrumentalist Anderson Paak is releasing masterful albums with commanding lyrical skills while bouncing between hip-hop and soul with a silky smooth facility. Dynamic duo Run the Jewels hit heavy like a hard rock group. The union of Brooklyn MC El-P with Atlanta rapper Killer Mike was a stroke of genius. The pair turn UP while spittin’ rhymes with any of the best in the biz. If you want to talk conscious hip-hop, beat poet turned psychedelic luminary Saul Williams (read my review of his excellent album “MartyrLoserKing“) continues to release records that will weave tapestries in your mind and have you unravelling his lyrics for months to come. It wasn’t even that long ago that Kendrick had tracks ruling the 100. We could really use another seismic album drop from the Compton king.
How about rock n roll? The bands that were birthed out of the early ’90s grunge scene have hit middle-aged maturity. The story of the year is the release of this week’s Fear Inoculum, the massively anticipated and long overdue return of master mind-benders, Tool. Any offering from them requires and deserves many repeat listenings to digest and appreciate, and this is arguably their most complex and nuanced record to date. However, just from the preliminary ten spins through the record it is safe to say that Tool have once again pushed the goalposts forward and redefined what it means to make an album that is spiritually, emotionally and politically heavy. Justin Chancellor’s bass weaves together all the best points of previous efforts and Maynard Keenan’s lyrics succinctly and savagely dissect the present zeitgeist yet have the timelessness of an elven elegy. Fear Inoculum is, however, primarily a showcase for Adam Jones and Danny Carey’s incredible talents, demonstrating why their ingenuity has forged a genre all their own. This also means that though they have grown as artists, the art they are making is unmistakably “Tool” and doesn’t make a foray into any new genres. The band’s cult-like fanbase may have coalesced into a significant army, large enough that finally putting their works up on streaming platforms put many of their earlier songs back in the charts but I’d argue that this record won’t make many new Tool fans.
In other things “Alternative”, Queens of the Stone Age continue to put out solid albums with their latest, Villains taking a more playful tone than their preceding heady masterpiece …Like Clockwork. The Arctic Monkeys followed up their wildly successful hip rock hit-filled A.M. with a remarkably ambitious rock opera concept album, Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino. It’s a risky move to follow up a collection of moderately thoughtful hookup bangers with a story about a moon base resort set to “future-retro” lounge but The Monkeys manage to make it their crowning achievement to date. Tranquility Base doesn’t have the chart dominance that their previous release did but years from now it will be looked back on as the “Ziggy Stardust” of their career.
In terms of rock that won’t be coming through mainstream radio waves, the psych and doom scenes are producing some sensational work and growing rich DIY spirited communities where their art can thrive. The list of great acts is long and ever-growing but just to name a few, Graveyard, Fuzz, The Green Door, The Claypool Lennon Delirium, Drowning Effect, Allah-Las, Wand, and Federale are all putting out fantastic albums under the extensive nebulous umbrella of “psych-rock”. In this regard, the heavyweight champs have to be The Black Angels who reign over their scene in the psychotropic hub of Austin, Texas. Their droning brand of buzz and squeal fuzz rock is somehow both trance-inducing and adrenaline pumping. As for their slower heavier cousins in the doom/stoner/post-rock vein, bands like Pallbearer, Astra, Pelican, Sleep, Yob, Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, and Windhand are all coming out with absolutely giant records. Straddling the line between doom and post-rock, Russian Circles are arguably doing the best job at making something both devastatingly heavy yet serenely beautiful. Then if you want to go off the deep end into whirlpools of notes, bands like Ex Eye and Animals as Leaders are making records with note counts in what must be the hundreds of thousands yet still managing to score something that makes sense melodically and tells a cohesive sonic story.
We could keep listing triumphs in various micro-genres across the musical landscape but we’d be here for hours. So what does that say about music today? That music is fractured in a way that we’ve never seen before. Breaking through with a massive audience can only be done with music that is truly made for the lowest common denominator. People who ask little from their music can be easily seduced by inferior pap and people who demand the most will have such specific tastes that bands will be niched out of a large share of the industry pie. The road to market penetration is a hard-fought one for bands with integrity but with enough unwavering support from a nurtured scene, music can be made that will last forever.
