To strain a simile like an over-eager vicar, Capitalism is like the Borg: it assimilates everything it touches and corrupts it to its own ends. In the 90’s, the internet promised a new age of free information and participation; what we got was “influencers” and dark-money propaganda. Likewise, the explosion of music/audio-related technology over the last 40 years promised new worlds of sound, and far lower barriers to making it for musicians. What we got was something I’d like to call “produced music”.
To define this term, the starting point is to acknowledge that the vast majority of all music currently being produced and in general circulation is created in a particular set of contexts, is created using the same set of tools, has its exposure to an audience governed by an opaque algorithmic process, and is experienced either on a limited number of streaming platforms, or interpolated as a soundtrack of another commercial product.
Furthermore, great efforts are made to hide this uniformity; music as it is presented as product presents an aura that harks back to a bourgeois fantasy of what musical creativity is. We watch an interview where a moody singer-songwriter describes their struggle to write their last album, or a (beautifully colour-graded) video of a folk-rock band sitting around on tea-chests in a barn – and we forget that we’re watching an advert.
This is not to question the quality of produced music – music does not “suck these days”, and I believe that most of the artists that produce it are entirely sincere. But my point is that the way that it is produced and consumed – both technically and commercially – limits the scope of what music is and will be created. Furthermore, both the omnipresence of mediated music in our lives and the abundance of superficial stylistic novelty give a misleading impression of universality – this is the hypernormalization of a limited set of musical outcomes. These outcomes are produced music.
Some artists have responded with a subversive, deconstructive approach from within the form; for example, work by the likes of SOPHIE and Fatima Al Qadiri plays on an explicit performance of artificiality, of acknowledging the process of manufacture (the latter track being an explicit reference to cheap Chinese knock-offs).
Others might suggest that the only solution would be to destroy Capitalism, but I can’t say I’m a great fan of the alternatives. So, for my work, I’d like to understand the purely musical implications of produced music, and to challenge these in kind.
The starting point is the context of the person creating the music: the demise of the traditional models for marketing music and the rise of social media has led to a process of out-sourcing and left the musician as a self-marketing agency worker – part of the ever-expanding precariat. When the currency of the day is likes, shares and follows, any work of music is a pitch, a brand proposition, a rubric, before it’s music. For a musician starting out, their success will be governed more by the success of their online brand than the quality of their work.
On a major-label release, songs will be assembled in song-writing camps, where bright young things (with large Instagram followings) will pitch parts of songs to the label and artist. Even for less commercial work, it’s not enough to produce “a thing wot I wrote” – you need to “use boutique electronica and vintage dial-tones to construct a meditative exploration of time and identity”. Everything’s a pitch.
This process is exacerbated by the ever-increasing union between popular music and commercial music – sync fees are one of the few remaining good sources of income for musician. And again, it’s all agencies and pitches.
These strictures will lead to music that is uniformly consonant with pre-existing branding, and musical ideas that are quickly grasped. This is most obvious in the primacy of timbre in almost all contemporary music, and the dominance of cyclic over progressive structures. We don’t want to wait for the drop.
The next commonality is the universality of the Digital Audio Workstation in the production of music. These are very, very powerful platforms these days; whilst they offer fewer and fewer absolute restrictions, they influence the music made in what they make easy and what they make hard. Cyclic structures, layering, timbral variation, and complex regular rhythms are made easy; irregularity – in structure, in temperament (tuning system), and in terms of the freeness achieved by human music-making – is much harder. Furthermore, the power of non-destructive editing and the various “turd-polishing” tools available to the modern producer makes the tweaked and perfected master recordings the endpoint of the musical process. The listener is given little coming out of spontaneity or accident, and the touring musician is left to produce a facsimile of the “real thing”.
Lastly, we should consider the mechanism that delivers this music to people – streaming accounts for the vast majority of music consumption. Curation algorithms and playlists favour music that fits neatly into an established genre. This has benefitted some micro-genres like Vapour Wave and Lo-Fi Chill-Hop – but this “genre-fication” is an acute example of the broader influence of the medium. The user experience of using a streaming service promotes certain types of consumption – we are more likely to treat music like air-conditioning (switch it on to improve the atmosphere) rather than as an active experience. Again, this promotes uniform content with a limited dynamic range – something that can tickle through laptop speakers while you work. Music used in sync will be carried on the same services, and thus have the same features – with the added requirement of having impact and being identifiable on very short timescales – your video will start in 5 seconds…
From the above, we would expect the characteristics of produced music to be:
- Understood primarily as a recording of sound – portable and endlessly reproducible
- Identifiable and uniform in genre, and uniform enough throughout to allow easy identification – this will tend limit the length of a song as well
- Cyclic harmonic structures that require little or no harmonic memory
- Regular meter and fixed tempo
- Little or no colouring through the tempering of notes (altering the pitch slightly for emphasis or colour).
- Consequently, musical content is dominated by timbre, rather than melody, rhythm, or harmony
- Reproduceable on cheap headphones or stereo speakers – so having limited dynamic range and bass extension and lacking any surround or 3D information.
I hope the reader will be struck by how proscriptive this list is – and how much music it describes!
We should then imagine the alternative: music the lives in live performance, music that could carry its meaning on everything from a mandolin to a symphony orchestra, music that is heterodox and promiscuous in style, music that develops ideas and tension over varying timescales, music that surges and develops, plays and converses with the listener, music that demands to be heard and envelops its audience.
I rather like that idea of that sort of music, and that’s why I’m writing a musical.