Friday, February 5, 2016

The Democratization of Music and Smart Music?

Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity. So it's like, just take advantage of these last few years because none of this is ever going to happen again. You'd better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that's really the only unique situation that's going to be left."

David Bowie'

Remember the days when albums stood as a testament to the musical genius of musicians and songwriters? Do you remember when the artwork alone on an album was a showpiece?. Do you remember the countless classic musical masterpieces like Hotel California, Led Zeppelin 4, Songs in the Key of Life, The Wall, Scary Monsters, Highway 61 Revisited, Born to Run, and the list goes on and on.

Recall when cuts from an album made the greatest sense and had the most impact, when heard as a whole; sides A and B? In short, remember the days before cherry picking songs from Itunes and assembling them into a playlist?

How did we get from the music of “then” to the music of “now”? The answer to that question may depend to some extent on music genre, but if we consider the world of rock and pop and today’s mainstream “hits”, unpacking the main thrusts of the answer become apparent.

A primary factor that has lead us to where we are now is the democratization of music. What is meant by that?

In the not so distant future, playing an instrument required musical talent and ability. The best songs were the ones that were written from the heart and soul. The ones that said something to you. Many of us can recall some of our most memorable moments in life, to specific songs that spoke to us at the time and still speak to us now.

With the democratization of music, computers and other gadgets make it possible for almost anyone who can operate a computer, to write or produce a song. Or, at the very least, to assemble a host of sounds. The ability to assemble and align pre-recorded loops of music (drum beats or whole segments) and place them into digital recording software, has never been easier, cheaper and generally more accessible, as ever before. It doesn’t require extraordinary musical ability or cost.

The average Mac computer for example, comes stocked with Garage Band and Apple loops, making it possible to create multi track music productions with no additional equipment.

Gone are the days when you had to book expensive studio time, have quality gear or be fluent with an instrument. We’ve even reached a point where software can automate the process of songwriting with a few interventions from the user.

Much of the pop music industry has resorted to track and hook approaches to song production, rather than personal songwriting. Track and hook is a process whereby producers and/or technicians /musicians produce loops of music, carefully arranged and assembled to produce a continuous stream of music.

These preassembled music streams are then farmed out to singers or other creative people , who take a shot at laying a melody and lyrics over top of the music. The goal is to create a hit song, often characterized with a strong hook or series of hooks embedded throughout. The lyrics may or may not make sense. The core requirement are the hooks, that entice and seduce the listener.

It is not being suggested in this article that the process of creating music through a hook and track approach, as opposed to a historically traditional approach, does not take talent. At some level, the ability to discern what might work, and the pairing up of the music track with the melody and hooks, requires judgment and skill.

But it is still very different than sitting on a back porch with a guitar, pouring out one’s heart in a song about having lost at love. Or sitting in the room crafting Bohemian Rhapsody. It can be argued that the computer itself, has become an instrument, or perhaps a component of making music itself.

Coupled with the advent of music streaming, mp3s , Itunes and the rest of the digital music revolution, the world of producing and consuming music has changed dramatically. 

Creating playlists on many of the streaming services, creates data repositories where streaming companies can determine what kind of music you are listening to, what kind of playlists are being created and what time of the day you are listening. This type of information can be invaluable to music producers who may wish to write to spec. In other words, the data garnered can be used to define a formula of sorts as to what type of music is most in demand. The industry can respond to that demand by creating music that subscribes to these consumption trends.

Looking back on the late David Bowie’s words, they seem to be prophetic. Bowie understood that with the advent of these new creation and distribution technologies, artists would have to rely on touring and live shows in order continue to generate income.

So, is the democratization of music good or bad? Is the ability to produce “smart music” whereby music production is in response to consumption demands, a good thing? The answer to these questions can only be had from you; the end consumer.

While some strands of music such as country music, appears to be clinging to the more traditional ways of producing music ; ie- songwriters writing the old fashioned way, and while some pop artists still write and produce music in that way, there is no doubt that the track and hook manner of music production has a commanding presence in the industry.

Do you think the democratization of music is a good thing? Or do you see it as a mindless way of making manufactured music?


  1. If I have to choose, I will go with "good" based primarily on ease of access, which comes at a cost (to the performer, not to me)

    The release of Aerosmiths "Rocks" was a defining moment for me-a new teenager, who was quite impressionable. Their music at the time captured a certain drug fueled energy that I was able to connect with instantly. I was hooked, soon a full fledged member of the "Blue Army" Perhaps predictably, the marriage did not last, I think "Pump" was probably the last time I spent cash on them. I can't even listen to their new stuff, seems as if sobriety may have hampered the creativity. Newer acts like the Foo Fighters and Red Hot Chillies have filled that void, at least to a point. Truth is, I have evolved as well and my musical tastes have softened. I still seem to prefer performers that I can relate to in some way, Clapton, Winwood, Gabriel, Petty still making music I like. Newer Canadian acts like 54-40 or Metric have clearly been influenced by the techno-scene, yet they continue to produce solid, creative likable music. The Hip seemed to capture an entire generation.

    So for me it is the talent and creativity that continues to resonate. I agree it seems harder to find, but perhaps that is good as well. Variety is the spice of life.

    As mentioned, my concern has more to do with economics than talent.Been quite a while since I have spent a nickel on music, at least not the old fashioned way. Not losing any sleep over it, just wondering how these people eat these days.

    1. Someone once asked- who will make music when music becomes free? The answer- true musicians.

  2. I can't listen to the radio anymore. i did not fully understand why songs these days sound so shallow. Starting to make sense now. Thanks for the explanation. I found it very enlightening.



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