The Current State of Popular Music

Over the holidays, during a family get-together, two younger relatives mentioned what their favourite pop song was. I did not know the song by title or artist, and until very recently I actually I thought it was an advertising jingle. I now understand that the combination of the song’s novelty factor and its ubiquitous appearance had helped to make it very popular. I can see why it may appeal to kids – but I doubt it will become an evergreen classic….

The song they mentioned incorporates a number of musical tropes very prevalent in many current pop songs, especially as regards the vocal styling and lyrical phrasing. But like much of the music being produced these days, it will likely be forgotten within a couple of years at most. The inherent “novelty” of the vocal could render the song a one-hit wonder, and the artist a one-trick pony.

I have nothing wrong with pop music per se, but if “we are what we eat”, surely we can become what we listen to. An unending and unvarying diet of mainstream pop music (as defined by commercial radio playlists, as measured by self-serving charts compiled by streaming services, and as financed by major record label marketing budgets and promotional tie-ins) is the equivalent of eating nothing but fast food and processed snacks.

So, at the risk of being labelled a grumpy old man, here is a list of things that are mostly wrong with contemporary pop music:

1. Vocals that feature one (or more) of the following:

  • the sound of cutesy chipmunks on helium
  • forced falsettos, cracked breathlessness and over-emoting warbling
  • singing from the back of the throat (as if constipated)
  • singing through the nose (as if congested)
  • whining, strained upper registers  (as made infamous by a certain tantric pop star)
  • auto-tune effects (especially those in search of a melody…)
  • shouting in place of projection
  • turning vowels into consonants, and consonants into vowels
  • adding syllables that don’t exist, and leaving out ones that do
  • over-stressed sibilants

2. Lyrical phrasing, scansion and rhyming schemes courtesy of Dr. Seuss,

3. Slogans, nursery rhymes and shouty phrases in place of lyrics

4. Drum and percussion tracks either programmed by ADHD, or inflicted with St. Vitus’s Dance

5. Boring, boxy and plodding 4/4 rhythms, with no syncopation or variation

6. Same set of production techniques and sound effects as used by every other producer or DJ

7. Samples based on the nastiest ringtones available (or programmed on the cheapest synths around)

8. Never mind a lack of key changes, or an absence of chord progressions, songs that revel in one-note vocal lines

9. An absence of interesting melodic or harmonic structures

10. Sound compressed into the smallest available bandwidth so it is easier to stream, but which ends up sounding flat and claustrophobic, and with exactly the same sound dynamics as every other song

11. No space to let the music breathe – every available beat and bar has to be filled up, especially with vocalese stylings

12. Too many cooks – songs by “X feat. Y with Z” are usually contrived concoctions dreamed up by the record company (“hey, we can flog this song to fans of all three of them!”) that end up as filler tracks on their respective solo albums

13. Kitchen sink productions (as in everything BUT the…) – you can almost imagine the producer in the studio shouting, “cue flamenco guitar, cue rapping, cue 80’s sample, cue metronomic rimshot, cue call and response vocals, cue detuned kick drum….!”

Part of the problem is that with the cheaper costs of recording, and the wider access to the means of production, anyone can make music, and release it direct to the public online. Meaning there is just so much more new music to listen to. However, the major record labels and their media partners still control most of the marketing budgets and distribution costs, that largely decide the songs we tend to hear, and that ultimately determine which songs become “hits”. By default, this process prescribes much of what is deemed “popular taste”. With the increased use of algorithms and other techniques, artists, producers, labels and media platforms can increasingly predict what songs will be successful, in a self-fulfilling prophesy of what will “sell”. it’s like punk never happened….

Next week: Sola.io – changing the way renewable energy is financed

Geo-blocking: the last digital frontier?

Last month, senior executives from AdobeApple and Microsoft were summoned to appear before an Australian Parliamentary inquiry into IT pricing policies. It was alleged that Australian consumers can pay up to 70% more for comparable products and services sold in other markets.

Leaving aside the additional costs of distributing and shipping physical goods to Australia, at the heart of the pricing disparity is the practice of “geo-blocking” whereby customers in one location cannot purchase digital or physical products direct from vendors outside their country of residence. It’s the sort of industry practice that prevents Australian consumers buying some print books and CD’s from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk (and neither store sells MP3’s to Australian customers).

When asked to explain the apparent disparity in market pricing, the tech execs responded with comments such as, “the inclusion of Australian sales tax in the retail price is confusing”, “it’s a reflection of the cost of doing business in Australia” and “it’s all because of the content owners’ and copyright holders’ archaic territorial licensing practices”.

Their answers were variously described as “evasive“, “unbelievable” and “failed to impress“. The suggestion by one CEO that Australian consumers should fly to the USA to buy cheaper products overseas, was frankly ludicrous, especially as sales warranties given in America would likely be invalid once the goods were brought back to Australia.

When it can be cheaper to buy a CD copy of an album from an on-line music retailer in the UK rather than download the MP3 version from a vendor in Australia, clearly there is something wrong with this picture.

Parallel imports” and “grey goods” are terms used in the fashion, cosmetic and other retail sectors to describe situations where wholesalers and distributors import branded goods that are technically subject to strict territorial sales and distribution licenses held by third parties. Alternatively, consumers in one country purchase goods direct from a retailer or distributor located in another country, who does not have the rights to sell or export the products to the consumer’s country of residence. The license holders can seek to block these unauthorized imports/exports, but in cases where the license holder has chosen not to distribute those specific goods, these “grey” imports could possibly be deemed legitimate (under the “use it or lose it” principle).

Whatever the legal interpretation of territorial licensing, when it comes to digital content, is geo-blocking still appropriate? Let me offer an illustration:

Imagine you are an Australian traveller on a business trip to New York. You visit a local book shop, to pick up a copy of the latest novel by your favourite author.

Unfortunately, the salesperson tells you the book is not in stock, because the publisher does not distribute that particular title to independent stores; instead, you have to go to the mega book store across town.

After making your way to the mega store, you find out that before you can make any purchase, you have to open an account, submit your credit card details and other personal information (and sign a contract that says things like “you must always keep books bought from our store in our proprietary and specially designed book shelves”).

Just as you are about to make your purchase, the shop assistant asks you for your passport. “Oh, I’m sorry, we don’t sell our books to people from Australia. You have to go to our mega store in Sydney.”

On the way back to your hotel, you phone the publisher (whose office is on your route) to see if you can buy a copy direct from their sales department. The conversation goes something like this:

“You sound Australian. Sorry, but we can’t sell it to you. You have to buy it from our Australian distributor.”

“OK, can you tell me who the Australian distributor is, or which shops stock your titles?”

“I’m not sure. I think it depends on who the author is. Or whether it’s the hardback or paperback edition. Or whether our distributor is importing that particular title. Maybe we only sell it through the Australian branch of the mega book store that wouldn’t sell you it to you while you were in town. Have a nice day.”

Great. With nothing to read on the 20-hour flight back to Australia, you catch up on a lot of episodes of “Bored to Death”, because you don’t expect them to be shown on Australian TV for at least a year. (But that’s another industry scenario…)

Back home in Australia, you visit the Sydney branch of the mega book store. “I’m sorry, we don’t have that title in stock, because we haven’t had enough customer requests to justify importing any copies…..”

Is it any wonder, with these sorts of restrictive commercial practices common in the software and digital content industries, that Australia has the highest level of illegal music downloading by capita, not because all Australian consumers are unwilling to pay for content, but often because customers cannot legitimately buy it.