Value is an often nebulous, always subjective, and rarely universal concept. For many, it revolves around emotion and reaction, the powerful but fleeting intangibles that colour the picture of our existence. To others, it’s about the lines in that picture, the form of logic and quantifiable data, a worth determined by hard realities fair and otherwise. I imagine most people in this day and age would think of value, upon hearing the word, in economic terms: The money spent, gained or lost relative to what is received in turn, in an era driven increasingly by numbers and metrics, the value of which are often inflated by our sensationalist and reactionary culture as fuelled by virtually all forms of media.
Then there are those, like myself, who think of value primarily in terms of time. Money can be won and wasted, feelings come and go, but minutes or months lost are lost forever, never to be regained. As someone who has had quite a few years taken away (by various circumstances I care not to discuss), the time that I have remaining must be optimized and spent in the best way possible, so as to feel any sense of balance whatsoever. Leisure time is held sacred, earned by maximum output in other areas of life to free up space to indulge in interests and passions with the attention they deserve. The realities of my economics, and those of too many, is that the leisure time is work’s true reward, not the income which flies out the window as quickly as it came in due to certain unavoidable realities.
If this sounds like I put my passions and hobbies on a pedestal, it’s because I do – all of the things that entertain, engage and impress me require years of dedication to craft, incredible sacrifice in the process, and a value of time usage that is simply not optional. I consume that which consumes it’s creator in a positive and productive manner, inspiring me to engage life itself with similar, singular commitment.
This is the nature of art and performance in it’s truest and highest forms – inspiration both internal and external, bridging the intangible gaps within and between people as they in turn are inspired. It’s a very simple concept, one that unfortunately is being mocked and marginalized over time in a world more obsessed with the packaging than the contents, where everything is a ‘brand’. Awfully ironic that cattle are so obsessed with branding, isn’t it?
I look at all forms of entertainment, beyond whatever sentimental or artistic/performative value they hold, as a time value proposition. To a certain extent money also factors in, because I want what gives me the most or best minutes per dollar, especially in a consumer market where every interest is almost overserved at a level of convenience that makes growing up in the 90’s seem prehistoric. The thrill of the chase in hunting down a VHS rental or a rare record is over for most, but the time spend doing that can now be used enjoying further ‘content’. Even once niche interests like anime or pro wrestling now have such levels of mainstream success and content saturation, both good and bad, that creators and producers can take up double or triple the amount of consumer time they did a decade ago.
As such, one wonders why much of humanity chooses what it does. Leisure time, pre-pandemic, was scarcer than ever for most, except for those low on work and income, whose choices in amusement thus became more limited, their importance intensified by scarcity. The cost of everything, with one major exception, continues to rise, perhaps contributing to the popularity of social media as a mostly free means of occupying oneself. In an era where both rich and poor are becoming more so as the middle class somewhat erodes, it’s perplexing to me just how many people, given the options, choose what they do when they do in terms of culture and free time.
Video games, for example, are arguably the best dollars-to-minutes value in the modern consumer market. An open world game these days can often takes weeks to complete, even with minimal reloads, giving you dozens if not hundreds of hours for less than $100. This makes for a much better proposition than your average new blockbuster film, offering 80 – 180 minutes for about a quarter of the price of a new AAA game. The price of a new movie is slightly more than your average streaming subscription service which gives hundreds of hours worth of potential engagement.
As such, it’s no wonder that the quality and popularity of both games and streaming series improved so drastically over the last decade – debate it all you like, but the quality and diversity of games and series over the last decade or so is unparalleled, making the ‘golden days’ of the past look like wastelands in comparison. Conversely, Hollywood mostly churns out drivel which tries way too hard to be like video games, when that medium surpassed the possibilities of film more than a decade ago. The average AAA heavyweight flick seems to be mostly greenscreen and cliché nowadays, five star sizzle on a minute steak, with the both acting and action sequences looking pathetic compared to gaming’s top tier titles, and even worse when held up against the finest offerings from Netflix, Prime or HBO.
Then of course, there is that most vociferously debated form or art and entertainment – music. Among the oldest forms of human expression, it is the also the one that seems to define the era it exists in more than any other format. When you think of an era in the last century, chances are you first think about the music and fashion of the period (and the relationship between them), before you consider the popular films, books, or even the beliefs of the day. It still holds true now, though at this rate it may not forever. Why? Because of shifts in concepts of value and values, at both consumer and creator levels.
