The Cycle of Life

The other day I was listening to this interesting podcast from Keven Grace and Kevin Steele, two hosers from some place called “Canada.” Both had careers in the media and now they don’t, presumably due to the local blasphemy laws. I’ve listened to a number of their interviews I found on YouTube. For those interested in hate-think and the haters who founded hate-thinkery, their interviews of Gottfried, Sailer, Taylor and others are a good introduction to the hate. They ask good questions and get good answers.

The podcast on music is interesting if you enjoy thoughtful discussion of the business side of popular culture. If you are under the age of 80, you just assume that pop music is a feature of society. It’s hard to think about a time when there was no such thing as pop stars or hit songs played on the radio. The music business did not exist a hundred years ago, at least not in the way we think about it today. It was after the war that cheap radios, cheap record players and a prosperous middle-class birthed modern pop music culture.

If you read a book like The Wrecking Crew, you see that much of what we think of as rock and roll lifestyle was manufactured. The early years of pop music were dominated by old experienced guys from the jazz and big band scenes. They wrote the music, recorded the songs and made the hits. The acts that turned up on TV and radio were often just front men, hired to be the face of the act. From the very beginning, music was a business designed to make money, not music, for the people who owned the music business.

One of the things I found interesting from the podcast is that the music industry, the people involved in the business end of things, is about half the size it was at its peak. A couple of years ago I did a post on the state of music. Per capita music sales have collapsed from their peak 15 years ago. That peak was largely a bubble created by the advent of the compact disc. Everyone went out and repurchased their music collection in the new digital format. A lot of old stuff was remastered for the new format and that boosted sales too.

We are now in a time when selling songs is no longer very profitable. Often, bands will put their new releases on YouTube free of charge. The song itself is a form of marketing for their live shows. In my youth, the opposite was the case. Bands went on tour to promote their latest album. The tickets to the show were often cheaper than the album. Now, anything you want is on-line so trying to monetize the songs has become a lost cause. As a result, the focus is on making money from the live shows.

In many respects, pop music is back to where it was before the great wars of the 20th century. In the 19th century, sheet music was the item of value in the music business. Many of our intellectual property laws, in fact, come from efforts to protect the owners of sheet music. The main source of income for musicians, however, was the live act. They went around performing for customers. It is where the expression “sing for your supper” started. Often musicians were paid, in part, with a meal.

There are some important lessons in the history of pop music. One is that cultural phenomenon have a life cycle. They come into existence, blossom and then die off. The music business is never going to go completely away. There’s still money to be made marketing acts and managing the production of recorded music, but the boom times are over. It is, as they say in business, a mature sector now. It’s not a business attracting wild men looking for adventure. Instead it attracts MBA’s moving through the corporate system. “This is Josh, who came over from the petro-chemical division.”

Pop music’s impact on the greater culture is also largely over. There will never be another Beatles or Rolling Stones. That’s because “American culture” is over. Prior to the two great industrial wars of the 20th century, America did not have a unified national culture. It was federation of regions. New England may as well have been a different country from the Deep South or the Southwest. The South was very different from Appalachia. There was no unified “American” culture to which all the regional cultures submitted.

The great national project of conquering Europe and Asia opened the door for the flowering of an American culture after the war. Into it was drawn anything that could be sold as celebrating this new world power. It is why what we think of as American pop culture blew up after the war. In music, for example, producers scoured the land looking for authentic American sounds to package up and sell, in order to meet the demand of this new growing thing called Americana. It even went global, in search of spice to ad to the mix.

Like the music business itself, the great unifying national culture that blossomed in the 20th century has run its course. America is, to a great degree, falling back to its natural, regional state. Just look at the popularity of movies and TV shows by region and you see old weird America emerging again. Live acts now setup their tours to reflect the fact that they have greater appeal in some regions than in others. If you are a country act, for example, there’s no point in booking a lot of dates in the north, outside of the one-off festivals in the summer that feature a variety of acts.

That’s another lesson from pop music. The past is the actualized, the present is the actualizing and the future in the potential. Culture is that middle part, standing on the past in an effort to realize the potential that lies in the future. Once culture attains its natural end, it dies. What’s left is what it created. The grand unified pop culture of the Cold War era is now like an old factory building that has been renovated to be lofts, shops and boutique restaurants. It’s influence on what comes next is purely utilitarian.

 

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82 Comments on "The Cycle of Life"

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Recusant
Guest

Agree with it all, but found it a bit strange that you referenced two English bands – the Beatles and Rolling Stones – for your comment about the great unified American culture.

