No, I don’t have the answer to this large and troubling question, but one of my favorite underground musical heroes – Robbie Fulks – has been pondering the issue on his website. For those unfamiliar with Fulks (and that may be all of you), he is a whip-smart, fiercely independent, libertarian-leaning singer and songwriter who crafts clever and sometimes challenging pop songs in a variety of genres. He also records much of this work in a downstairs studio at his Chicago home, markets some CDs (including the epic, 50 song 50-Vc. Doberman set) directly to customers, and is a funnier live act than most stand-up comics. Fulks knows the business and artistic sides of the music industry extremely well, which means his thoughts on the decline of commercial music are just as attentive to the “commercial” as the “musical” aspects of the issue.
For the record (ha ha), I agree with Fulks that there’s no reason to complain about new music generally; quantitatively speaking, there probably is more of it around than ever, but you have to look for it. At the same time, how can anyone with even a passing knowledge of pop music over, say, the last fifty years deny that something has gone horribly amiss in the digital age? Too many songs getting the most airplay today sound like they were concocted in a lab rather than recorded by flesh-and-blood human beings playing real instruments (probably because that’s at least party true).
As an economist, I also have to disagree with Fulks’s recommendation that “economies of scale need further adjusting downward in commercial music” (although I respect the fact that he even ventured the explanation; how many working musicians could use the phrase “economies of scale” correctly in a sentence?). I would say the opposite is closer to the truth, and the digitization of recorded songs and omnipresent musical recording and editing technology have made the entry costs and scale of profitable operations lower than ever. I suspect the problem is on the demand/marketing rather than production side of the business, which is something RF also mentions when he discusses the death of commercial radio and need for an alternative platform to reach customers.
I also particularly like the way RF framed this as a “generalized, American, ecological worry.” Music seeps into the rhythms and textures of daily life: in the mall, at the gym, in TV theme songs and commercials and a variety of other ways. The decline of musical craftsmanship that we experience, willingly or otherwise, on a daily basis therefore represents a significant loss. I’m confident that if there’s enough recognition of the problem then the marketplace will find a solution, and hopefully Fulks’ musings (with more hopefully to come) represent a step or two in that direction.