The internet, as with almost everything else, was the primary catalyst for this change. Many remember the supposed halcyon days of Napster, Limewire and other such filesharing platforms with a greater fondness than perhaps they deserve. They questioned the ‘greed’ of multi-millionaire artists defending against the theft of their intellectual property, yet most held a much more negative opinion of an impoverished person stealing retail food to feed themselves, at minimal cost to the retailer. What they failed to consider that the heads of these musical tables were feeding a lot more mouths than their own.
More still heralded the decline of the ‘evil’ record business, one which certainly featured it’s fair share of manipulators and abusers. What they conveniently forgot was said business also containing multitudes of incredibly hardworking, sincere individuals forming wonderful communities and companies at every level, from tour production to royalties and licensing. A lot of these people are now out of jobs, and covid has only made it worse, with touring out the window and most people having less disposable income to spend on things like merch or content.
The money that went out of the industry, both in the 2000’s and now, came not out of the pockets of top execs of ‘evil’ corporations, but of hardworking performers, roadies, administrators and promotion staff. While the music industry adapted to streaming and digital purchasing MUCH faster than their peers in film and television ever did, they were raked over the coals by people still content to pay $200 a month for cable TV dominated by advertising, reruns and reality TV fluff.
“Why pay for music, it’s too expensive” is a cry I’ve heard all too often from people who think nothing of spending $50+ a week at Starbucks for mediocre coffee, or $100+ at the bar on a very average night out, while I have music and memories to last a lifetime with an extensive album collection and a concert history to match. I was accused of ‘wasting’ this money by people mostly content to spend their time drinking cheap beer in front of crappy television, who will never know the rapture of crowd surfing for minutes on end at a festival, or the catharsis of singing along to the anthems that defined your youth, and your survival of it, as world class legends and cult heroes perform for you at the highest level.
I understand that not everyone can afford these things – I know what it’s like to not eat, be temporarily homeless, and get screwed over on taxes and paychecks. I also know what it’s like to have that concert ticket bought with the last of your money, out of your food budget, be the only good thing to happen that month. I don’t expect that passion to be universal, but I do take issue with the fact that music is a ‘rip-off’ in an era where things like cable, $100-a-month cellphone contracts and $7 chain store coffees still exist. Concert tickets are inflated sometimes, but blame the legal scalper market and the spineless governments that allow it for that.
As for musical product itself, physical media outside of vinyl has only gotten cheaper. Most streaming music services are $10 or less per month for many millions of songs. Somehow, this is ‘too expensive’ to people who will pay hundreds for a pair of shoes of regrettable design, or on microtransactions for their latest stupid mobile game. The only musicians most people are ever exposed to nowadays are all rich as shit, and so famous you can’t escape their advertising, so surely the industry must be doing fine right?
Film, TV and game piracy is one thing – I’m not advocating for it, but the creators and producers still get paid, and only the distributor loses out most of the time. Salaries and contracts are usually guaranteed, stock options are more readily available in some companies, and those industries aren’t reliant on touring and the related perils and expenses in order to supplement income. We still use the redundant phrase ‘party like a rockstar’ when in fact most rockstars can no longer afford to party, except for those who are too old to, and have done so too much already. They made their money in an era where people legitimately, factually cared about music and were willing to support it financially, even through periods of economic scarcity. Periods, coincidentally, where things like lip-synching and plagiarism were frowned on instead of shrugged off.
We expect musicians, and them alone, to work for free, paying no mind to the person who has to figure out their royalty payments, or the one who organizes their tour visas and bookings. Sometimes the artist themselves can do this, sometimes not. Sometimes, if they want to go beyond a certain level, they NEED a label and management to handle these things, let alone the pressure of social media engagement and it’s incessant demand for accessibility. We look at the insane wealth of the musicians at the top of the pile, failing to realise that only a tiny group of performers, producers and executives are getting to eat the pie that used to feed so many. If you ever complained about the “1%” in economic and social terms, you may want to apply that logic to music, and stop supporting the sociopaths at the top there now.
