There is often a great disconnect between various different audiences and stakeholders when it comes to the world of music. Over and over again, music critics (many of whom I spend a fair amount of time listening to) lament the gap that exists between the sort of music that they consider worthwhile and the sort of music that seems to become popular. Likewise, there are considerable gaps between the artist as a person as well as the music business as a whole in various aspects. Although this can be a tangled and complicated mess, I think it is worthwhile for us to at least discuss some of the reasons for these various disconnects and sketch together how it is that these disconnects may be resolved.
It is frequently lamented by music critics that the music which is most popular is often so bland, so underwritten, and so undercooked. Perhaps that is the point, though. How often do critics and other observers of music focus on what it is that ordinary listeners want from their music? I suspect that few critics or music writers know or greatly care about what the people at large think, except for that segment of the music buying and listening community that serve as their fans to whom they may serve as curators of music that meets the critics’ approval. Contrary to the groupthink among critics, there is indeed a very logical reason why it is that so many songs of this and every age are written as if they are from the hack’s guide to songwriting, and that reason is that many fans of music seem to most enjoy musicians and songs that provide a sort of empty vessel for them to fill with their own longings and their own perspective and their own experiences. The presence of sharply written detail can sometimes be a negative for the listener. For example, I love the music of Lorde, and her sophomore album in particular was not considered a great commercial success despite being a smart pop album full of deeply moving and personal touches. However, how many people can identify with being a potentially traitorous writer in the dark who would take intimate experiences as the fuel for creative writing, thus making people understandably less than willing to be intimate with someone who is less than private about their interactions. I understand this problem because, like Lorde, I am a writer in the dark, someone whose dysfunctional interactions with others form a massive spur to creativity in writing that is shared with the world at large. But how many other people can relate to that? Probably not very many. On the other hand, music as hacky as that of Bryan Adams or Maroon 5 or 1980’s Chicago ballads appeals to wide music audiences who simply want a song that allows them to fill into glorious meaning with their own longings and hopes of love and intimacy without being distracted by all of the details that would make it the singer’s experiences alone or those like the singer alone. The greater the relatability of a song to the population at large, the more hacky and uncreative its lyrics will seem to the discerning critic.
Having seen that the general public and the critic are at cross purposes when it comes to the evaluation of music, let us look briefly at musicians and their labels. This relationship too is greatly fraught with tension, and again, we find that musicians and labels are often at cross-purposes. The motives of artists are generally quite varied, but it is easy to see several motives present. Artists often create out of a compelling internal need in order to tell their story and to attempt to communicate with others across the awkward gulf that separates them from other people. In addition to this there is a desire to make money, to achieve fame, perhaps, and to work with others who are strong in areas where one might be weak. It is a lot more fun to be able to specialize and focus on those areas of the task of making music that are the most enjoyable while letting other people do what is less interesting, like marketing or sound engineering, and so on. There is no blame or wrong in any of this. The motives of the record company are far more straightforward, and that is to make money. How do record companies make money? Well, they use marketing to build hype behind artists to sell more units, pressure artists to make music that is easier to sell and market, engage in creative accounting methods that end up paying the artist very little on the recording side and that encourage artists to branch out by either writing songs for others or making money on live performances. At times the relationship between the label and an artist can get very acrimonious, as artists in general are known to be proverbially sensitive and temperamental as people.
How can these various players come to terms with each other? For critics, music that is on the tail edges of the various bell curves of music are the most interesting, and therefore the easiest to talk about, whether to bash negative outliers or to praise positive outliers that stand out from the crowd. For most fans, though, it is the most anonymous acts that allow the fan to fill out ordinary and bland songs with their own intensity of feeling. Still other fans may stan particular artists, remaining loyal to an artist and even desiring a certain degree of intimacy with that artist through personal communications and meet and greets or passionate devotion and loyalty on social media. Sometimes the relationships between fans and artists can be a source of encouragement to both of them. I must admit that being a somewhat socially awkward person myself I have seldom been in personal contact with a great deal of other artists, but I have to say that in my interactions with artists as a DJ, and as a fan at a concert, I have generally found most entertainers to be gracious and friendly people who like making music and getting to know those who like it. I suspect that if I knew more entertainers I would probably find plenty of people who were arrogant about it or jerks about it, but the same would be true, I think, if I knew more people who were critics or reviewers like myself. People are people, for better or worse, after all.
In one sense, the various components of the world of music (or that of any creative endeavor that involves business relationships) all have something that others need and need something that others have. There would be no music business at all if there was not something to sell and someone who was interested in buying it in some fashion. The fact that people are interested in what artists are performing in, at least potentially, means that there is room in the middle for at least two types of brokers. The critics serve as one sort of would-be middleman, seeking to curate the mass of music that comes out and to point out that which stands out from the mass as a whole. To the extent that one can find a critic whose opinion is close to one’s own or who tends to like the same sorts of genres, one can gain a lot of efficiency by having them listen to a lot of music and then buy the best of that. This is equivalent to the efficiency one gains from, say, reading or buying only books that a prolific reader and reviewer of books would engage with. On the other hand, the various facets of the music business serve as brokers who make sure that the art created by the artists is packaged and marketed in such a way that news of it reaches those who would want to buy it based upon one’s tastes and one’s past behavior and so on and so forth. Given the difficulties of communication, it is a wonder things work at all, given that all of the players are in some respect at cross purposes with the others based on their own position and their own interests.