Classical to current: A short history of music

There was a time when music was not recorded. It was written down on paper, sure, but that paper was only a recipe for the musical piece it represented. To actually hear the music, you had to hear it performed by highly trained musicians. This is what we think of as classical music.

Or maybe the music wasn’t written down. In this case, people who knew the music by memory passed it along to those who listened. Since the music wasn’t written down, any performer who had a basic knowledge of the piece could add or subtract from the piece according to his or her liking. It was like the grapevine game you play as a kid – the final message may sound nothing like the original. This is what we think of as folk music.

One day, some guy (I haven’t done much research for this. . .) figures out that you can make a series of indentations in a round piece of wax. A gadget with a needle reads these indentations engraved in the wax and translates them into a series of sounds. These sounds make up the piece of music. Now, you can hear that piece without live musicians making the music for you.

At this point, the actual piece of music – not the written recipe and not the live performance experience – has been made into an object that you or I can use. As an object made by a company that presses records, it is a commodity that can be bought and sold to make a profit. The listener is now the consumer, the artist is now the inventor and the record company is now the seller. But unless you know a lot about music and go see concerts all the time, there’s not much the record company can do to inform you about their records and get you to buy some. Luckily, Guglielmo Marconi, whose name I only know because it was on “The Simpsons,” invented radio. Or maybe it was the Tesla guy. I don’t know. In any event, radio allows records to be played over the air and heard by listeners miles away. If they like the music they hear, then they can buy the record and some guy wearing suspenders makes a little cash.

Rock ’n’ Roll, in all its glory, hits America in the ’50s: Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard. The post-war youth generation has some extra pocket money, so they start buying up all kinds of this hot new music. The money rolls in, so the radio/record companies start gearing their commodities specifically to the younger generation. Certain artists and types of music are given the publicity push, while others get pushed to the side. This is the beginning of the rift between mainstream and underground music.

The Beatles and the Stones make the music industry a BIG business. But the heads of the record companies are still old guys in suspenders scratching their heads trying to figure out why kids are buying the records they sell. In an effort to sign the next Beatles and make a ton of money, the suspenders guys hire a couple of kids who are down with the youth culture to make decisions about which artists the company should support.

And those kids make a ton of money. Problem is, for every artist on a record label who makes it, 50 don’t even break even. The kids, who by 1971 or so have shed their beads and ponchos for suits and ties, decide the best way to even the odds of success is to take a successful artist, make sure all the other artists sound the same and screw any band who doesn’t toe the line. Hence the birth of Corporate Rock, one of mankind’s most annoying inventions.

A bunch of disaffected youths get fed up with corporate rock and, well, polite society in general. The youths get some cheap equipment and begin thrashing out short, energetic and musically simple songs that harkened back to the glory days of rock ’n’ roll in the ’50s and early ’60s. Hence the birth of punk rock, one of mankind’s raddest inventions.

Of course, punk rock artists make little to no money once the novelty wears off around 1980. Some punks are willing to clean up their act a bit for the labels and commercial radio stations, while those who aren’t willing go underground and spend the rest of their days shaking their fists at the mainstream.

In 1981, MTV debuts. Now the consumer of music does not even have to go to a concert to see and hear his or her favorite band. MTV quickly becomes a more powerful marketing tool for the music industry than radio ever was. Not only do the artists in the record company stable need to sound the same, they have to look the same too. And they have to be good-looking, or else they have to have good-looking people in the videos (see Aerosmith, 1986-1994). The musical underground, mostly ugly people like you and me, is appalled and they shake their fists that much harder.

And now? It’s even worse. The music biz is a high risk/low return venture by nature, so they’ve lowered the risk and increased the return by homogenizing commercial music more than ever. Tupac Shakur, Michael Jackson and Nirvana were all phenomenal music-makers who sold millions of records. So turn on any Clear Channel-owned radio station or MTV and you’ll hear nth generation 2Pac, Michael and Kurt clones blowing through some overproduced piece of garbage. Ugh. And the so-called underground, while more musically adventurous, has such an incredible disdain for the mainstream that it continually defines itself as an anti-commercial, anti-society and anti-record buying audience. This political stance has stagnated underground hip-hop and rock movements, alienated audiences and reinforced the mainstream’s decision to seek the bottom line at all costs. These are musically bankrupt times, folks.

But there’s one thing I left out: the internet and file-sharing networks. Suddenly, the last 100 years of music as a sellable commodity seem incredibly irrelevant. Suddenly, music doesn’t need to be etched into wax or plastic discs. It can be converted into a series of 1s and 0s and sent around the world from computer to computer. And no one has to pay for it.

Is this good or bad? The music industry is about to fall backwards all over itself trying to stay ahead of the game. Yeah, the music industry sucks – like any entertainment industry, it’s made a killing on marketing and reinforcing America’s fascination with meaningless sex, intense violence, horrible racial stereotypes and most of all, soulless music. But at least it places some value, albeit a monetary one, on music itself. Should file sharing be taken to its logical extreme, all music and the musicians who make it will be worth absolutely nothing to the public at large. And that’s a pretty scary thought. Here’s hoping that things turn out okay. . .

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