Labels now are more likely to take a bigger cut of touring and merch, which were the traditional bread and butter of the working musician, whereas musical output was the label cash cow. Said cash cow now amounts to literally fractions of a penny per unit of music, with the ridiculously low artist payouts of streaming services like Spotify or Apple, the only means of legal access that many people can afford. It’s not good that artist payouts from these services are so low, but it’s a lot better than ‘sticking it to the man’ by pirating content outright. As usual, when one steals, the little guy suffers more than the big one. Considering you get almost infinite music for less than the price an album used to cost, streaming services are a good deal, one which any truly value savvy person can appreciate. Even then, plenty of people seem to think that the low cost of these services is too much when it’s less than two drinks at the bar or a couple of retail lattes.
The pandemic itself, by virtue of cancelling tour income, has been the death blow for many artists, touring companies and the like, but in reality they were on life support for some time. Only now, in this time of general economic suffering and raging unemployment, do people start to have any idea of what musicians have been enduring for a decade plus. Much like society itself, the middle class of music is beginning to disintegrate, and you are left with a few lazy incompetents at the top, and a whole bunch of hardworking, credible people at the bottom, in a manner not unlike modern politics and economics.
Like so many industries, if you are lucky enough to be able to work, you now do more work for less money, yet it’s only music where theft of intellectual property is considered widely acceptable, often admirable. As such, the artists appealing to the lowest common denominator at consumer levels, usually solo acts without the costs and pressures of band life, are the only ones really doing well. They take up a bigger slice of the pie in terms of video and airplay, as both music television and radio push their content in a manner and frequency not unlike propaganda, in a world where you are metrically conditioned into liking and hating things more than discovering and enjoying them organically.
The vacuum created by the sharp economic decline of the music industry, as engendered by the piracy of the 2000’s, was not filled by well meaning individuals with the best of intentions. Record labels devoured one another en masse as the smaller ones withered, creating corporate monopolies and a lack of diversity at radio and video level never before seen, as only the least threatening and most pandering of artists now received enough attention and publicity to make a real profit. Inevitably those were the ones that generally put the most effort into branding, and the least into actual creation and execution.
We pretended to promote and embrace black culture through hip-hop, but that acceptance only took hold on such a universal level when that genre was gentrified and dumbed down by at least two generations of low effort, lower intellect acts. Many of them were so blatantly superficial they even included dollar signs in their names! They never experienced the backlash that radical, challenging acts like Public Enemy or NWA did, because they embraced white corporate superficiality and lame duets with questionable pop stars, abandoning the roots of hip-hop culture for a greedy banality on par with the lowest depths of 80’s cock rock. Even the more ‘hood’ acts spent more time talking about designer apparel and car collections, and despite the rise in popularity of rap, it’s spent most of this century in a steep creative decline, despite the emergence of incredible talents like Saul Williams or Run The Jewels.
Disagree or not, the fact is the average top rapper today would get absolutely shredded on the mic by their equivalents in the 80’s and 90’s. It’s not speculation, the hard evidence is there in terms of live and studio performance, production and lyrical content. Pop stars used to either have to be able to sing very well, or be very clever at working around their lack of vocal talent (see: Madonna, Spears). Now, being atonal is practically an aspiration, and we venerate sheer laziness as minimalism. Grammys are handed out like toys in a kid’s fast food combo, with a blatant genre bias the reflects the lack of diversity in radio and the general public consensus.
If you look at radio and music television on paper, sure you see a lot more racial, LBGTQ+ and general visual diversity. Plenty of colourful hair and tattoos that would get you a very different reaction not so long ago, and a general false veneer of inclusivity by corporate approval. But sonically? Even genres like metal and hard rock became insanely formulaic in the last 20 years at times, while the false narrative that hip hop and pop were pushing the envelope persisted, as the quality of performance and lyrical content in both took a quantifiable nosedive, and TV ‘talent’ shows reduced pop to paint-by-numbers.
Pop ‘talent’ is usually sourced from either Disney kids shows or televised singing competitions, where narcissistic ‘tastemakers’ determine who succeeds and who doesn’t. Hip-hop is dominated by mumble rap, which in itself is a paradox as one literally can’t mumble while rapping, and concepts of rhythm, flow and agility are abandoned in favour of indecipherable moaning. Of course, it wouldn’t matter if you could make out the words, they offer even less than the beats themselves, constantly masking low self esteem and lower intellect with a level of braggadocio that sounds like they are trying to convince themselves more than us. It’s about as legitimate a drunk person applying face art with a crayon, and then calling themselves a professional makeup artist.
