Tech Tuesday: music, it’s all the same

Every so often, well, practically every other day, homogenization comes up in conversation. Either over coffee or on a social network probably because some element of it occurring in the news. It crosses everything from entertainment to urban planning, from the sameness of sports teams to the sameness of politics. Everything is predictable and thus boring because everything is too familiar. In the past on the blog, I’ve covered some of my thoughts on it, maybe the most recent was the game cloning industry. This past week, of course, was no different.

I don’t know who released the article first but Gawker was probably the most widely shared incarnation of a study (I’m using the word very, very loosely) on how the top hits in country music all are the same. Not in passing sound the same, but how the audio analysis showed specific patters recirculated through each of the songs, quantitatively demonstrating they were indeed the same. It isn’t the first time someone conducted this experiment: there was the great Nickleback episode a few years ago and previous to that there was a hip-hop article exploring the same trend. Even back during my undergrad days at the Hartt School we used to take apart song scores that were austensively more compare than necessarily contrast.

Much of the commentary I read was derogatory in nature against modern country music. On the websites the articles were on the posts were predicable responses rooted in raw emotion either from those who generally dislike country or those who dislike what passes for country these days having grow up with the classics. Thankfully though, the trolls stayed under their bridges and below the knee jerk reaction withing my smaller circle of social media and generally produced a thoughtful conversation about the state of music. Everyone agreed, some more poignant then others, it sucks in so many ways right now and this study was one more fact proving it for them.

“Facts are meaningless. You could use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true.” –Matt Greoning via Homer Simpson

The cliche used to be imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and, in the olden days that very well have been true to some degree. It is not uncommon to look as far back as Romantic era composers and find parallels thematically in their composition where similar ways of crafting a melody and the same use of chord progressions could make pieces sound hauntingly familiar to one another. Sometimes it was blatant but mostly it was subtle. Sometimes it was intentionally quoting, sometimes it was more carelessly borrowing and sometimes it was just a coincidence but none the less even with widening instrumentation and greater leniency in the classical forms it happened quite a bit that pieces sounded more than vaguely like one another. The splintering of high art music from symphony and opera into noctures, tone poems, Lieds, operettas and other shorter, more free form pieces actually helped inspire as much copying as it did creativity. It was inevitable that if one struck on something that resonated with the populous in the new sub-genrefication other composers would latch onto the idea and exploit it for themselves both helping spread the new composition form and consolidating the definition of the form itself to a more fixed set of “rules” about how to write within the new form through the cloning of key themes, structures and styles.

By the late 1800/early 1900s Tin Pan Alley’s publishing community was well aware of the effects of quoting to help drive interest in a composition and because copyright control of melodies was not as strict back then they often would print their own versions of popular songs. But beyond that practice they would embellish and tweak then as necessary generating multitudes of derivative works at low cost to supplement their catalogs. In many cases these less-than-creative psuedo copies would attain a level of fame themselves as the sheet music circulated. There was a dearth of unknown composers who were coopted into this mess pressured by both their own desire to be famous and the drive of publishers looking for a quick profit which produced the first major mass homogenization of music. If you think a lot of vaudevillian songs, rag and Broadway at the time sounds quite the same listening back to it now, you’re absolutely not mistaken. Add in publishers eager to capitalize on each new trend exploited them along with shady promotional techniques like plugging, booming and other paid performance propaganda and it’s pretty easy to see how it happened.

As popular music shifted to Jazz the situation didn’t get any better. Big Band and swing was particularly susceptible not only to the consolidation of the Tin Pan Alley publisher’s influence on the song craft but that of both radio programming’s early influence in the broadcast of live performances and the very early recording industry. Although the biggest name band leaders were fortunate enough to have a good deal control over their orchestra makeup which helped them craft a sound that blended both their own sonic vision and the talents of some of their unique musicians many groups lesser recognized today made their sole living quoting heavily off the hits. It was inevitable the genre would come to focus on a few specific composition forms, rely on a handful of melodic structures and be driven by a select group of beats before it became so watered down and predictable that it caused it’s own splintered demise.