Daniel K Day
Guest

English bands they were, but their members, along with other UK greats like Eric Clapton, Peter Green, etc., were devoted admirers and imitators of the American bluesmen. Google where Brian Jones got the name “Rolling Stones”, for another example.

kshaidle
Guest

Canadian here. Nothing to do with “blasphemy laws” 🙂

Kevin Michael Grace
Guest

Go on then, do tell. Don’t be a tease

JohnTyler
Guest

It’s remarkable that the music of Mozart, Beethoven, et. al., is still performed and listened to several hundred years after their deaths.
I will speculate that 100 years from today, very few folks will be playing or listening to the music of the Beatles or Rolling Stones or other rock “legends.”

What do you all think??
And why??

What explains the persistence of certain music genres and the literal disappearance of most others?
Is it a cultural thing?? (check out the number of Asians in US music schools and orchestras) .

karl hungus
Guest

i disagree. the great rock bands of yore will still be played, for the same reason Beethoven (still) are.

Member
If small children are still singing The Camptown Races and Ring Around the Rosie today, and it’s been 100-200-300 years, a lot of what we’re listening to today will still be around. The fact that you can have any music you want on command just by asking your phone for it, and the fact that there will always be a group of people who like to go back and rediscover music, means we’ll be listening to a lot of music from the past 80 years well into the 2300’s. Not all “pop” music is disposable garbage, just like not all… Read more »
Sam J.
Guest

People will be listening to the Stones 500 years from now.

Giovanni Dannato
Guest

Glad to see more people discussing the problem of pop music. It is so ubiquitous most would struggle to explain it or imagine anything else.
https://colonyofcommodus.wordpress.com/2015/01/01/pop-music-is-folk-music-elevated-beyond-its-proper-place/

karl hungus
Guest

another interesting trend is the rise of cover bands. evidently there are few new rock bands of any import (U2 being the exception that comes to mind) so there are lots of cover bands doing big business playing the old greats. with respect to the geriatric (literally) lineup at Coachella this year, I would much prefer to see a young(ish) cover band than a 70 year old original.

StAugustine@gmail.com
Guest
StAugustine@gmail.com
That thing about cover bands actually makes me think. I wonder if that is what will stick around just for the next generation until we’re all dead. Because popular orchestras were always playing covers – that is, they were playing what was popular. I’m talking about the jazz orchestras and even latin orchestras, and perhaps tango orchestras also fall into this kind of thing: you play the hits, the golden oldies. You could say that Classical Music is just another version of a cover band, for those who have a taste for that style of music. Much like you can… Read more »
Dirtnapninja
Guest

Rock music is in steep decline. it no longer commands the center of the pop culture, or even the music culture. Most of the talent is going into other genres.

Member

Another phenomenon, strange to me, is hte music video with bands or others doing all sorts of activities, often only vaguely connected to the lyrics.And the related spread of the ubiquity of music, or muzak, everywhere. Even as late as the early 1960s people did not take it for granted there would be a “soundtrack” for their lives.

Member

Oh, I don’t know. In my head I hear the Imperial March by John Williams every time I enter a room…

ganderson
Guest

Rurik- I’m sure you remember the Underbeats , The Castaways , Michael’s Mystics and the Trashmen, among others. Ever go to Big Reggie’s Danceland? I was too young, but when I was in college I was hitching back to St. Paul from St. Cloud and got picked up by Big Reggie himself! As Z says, more of a business guy than a music guy. THe Underbeats got some national run as Gypsy in the early ’70s.

Member

Umma mao mao, poppa uuuu mao ma mao …..Don’t you know about the bird …
How did you know I was your landsman. Teddy-’64, I was. I don’t remember Big Reggie or the Underbeats, but yes to the Castaways.
Everybody knows that The Bird is the word.

Member
A recent trend also is the move away from a dedicated music library. In my basement, I have upwards of 500 CDs. They’re all digitized now, and I have playlists for this and that. But the thing I’ve noticed lately is that, thanks to my Apple Music subscription, I don’t actually dive into my personal collection nearly as much as I once did. I can have a thought or a memory for 20 years ago pop into my head, remember a song, and ask Siri to play it – and the entire album – for me. I also don’t actually… Read more »
Karl Hungus
Guest

depends on if you can hear the difference between an mp3 (as Apple uses) and full quality cd.

