Monday, August 1, 2011

Musical Amateurism

Warning: the following is at rant on the state of pop music that shamelessly derides the music industry.  Reader discretion is advised.

I've been thinking about music and musical instruments lately.  And it occurred to me how odd our current musical experience is.  One of the oldest recorded songs in history dates back to about 1400BCE, but it's likely unrecorded music existed long before that.  My point being that music has always been a very pervasive element in our cultures.  It was performed by average Joes for average Joes, where many (if not all) of the listeners actively took part in the experience.  But this is not reflected in our current musical culture.  We now only passively engage with the music with our stereos, ipods, etc.  And it is largely no longer done by amateurs.  Teams of professionals (of whom the actual artist is often only a small part, as in the case of pop singles).  And the industry that has been built to protect this corporatizing (like the RIAA) and wanting money practically every time someone sings one of their songs is also downright odd, when viewed in the context of most of our musical history.  How can you copyright something so quintessential to the human experience?  (By the way, the RIAA has yet to share a single penny of the settlements they've won with the artists they're supposedly protecting, I refuse to buy an album released by the RIAA).

I think this decline in musical amateurism started with the end of the Baroque period of music, when music began being performed by people whose profession was music and the instruments of choice became more complex (for example, the decline of the recorder).  This was partly because of the growing world economy that made more leisure time possible.  Whereas in the past, as my Western Civ professor put it, "Most of your ancestors were hungry most of the time."  Aristocracies were falling, and more power (politically and economically) was making its way into the hands of the common man.  But even in this period of history, folk music was still alive and well.  And although amateur musicians were no longer the sole source of music, they were still a significant source of it.   This continued for some time, with professional music comprising a larger and larger percentage of the music consumed by the population.  Things changed again, and rather dramatically, with the advent of recorded music.  In the past, it was still very typical for a household to have a means of producing their own music.  A woman was considered more marriageable if she were able to provide this service for her home.  The piano was the most popular choice for this, in my opinion because it arguably has a greater capacity to make a single musician a one man band than any other instrument.  There were other factors as well.  The depression hit, which drove down piano sales considerably, and recorded musical devices became more and more inexpensive.  When these devices became relatively mainstream, it gave households the ability to have music without the need of any musical talent or the cost of maintaining a musical instrument (pianos generally need tuned about twice a year).  This process, as most of you already know has been accelerated many times in recent history, with the advent of radio, CDs, portable players, and the MP3.

While I do still spurn what the pop single culture has become, with its uncreative and sometimes downright unpleasant lyrics, its increasingly heavy use of autotuners, and seeming desire to sell sex rather than musical talent, I do still enjoy the occasional good beat.  What I'm really coming to sense as far as what's been lost over time is musical amateurism.  These days, with the world as your critic, you can't even watch a Youtube video of a little kid plucking out their first tune without reading a comment below of "this kid sukx".  Folk is essentially dead (at least in America).  The closest thing you can get to this amateurism (aside from high school recitals) is Indie.  And several of these bands are just corporate wannabes.  And because of this, it seems to be hard to find bands willing to break the mold being created by the professionals (you might find some on Jamendo).  This lapse in creativity and morality is disturbing.  But so is how passive we've become in our interactions.  This goes for all our interactions like texting your mom instead of talking face to face, but also for our music.  Unless you count what establishments largely built on lecherous recreation, like clubbing joints, our interaction with music and musically with each other is largely minimal.  I'm not saying that I'd like all such establishments shut down and the music industry to die.  Maybe it still has a place in our society, I don't know.  But I would like to see people become more involved in the musical process and increasing the level of creativity in the music listened to by the general populace.  But If singing about getting probed by aliens or getting excited by chains and whips represents the pinnacle of creativity in popular music then

Why not mess around with music in your home?  Get a cheap keyboard ($50), guitar ($40), recorder ($4), tin whistle ($10), fife ($5), or whatever floats your boat and create something!  It can't be any worst than the wares the music industry is currently offering!