One could continue to make the argument that the growing popularity of early rock and roll, in conjunction with the rise of the disc jockey and the influence of record labels helped set the stage for what we see today. For early label execs was as much about a producer’s sound as it was about the artist themselves. Sun, Chess, Motown and others became notorious for signing similar sounding talents, running then through the filter of a specific set of production teams and churning out quick singles they could then easily pay DJs to cram on the airwaves in order to drive exposure. While there were exceptions to the rule, any given sound that started to take off was quickly cloned by a feisty A&R rep and foisted onto the public. Some were more than successful than others but the trend of signing and marketing what was already successful was in full effect by the 1960s culminating what was already a 100 year trend toward this.

The heavy consolidation of radio and record labels beginning in the early 1990s drew heavy criticism as a harbinger to full homogenization as so few gate keepers would influence all the distribution channels. Despite more genre diversity than ever in popular music within each genre, and subgenre, there were few sonic alternatives. All gansta rap to female fronted pop-folk sounded the same. All the third wave ska-punk to all the New York Hardcore sounded the same. All the garbled vocal grunge rock to all the electronica sounded the same. All the Swedish death metal to all the Brit pop sounded the same. As genre classes like Alternative and Adult Contemporary emerged they produced artists that all generally sounded the same. Sure, if you in particular liked a specific artists you could discern their interpretation from their peers but generally speaking they all really did sound exceedingly similar.

The entire process of vetting possible artists and then creating their work became industrialized more and more, perfecting the processes encountered in the early days of rock and roll. It was a combination of A&R focusing on marketability due to downward pressure from the record industry’s new corporate ownership along with producers and sound engineers seeking more and more sonic control.

The vocals especially were a point of pride for A&R since they convey the lyrics which it was still believed were the most important part of the song. While it was always true in the past that similar sounding artists could piggy back on one another’s success it became a driving force in how A&R operated in trying to exploit known and validated money making trends in an ever tighter A&R job market. The more similar an up and coming voice was to a popular one the easier it would be to sell the similarities of a 10 second hook to the masses the better chance it would hit. It really became about herding certain registers and tambres and techniques into the core of a genre. While no one in their genres quite sounded like say Dicky Barrett or Tori Amos or Maynard James Keenan it was quite common to hear 100 Eddie Vedder and Sarah McLachlan and Trent Reznor and *NSYNC wanna bes.

On the other side as producers always looked to one another for innovation and ideas. As they moved from live room multitracking to isolated instrument dead room recording there was inevitably less sonic variance. The rise in post-pro put an emphasis on mistake correction, reducing the humaness of the recording that included pitch and tempo corrections but more importantly sound replacement. While early sound replacement began as removing an unwanted rim shot or miss picked strum it became to be abused allowing popular effects to be very easily replicated such as a bass guitar tone or snare drum snap. Brick wall mastering techniques compressed the recordings leaving less “room” in the recording and consolidating a lot of the sound into the mid range limiting variance.

If this all sounds very contrived so far, that’s because it was. It always was but the ability to copy what was successful had a much higher barrier to entry in the past making it less common. Technology has all but limited the barrier to entry, on all fronts.

Today, there are more performing musicians now than at any other point in history because the barrier to creating and subsequently distributing music is at an all time low. Sprawling recording studios replaced by home computers. Expensively crafted instruments replaced by mass produced ones. Record store chains fed by wholesalers replaced by Bandcamp. Broadcast radio replaced by Spotify.

And yet, despite the glut of possibilities the sonic pallet is completely reigned in. While there are many more subgenres than ever before there’s an even greater perception to conform within them in order to leverage the possibility of being successful. It’s why a subgenre like Djent Metal becomes saturated with bands and burn out in a matter of what seemed like months that took years for the same thing to happen to an upstart Glam Metal subgenre.

Ultimately, it comes back to mindshare of the consumer and the philosophies of how to best reach them. Many theories are floated around but what it ultimately comes back to is this: Modern Artist Management organizations and record labels like publishers before them control the purse strings. Although creation and distribution no longer require much money marketing absolutely does. While it is possible to build a grown swell on your own, it is by far and away the exception, not the rule and many of those who are able to sustain for periods of time their fame do so reinvesting heavily their profits into feeding the marketing machine. Labels provide both the marketing dollars for promotion and advertising but also the manpower in volumes with many people providing services and in a theory division of labor skill sets honed for marketing expertise. Meaning a three person power trio or hip hop duet or individual singer-songwriter only has so many hours in the day to devote to marketing and so much expertise in marketing even outside of the money that in order to scale whatever their exposure to the audience is they will inevitably need help. The funneling of access to this help is what helps create homogenization. The artists even outside of direct label influence know full well in order to attract financing of any kind (crowd funded, privately funded or label funded) they need to have sound or style that a large mass of consumers already has an ear for.