Member
I totally can, but it doesn’t bother me much. My brother whines about this, and I just look at him and laugh as I push two buttons and pull up a great song we haven’t heard in 25 years. “Yeah, you go find that CD, I’ll be up here listening to the music.” Besides, when do I mostly listen to music? In the car, at work, etc. so I’m not going full blown audiophile often. I keep several AOR disks in the truck just so I can blow the doors off sometimes. But mostly it doesn’t bother me, and as… Read more »
karl hungus
Guest

well, you can rip your cd’s into FLAC format and get the best of both worlds 🙂

ganderson
Guest

I hardly ever listen to albums- all playlists on my ipod

Tdurden
Guest
A couple or 3 years ago I had to decide when it was time to move on to a new position in the company. It was a latteral move but it felt like it was time since I had just beaten a hated vendor about the head and shoulders and got us into a better, first of it’s kind in the industry agreement with their competitor. I was a hero to all who hated the former vendor. The deciding factor was when I broke it down to two famous bands that you mentioned.: Who would I rather be…The Beatles or… Read more »
Drake
Guest
It’s not just the money side that has declined, it’s the enthusiasm. I don’t even know how to explain to my son the chaos and craziness of an 80’s rock concert. I can’t think of a current act that can generate the madness of many bands in the 80’s. Seeing the J. Geils Band in Massachusetts in ’83 was craziest party I’ve ever attended. Can any new band generate a spontaneous Nuremberg Rally with an arena-full of 20-year-olds in the middle of a song? I watch ’89 Metallica videos as much for the crowd shots as the music. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYh9Lyvr0P8
Member

I think that a lot of the energy that drove the band scene of our youths has shifted to raves. A very different scene, but serves the same needs.

karl hungus
Guest

you may be onto something, especially given the amount of drugs used at raves. Ecstasy is a helluva drug <= Rick James quote, paraphrased

Georgiaboy61
Guest
I have very fond memories of attending concerts and club shows in my musical playing and listen prime – from a sixteen year-old teenager who’d just bought his first car and stereo system to my mid-thirties or so. I lived in the Chicago area in those days, NW suburbs, so it was Poplar Creek Music Theater – and outdoor venue which hosted big-name, big-draw acts like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, .38 Special, Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, and Stevie Ray Vaughn, to name a few. The atmosphere at those shows was something – and I think the… Read more »
Gord
Guest

Interesting how much of Apple was built on music. And if you read the Jobs biography how much of his philosophy was pulled from pop music. Not sure if it was true or written to fit that agenda of the author. Lucky we didn’t have Jobs a follower of Gaga

Ron
Guest

I watched the documentary on The Wrecking Crew. Probably not as good as the book but it had some great footage.

Marina
Guest

I’m a Millennial (sorry, it happens!) and that documentary blew my mind for one reason. They had beach shots interspersed with the music stuff and I finally got why older media talks about California girls as the most gorgeous girls in the world. If you grew up in the nineties and later, “I wish they all could be California girls” just does not match up with the reality around you.

alzaebo
Guest

When security guards pull a TSA and confiscate even bottled water, well, the concert scenes are pretty much dead zombies, only livened by a gang shooting.

Member

I quit listening to pop music about fifteen years ago, so much of the discussion is lost on me. What I think is significant about all this is the idea that politics is downstream from culture. If we are witnessing the passing of an age of centralization and into one of a return of regionalization in culture, what implications does this have for the future of politics? Does this mean that we will see a return of old fashioned federalism? We are already seeing a president returning much of environmental enforcement back to the states. What’s next?

karl hungus
Guest

I don’t think any of the bands mentioned were not playing *25* years ago 😛

Shelby
Guest
Great post. I am amazed/impressed at how technical you guys get with music. When my grandson discovered music he threw himself into the tech part, tells me all the time how hopelessly ignorant I am about the fine tuning of my stereo. My first concert was a smallish gathering in Miami or Lauderdale in 67 or 68. I was sober and straight, and sat through Leon redbone, Blue Cheer, Frank Zappa and the Mother of Inventions, and a host of other wannabes. It finally got dark and a helicopter landed on the track and out came Jimi Hendrix. I had… Read more »
notsothoreau
Guest

I used to go to a lot of concerts. They were cheap and usually fun. One of the best shows I saw was the Ramones playing a small club in Portland. Frankly, the music is just so plastic these days. It’s overworked and nothing is spontaneous. I also think the popularity of rap killed popular music. Black music used to trigger the creative in white musicians. Rap is such a narrow field that it doesn’t. Country music is unrecognizable as being rural music, for the most part. Most of the new music I’ve discovered has come from services like Pandora.

Christopher S. Johns
Guest
I sense a cultural shift in the offing, but I don’t know how it will ultimately play out. I have a daughter in her middle teens, and her favorite music is the same new wave and punk that her parents listened to when they were young adults. And its not just parental influence at work – for her the question of whether the popular music of the late 70s and 80s is far more creative and rebellious than the music of today is not even worth discussing. I can’t imagine growing up in a world where you freely admit that… Read more »
Kathy
Guest

My 23-year-old son makes fun of me for saying the ’70s produced the best music ever made — but I notice that his favorite bands come from the ’80s.

