Wallace Wylie

The Quality of Music and The Conformity of Youth | Dwindling Album Sales Explained

The Quality of Music and The Conformity of Youth | Dwindling Album Sales Explained
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By Wallace Wylie

Hear ye, hear ye. Come gather round friends and listen to the news. Album sales are at an all-time low. The American music industry is dying. The vultures are circling, the jackals are prowling, and it is surely only a matter of time before the whole sorry mess collapses in on itself. When things start going wrong it’s natural to start pointing fingers. To many people the most obvious culprit is digital downloading, both legal and illegal. Illegal downloading results in lost dollars, and legal downloaders aren’t always interested in entire albums, many preferring to pick and choose individual songs. Others choose to ignore the whole issue with technology and simply point to what they believe is the obvious reason for diminishing music sales: MUSIC SUCKS. Yes, the reason album sales are plummeting is because there’s a lack of good music. Perusing the comments on various articles (a bad idea at the best of times but I’m trying to make a point), many seem to think that music just isn’t as great as it once was.

Let me show you some examples:

“It means one thing only….MUSIC SUCKS TODAY! The crap that is supposedly popular sucks, the crap that’s supposedly good sucks, it all sucks.”

“It all comes down to the quality of the material. So many of the releases today lack imagination and creativity when it comes to the actual song and production. It seems that we are treating the consumer as if they will buy anything. Just because it sounds good does not mean that I would buy it. What happened to those songs that touch you in multiple ways, not just the ones that will make you say humm, not bad.”

“The market is overloaded with mediocre CDs or downloads.”

“Today’s pop stars have no debth (sic).”

“Might have something to do with how most popular music today flat out SUCKS.”

You know what I say to that? Bullshit. First off, album sales these days are still better than they were in the 60s, the so-called golden age of music. Outside of The Beatles, album sales were nothing compared to the 70s, 80s, and 90s. In the top 70 best-selling albums of all time, only three come from the 60s. The real reason album sales are down is because there’s too much good music out there being made by a ridiculously diverse bunch of people. We’re being overloaded with amazing albums and people just can’t keep up. I’m not fucking kidding here. If you can’t find good music in this day and age, then you aren’t trying. You’re in decline but, instead of looking in the mirror, you’re blaming music and society. I can see by that look in your eye that you want me to explain some more. Fine, keep reading.

The vast majority of albums bought from the peak years of the music industry were for shit product. Let me name you a few artists with an estimate of their total album sales:

Celine Dion: 200 million
The Eagles: 150 million
Billy Joel: 150 million
Aerosmith: 150 million
Garth Brooks: 130 million
Dire Straits: 120 million
Kiss: 100 million

That’s a billion album sales from seven artists with nothing but shite on every album. A billion. Many classic artists haven’t actually sold very much. Combine the total album sales of The Small Faces, Aretha Franklin, The Velvet Underground, Nico, Funkadelic, Kraftwerk, The Raincoats, Sonic Youth, Throwing Muses, Public Enemy, and Elliott Smith and you still haven’t topped Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) by The Eagles which has estimated sales of around 40 million. Throw 10 or 15 more of your favourite artists into that calculation and you’re still not even close.

The past is littered with garbage that sold in unfathomable numbers. Want more proof?

Metallica: 100 million
Van Halen: 80 million
Foreigner: 80 million
Journey: 75 million
Mötley Crüe: 75 million
The Scorpions: 75 million

Ugly music, unbelievable album sales. So who was buying this shit? In the 70s and 80s, straight white males made a lot of shitty music, and this helps us answer the question of who bought the music and why these same people tend to be the ones who think MUSIC SUCKS right now. It used to be that all you had to do was be a SWM (straight, white male) who got signed to a major label and fame was all but guaranteed. By 1969 SWMs dominated the album charts, from the perspective of both artist and consumer. Look at the reaction to disco, music not initially made for SWMs. DISCO SUCKS. SWMs controlled everything, and they had a very limited idea of what constituted good music. Artists such as The Eagles, Eric Clapton, and Bob Seger appropriated from outside their race and class and imagined themselves soulful, complained that disco lacked soul, and thought their drug habits and romantic troubles made their lives comparable to old bluesmen. Then, by the late 70s, most stadium guitar bands had stopped listening to contemporary black music altogether. Guitars got louder, and stadiums got fuller. Just at the moment when SWMs were at their peak, however, it all started to come undone.

