Is Music Dead?

I want to make an improbable suggestion: music is dying as one of the mainstays of our culture.

I understand that I’m swimming upstream on this one. Surely, some will say, music is the mainstay of every culture. Others will say that in any case it must be a mainstay of our culture.

But what if it isn’t? We are watching the digital transformation disrupt one institution after another. What if music is one of these?

And if it is, we need to register this reality, and the sooner the better. If this has changed, the very fundamentals of our culture are changing. If music is changing, nothing is safe.

There is something a little dizzying about the suggestion, I know. Our common sense tells us that music has to matter. How could it not? That music matters is build way down into our our foundational ideas of what must be true of the world. But of course from an formal point of view, and especially any anthropological one, very few truths are indubitable. Almost nothing, especially these days, is free from change. Anyone in the culture biz is obliged to examine their assumptions, examine the data, and when necessary to forgo “common sense” for emergent truths.

To sweeten the proposition, I am going to use my music claim to make a TV prediction. I am going to suggest that the new show from Showtime called Roadies will fail. (Roadies debuts June 26, plenty of time for you, dear reader, to make predictions of your own.)

The point of this second prediction is that too often creatives, designers, planners, strategists, anthropologists, and other students of culture have a bad habit of pronouncing only after the fact. We never call anything until it happens. So we’re always right. I think we need to go on the record. This is the only way to prove the value of our position.

Let’s start with an anomaly: the disappointing performance of the HBO show called Vinyl. This had lots of talent on both sides of the camera, the likes of Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, Bobbly Cannavale, and Terence Winter. I personally liked the show. There was no obvious problem with writing, acting, production.

So it’s not clear why the ratings for the pilot were “wan,” in the words of the Hollywood Reporter. HBO has its own business model, but it’s not clear how it can hope to recoup the investment: $30 million for the pilot and $100 million for the season.

What if the problem is that music doesn’t matter as it used to? Once we would have been mesmerized about a show about the machinations of the recording industry, especially in an era that more of less defined the phrase, “sex, drugs and rock and roll.” But now that /if/ music doesn’t matter, Vinyl has an academic quality. It’s of formal interest, certainly, but it’s no longer clear why we should care.

I have long been interested in the argument made by Simon Reynolds in his recent book Retromania. This was an absolute stunner. It was my first glimpse that music might have lost some of its significance in our world. Reynolds’ suggests that music was on “remix,” and not just the music that takes a special pleasure in remix. The world of music is repeating itself. Somehow it went “out.” I will say, so that he is not painted with the brush I can feel coming my way, that Reynolds doesn’t say that music is over, just that it is some how stuck on ‘over and over’ (as it were).

For all of my life time, music was an “identity forge.” People used it as a way to figure out who they were and to say who they were. I remember being in the Toronto bus station sometime in the 1990s and noticing with astonishment that the station and the surrounding neighborhood was filled with David Bowie look-alikes. Evidently, Bowie was in town to do a concert and people were going to the concert in homage. Clearly, Bowie has some super normal significance in these peoples lives. He was shaping them in profound ways.

Music as an identity forge, Grant McCracken

Music is also a cultural forge. It’s of one the places that our culture is fashioned. And this is what made Reynolds’ argument so important. If music was now recycling, it could no longer be the place where culture and identity was being fashioned.

Music helped shape the 50s, the 60s, the 70s, the alternative moment in the 1990s. It helped shape the hip hop transformation of popular culture. But Reynolds is right. Real novelty is now hard to find. Setting aside the usual adolescent infatuations with pop stars, music is less important than it used to be. It has lost some of its powers of originality and, for the same or different reasons, it has lost part of its generative powers for the self and the collectivity. Let’s put this more simply: no one is a fan the way those “cult of Bowie” Torontonians were fans. That moment has passed.

This is such a big change we haven’t really got a fix on it. Reynolds’ book didn’t seem to ignite a debate. There are lots of possible explanation: more music, more kinds of music, more sources of music, more media for music, more makers of music, diminished barriers of entry to the music world, diminished barriers of access to the music so created by this world, a more fluid, less expensive music, all of these might all have made a difference. It’s also true that social media has taken over as an identity forger, culture constructor. (In the process, this thing called “identity” has moved from something relatively monolithic to something much more distributed.) Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, all these networks have identity effects that may demote or supplant music in the larger scheme of things.

But explaining the eclipse of music is not the point of this post. The point is to figure out how we could use this knowledge (if it is knowledge) to evaluate culture being constructed now.

And now finally to Roadie. Like Vinyl it has big talent on both sides of the camera, including the likes of J.J. Abrams, Cameron Crowe, Luke Wilson and Carla Gugino. So if it fails, it will be for external factors, not internal ones. By this time, our culture is very good at creating good TV and it appears we got everything right in this case. If Roadie fails, it may be because we really just don’t care. Formally interesting, yes, but then everything is formally interesting. Now that music has gone out (if it has) a humorous study of the world of support staff just seems, “well, like, why?”

I hope I’m wrong. I never wish failure on anyone. Especially when they’ve done great work in good faith. But if I’m right, and Roadie fails, I hope this prediction will encourage the possibility that something has happened to music and our culture, and that it’s time for us to figure out what.

A last point:

Someone is bound to object that Empire is the evidence that TV about music can still draw an audience, and that it is more to the point a demonstration that music still matters. Excellent observation. I have no good rebuttal. Except of course to observe that hip hop may be the last time music mattered.