Dutch
Guest

Slightly OT, but go to YouTube and look up the movie “Get Crazy”. Not much of a plot, but more a series of vignettes around putting on a New Year’s Eve concert. From the early ’80s and a “lost movie”, due to music licensing issues. The manic and anarchic sex-drugs-rock and roll is so far beyond what you see today, but probably not far off from the then-reality, of course done up in a screwball movie production fashion. Written and produced by a guy who worked at the Fillmore East back in the day.

Member

Can you read music? Probably not.
We have changed.
The sheet music business was busy in the 19th and early 20th century because most people could read music in those days? Outside of your high school band members, who do you know who can read music today?

Dutch
Guest

I was told by my girlfriend’s mom, back in the day, who was in charge of the local high school district’s music department and also the area youth symphony, that she was quite aware that none of the music kids could actually read music, and that every single one of them simply memorized the notes. This was back in the mid ’70s.

Ace Rimmer
Guest

I was in that orchestra. Not so. I don’t know where you’re from, but any bandgeek will tell you that sight reading is a cornerstone of any well run music education program, and it gets emphasized to this day in all that are worth a damn, and about half at least are still worth a damn.

That crap you saw in the Drumline movie about reading music is a myth in a movie.

Ripple
Guest
While the recorded music industry has seen better days, live music in many forms is thriving. In the last fifteen years years we have seen tremendous growth of the music festival. Not just mega-festivals such as Coachella and Bonnaroo but dozens of smaller ones, all over North America, in which many genres of music are represented. There’s also been the emergence of destination musical events on cruise ships and at tropical resorts. This did not exist last century. Parallel to this is the emergence of VIP options. As music fans have grown older, that generally means more money earned and… Read more »
JimVonYork
Guest

I have been going on the KISS Kruise, one of the destination music cruises you mentioned in your post. This year will be my fourth and I can honestly say, nothing beats being on a ship with 3000 drunk (for the most part) KISS fans that are living life large.

Thud
Guest

The Ramones, the last America band that made this Englishman love America and when I found Johnny was that rare bird a conservative musician… I loved them even more.

Member

My five kids all discovered our extensive record collection in their middle school years and to today many of their favorite tunes are from the 60’s on. They “discovered” the really good music from “antiquity I’m told” and shared with their friends. My wife and I smiled. Oh, and the technology we’ve had to learn, 45’s, LP’s, 8 track, cassette, reel to reel, cd’s, MP3, downloadeds, streaming………I may be at the end. I think I am going to cue a cut on a favorite vinyl tonight and relax.

walt reed
Guest

You haven’t lived until you listen to a Mariachi Band (Brownsville, Texas) play Horse With No Name.

Shelby
Guest

My grandson has promised to play ‘Comfortably Numb’ by Pink Floyd at my funeral.

MadMax1861
Guest

I can’t get into the modern country music that’s played on the radio. I’m still listening to Tammy Wynette and George Jones.

Anonymous White Male
Guest
What is interesting to me is how fragmented musical choice is today. When the record was still king, music was broken down into specific formats. Pop/Rock, Jazz, Country, Classical. Over time you had other categories inserted like Techno, World Music, Fusion, etc. I have a hard time categorizing contemporary popular music in this day and age. Let’s face it: Music is a young man’s business and the young drive it. Look at all the popular music you loved and the age you loved it at. It is still “your music”. The artists that played it had a shelf life. Their… Read more »
Member
If I might add …. Part of the death of pop music is the sorry excuse for melody and lyric. Compare a swath of today’s pop hits with a swath from the early 70s … or even the late 60s or further back for real music. I listen to what’s on offer today and I hear shouting in a monotone … there is no melody to remember or hum at work …. The musicians are usually trained studio types as the garage band types are too distracted to find time to learn to play an instrument decently. And …. Choreography… Read more »
Paha poika
Guest
Frank Zappa wrote a great book back in 1989 . In one chapter he described the downfall of the music industry. He focused more on the development of new bands ( or lack thereof ). It seems the Heyday of rock and roll is behind us. The kids are listening to the same stuff we grew up on. Getting completely wasted and raising hell at a concert just doesn’t seem to be in their DNA. We had some wild times back in the day at the old Boston Gardens. Now kids sit quietly and politely clap like they’re at a… Read more »
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[…] subculture would get to be lead dog; while all the of the rest would quickly come to hate the view. This Z-Man post about Rock Music makes that insight in a different […]

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