Thursday, July 15, 2021

"The Regression of Musical Innovation" reconsidered

I recently encountered Rick Beato's video "Why Today's Music Is So BORING. The Regression of Musical Innovation." This rant is worth a rebuttal, especially since the emotive aspect of the claim will have immediate appeal to so many.

Anyone who has turned on the radio in the last decade will agree with the premise that chart music sucks. But Beato then makes blanket statements that are untrue or misdirected. His limited perspective on what makes music innovative is also worth discussion.

Beato uses several specific examples, including The Beatles' "Something." I think that we can agree that this is both a wonderful song and more harmonically complex than the bulk of the charts. But this doesn't mean that there's been any "regression" in music since. Using radio as a barometer is only reasonable if this delivery medium hasn't changed since 1969. Already you can see that assumption is farcical, but let me step through an argument.

Radio then and now

Back in 1969 there were only a few ways you, as a listener, might learn of new music. You could hear it on the radio, see the record racked down at your local record shop, or read about it in a music magazine. There was also word-of-mouth and the "older sibling" effect... two vectors still very much in operation.

New music was first discovered by record labels (the Artist & Repertoire branch), was promoted to radio, then diffused to the other outlets. Most radio played songs that were already hits, your record shop generally only stocked what was already selling (or what publishers were hyping), and magazines were driven by big money and advertising.

Nonetheless, radio circa 1969 had great potential for variety, for the simple reason that every type of popular music that was attempting to reach an audience had to end up on radio. There was no internet, no streaming, and only rare options for television coverage. Radio was the sole channel for folk, instrumental, rockabilly, ballads, classical pops, and the growing field of electrical rock experiments.

After the birth of rock'n'roll every publisher wanted to hook up with the next hot sound the kids would buy. The search for novelty drove A&R and the promotions machine. Exactly the same process occurred circa 1977 with UK punk. Record contracts were flowing like water. Not everyone would float to the top, but a wide variety of acts were given the opportunity.

Variety was also encouraged by the geographical dispersion of radio stations, alongside their (relative) lack of conformity and integration. Music in one city was distinct from music in another city, since there were no giant networks instantly tying every outlet together. The result was that folk in Detroit listened to very different tunes than folk in San Francisco. Local music scenes could evolve and idiosyncratic styles could form. Local radio targetted local listeners.

The radio context to 2021 couldn't be more different. Radio is no longer geographically dispersed, but instead homogenised into massive networks, with instant communications. In Europe there are mostly national broadcasters. In the USA there are only three huge networks: iHeartMedia, Cumulus Media, and Townsquare Media (controlling 855, 428, and 321 stations respectively). With so much money at stake, radio exists only to channel the most banal music. Indeed, music is not even the main content of radio, long ago being replaced by sport, news, and talk. Who listens to radio to discover great new music?

Any argument about music predicated on the charts is based on a bad foundation.

Special times of musical innovation

My second major objection begins with the fact that circa 1969 was a time of massive discovery and innovation in music technology. Instruments like the electric guitar were still new and improving. Studio gear was in rapid development, a process that continued for at least two decades. Novel recording techniques were being invented each week. Effects pedals and racks were becoming important sound-shaping tools. New electronic instruments (synthesisers, etc.) were making themselves known.

That was a special time that produced special music. We cannot expect every era to be the same. (Indeed, I think there was only one comparable period: post-punk 1977-81.) Endlessly comparing today's tracks to the best of classic rock and pop is disingenuous. You may as well constantly bemoan the fact no-one has improved on Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. It's fair to say that no-one ever will. In part, because times have changed. Even a decent contemporary attempt will look like a pale copy. If it ain't Baroque, don't fix it!

The other problem with this argument is that it cherry-picks data. Beato holds up "Something" as a stellar composition, without mentioning Harrison's many dire attempts. You may enjoy his solo efforts, but to me most were tedious... and certainly not innovative. Remember the plagiarism lawsuit?

If music has regressed, if it is now less inventive than before, why should anyone be surprised? You can't keep ringing changes out of the same material forever. The enormous technical and cultural changes of the late 1960 are simply not operational now. (Other tectonic shifts are ongoing, but these might instead be producing innovation in -- I don't know, let's say gaming -- rather than pop music.)

Where innovation lives

But this hypothesis is false: music hasn't regressed. It's just that good music is found in places other than commercial radio. Anyone who has spent time on Bandcamp (for example) can only be amazed at the diversity and scope of musical expression on offer.

Another problem stems from the fact Rick Beato is a muso. His entertaining and informative videos are full of fast patter about diminished this and augmented that. That's well and good; Beato has musical knowledge most of us will never have. But grade ten theory has never been a requirement for pop music, innovative or not.

The bigger issue is that Beato is a guitar player. He focuses attention exclusively on melody and harmony, ignoring rhythm. So he completely (and conveniently) forgets about all beat-driven music, including electronic genres and dance music. I have heard plenty of innovation in Aphex Twin, Oval, Mira Calix, Tim Hecker,...

Neither does he consider music which is non-tonal to begin with. Ambient, drone, power electronics, gamelan, electroacoustic, field recording... many forms and genres simply cannot be described by his vocabulary. Some will object that this is not pop music, but that position is also untenable. Today the scope of what might be "popular" is wide open for experimentation, and must be, if you wish the same innovation as in 1969. (Lots of people back then said "that's not real pop music!")

Ultimately, Beato exists in a very small musical pocket circumscribed by a certain limited musical tradition. No wonder he's disappointed by what he finds. He's simply looking for the wrong thing in the wrong place. Instead he should be listening to black midi, Idles, Newen Afrobeat, Scott Walker, Fiery Furnaces... plus a thousand other acts that those younger than myself will champion. 

Yes, we know that pop radio is dead. Let's move on, with our ears open and our expectations realistic.

After all, I don't need another "Something".... because I've already got the one.

See also

Today's Music is Crap, Reports Old White Guy

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