Today’s rock music sucks. It may be easy to blame music videos disappearing from MTV or the fact that people don’t listen to the radio anymore. It may also be easy to blame technology and the fact that Napster killed the record industry in the late 1990s. All of those things are symptoms of a much broader picture. Yes, technology is a part of it, but not in the way you think. In Dave Grohl’s 2013 documentary about the recording studio Sound City, he talks about the human element of music. What does that mean?
What does technology have to do with it?
In 2001 Digidesign, the company that makes Pro Tools released a plugin for their application called Beat Detective. This plugin allows the audio engineer to go in and correct the drum beat of a song. In essence, you can take a performance of a drummer, pull it in to Pro Tools, take each drum hit and make sure it lines up perfectly with the grid. So now you’ve taken this drummer’s performance and “corrected” it to make sure it’s perfectly in time.
At the same time, we all know about auto-tune, right? That other plugin that takes someone’s voice and makes it sounds like a robot. It was popular in 2008 with people like T-Pain and The Black Eyed Peas. It made their voices sound otherworldly. And of course, let’s not forget Cher’s 1998 hit Believe where this trend started. This is using the application in a creative way. Whether you like the sound or not, when the auto-tune is obvious, it’s not really being used to correct a bad performance. It’s being used as a deliberate method to create an original sound. The much more sinister application of the software is when it’s used to push a note that may be a little flat up to the “correct” one.
I believe these two technologies are the reason that people don’t really connect with music the way they used to. The average music listener may not be able to tell specifically that the drums are time-corrected or that the singer’s voice is being manipulated. But they can definitely tell that something is off.
How do people discover new music?
That explains why older people may not be into new music. But what about younger people? Why don’t younger people connect with new rock music? If a person under the age of 25 is into rock music, their taste generally gravitates to bands of the early 2000s or older. I think the reason is the same; they just don’t connect with the way the music doesn’t sound organic.
In the last ten to fifteen years, hip-hop has replaced rock music as the dominant type of music in the mainstream. The music of hip-hop is inherently non-organic. It’s based on samples, programmed drums, beats, and synthesizers. But that’s because the main focus isn’t the performance of the music, it’s on the content of the lyrics. This is why I think people have connected with hip-hop in a very significant way. It’s easier to relate to someone rapping about their struggles than it is a rock band trying to pull off being organic when it’s so obviously been heavily processed in the studio.
Who is to blame for the decline in quality?
But this isn’t the fault of the bands, the engineers, or the producers. It’s the record companies who insist the music have a certain quality that they can sell. If a song isn’t an instant hit, they won’t release it. They’ve got music down to an algorithm. So many beats per minute, it needs to be x number of minutes long, the intro can only be a few seconds before the vocals come in. Absolutely no instrumental breaks. Think about that one. How can you have a rock song without a guitar solo? The music industry has homogenized music to the point where it has become a commodity. Art, in its truest form cannot exist solely as a commodity.
Piracy is a big concern and I understand the music industry is scared to take a chance on something they’re not sure will sell. But that’s precisely how the foundation of rock n roll music was formed. Do you think Elvis Presley was a sure thing when his first single was released? The very thing pop music is based on is innovation. Leave the business to the business people and leave the art to the artists. When you have business people starting to dictate what the art should be, the game is lost.
Radio doesn’t help either. Ask yourself a question. When was the last time you turned on the radio to discover something new? Radio has shifted from being a source of music discovery from being a nostalgia trip. Classic rock radio is alive and well playing the same fifty songs for the last ten years. I don’t think anyone turning on the radio. So, where do people go to discover new music? Spotify has a discovery playlist, but does anyone use that? I’m not being rhetorical, I genuinely want to know. Where do people under the age of twenty-five discover new music?
Is there a future for good music?
The internet is a wonderful place, and there are a lot of independent bands who venerate the idea of an organic sound and want to innovate and create something new. I just wish the labels would take a chance on something they’re not sure will sell. As Frank Zappa said in an interview once, “We were better off with the cigar chomping business guys running the show because they didn’t understand youth culture, but knew how to run the business side of things.” I’m paraphrasing but the idea that some forty-five-year-old guy in a business suit knows what the kids want is laughable.
So why does today’s music suck? Well there’s always been music that has sucked. The only difference is the good artists always had a chance to gain an audience.