Big Waves: The Past Decade in Music Trends

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joe falkner
Joe Falkner, Division Manager, Aircast Custom

I think we are now far away enough from the decade ending December 31, 2010 that I can wade in with my observations about the major music trends that I saw in the decade of  2001 – 2010.

In complete candor, these observations have been plucked, sometimes, straight other peoples’ minds. Some of my observations were very much effected by the November 9, 2010 podcast of NPR’s raucously good production called All Songs Considered.

All Songs Considered can be criticized for not lighting up some of the very back corners of contemporary music production and composition. But if you only have a periodic one-hour show, you go for the broad strokes and let the smaller productions languish in those back corners.

Indeed, the trends in this blog are defined by painting with a broad stroke. But keep in mind, these trends changed our lives in the way we access and evaluate music, which, in turn, well, just plain changed our lives. Also, keep in mind that the trends mentioned here focus on entertainment music, not so much production music, but the effects of these trends can be seen in that area, too.

So, here goes…

Trend 1: The digitization of music and everything that the technology allowed for.

The digitization of music has allowed for singles to be separated out from the album. Of course, even in the Cretaceous Period, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, the 45-RPM record (sides A and B) was separated out from its album. But if you follow the money (and who doesn’t), the music business has always been, until now, about the album.  Now this has changed. It is about the single.

This has had immense effects: the idea that the artist could communicate a well-developed package of thought over 12 songs, a dramatic arc, so to speak, is substantially gone.

Secondly, in terms of the production of music, the requirement for face-to-face collaboration between artist and producer and client is gone.

I remember in the mid 1990s when I was contacting network producers in New York or L.A., I was clearly told that they were only interested in working with local music companies because they would need to travel to the studio for the production sessions. So, who does that any more? The digitization of music has allowed producers and end users to send music files around the world in the blink of an eye. From initial demos to final broadcast-ready mixes, a music company in, say, Nashville or Denver, can send a show open or network ID package to India or Germany and that music could be on air that same evening.

The result? Network television producers now have access to music companies around the world to produce their critically important music branding packages. Amazing.

Trend 2: If you saw it, you can see it. This trend is similar to Trend 1, but with the video component added in.

YouTube changed the way that we all listen to music (we expect a visual feast, as well) and how music was marketed (they give us a visual feast, as well). In short, a great video could launch a great song (c. “Telephone”, Lady Gaga, featuring Beyonce’)…or an utterly average song (c. “Dog Days Are Over”, Florence and the Machine)…into success heaven.

Trend 3: The death of nostalgia.

If all of your musical cultural reference points are with you always, you are never discovering something you had forgotten about.  The music of your life is always there and never do you stumble across a song you have not heard since your first kiss after a high school football game.

Call this the mp3-ing of the world. With the growth of digital storage capacity, every song you ever loved, and every mp3 - shutterstocksong you ever liked pretty well, and every song you could not give a hoot about, can be with you always and they are just a button press away. In short, we are never surprised by the discovery of an old musical love, a song that had been lost in the haze of our past. We have already have it on our iPod.

As a subtopic for this trend, the last 10 years has launched the portability of music; you can have every tune WITH you at every minute. To say that we are all individually constantly creating the sound track of our individual lives is nothing short of being narcissistically lost and unplugged.

In fact, for many of us, this creation of such an artificial emotional support for our daily banality may be one of the great overlooked sources for the accelerated growth of so many personality disorders. I mean, if you have Bono and U2 making your every minute seem deeply and cosmically meaningful, you may have a certain lack of grounded, personal discernment and discretion.

Trend 4: The slow emergence and mainstreaming of the indy label and the singer/songwriter.

Though certain critical slugs would say that this trend has caused the erosion of real musical professionalism in composition, recording and performance skills, I say that it has allowed for the easier expression of talent, where ever it may be found, and for exploration of the many, many facets of human experience in song.

This trend has generated a certain sublime musical defining of both the most common and the most finely sliced and esoteric of human experiences. My only complaint about the trend of the singer/songwriter is that too many of the male singers all sound like Damian Rice, one of the earlier s/s names. And, sometimes, I think the same is true with the use of the 6-string acoustic guitar. Too many songs are rendered in such a way as to make them indiscernible, one from the other. I say, “Hey! Let’s have a little ukulele or oboe thrown in there every now and then, how about it!”

Trend 5: The bomb-like explosion in the popularity of hip hop.

Hip hop was launched well before the beginning of this past decade (early hip hop is traced to the late 1970s), but the decade we are discussing offered up the great popularization of the genre and the launch of a vast number of hip hop careers. Now, I have never been much of a hip hop connoisseur or even ground-level fan. But no one, and I mean no one, can deny the greatness of Eminem’s “Stan” or Jay Z ‘s “New York”, featuring Alicia Keys (can you ever see New York in the same way after hearing that song?), or Missy Elliot’s, “Pass that Dutch”.  There may never be a Christian album of hip hop spiritual songs (I’m sure somebody will prove me wrong on this), but hip hop offers a visceral presentation of real life’s drama and pathos, as well as its sexuality and anger.

One music critic I heard says of the past decade in hip hop that “it is the best sounding music of all the genres, and, from a sonic perspective, the most sophisticated and sumptuous of sounds.”Listen to “New York”; he could be right.

Trend 6: Actually, this is a wished-for trend: a trend I wish would happen, but probably will not, i.e., the use of music in TV shows and treated as a rock opera.

OK, you may get lost on this concept, but some of you may remember a short-lived TV show called “Cop Rock”, which aired first in 1990. Absolute greatness, in my opinion. Hmmm, I don’t think many others felt the same way. The show was canceled before the end of its first season.

southlandIn each show, the main plot points, the twists and turns of its storytelling, were exposited in song. That’s right. Think “Southland” or “Chicago Code”, with songs sung by the actors and with lots of dramatic gesturing. The music in “Cop Rock” provided an emotional context (admittedly, sometimes a bit over-ripe) that allowed for a deep connection with the audience…or, at least, with me.

Honestly, I might not have thought about this wished-for trend, but last night I watched the most recent “Grey’s Anatomy” episode and this is exactly the tact they took. The show was, essentially, sung. Now let’s be clear here. I have mentioned “Grey’s Anatomy” in my blogging before and I have been critical of its use of inane and cloying music to give an emotional surge to what otherwise was pure writing and acting crap.

Not so for last night’s show. By the time the episode was 60 seconds in, several of the actors had come forth in song and that rock opera mode was continued until the end of the show. Did it work?

Well, all I can say is the opening song was so powerful, that I sat grey's anatomythere weeping into my spinach enchiladas and rice, fighting back the urge to leave the room to get relief from the deeply, deeply moving first scene. In fact, just remembering the show as I type these words makes me label that episode as the best “Grey’s Anatomy” I have ever seen. That is a low bar of expectation, so let me say, that episode may have been the best hour of episodic TV I have seen in the past decade, the decade under our discussion.

Will rock opera for episodic TV catch on? In short, no: too costly, too many demands on the actors and the staging, too many limitations caused by hiring only actors with real musical talent. And, I do not think there is any market demand, except for me.

So there you have it, the decade in trends, anti-trends and wished-for trends. Indeed, I know that there were many, many more major trends (eg., iTunes!) and minor trends (the re-emergence of regional genres, like Bluegrass) that I did not even mention. Let me know what you think. What trends have you seen that I missed or dissed that you would like to comment on.

  1. lauren

    So interesting! I re-listened to every thing mentioned to put it in perspective. Great blog!

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