As for the way we consume our chosen tunes, what is the future and what does this mean for the format of our audio experience. Is the album dying? Yes…and no. Streaming is unstoppable and every song at your fingertips is the demanded reality, those who fight it are trying to stop a tsunami with an umbrella. However the style of content management changes in the coming years, all access is now the law. This has shown that many people have little regard for how an artist frames their material in a group of songs, they’ll have the single and leave the rest to waste. In light of this, many artists have vowed that they’ll never release a proper “LP” album again opting to just release songs at a whim. However, this model is again for the mildly invested. For those who are making significant music with depth and meaning, the album has never been stronger. With radio becoming fairly meaningless in the promotion and proliferation of an album, bands are no longer required to care about a single that is fine-tuned for mass appeal in an almost focus group-like fashion. The art can be how it organically comes to be. In addition to this, the reinstatement of vinyl as a revered audio format means that to a certain sect of the music listening public, the focus on the long-play record is the strongest its been in three or four decades. With these trends, the counter-culture is firmly rejecting the contemptible dumbing down of music as an art form.
We all know that because streaming has reduced band profits down to peanuts, groups have to be on the road more than ever to earn their living but where does the future of live performance lie? We’ve become fairly jaded to the spectacle of it all. Oneupmanship has made having bigger screens and crazier props blasé. Someone like Trent Reznor, who is a master of stage production has given up, opting to go fully minimalist on his most recent tour. Much like the integrity imbued in taking in music via vinyl record, the raw, visceral concert experience is once again what drives us to the theatres, ballrooms, and grubby dive venues. It’s hard to say when wholly synthesized music will fully overtake the live performance style which has ruled the last century but for now, the classic archetype of tossing up a banner with a logo and slaying an audience with tunes is experiencing a full-on renaissance among the counter-culture.
What does all of this mean? In terms of pop charts vs. quality music with integrity, we are more divided than ever. Just like our social and political landscape, the division is staggering. It may seem like pop (power pop, trap, Latin etc.) has a stranglehold on the market but we have to remember that their attentions are naturally gonna coalesce around the simple. Of 100000 pop fans, 90000 are going to listen to the new Taylor Swift single on repeat. Of 100000 doom fans, maybe 20000 will listen to the lead track from the new Windhand album but they are more likely to spread their attention across the whole album. They are also more likely to listen to many different bands throughout their week in the search for new sounds. This “splitting of the vote” means that as a single band making music with depth, it is difficult to carve out a substantial portion of the market share but as a community, we are larger than we realize and can sustain our own ecosystem without necessarily clamoring for chart placement. That being said, as of when I’m writing this Tool stands poised to knock Taylor Swift out of the top position for album sales this week. I think as a community of forward-thinking music lovers, we can all take immense pride in that fact. Kudos Tool Army.
With our endless access to music, niches will only continue their rapid mitosis. The way of the future is to focus on creating self-sustaining communities like the psych and metal communities have. Buy vinyl and go to shows to support acts you feel contribute something new or vital to the scene. This turns a group of misfit kids banging out their aggression in a tiny, dank rehearsal space into the rich tapestry of art that we can look back on as the crowning achievement of our society.
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State of the Industry Address: Taking a look at the music industry and counter-culture as we head into another decade.? New #Feature article ?by I.M.P journalist Jon C. Ireson, commenting on the good, the bad, the vile and the commendable in new music ?and counter-culture art. Covering everything from Taylor Swift and Tool’s streaming war to Russian Circles & Saul Williams. Read all about it – link in today’s IG/FB story! ?? #MusicNews #MusicIndustry #MusicBusiness #MusicScene #CounterCulture #NewMusic #RockMusic #Tool #TaylorSwift #BillieEllish #DaveGrohl #SaulWilliams #RussianCircles #Windhand #AndersonPaak #RuntheJewels #ArcticMonkeys #Doom #PsychRock #Underground #ProtestMusic #Activism #MusicwithDepth #IndependentMusic