May 19th 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The real cost of institutionalised child care

EDITORIAL AGL dismisses $250m bid for Liddell Power Station

GENDER POLITICS As Queensland transgenders birth certificates, 300 women quit UK Labour Party

CANBERRA OBSERVED No pressure on Malcolm to call election this year

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Can Greens regenerate, or are they mulch?

POLITICS Conservative shift in the Victorian Liberal Party

OPINION No fairytale ending from the Land of a Fair Go

LAW REFORM The Nordic Model: proven to curtail sex trafficking

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Committal hearing dismisses main serious charges against Cardinal Pell

GENDER AND ETHICS Transgenderism and the dissolution of identity

PHILOSOPHY The supercharged cheetah

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS One Belt, One Road: China's new empire


MUSIC Business as usual: The sweet tinkle of falling coins

CINEMA Avengers: Last Flag Flying and Infinity War

BOOK REVIEW A hungry beast that ate up 4 million lives

BOOK REVIEW Skewed analysis of republic in crisis



CANBERRA OBSERVED Bill Shorten's Budget-Reply speech: for what ails you

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Behind the U.S.-North Korea rapprochement

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Business as usual: The sweet tinkle of falling coins

by David James

News Weekly, May 19, 2018

Success in music, and the arts generally, is mainly a function of marketing. To have a successful pop song, it is generally accepted that at least half a million dollars has to be invested on promotions and perhaps as much as $3 million.

Even in the comparatively staid world of classical music, many of the most popular solo performers could double as models. They appear to be selected not just on their musical prowess, but also on their looks because it makes them easier to market.

Marketers tend to be trained to think in product categories: washing machines, toothpaste, men’s underwear. So it is no surprise that the same approach is taken with music. This means that they invariably focus on genre as their starting point. The first question that will generally be asked of the music will be: “Is it country, jazz, pop, rock, R&B, rap, classical, world music, alternative or ambient?”

One suspects that little attention is paid to the music itself. Instead, the focus will be on developing a strategy for the relevant genre, and whether or not the investment required to promote it is likely to be recouped, based on data collected about sales in each of those genres.

One thing such marketing dominance does is to encourage artists to aim for the more lucrative categories. In the jazz genre, for example, the returns are typically paltry, so it is unlikely that any significant marketing resources will be expended. Accordingly, it is wise for aspiring musicians not to call what they do jazz, but something else.

Another effect of the focus on genre is that it ensures that most of the musical output tends to be backward looking. Genre is really another name for established style, and the best exponents are usually the people who invented the style, not those who follow.

By fitting into a genre, and the associated expectations about the music, artists are, usually unwittingly, ensuring that what they are doing is derivative.

Many examples come to mind. In jazz, such pioneers as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday had an unmistakable freshness about what they were doing because it had not been done before. Modern-day performers trying to excel in that genre can never capture the same freshness: precisely because they are already familiar with it, there is little discovery of the new.

It is the same in rock music. The extraordinary rhythm section playing of Cream, the Jimmie Hendrix Experience or The Who, to take three examples, was the result of the players just having heard American blues for the first time, which led to an excited exploration of the possibilities using new techniques of amplification and electric guitar sounds.

Modern-day rock musicians cannot experience such novelty because they have heard these sounds since they were born. They may be able to play as well as the previous players, but it is all but impossible to reproduce their originality.

World music is another genre that can easily become routine. When jazz keyboardist and founder of Weather Report Joe Zawinul first combined different traditions of music, the idea was new and the combinations were often startling. (See below, Zawinul in Cologne performing A Remark You Made) But as musicians have made a habit of combining the different types of music they have been exposed to around the world, a degree of staleness has crept in.

It is worth ruminating on a musical traditional like flamenco and asking the question: “How did it come about in such a distinct way?” One answer is that its idiosyncrasies almost certainly emerged in relative isolation. Its originality emerged as something new; it is not characteristic of any other genre, although there are traces of other music.

What marketing-by-genre thus gives us is a lack of originality. It may still be possible to do something radically original in music, but it is unlikely to be something that gets much commercial support, because the marketers are not able to fit new offerings into their databased formulae and sales projections.

In the final analysis, business is based on the repetition of a successful method and art is based on creating something distinctive, which means not repeating what has been done before. So long as there is a music “industry” the music itself will tend to suffer.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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