THE VOICE OF A GENERATION
Jon Deutsche asks:
Could a single artist in a single genre actually represent our entire generation? Or are the musical tastes of our generation too eclectic as a result of more exposure of music through the internet? How could one person/group capture the interest of several very different audiences?-
If Aristotle's dictum that freedom is an essential ingredient of happiness holds true, music fans should be living in a state of ecstasy. When it is possible to hold ten thousand songs of your choice in your iPod and be under no particular obligation to pay for them, it is truly revolutionary. Prior to the advent of peer-to-peer file sharing, musical taste was filtered by distribution systems that were restricted mechanics and protocols dictated by the music industry rather than through the public taste. The record business decided what music would proliferate and the fans followed.
The extant institutions created a flow of recorded music starting with the sheet music publishers and record companies. They provided a stream of "product" selected by committee. The choices made by A&R men and record executives were often influenced by by fads, trends and recent successes. The filtering process often eliminated the most original and creative artists from the competition. Buyers of recorded music had a limited selection to choose from. The promotion process was tightly controlled and most often emulated the styles of prevailing superstars. The music of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and The Beatles set the historical trajectory for more than sixty years. The transitions between genres was always dictated by an advancing technology.
The influence of the digital age on the music industry is overwhelmingly profound. The Internet has brought the postmodern record business to its knees. The entire industry has been consolidated down to four major companies that control ninety percent of the traditionally recorded product. The infrastructure that evolved in these companies was built on a business model that is no longer viable. Massive shrinking of their overheads is in progress. The ability of these companies to discover, develop and maintain long term careers is in serious jeopardy. Their prevailing system is very much tied to a tight control of AM and FM radio. However, this generation of music fans is not particularly attached to radio. The iPod is their weapon of choice.
These fans are more involved in the selection process than any previous generation. The music they identify with is chosen through a controlled network of distribution dominated by very small niche groups and online communities. The array of musical styles available covers the entire history of recorded music. There is no genre that cannot be fully explored on the world wide web in minutes. Virtually every song ever recorded can be found and downloaded free of charge. There is more music in play than ever before in history. The only problem is how do the creators of it get compensated? If songwriters and performers can't sell records, how do they survive? Without an industry geared to the discovery of new talent how will the next superstar be born? These are questions without obvious answers but there is an historical trajectory.
Every previous era has produced innovators and original stylists who have brought together a myriad of qualities to produce an ubiquitous following from the arriving teen generation. This particular age group inevitably rebels against its parents music and chooses to identify with a style of its own. This process seems to be a natural phenomenon that is part of coming of age in America. It is unlikely that this right of passage would disappear because digital technology facilitated the proliferation of music to a wider audience.
It is most likely that a new superstar will rise on the winds of change. It will require a lot of extraordinary talent ending up in one package for this to happen. But, should that artist arrive the economics imposed by digital distribution systems could create huge financial windfalls instantly and the competition would explode in a new direction. If the fans decided to actually purchase the music, out of an increased affection for the artist, the new business model would spread like wildfire. Fortunes could be made in a day.
It is entirely possible that this scenario may never come to pass. Music fans could explore all of the great genres on a song by song basis and create the soundtrack to their lives on an individual basis. It is possible that personal choice would become the standard and that one's identity was tied to a very specific content chosen to reflect a personal commentary on the musical taste of an individual. The ability to send an entire library of music as one's calling card would certainly communicate a significant amount of information about a new friend or acquaintance. What one stands for and values would be quite evident from a digital survey of the songs and artists a person values and supports. The getting to know you phase of a relationship would be greatly accelerated by exposure of the musical soul. Perhaps music has become too big for any one force to dominate. I on the other hand, keep one eye on the horizon, because I fully expect the next big thing to pop up around the next corner. What a glorious day it will be when that star rises.