People actually act shocked and offended when I say I don’t like (insert performer here), despite being a 37 year old with a record collection in the hundreds, and a concert history to match. As if I don’t have anything better to listen to at the touch of a button. As if they don’t either. It never even occurs to them to try something different. They’re rarely exposed to more than a dozen ‘artists’ of the factory farmed garden variety, and they equate ‘most’ to best. It’s like people saying a Big Mac is clearly the world’s best burger despite having never tried anything else, or eaten anywhere but a McDonald’s in the ghetto.
I get the fun of the odd guilty pleasure, ordering fast food every now and then. But when you have gourmet from the world’s finest artisans available for the same price (about $10-12 a month for most), and not only do you choose junk every day, you opt for freaking Burger King? Instead of having a musical spectrum that starts and ends with whatever is offered to you first and most often, you could go on an epic journey that leads to anything from smooth jazz to death metal, perhaps even both. It’s crazy how some people can’t handle eating the same food over and over, but will gladly listen to a song by a person with barely more musical talent than them several times a day, and dozens a week. In that way, the end up getting the cultural ‘leaders’ that they deserve.
Two decades ago, the top 40 in some countries might be nu-metal one minute, electronica the next, then a boy band or girl group followed by gangsta rap and pop punk. Actual sonic diversity, recognizing different walks of life and musical philosophies, and embracing those differences by not blunting their edges. At lower levels of exposure, alternative music was at the peak of it’s powers, brimming with depth and range, embracing cultural and social values that ended up being years ahead of their time. In addition, electronica was at it’s most experimental, not yet dumbed down for the masses by the EDM craze, still bursting at the seems with vital energy and boundless imagination.
The undying popularity and influence of that era has reached mythical proportions today, in a time where mythos had been substituted for ‘branding’, fans for ‘followers’ and love for ‘like’. Today, we venerate the mundane and the mediocre because it’s relatable, even achievable. Anyone can be a ‘star’ or a ‘legend’ way too easily now, because we’ve lowered the criteria to a point where showing up and running your mouth enough just about does it. People despise it in politicians, yet venerate it in pop culture, and pretend not to be hypocrites. Being ‘special’ really isn’t very special at all anymore.
Before this century, accusations of sounding too much like others were the height of slander. Now, overt plagiarism is seen as either paying tribute, or repurposing without permission for a new ‘culture’ that in fact has none. Atonal cover versions with no consideration of the spirit behind the original abound, that is if they don’t just blatantly rip entire verses, melodies and choruses. Forget stealing riffs, there barely are any, it’s mostly just mumbling or moaning over a beat my dog could create. If you play a guitar, it better be acoustic and you better write lyrics that sound like your partner is holding you at gunpoint, and don’t you dare raise your voice or show any virtuosity.
We tear apart shows, series and games for not having airtight storylines, perfect cultural sensitivity and immaculate production, but are all too happy to suck down Lil’ Whoever or Yung Dipshit bragging about how many condos he bought, or how many ‘bitches’ he has because it’s ‘catchy’ and popular. We let female pop stars get away with poorly sung lyrics promoting stalker behaviour, but are all too happy to shred any other form of artistic entertainment for not being note perfect both in terms of performance and consideration towards marginalized demographics. Why the double standard?
Right now, the world goes mad for a teenager whose song I once heard flipping through radio at work on four stations simultaneously, ranging from ‘alternative’ to top 40. Her lyrics are barely at a grade school level, over music and production that would qualify as borderline adequate for a demo track in the early 2000’s. Apparently this is minimalist evolution, but really it’s a dull kid just barely singing over a melody ripped off from an old TV show, with one or two notes changed. Said individual will likely win more Grammys than several Hall of Fame artists already have, before fading into total obscurity in a few years. You know, just like the last aggressively bland, sleepy looking teen pop darling did several years beforehand, when they instantly blew her up to godhead status before forgetting about her just as fast.