Although punk was a movement dominated by SWMs, its right-on ideology and do-it-yourself philosophy allowed many non-white, non-male musicians such as X-Ray Spex, Bad Brains and The Slits to break through and create some space and some music. Meanwhile, as the 70s turned into the 80s, mainstream pop had no place for the SWM. Michael Jackson, Prince, and Madonna dominated, and suddenly the charts looked like a scary place for SWMs. As a result, they doubled-down on their ideas about soul and authenticity, imagining their guitars, which had previously filled stadiums to the brim, were suddenly symbols of rebellion and bucking the mainstream. When Nirvana knocked Michael Jackson from the top of the American album charts, it was greeted by many as some kind of cultural victory for real music over pop superficiality. However, as time went on, victories like these became more and more unlikely, and American SWMs turned away from pop culture in disgust, preferring modern country or guitar heavy cock rock. The process had begun with punk, and was accelerated by the dominance of artists such as Prince and Madonna, but by the mid-90s American SWMs had all but abandoned mainstream pop, for the same reason that they had abandoned the idea of government: it became obsolete when it stopped serving their needs explicitly and after that it became a symbol of corruption and herd-thinking. If SWMs don’t like what’s in the pop charts, then the pop charts must be bullshit.

(continues overleaf)

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10 Responses to The Quality of Music and The Conformity of Youth | Dwindling Album Sales Explained

  1. Sirlordford September 11, 2013 at 12:37 pm

    I can’t imagine who you are writing this for. The people who think there is scant good music being made are the ones that own most of the artists you crack on as mainstream shite. The people who own Bad Brains, Raincoats, PE et al. completely understand that there is always some group or person making great art that they will enjoy if they just go look for it. Those are the people that read Collapse Board. Maybe you should post this over on the Kid Rock forums.

  2. Minkawf September 11, 2013 at 1:23 pm

    True that the top 40 has been putrid for quite a while. Though Aerosmith, VHalen and Dire Straits don’t deserve the “shite” label in my opinion.

    However bad the top 40 has always been, it’s worlds worse now. There is an art and craft of making meaningful sounds. It was exercised well by those three groups of dudes I mentioned. Not really by Miley or whomever. I’m talking 70’s Aerosmith here.

    True that it’s way off to say that music sucks now. Yes, there is almost too much exciting sound going on. My list would include Las Robertas, Fungi Girls, Eternal Summers, Fakuta, Bobsleigh Baby to name a few (your list is all stuff I haven’t heard or don’t care about, which I guess just shows that we’re all still getting worked up over stuff, but we have way more to choose from as you say).

    It remains true that falling in love with an album, listening to it over and over in sequence, is a tremendously great thing, without which the history of pop/rock
    would be much less than it is. I hope there’s still some amount of people who delve deep into things with music. Would be a loss if that stopped being a factor.

    “American SWMs turned away from pop culture in disgust, preferring modern country or guitar heavy cock rock….”

    Those things are pop culture aren’t they? They’re just bad, like most mainstream pop now.

  3. Dan September 11, 2013 at 3:19 pm

    This is a muddy argument that dances from straw man (white dudes and their guitars, which pops me right on the defensive owing to my landing on the wrong side of a thing I couldn’t help and an arbitrary go at an instrument that doesn’t have a homogenous sound to attack with such a generalising sweep) to straw man (kids not buying the things you think they should buy, awesome shit like Julia Holter (guffaw) and Twin Fucking Shadow (!)) without really explaining dwindling album sales at all. Of course there’s still cracking music out there but even in the heyday of the album sale, the SWM from previous generations complained about ‘real music’ and these terrible guitars. And the next generation will complain that this new fangled direct-to-brainchip music doesn’t feel as real as that first Washed Out LP. That’s what those people do: complain. And, as it seems as a fellow SWM, you have too. And me by extension. Personally I quite like complaining as it suggests an ideology to be teased out.

  4. Derek Robertson September 11, 2013 at 8:05 pm

    Very interesting article that raises a lot of salient points. I think it is true that rose tinted memories of bygone ages are somewhat misleading, especially by people who did not actually experience the era they eulogise. And I’d certainly agree about the cultural relevance of music in today’s world – it serves merely as sonic wallpaper, a soundtrack to whatever people are doing, rather than something to be experienced and enjoyed as art (ie concentrating on listening, reading through the lyrics, looking at the artwork, playing albums all the way through etc). However, there are several things that don’t add up. In order:

    – “The truth is, teenagers right now exhibit more signs of individuality by any definition of the term…and are less likely to fall in line with societal trends.” Really? I don’t know what experience you have with teenagers, but if my three teenage step sisters (& their friends) and the hundreds of teenagers I’ve taught at summer camps are anything to go by, this is bullshit. There are a whole host of brands, products, and entertainment that survive and thrive only BECAUSE of their wholesale adoption by teens. Hollister, Abercrombie & Fitch, McDonalds, shit TV like Big Bang Theory, One Direction, the clothes shops’ catering specifically to the under 16’s…there are huge industries built around this demographic. Why? Because they know that teens are like sheep, just as they ever were, just as they ever will be. when something is “cool”, they all have to have it. The truly independent kids (in my experience) are every bit as outside the loop and low in number as they were 20 years ago, and to state that “millions of kids see through media manipulation” is extremely wide of the mark.

