Saturday, April 14, 2012

Creative Destruction in Music


This article aims to support a discussion about the causes and effects of the dismantling of the music industry and it’s fan base over the past 12 years. Today we see an unhealthy picture in music that bears little resemblance to the vision many shared as we crossed from the 90’s into the 21st century.

With a decades hindsight it could be said this is a time of creative destruction in music that fans of music, artists, and industry types should acknowledge as we work together to bring music back to a place of prominence in the culture. 

100 years of innovation to present

Over the last 100 years the musical arts have benefited greatly from the invention and marketing of recorded music. People collected music, supported artists, and learned about past and present music with care and interest in what was a lifetime investment.

Throughout this period, innovative competition fueled a search for talent in music to present talent that formed a multi-billion dollar recording industry. Prior to this time the musician was a servant to merchants and kings. Later, the music industry made artists loyal to their record company and manager.

Although record companies were known for their exploitation of artists, many benefited, including instrument and sound equipment manufacturers, concert venues, promoters, media outlets, and countless groups who found creative ways to latch onto the artists production of music.

The system worked so well that no one predicted the coming collapse that would restructure the business and future of music. As we look back over the past twelve years, both popular and traditional music has gone through a period of creative malaise, economic struggle, drifting public attention, and implosion of the prior business model.

This chain of events on the creative and business side has formed a period where the future and health of all music is uncertain. This period could be called a time of creative destruction in music, where old ideas, cultures, and practices are destroyed before a new culture is formed. Most artists acknowledge we are in a period of transition, but little is known as to where music is headed creatively.

“Be courageous. I have seen many depressions in business.” Thomas A. Edison, inventor

A new generation to continue the last’s work

Each generation produces great composers and performers to fill the ranks for artists who make up the community of performers in music. From Romantic orchestral composer Richard Strauss to jazz composers like Duke Ellington to modern bands like Tool, each composer/group provided new original songs that fueled the culture of music.

However, over the last decade a creative glass ceiling has been struck producing little in popular music or other genres to fill this tradition of the new replacing the old. Instead of experiencing new composers and groups who are moving music forward, revision of the past is the standard for much music created today.

This environment teaches the public to expect less and only what is familiar from the past, but stifles creativity and the chance of a new life for music. Collectively we see a lack of new artists leading the way forward in music, for the opportunities to be recorded and promoted have dramatically shifted with two camps: 1) The super pop act backed by great investment 2) Artists funding their own recordings and publicity; i.e. everyone else.

“It could be another decade till music comes back in the culture” Jojo Mayer, musician

Public involvement and education

In the past century music and arts education was seen as a staple of life in schools and communities and it entertained and enriched our culture. Through this tradition, many came to know what a life with music was.

The effects of three decades of cuts to public arts programs since the 1980’s set the stage for immersion in mass-entertainment. If schools created a central place to learn then the cutting of music and arts education formed a loss of involvement with music. This picture draws questions of our societal values when certain state programs are funded but the arts in schools are cut for budgetary reasons. Scarcity and the search for stability in music have been amplified greatly in the last decade.

“We lost a whole generation of young men as music buyers to video games” -Russ Solomon Tower Records founder

Technology and a new industry model

In the early 2000‘s the ‘age of technology’ was born with the idea of free content becoming standardized. For over a decade free media was popularized, shaping public opinion that musicians lived richly as depicted in music videos and marketing propaganda.

Two events occurred that shaped music: 1) Music piracy became common, ending the existence of record stores and causing ticket sales to spike through handlers such as Ticket Master (now Live Nation).

2) Palpable disappointment from the music buying public in record labels for marketing the lowest common element of entertainers like Back Street Boys and Britney Spears was redirected at the industry, causing many to exit in droves. This event dismantled the interest of two generations of music listeners in just a decade.

What was left became nostalgia that has fueled past music acts to form reunion tours, as the industry had failed to invest, cultivate, and market new bands. In effect the recording industry, headed by a small group of executives, committed business and creative suicide, damaging the culture of music for years to come.

Today the artist has to pay for their own recordings, marketing and touring. It could be said music today is a business with less music and more business than in the past.

“Music is a pay-as-you-go system now” T. Michael Crowell, writer

Exposure from radio and live venues

For years radio was a staple in marketing and learning about new music. Radio DJs and hosts were the voice that broadcasted music taste to the masses. Radio stations fiercely competed for listeners and drew advertisers though ratings. Emerging from a time of prosperity, deregulation laws allowing vast consolidation were passed in the 1990’s allowing corporations such as Clear Channel to acquire regional radio stations. Today, Clear Channel is eliminating over half of its music DJ slots for lack of revenue, leaving college radio as a last resort for listeners.

Venues have long been an issue of art meets commerce. A great opportunity missed in the last century was building public venues for art performance that were managed as public institutions or non-profit entities. The offer of small clubs with little acoustic support or patron interest are the dregs found in most cities, while quality venues struggle to keep identity and support alive.

“Talent is cheap, and many talents treat themselves cheaply.”  Bill Evans, musician

Creativity in Music

Traditionally most artists have adhered to the practice of reaching deeply for their best ideas to create great music. The image of the artist as a solitary individual came from the investment made by composers to create our best music. As Joseph Campbell said: “The artist reflects the times and speaks to what is happening at this moment”.

If we look to current pop-music then we should see a picture of society itself, drawing parallels between what is disposable and what is lasting. The lesson from past innovators was that the craft of music takes time to bear fruit. Perhaps we have lost this practice and music has suffered at the hands of lacking artists who present their work as great creations to a weary public. Great art takes time and doesn't come in a tin can.

“Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness and life to everything.” Plato, philosopher

Looking Ahead

Simply stated, we have never experienced the combination of dismal economics, poor business decisions, lack of public education, and investment in music in such a scale ever before. Although most predict music will survive all obstacles, we are seeing what the effects of pulling the economic and cultural rug out from under artists are.

Although creative musicians continue to work, collectively we have ended with greatly diminished amount of new original music to hear, with artists spending time doing other things to survive than make music.

On one hand ‘creative destruction’ may have benefits of shaking out a bloated system that controlled artists for decades. On the other we see near chaos and a lack of direction in the music community to create a new model or vision of the future. As in past times when industry innovators like Norman Granz packaged and presented great jazz artists by forming Verve Records, new innovators and creative artists will have to work together to shape the future of music.

Public education and involvement will also be key to replenishing the ranks lost to video games, as human attention is the premium sought in the digital age. To understand what made the music industry work, able to produce volumes of great records, artists and creative business people will have to embrace risk, investment, education, and physical/media infrastructure to support a dynamic thriving culture and business of music again.

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.”  Plato, philosopher


It does not matter what kind of music one enjoys as all music is affected in this time of creative destruction. From economics to the structure that support its whole, we are connected to music in every way. What music needs is true innovators, an invested public, and a business model fitting a new era to rebuild an excitement about the art of music that cannot be manufactured.

Music is a relationship between the artist, a public, and the support of an industry. Those who create a streamlined channel to deliver music will prosper as people respond with demand. 

Creative Destruction in Music.
By Jonathan Bewley. c. 2012 Snapshots Music & Arts Foundation