Such is the nature of modern stardom in music – your 15 minutes of fame are now 10 at most. Rappers call themselves legends without even being able to phrase their verses or enunciate correctly, with less lyrics on an album or an EP than their predecessors had in two songs. The mythos created by rockstars and their moody inaccessibility is gone, replaced by mediocre pop starlets that pander to you on Twitter or Instagram. People throw around ‘god’ or ‘GOAT’ status on people that nobody will barely remember in a decade or two, mocking ‘Dad Rock’ or gangsta rap for being passe when you still see more Nirvana, Metallica or 2-Pac shirts than you ever will of any modern platinum ‘artist’.
Ageism is a factor – teen stars are placed on such a high pedestal so early, the only way is down. Older acts with considerably more talent are ‘put out to pasture’ culturally speaking, only to end up still popular and vital a decade after their supposed successors have vanished. Chuck D and B-Real are still rapping rings around the current flavours of the month, despite being ‘dinosaurs’. Hardcore rap, punk, industrial and metal have long tackled issues like racism, sexism, homophobia and socioeconomic inequality without credit or fanfare, however society goes nuts for multimillionaire, mainstream r&b singers donating to charity or expressing ‘woke’ values that are really just basic common decency.
As for the alternative side of things, there are some great artists of note across various genres, and that side of things is at least making a proper comeback after the retro revivalist plagiarism of the 2000’s, and the café-turned-car-commercial ‘indie’ garbage of the 2010’s. Both of these movements were exactly as ‘alternative’ as corporations wanted them to be, appealing to subcultural tourists who wanted to be different, but not THAT different. They eschewed the confrontational rebellion and free spirited energy of ‘classic’ alternative for much more palatable looks and sounds, conveniently paving the way for the mainstream to eventually invade, subvert and gentrify.
Funny how rock mostly disappeared into the wilderness after a generation of bands that made a quick buck off epidemic plagiarism in the factory assembly line of nu-garage of the early to mid 00’s, before conveniently disbanding at the end of the last era where bands were really profitable. Every other band had a “The” in their name, lifted sounds and visual concepts wholesale from 60’s and 70’s legends, and mysteriously disappeared into obscurity just as quick as they appeared on the bandwagon. Almost as if a lack of original ideas being promoted by disingenuous poseurs set the genre back a couple decades or so. Sound familiar? It’s exactly what’s happening to pop and hip-hop now, despite them apparently being so forward thinking. Strange how what’s ‘relevant’ ends up not being particularly vital.
It’s almost comical to hear so many of the ‘indie’ acts I accused of cynical coffeeshop commercialism several years ago now shilling SUVs on primetime TV, especially seeing as that’s exactly what I said would happen – no joy in being correct there. I do wonder, if they were musicians in an era where ‘alternative’ hadn’t meant dressing like a quarter of the population did and writing songs that sounded like white gentrification, would they be taking actual risks and broadening sonic horizons? There were times where true alternative, and music in general, were defined more by a diversity of sound and presentation than homogenization, and labels were to be challenged more than admired.
So here we are. The evil music business has been gutted, sculpted and remodelled to fit around false ‘idols’ and ideals, and the supposed levelling of the playing field by internet plagiarism mostly benefitted a handful of people at the top. Sure, a lot of artists freed themselves from nefarious label interference and oversight, and top bands like Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead revolutionized their approaches to distribution and fan engagement. Many have taken total creative control over their presentation, production and content, but are doing so by working harder than most of us ever will in our lives, for a lot less money than you think, much of which must go right back into the art.
On the other hand, smaller acts lost critical infrastructure and support, innocent people lost jobs, and any sympathy towards them was mocked by people who said they should be working ‘for the love of music’. Yes, they should, but just because you love your job, would you do it for free? Should you devalue your work and performance to fit the values of another? The answer is never. If you want to complain about minimum wage being too low (and you should, because it is), don’t turn around and tell me you ‘love’ an artist you believe in always stealing from, and never paying for. You don’t have to buy LPs or go to every tour date in your town, but at least buy a t-shirt if you’d otherwise be blowing the money at a bar or café, and put your money where your mouth is once in a while.