    – “What nobody recognises is that kids these days are actually bad consumers”. Patently untrue; they are the very best, hence why so much advertising is aimed squarely at them.

    – Kanye West and Justin Timberlake; were they added as a joke? They are “great artists”? In the past maybe, but now? Kanye simply calls up whichever beatmaker, rapper, or producer is gaining traction on blogs or considered cutting edge to the build the bones of his material (and, let’s not forget, just compared his mistress having sitting on the opposite side of a basketball arena to his wife, to apartheid). As for Timberlake, his recent album is the very definition of “product”, an unoffensive and bland mix designed to further his personal brand, sell gazillions, and soundtrack a million corporate wet dreams. He also had naked women dance around in his video, but seems to have escaped censure for this.

    -“Independent artists can record and self-release while spending very little money.” Yes, and a very good thing this is too. BUT, in order to get it heard, to build a fanbase, to get it on the radio, to be able to tour, for it to have any kind of life outside you, your family, and your mates, is normally an extremely difficult, time consuming, and expensive thing – money that not many labels have. (This is not a defence of majors BTW). To give a recent example, look at London Grammar; they are where they are thanks to a very long, painstaking, clever (and expensive) PR campaign and savvy management, not because they made some music & handed out a few downloads/CDR’s.

    -“They complain about Pitchfork…” The most virulent criticisms of Pitchfork I’ve read have been right here, by Scott and Everett and most of the other contributors. Not sure this is a sign of the SWM lament, or of those trying to recapture their faded youth.

  5. Wallace Wylie September 11, 2013 at 11:18 pm

    Less conformity doesn’t mean no conformity. There is much more music advertising these days but much less sales. Record companies have to work a lot harder.

    This whole piece was about showing the idea that MUSIC SUCKS to be a foolish one. It also provides what look like alternative suggestions for dwindling album sales. I don’t see any straw men. Just because you might disagree with what I’m saying, that doesn’t make it a straw man argument, at least not by any definition of straw man that I’ve ever read. The vast, vast majority of music made by SWMs with guitars is pretty much the definition of homogeneous.

  6. Dan September 12, 2013 at 11:27 am

    Well I agree with you if you’re saying MUSIC AIN’T SUCK so let’s leave it there.

  7. andy September 12, 2013 at 10:41 pm

    some moosick suck, some don’t. is that what people agree on?

  8. PAS September 14, 2013 at 5:15 am

    If I’m not excited by who? Justin Disneycheese? James Blahhhke? John Grant? Ain’t that the super cool dude with a fucking beard? Austria? This article is embarrassing and written by someone who isn’t getting it. Post-modernism, guys, sucks a wang. Every band/act you just referenced has it’s precedent somewhere decades before – and, thing is, it’s an obvious precedent. There hasn’t been anything new and/or exciting musically since the early 90s. Those bands were replaced by kids acting like grownups in their urban outfitters/vintage uniform. And I’m in my 20s and it’s a shared sentiment amongst many. Show me the bands having the same impact, culturally, as, say, Nirvana or Hole or Smashing Pumpkins or Nine Inch Nails or Oasis, for all I give a shit. They may not be everyone’s thang, but are we really thinking that the ‘chromatics’ or whoever’s on this shitlist can really compete? Like, put these new bands on the same bill as the old bands and watch the new bands shit themselves in the corner somewhere. Know what I mean?

  9. Wallace Wylie September 14, 2013 at 8:13 am

    This could be my favourite comment anyone has ever left. It’s so nonsensical and self-contradictory I don’t know where to start. PAS, I salute you.

  10. NIallist September 18, 2013 at 9:55 pm

    Nice article. The “better back then” brigade have and always will moan about pop music, plus ca change. Like PAS above, who states that it’s more important that a bunch of shite bands had a “huge” cultural imapct than, you know, were actually any fucking good. As someone who lived through the 90s solidly engrossed in alternative music culture, I am overjoyed that rubbish like Smashee Pumpkee and Oashit is now culturally irrelevant. Leave it to the people who weren’t there to loudly proclaim how “important” an era was.

    But another important point, I think, is that the oasis of musical integrity that these kinds of people usually retreat to, ie Indie/College/Alternative Rock, is now a steaming pile of shit just as bad (if not worse) than the pop charts. Infantilised ukelele-thrumming tweegan bullshit designed to sell retro-filtered, lens-flared, we-all-live-in-permenantly-sunny-Brooklyn-amongst-mutlicoloured-plastic-balls, feel-good-for-consuming-the-latest-smartgadj nonsense. I think an article about how shit inde rock has become would be very approriate.

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