The Path of Least Resistance
Jerry Lucky Commentary June 2013
Copyright Jerry Lucky © 2013 All Rights Reserved
A while back I talked about a study that had been done on contemporary music. It showed how the music most people listen to today has gotten simpler and simpler. As far as this study showed, complexity in music was something to be avoided. Now as a progressive rock music fan, this just doesn’t seem right. I get the fact that not everyone will have the same level of appreciation for music that features lots of twists and turns, I totally understand that. After all there are lots of different musical styles and each of them has some rewarding aspects.
What I don’t understand is the idea that people are liking simple music more and more. My high-school electronics teacher always used the phrase – “Taking the path of least resistance” – in the context of taking the easy-way out and that certainly seems to be happening here. The conditioning of hearers by the simpler product has continued apace now for at least a decade. Slowly but surely over that time, in more and more styles of music, elements have been removed, nuances eliminated, structure streamlined. All to the point where, if the music were an apple, we’ve only got the core left.
All of this brings me to a conversation I was having the other day with Phil the promotions manager of the radio stations I work at. Phil’s a musical kind of guy and he thinks about stuff. He says to me, “Have you noticed how contemporary pop rock music has gotten so pared down?” He goes on to explain what he mean by that, that music in the contemporary pop and rock fields today has become so streamlined; no more long intros, maybe two bars if you are lucky, no bridges to mark a key change and certainly no solos on any instrument. He says the song starts, goes for three or four minutes and ends. He also tells me this was a musical trend that started with the band Nickelback.
Now I know that Nickelback have become the whipping post for lots of things, but this was new to me. I suppose whether they were actually the first ones to make this arrangement change would be hard to prove but it’s very clear that they were the first to popularize the change. Just for a minute I will play the “evil-ones” advocate here. I’m betting, to the artist there is nothing conspiratorial about fooling around with the structure of composition. This has been going on since the creation of music. It is this type of musical shenanigans that gave birth to the Progressive Rock genre in the first place. So working backwards and taking things out of the arrangement is part and parcel of the creative process. So there’s nothing really wrong with this…is there?
On the surface there may not be anything wrong with it, however the law of unintended consequences has a funny was of getting involved in the affairs of man. If it were JUST about the music that would be one thing – it would become yet another branch of the musical genre family tree. But when you bring in the element of commerce and the spin-off aspect of fame it starts to get a little murky as to motivations and ultimately what’s good about it and what’s bad about it. Another words who’s making these arrangement choices and why? Are they being made for the sake of musical integrity or simply profit? Is the music staying true to the artist or is it simply yet another tool to enlarge someone’s bank account. And perhaps the most important questions; is anyone interested in asking why or does no one really care about this stuff anymore?
Musical integrity is a pretty high-faluten concept these days of American Idol and The Voice. I sense that for too many would be artists and far too many musical consumers the very idea of musical integrity is a forgotten concept. Now I know there are still plenty of artists out there where that’s not the case and it’s always great when they break into the charts, but I’m speaking of the great unwashed masses here and I’m no longer convinced there is the level of appreciation for “great” music that there once was. In fact I would argue that we’ve lost the skills needed to recognize “great” music. We’ve moved on from being passionate lovers of a genre to merely passionate consumers of a product. And as that product changes and becomes simpler and simpler the “ribbons and bows” in which it is wrapped dazzle us into submission and accept it as gospel. Ultimately as my teacher used to say…We take the path of least resistance.
Is there a bright light at the end of this musical tunnel? Perhaps. The world of contemporary pop rock music is quite cyclical. I think I read somewhere that in England trendsetters plan for a six month cycle. So it is entirely possible this will change again. To what we don’t fully know yet. But there is another thing that I find most encouraging. As more and more bands take to self-production and promotion, using the internet to connect directly with their fans, there is a greater likelihood that the music will remain centre stage, rather than the commerce. That’s a call to support your favorite artists on-line, let them know you appreciate what they do, by buying their music. If we all do that, will it change the music business? Probably not. But then again what if it did? At least that’s what I think.