April 6th 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The NSW election and our incredible shrinking farming sector

SOCIETY The pervasive and pernicious online porn epidemic

CANBERRA OBSERVED Coffers are full but Treasurer will take spending cautiously

OPINION Judge treats Cardinal Pell to a spot of 'open justice'

NATIONAL AFFAIRS NSW Liberals re-election gives a boost to Morrison

ECONOMICS The Great Dragon uncoils all around the globe

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS President Donald Trump: an unlikely promise keeper Part 2

REFLECTION On the conviction of Cardinal Pell

FICTION Orange Years: The Japie Greyling Story

TERRORISM Lessons from Christchurch

ASIAN AFFAIRS Xi's imperious play prompts U.S. to repair Asian friendships

YPAT Getting with the program: one young person's story

MUSIC To market, to market, to sell a good song

CINEMA The LEGO Movie 2: Building a world

BOOK REVIEW A template for living alongside the world

BOOK REVIEW Catholic Maryland and early tolerance



THE BUDGET Take your tax cuts and be merry, for tomorrow ... is another day

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To market, to market, to sell a good song

by David James

News Weekly, April 6, 2019

The dominant influence on music is the marketing of genres. Walk into any record store, or buy music online, and all the offerings will be under genre: classical, jazz, pop, rock, hip hop, blues, alternative (alternative to what?), ambient.

It has worked against creativity, encouraging those concerned with music to think about the sales category first, and the art only secondly. It is one reason why music has not advanced greatly since the 1960s and 1970s, when many of those genres were devised (the exceptions being classical and blues). Ambient music, for example, was first produced in the 1970s as a mix of relaxation effects and background sound. Little has changed since then.

For a while, the record companies’ strategy of creating a marketing tag for a style of music translated into commercial success. It was possible to sell records or CDs off these marketing labels, encouraging musicians to adapt their approach to suit. Clashes became common between musicians and the record companies’ marketing people over how the music fitted into the genres; the latter usually won out.

The commercial success has largely evaporated for musicians, due to the advent of the internet and free distribution. Record companies have all but disappeared, surviving only on their back catalogues. Most of the sleazy, fraudulent A&R (artist and repertoire) executives and marketing executives have moved on, presumably to selling other fast-moving consumer goods.

But, sadly, the influence of genre marketing remains. Even when a performer claims to mix the genres up by combining influences from different sources – these days a common ploy – it is just a twist on the same theme. Marketing continues to rule, even though for the most part there is little market left.

What this genre marketing takes away is what matters most: the capacity to sell something because it is good. That has become all but impossible because those who thought up the selling strategies had little understanding of the product they sold; still less any notion of quality. It is one if the reasons why there was a perennial clash between the “talent”, musicians, and the “suits”.

The musicians were exclusively focused on producing something that was good; like all artists, they wanted to create the best possible art of which they were capable, which usually means attempting something that is at least partially new and unique. The business people, by contrast, wanted to sell products that were like what they had sold before: music consistent with the “genre”, in other words. They had no interest in anything new. It is an inevitable clash between art, which depends on the unique, and business, which depends on efficient repetition.

Another arm of the musical marketing matrix in the media is the so-called music “critic”. This has been, for the most part, a misnomer. Genuine music critics are extremely rare: one thinks of Alex Ross for The New Yorker or British philosopher of music Roger Scruton as two of the few instances of genuine critical ability.

Instead, what music “critics” have been is either simple passers-on of uninformed opinion, or, perhaps worse, literary criticism graduates who prefer to wax lyrical about lyrics and social commentary. What they have not been able to do is talk about the music’s quality, either because they do not really understand music, or they do not have the intellectual ability to address what is a difficult challenge (or, usually, both).

That has left much of the exposure of music to the public a dialogue between two ignorant groups. And we are not necessarily talking about high-level discussions of beauty or aesthetics. Take something as simple as rhythmic power, swing, in popular music. Performers like Michael Jackson, The Police or The Rolling Stones possessed this in abundance. They made people want to dance, to move, because of their distinctive rhythmic qualities. The same kind of thing can be heard in the early Beatles playing, and later in a song like Get Back.

This is key to commercial success yet record executives never set out to understand and replicate it (an exception was the founders of the jazz label, Blue Note, who used to know when they had a good recording by the fact that they would want to dance to it).

Music “critics” never mention this because it is hard to talk about, and even harder to have opinions about.

This is the challenge that faces modern musicians: to get beyond genre labels and to deal with a widespread failure to understand and describe musical quality. It is not an easy task.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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Last Modified:
April 4, 2018, 6:45 pm