Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Most Beautiful Widget: The Commercialization of Art and Music

Nothing is sacred in this country. Anything and everything that can possibly be commercialized, has. Not that there's anything wrong with that; after all, innovation is simply learning how to capitalize on things in new ways. But one of the most fascinating modern innovations is the convergence of commerce and art, in all of its many forms - the pinnacle of human expression and creativity turned profitable. The forces of industrialization and individual uniqueness could not be more polar opposite, and the efforts of many to resist have created a wondrous dichotomy. On one hand you have the stereotypical starving artist, the passionate idealist who sacrifices all hope of financial stability for the sake of creating beauty. On the other hand you have the brand, the person whose mass appeal to all but the most discerning of consumers makes them a goldmine waiting to be tapped. The difference between these two, simple aesthetic and true meaning, can be blurry. One demands to be seen, heard, or experienced by all while the other seeks only to exist. But there is one area in particular where the clash between culture and counter-culture has become game-changing - the music industry.

The thing about music is its scope. The popularity and accessibility of the medium has given rise to a staggeringly lucrative industry, while at the same time fueling an "indie" resistance so passionate that it almost singlehandedly influenced the revival the hipster subculture. Behind it all are the five major corporate labels - Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group, EMI, and Live Nation - whose attempts at mass production have resulted in billboard charts literally full of indistinguishable cookie-cutters. Theirs is a system that works for some. Artists can make a killing cashing in on their tight bodies and carefully crafted images, all without having to learn a single chord. Consumers are rewarded with a sound that is catchy and familiar to them. But the forces that built Justin Bieber's bank account are not harmless. The subtle tricks used by these kings of commerce have degraded the art form as a whole, both for artists and listeners alike.

The defining element of a "major" record label (as opposed to an indie one) is the fact that it owns the means of distribution. As a result, it can be difficult for aspiring musicians to have their art heard or bought without making a deal with the devil. This applies to both live and recorded music. The former is overwhelmingly dominated by Live Nation. They are not only the largest promoter of live music, but they also own Ticketmaster and most of the large venues in the U.S. This gives them unprecedented power to influence ticket prices and tack on extra fees, something that some artists have fought against with limited success. According to the Chicago Tribune: "Since Ticketmaster and Live Nation came to dominate their respective industries over the last decade, concert prices have more than doubled and service fees for processing tickets have climbed to as high as 50 percent per order. In 1995, Pearl Jam tried to boycott Ticketmaster because the agency was charging more than $2 for an $18 ticket. The band found it nearly impossible to tour outside that system because Ticketmaster was locked into long-term deals with most major concert venues nationwide."

In the recording studio things are no better. In a typical deal, the record label will provide the artist with an advance in exchange for recording a pre-determined amount of songs or albums. The label will oversee the process and pay all costs including recording fees, marketing and promotion, and manufacturing and distribution of physical media (CD's, vinyl, etc.) if necessary. The artist will also receive royalties based on online or in-store sales, merchandising, and so forth. But the catch is that the artist must give up ownership to their own music, something that often comes with additional layers of control over varying other aspects of their likeness - everything down to what they wear to how they walk, talk, and act. They become walking endorsements of themselves, where their very image is a marketing ploy meant to appeal to a targeted demographic.

But the true artists aren't the only ones that suffer. Competition among corporate labels has led to some pretty cheap tricks in the recording booth that affect the sound of the music itself. The two big culprits are auto-tune and something a bit less familiar known as dynamic range compression. Auto-tune, first popularized by Cher as a gimmicky voice effect, has turned into pandemic of synthesized talent among performers that have none. It is a means of pitch correction that can substitute a poorly sung note for one that is exactly perfect. The abuse of this technology has allowed for the birth of a new breed of performer that relies solely on aesthetic, neither writing nor correctly singing their own songs - giving record labels a broader selection of marketable candidates to represent. And it has become particularly rampant in the pop genre, making it uniformly flawless to the extent that it completely removes from the equation one of the finer aspects of any art form - imperfection.

The other trick commonly used in the studio is quite a bit more subtle. Dynamic range compression (DRC) is a technology that has been applied to music, TV commercials, and a number of other mediums allowing engineers to increase the relative loudness of audio content. It is a response to a psychological study by Harvey Fletcher and Wilden A. Munson demonstrating that human listeners, when presented with two recordings at different levels, are subconsciously drawn to the louder one. The technique compresses the amplitude range of a recording so that the loudness can be increased without exceeding the clearly defined maximum peak amplitude limits placed on all digital media formats. It is the same thing that makes television commercials so much louder than the actual show. The "loudness war," a term used to decry the use of DRC in music recording, has been addressed by many notable artists and audiophiles who resent the fact that some musicians have been forced to take part against their will. As Bob Dylan put it: "You listen to these modern records, they're atrocious, they have sound all over them. There's no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like—static."

Amidst this assembly line of mechanized voice-overs, generic major chords, and scantily clad bodies lies the indie movement. Having roots all the way back to the post-war era in the United States, it has gathered enough steam to represent a legitimate alternative market. But indie music is not immune to exploitation, and now it too is at risk of becoming commercialized. Unlike their larger counterparts, indie labels do not own the means of production. Instead, they subsist through partnerships, licensing deals, and agreements with those that do. Today, indies represent just over 18% of U.S. music market share. But while many of these were started by purists looking to clean up the industry, others are "vanity" or "boutique" spinoffs from major labels looking to cash in on an audience that thinks they know better. It is a brilliant play to the susceptibility of young consumers to anything that is perceived to be outside the mainstream.

Fortunately, there will always be an underground. Musicians looking to avoid the quagmire of unsavory agreements and engineering hocus pocus now have easy, cheap access to home recording equipment that can produce truly professional results. And there is no shortage of outrage from artists and luminaries that have the clout to fight back. More and more DRC-free albums are sprouting up, and non-profits such as Turn Me Up! have emerged with the mission of giving artists the power to preserve the dynamic range of their music. As consumers, our responsibility is to stay informed. Commercialized music absolutely has its place, but the choice of whether or not we wish to enjoy it should be deliberate. Until we remove the wool from over our eyes, we will never have that power.

No comments:

Post a Comment