What Is Pop Music's Value Today?

Categories: The Upsetter

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We are conditioned to think the music business sells music. But this is not true. Or, at least, it's less true than it once was, as recently as 15 years ago, when the industry enjoyed its last year of worldwide growth, thanks in large part to the strength of CD sales and the rarity of file-sharing.

Something happened between 1998 and today. According to a recent report by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, 2012 saw the first growth for the global music industry in the 21st century. Granted, the bump came at a not-quite robust .3 percent. But the gains were hard-won, all the same. Between the decade-and-a-half separating the last two growth years -- so, throughout the period in pop music history book-ended by Britney Spears and Mumford and Sons; "Hard Knock Life" and "Gangnam Style;" FanMail and Red -- music executives were charged with the task of remaking their business model. And re-model, they did.

What drove last year's relative boom wasn't sales of "Call Me Maybe" or 21. Nor was it the artists themselves so much as the aura that surrounded them. Today, it's this aura the music industry sells.

By 2013, the primary product the music industry has reorganized itself around isn't music per se, it's access. Access to its properties, the records they fund, the stars they make; access to the values these properties can confer onto non-music products; but more to the point, access to the coveted demographic that chases pop music's aura, even as many in this demographic refuse to pay for CDs or downloads. Who is the music industry offering this access to? The answer: Other industries.

Let me speak in specifics: Licensed music services are accounting for an increasing part of industry revenues (Spotify alone is presently the second largest source for digital music revenue in Europe). You might say this revenue model isn't so different from retail, in which record stores pay for the privilege of stocking music's wares; or radio, which is based on a similar, though less lucrative, royalty system. But even non-music-specific brands are looking to tap into music's once-huddled customer base. Last week's report that Twitter is planning to launch its own streaming service later this year -- which will in effect turn the music industry into a de facto marketing wing for the microblogging brand -- is only the latest sign of these go-go times.

The music industry has crunched its numbers; the tech industry has, too. And they've found music's value has shifted away from the music itself and toward the attention we pay to it. So I want to assess this very same shift from our vantage point -- not as wayward consumers, but as listeners. I want to ask: What is pop music's value to us, today? Will the new wealth the industry is working to build be transferable to the quality of our listening experiences?

These are big questions begging for complex answers. It would be ideal if I could match the music industry's statistics by offering some numbers of my own. Alas, I'm bad at math and allergic to spreadsheets. I'm not much of a poet, either. But I want to describe an image that might help us begin to see the many parts of this answer in a single intuitive leap.

My image is the field holler.

Now, it's important to stress when I say field holler, I mean to invoke the wider tradition of communally improvised work songs shared by laborers throughout history, all over the world -- and not only the much more narrow and grievous tradition associated in our country with African slaves in the South. Obviously, it would be hyperbolic and distasteful to equate the working person's reality with slavery.

How is the rural image of the field holler relevant to our digital moment? By metaphor, of sorts. But also by archetype. In field hollering, we have the entire structure of the modern music industry compressed into one figure: the field holler leader.

A field holler leader was both artist and audience; he would create a song on the spot, then listen as his colleagues sang it back to him, line-by-line. Today, this is known as call-and-response. And by sending out the first call, the holler leader also became an executive and a manufacturer.

Let's focus on the holler's role as a member of the audience. He's sent out a call. Now he's waiting. Now he hears his call's response -- if not from his fellow workers, then from the valley itself, like the echos of a yodel. What does he hear?

He hears his life sung back to him. Often, he hears words of salvation, appeals to an order more just than the one he knows from this life, as in the work songs that incorporated into their call a touch of the sacred. But most work songs were more ordinary than this, more sublimely everyday and banal. In 1954, Langston Hughes recorded such a song on an LP called The Story of Jazz:

Oh, the sun is so hot.
And the day is so doggone long.
Yes, the sun is so hot.
And the day is so doggone long.
And that's the reason.
I'm singing this doggone song.

When these words return to the holler leader, they endow his moment with the blood-pumping heart of a story. A story that reframes his interminable instant within the context of all human suffering.

At first blush, the music industry's aura is not unlike the holler's story. In a way, we might say the aura, when concentrated into its market-ready product -- glamour -- is today's substitute for the sublimity and redemption of this story. It's the element in pop music that claims to be "larger than life." By which we should take to mean our lives, as distinguished from the life of a pop star, though on its face the distinction is absurd.

But there's a crucial difference between the holler's story and the music industry's glamour: the holler's story begins within the holler. It's not promised to him on high from a marketing executive; it's not let loose from the hilltops; it doesn't say different things to each the artist and the audience.

The field holler's story is an amplification of what is, quite literally, inside the field holler. It's what he sees; what he feels, writ over the valleys and into the sky. As such it isn't an aura, at all. The song is his spirit; he never has to chase it. It surrounds him.

By contrast, the aura the music industry sells exists only for us to chase -- but never truly know -- via other corporations and brands (their websites; their in-store sound systems). The aura has no value beyond its point-of-purchase; it has no redeeming value whatsoever in our actual lives.

But the connection between field hollering and 21st century pop music is even more direct than this image might at first tell. In American history, it's said work songs eventually begot the blues; which begot rock 'n' roll; which begot the music industry as we know it; which, in recent years, has grown less distinguishable from a sort of glorified arm of the advertising industry.

It's by acknowledging the partitions that have, since the birth of rock 'n' roll (and so the modern music industry), been drawn between the various roles that were once assumed within the holler leader, that we can begin to place music's value in the real lives of listeners like us: we, the people who listen to music, but have no direct stake in its economy's busts and booms.

And it's by noting the cognitive dissonance that creeps into our songs -- calls that now return from the cloud and to the field holler remaining in each of us, not as stories, but as advertisements for Twitter -- that we can begin to measure what was lost or gained.

After we've crunched our own numbers, we might find the music industry's wealth has little bearing on our music's value to us. And it's here we see the limits of at least one free market, though the very image of a field holler, as well as a $168 billion industry held together by something so sheer as aura, suggests there are other markets that are broken, too.

-- @AnStou




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