While this doesn’t describe every artist or every source of assistance it does the majority, which is what dives the pressure for conformity and when this pressure is scaled up to a macro setting it results in homogeny. The tendency is to blame the record labels, or to blame radio stations directly for this, but it’s an overall music culture phenomenon that has many inputs into why it occurs. Singling out one while ignoring the complex web of interaction is bound in the same overly simplistic yet overtly illogical thinking that drives people to make the correlation = causation error time and time again.

Country music was prime for this type of experience. First, although it has long history to work with, it didn’t gain national prominence until the Soundscan era when the industry couldn’t skim profits from the genre in order to stimulate growth in other more scalable offerings. Even then it took time as there was both an anesthetization process to get over some of the negative social stereotypes of country music along with an embracing by the industry as a whole from radio and video to print and online media to venues to merchandising. Once the genre became exploitable through multiple channels country music lost some of the personality it had being underground and attracted to it a more malleable star-driven type of talent. One cannot fault country for it, hip hop before it had transitioned from the raw innovation of the streets to the polished predictability of the chart toppers, just like rock music had done moving from garages to grand stages before it.

And, in each genre doing as such someone who is a purist, who indulged in the original variety has pointed out the genre collapsed on itself, replicating like a disease the most overly simplified version of itself.

Again, it’s only natural that to some degree this occurs. As anything becomes more mass produced it needs to become more simplified. Just take for example most physical product prototypes engineered one way because that’s how it has to be done to prove the concept but when it is taken to the automated assembly line it’s changed in order to facilitate things like speeding up the process and creating continuity in the result. Music, although we would like to think of it as art, is no different a product. In order to keep up with the insatiable demand of consumers the original demo idea needs to be easily able to be scaled up into a finished marketable product quickly and predictably.

From a speed perspective, old recording and manufacturing timelines worked because they fit the distribution cycle. What changed is the cycle is shorter. Historically, singles were the driver for the cycle even during the album era as singles remained the primary consumable (even if it wasn’t at the retail level it was based on radio, video, set list structure for performances, etc) technology simply reintroduced singles to the consumer from a retail perspective post-Napster. But, in terms of the cycle, regardless of retail singles or promotional singles technology really just shorted up the time between single releases because media cycles in general are shorter (think the 24-hours news cycle) created faster burn rates, leaks became more pervasive and prominent due to new distribution channels and higher visibility in the news cycle and so on. This put pressure on everyone, the artists, the labels and even the consumer to move toward more digestible offerings.

Producers don’t have the luxury of knob turning when the record needed to be done yesterday because the artist is no longer at the top of the news cycle because the previous record already burned out. Artists don’t have the luxury of writing complex songs when they have to churn out the next hit. Labels don’t want to break from the status quo because they already know consumers will purchase a certain sound. It’s not that different from clothing, or home furnishings, or cars. From season to season there’s not a lot of variation. Sure, sometimes someone will test something new that creates a seismic shift but generally speaking neither the manufacturer nor the consumer is all that interested in changing what’s comfortable and predictable. Because of the mass consumption of music, the result isn’t that much different.

A while back a study was done on music as a whole, not genre specific as this was, and what it discovered was in general music that was targeted for normal consumption, meaning not that which is made primarily for the sake of it being art and only art, on almost every measure of composition modern songs are substantially simpler than their predecessors. There are remarkably few outliers to this once art music is removed too. Primarily, there are fewer notes being used to create the melody. This results in both simpler melodies inside of songs and the same core groups of notes being reused more often from song to song. This also tends to result fewer notes from which the entire tonal structure is built supporting the melody including fewer complex chords. There’s fewer notes driving the rhythm meaning the percussive structure is more standardized. All of this leads to less variation in general in the songs including fewer modulations or key changes, tempo or time signature changes, and even song structure variations.

Some of this, it was conjectured, was because of the increasingly large numbers of non-theory trained musicians producing large amounts of content, the network effect of simpler music becoming the influencer for even simpler music, a greater reliance on technology for which musicians aren’t as well versed or comfortable and other musician first deductions about the creative process. While all of these probably represent substantial portion of the reason, none of those things, as noted early, didn’t occur in isolation.