The ONLY thing I can think of that hasn’t gone up in price is the cost of music, it’s actually gotten cheaper, and as such the overall quality of the average artist that gets any significant promotion has dropped. The consumer suffers as a result. Deny it by all means, but things like vocal performance and lyrical content can be studied and verified. Art is subjective, and there are genres that are imperfect by design, as part of their charm. A drunk punk song played a bit too fast but with plenty of heart is one thing. Failing to enunciate garbage lyrics correctly over one beat every four seconds on a trap song is another entirely, especially when one spends half of it bragging about their non-existent talent.
If an actor showed up, mumbled their lines and refused to show any expression, would they land a role in Hollywood or on Broadway? I work hard for my entertainment time and money, why waste it on people with minimal intellect and even less talent? We live in a time where content digestion can be catered, customized and superserved to our needs almost instantly as the dream of total entertainment convenience and variety has been realized, and that which once took hours or weeks to obtain now arrives in seconds. Why then, the love of monoculture when we have the world at our fingertips?
Music is not mathematical, and of course it is subjective in appreciation, but there are hard facts like a ‘rapper’ mumbling or a Grammy winning singer being totally out of key that can’t be denied. If we reward this, then turn around and rip on other art forms or public figures for the slightest imperfection, then our critical thinking is wildly inconsistent. There is also such thing as ‘growing out’ of certain kinds of music, and a lot of what adults listen to now is equivalent to them watching TV shows aimed at toddlers. The immaturity of that sonic content reflects and is reflected by a general cultural immaturity.
There are far too many songs on commercial radio that are less commercial than the actual commercials themselves, and might as well be ads anyhow with all the blatant brand name dropping and corporate pandering. It’s one thing to be a musician sponsored by a music equipment manufacturer, it’s another entirely to see a supposedly ‘indie’ band shilling brand name apparel on ad posters at bus stops.
The devaluing of music as a commodity has lowered the overall quality of performance at the highest levels of success, while on the outside, veteran acts with cult followings and actual talent still require heavy crowdfunding to produce and survive, all around working their day jobs of course. The ‘lazy musician’ stereotype is bogus, as the lazy ones don’t even get to make a record anymore, unless it’s in one of two or three genres. A lot of great, hard working ones won’t get to either, because covid killed their only real revenue in touring, an exercise which often results in losses instead of profits as it is.
With all the competition for attention music has in the modern consumer market, it will never return to the status it once held in our culture. Those attention spans are now too short, too contested, and most of us lack the disposable income for vast record collections and scalper-inflated concert tickets. But we should at least try to restore some level of credibility and respectability by investing in it more at every level: Education funding, artist support and industry relief. Stop supporting reality TV ‘talent’ shows and start finding real artists who speak to you from a place of integrity. Pay for music when you can, music with organic replay value that doesn’t require constant corporate conditioning in order to be liked and accepted. Not everything that is ‘catchy’ is good – the world we live in right now is harsh proof of that.
If we want to put people at godlike levels, perhaps not doing it to them before the age of 20 on their first album is the way to go. We’ve seen the damage that child stardom has done, and it seems like the role of teen pop music in that process has been conveniently ignored, as the pitchforks come out for aged rockers and their abusive behaviour. While the latter is justified, one can’t help think that it’s a convenient smokescreen while the mainstream promotes music with gender, relationship and cultural values that are decades out of date, only without the soaring vocal performances and slick production of eras past. Not only that, by placing careers at such peaks so early, career shelf lives are shortened as the only way to go is down, and performers don’t get the chance to marinate and develop as true artists before putting out material that actually deserves such lofty mantles.
Good things take time, and great music takes effort, but in the age where everyone wants everything yesterday, we’ve forgotten that. That, and the notion that true mystique and charisma are innate, and not something you repeatedly have to convince everyone you have. The banality of content in so much of what is offered today is not so much delusion of grandeur as delusion of adequacy, and the star power behind it is like a dying 30 watt bulb in an outhouse light. It’s easy to achieve ‘greatness’ when the cultural bar is set so low that one literally can’t fail to clear it. The nerve of these so-called ‘legends’ and ‘icons’ to consider themselves on the level of their legendary peers and predecessors is equivalent to placing Twilight novels on equal footing with Anne Rice vampire classics. Critical thinking leads to a better quality of life and a better intake of content. So demand more. Expect better. Explore further.