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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If there’s one thing guaranteed to upset a SWM on the wrong side of 30 just as much as pop music, it’s “kids these days”. The usual line about young people in the 21st Century is that they are brain dead and lack individuality. The truth is, teenagers right now exhibit more signs of individuality by any definition of the term, are way more media savvy, and are less likely to fall in line with societal trends. Ask yourself this: if people start having themed parties centred around the 00s decade, how exactly will they dress? Corporations failing to shift product and struggling to make profit is hardly a sign of mass conformity. If you have millions of kids who see through media manipulation, then it’s harder to sell them substandard material. People from older generations take pride in stating that they always bought albums, went to shows, and stayed faithful to musicians no matter what. Let’s put that another way: they were dependable, loyal consumers who dutifully purchased product whenever they were asked to.

Many social commentators lament the attitudes of music fans in this day and age, with their willingness to pick and choose, download illegally and drop artists without a second thought. What nobody recognises is that kids these days are actually bad consumers. They place less emphasis on physical ownership, and will gleefully subvert the morals of a previous generation to avoid purchasing music. I don’t want to be misunderstood here, I’m not championing illegal downloading, I’m merely pointing out the full ramifications of these actions. Isn’t refusing to do what a monolithic corporate structure requires of you a sign of individuality? Or is unquestioningly obeying advertising demands and laws the sign of a robust individual? I don’t have a definitive answer, but you should take the time to ask yourself these questions. I realise that when all is said and done most people believe true individuality starts and ends with their own behaviour, but individuality can mean anything from sticking to your opinions without question to being completely open-minded in regards to emerging societal trends and social movements. The fact that many people’s transformation from open-minded enthusiast to cynical “but music really was better in my youth” haters-of-all-things-new usually occurs between the ages of 25 and 30 is of course merely coincidence and not a reflection of anybody’s cultural fatigue and unwillingness to explore or enjoy more contemporary musical acts.

The real problem that the industry is dealing with these days is the lack of cultural importance given to popular music and the fact that popular music no longer has the same unifying power as it used to. With less bands to choose from, and with major labels dictating every aspect of the business, music fans in the 70s generally accepted what was handed to them without question, even if it was something as awful as The Eagles. Nowadays there are thousands of small labels capable of releasing great albums. You can spend hours and hours tracking down recommendations, streams, and free downloads. You can listen to as much music as you want, for as long as you want, with no compulsion to own, and that is a problem for die-hard consumers who are used to limited options and immediate cultural feedback in regards to their choices.

Another conundrum for the music industry and SWMs is the fact that so much good music is being made by non-white, non-male artists, and oftentimes their approaches to songwriting and singing can go against what for years was accepted as the only credible approach. With no “great white male hope” able to dominate the market and make music both important and popular, SWMs are increasingly dismissing the whole notion of popular music, or indeed music as a viable art form. Accustomed to being spoon fed by a limited number of publications, unwilling to do any kind of exploratory work, and having no chance of any cultural reverberations to give their tastes that added feeling of importance, older SWMs are lost in a twilight world of yearning for music and movements from years gone by and the cultural approval given to them, and not understanding either the music young people enjoy or the manner in which they choose to enjoy it.

That being said, is there really a lot of good music being made right now? Yes, yes, a billion times yes. Even SWMs are making amazing music. If you’re not excited by Julia Holter, Matthew Dear, Flying Lotus, James Blake, John Grant, Laurel Halo, The Weeknd, Austra, Thundercat, THEESatisfaction, Chromatics, Destroyer, Burial, Frank Ocean, Mount Kimbie, Kanye West, Richard Youngs, Boards Of Canada, Jon Hopkins, King Krule, Dirty Projectors, Twin Shadow or Justin Timberlake, all great artists who are happening RIGHT NOW, then you should probably just admit that music is not something you are interested in any more. That list is nowhere near comprehensive, merely the artists I could think of off the top of my head, and it doesn’t even mention artists from outside of North America and the UK. Obviously I cannot prove to anybody that music is as good as it ever was, given the subjective nature of music appreciation but, by the same token, nobody can prove it is actually getting worse. Defences of music from the past usually point to its cultural relevance and popularity, forgetting that these are aspects which merely solidify group opinion not bolster individuality or prove artistic worth.

Music at this point in time is being made in abundance, and it’s being bought and enjoyed by more discerning buyers. Record sales in the 70s and 80s were built on limited options and catered to the needs of one core audience. The homogeneous nature of music culture was broken completely in the 80s and, tied in with the emergence of computers as a tool to record and promote, the end result has been the unstoppable decline of the music industry as we know it. Punk rockers dreamed of independent artists recording and releasing music with no interference, and they also dreamed of the death of major labels. Those dreams are coming true but it took a generation of computer savvy kids, not punk rockers eager to buy into the system, to do it. Albums still sell in the millions, but major labels no longer have the same power or influence. Independent artists can record and self-release while spending very little money. In terms of individual expression, we’re living in golden times. Yet some people are looking for that same feeling of cultural relevance and group-think comfort. They’re still searching for that youthful feeling, or dreaming of how cool it would have been to live in the 60s, or wishing they had been around when punk first emerged. You know, when music meant something, man. They complain that kids nowadays are mindless drones who can’t think for themselves when the opposite is true. They complain about Pitchfork and blogs and modern music culture because they feel excluded. They complain because ultimately they don’t really care that much any more and can’t face this very frightening fact.

With the unsustainable growth of album sales in the 70s and 80s now returning to more realistic levels, the music industry will have to adjust its outdated business model. In the meantime, independent artists will self-release straight to the internet, music will evolve as musicians experiment with technology and form, and music buyers will perhaps have to do a little work but will be rewarded by the most diverse, innovative, and interesting music the modern world has produced. It won’t be dominated by SWMs with guitars, it might not have that oh-so-classic vinyl crackle, but with the right ears it will convince you that music remains as good as ever. Better even. With less emphasis on massive cultural relevance and more importance placed on individual taste, music will survive because everyone can be a musician, and everyone can be a critic, and more and more of the world’s population can access the internet. Options will be limitless. If that’s a problem, perhaps it’s time to settle in with a nice piece of vinyl, a hot cup of cocoa, and dream of years gone by. The rest of the world has some listening to do.

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