As responsible as musicians were for making music simpler and easier to both compose and be consumed record labels had an intensive to also help nudge them along. As discussed earlier, this influence isn’t new. It was accelerated and bastardized perhaps though by both the consolidation of record labels and the changes in ownership structure of them, being divisions of larger, often non-entertainment, public corporations answering to shareholders on a quarterly basis. In parallel radio and other media underwent similar ologolapic contractions and felt greater profit pressures. As the entire landscape changed it brought with it a new sense of urgency to not only succeed now but sustain growth in a way it has never been asked to before.

Satiating corporate driven profit expectations meant lowering risk. Cloning sound, again, was a well worn path to success in the industry so it was no surprise when it was undertaken in earnest as the default.

Why it worked though is somewhat of a chicken or the egg question. Does the industry provide clones because familiarity is what the consumer wants or does the consumer listen to clones because the industry feeds that to them?

While many music aficionado love to blame record labels for cramming it down consumers throats pointing out that the top songs played now are spun double the number of times per station than they were a decade or so ago, and that the labels financial strength allows them to buy up positioning in other channels in order to generate higher exposure to fewer choices the truth is much of why labels did this is because of exactly what consumers have told them.

For example, the songs that are distributed undergo heavy consumer testing beginning in the demo and song writing stages and straight through to music research services control groups before they hit the airwaves to inundate you. Anything that tests poorly is scrapped. The consensus of consumers even before the retail phase is “this is what we like.” Furthermore, even when consumers are given the overwhelming choices, such as back in the day with Napster or on-demand on Spotify, they tend to migrate very, very heavily to particular sounds. Furthermore, even data mining something like Shazam to see what songs intrigue people patterns emerge around particular sounds. Since consumers behaviors seem to find them constantly converging around particular sounds and not to others, it must mean in order to maximize the investment and minimize risk, that is the sound they should produce more of in order to sustain the business model. After all, for them, it is a business.

Music is a business. It has been for over 100 years now, more if you’d like to seriously considering the effects of commissioned works on musical progress. And, yet, we still want to perceive it as an art despite consuming it in ways art could never be consumed.

So does making it a business driven by numbers make it bad, or make it smart? Depends. Music is full of contrasting duality.

The parallel can be seen in advertising the modern microtargeting crowd versus the broad reach people from the old school. Or in healthcare the predictive modeling decision making crowd versus the old time mom knows best people.

Or, in sports with the analytics crowd versus the gut instinct people. One big fear is some of the creativity that allowed the past greats the freedom to freelance their way through the game would be stifled because algorithms cannot capture the subtitles of human actions in the way the eye-test can.

The same kind of homogenization though plays out in all entertainment. Series novelists plague literature, while television programming is dominated by reality tv derived from the exact same contestant tensions and Hollywood seems set on producing primarily reboots with strong sequel potential and magazines all seem to produce the same lists for their primary article content.

Heck, even urban planners are into homogony. From cookie cutter McMansions that are stamped out to all look substantially similar and be guaranteed to stay that way through anesthetized HOAs to the inclusion of a Starbucks and CVS Pharmacy as the centerpiece of every scripted main street setting through the new gentrification process. They too claim that this is what the consumer really wants, because when given a choice we’ll maintain the HOA in order to keep all the houses looking the same rather than disbanning it. We’ll eat whatever Domino’s passes for pizza rather than the mom and pop pizzeria. Even in the seeming exceptions, as much as the craft beer industry has grown, even there, research shows, the overwhelming majority of people, including a sizable portion of those who claim to be regular craft drinkers, fall back to a (or more particularly their) mass produced brand in their behaviors the majority of the time they’re drinking. It might be said, human nature then seems to breed homogony not individuality.

If art is the reflection of the world, this is the world we have created and art is just showing us what we refuse to see in the mirror. If a fear of Huxley’s Ford derived Brave New World is what we have, rather than claim to have, we need to stop enabling it from happening to us. If we truly do believe it’s a demand marketplace then we must actively change the demand and stop buying the derivative drivel. Until we do we’re going to be stuck with an ever greater quantities of everything all being the same.


About thedoormouse

I am I. That’s all that i am. my little mousehole in cyberspace of fiction, recipes, sacrasm, op-ed on music, sports, and other notations both grand and tiny:
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