Quora Answer : Has mainstream music today gotten better or worse?

Jan 6

It's changed.

The main thing that has happened to music today is that it become more tied to specialist functions : music to dance to in raves, music to drink to in bars, music to pump you up at the gym, music to make you feel good about yourself, music to drive trucks to, music to clown to on TikTok etc. etc.

For each of these niches, music has become more optimized. The sonority, production, structure, is increasingly fine-tuned for the specific usage.

For example, many people complain that electronic dance music doesn't really have any structure. There's a couple of build-ups and drops but apart from that it just starts and stops at the same speed, nothing really changes, there's no narrative arc etc.

And that's exactly right for that kind of music.

Much electronic dance music is not intended to be listened to as a piece of music in its own right. It's intended as a sub-component out which a DJ is going to build a session for the dance-floor. The DJ might want to use 6 minutes of that track. Or only 3 minutes. Or perhaps only 1 minute. The DJ needs to be able to move into the record at any point, and leave the record at any point. And however much or little of the record gets played, it needs to convey its full message / identity.

The DJ might want to use the record to make a slight change in mood. But the last thing a DJ needs is a record that has such a strong internal narrative arc from slow to fast or quiet to loud, that this disrupts the story that the DJ is trying to tell. The DJ has his own narrative arc that takes place over the hour-long set. What he wants from a record is something with flavour and character, a notable identity in terms of melody or sonority. But something which is structurally bland enough to be bent to the DJ's own purposes.

So to ask the question "which is better?" between some 7 minute house track that doesn't seem to go anywhere, or a 7 minute piece of 70s prog rock with a lot of internal variety in mood, is missing the point.

Sure, the 70s prog rock has greater internal complexity. But it's not necessarily as "fit" to a niche as the 7 minute house track is. The 70s prog rock was played by phenomenally skilled musicians. But the successful house track is almost certainly made by a very skilled and knowledgable producers, who apply a lot of specialist intuition and understanding to make that track just right.

(I can tell you, as someone who has made music for over 30 years, and has been using Fruity Loops for almost 20, that I couldn't make a good house track. I mean, like 90% of people literate in electronic music, I could make something that vaguely approximates house music. But a good house record that would be a hit and rock the dance-floor in 2021? I would fail abysmally.)

Now I'm focussing on electronic dance music because it should be a fairly obvious case and is easy to explain. But in subtler ways, most successful music today is more focused and fine tuned for a niche.

And what that means is that the music often doesn't make much sense outside that niche. A club track goes on too much if you listen to all 7 minutes of it, on speakers with no bass, in a quiet room. (Sure, there are house tunes that do make sense in that context, but not all of them work.) A rap tune for teenagers to listen to huddled around a phone in the school playground, isn't going to sound meaningful to a 50 year old man pottering around in his garage with the radio on. The concerns of the music, the vocabulary, the sonority, the cultural references, are just not suitable or relevant.

That was ALWAYS somewhat the case. Which is why the phenomenon of popular music going bad when you get older is itself an old trope. But it's that phenomenon itself which is so much more exacerbated and extreme today as music gets more specialized.

Most "mainstream" music sounds terrible to you today, because almost all of it is made for, and highly optimized for, people who are different from you doing different things from the things you are doing when you hear it.

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