There’s a fiction that we all want to be doing our own thing, burrowing down into holes of our own device, satiated with a world only we control.
But the truth is we want to feel part of humanity — we want to belong — and the further we get away from the rest of our fellow human beings, the worse our state of mind.
We want to not only engage with art, we want to discuss it, argue about it. That’s why music burgeoned in the MTV era. We could all debate the merits of Duran Duran and Culture Club. Literally everyone saw Michael Jackson thrill us with his moonwalk.
Not only is the money in mass, so is the satisfaction. Today, the industry lives in a bubble. We know the most visible stars, like Taylor Swift and Kanye West, but for many others, it’s more a case of fans who are passionate about a band’s music not being able to understand those who aren’t. We all know the story of the Tower of Babel — it’s not a nursery rhyme, but rather a cautionary tale. How did we get so far from the garden?
Prior to MTV, there were a number of radio formats. But then the television outlet merged them together, and made a monoculture. People who were left out screamed. Suddenly AOR — the rock format — was history. Top Forty was everything.
And then the Internet came along and blew everything apart. Without a manual, and with no sense of history, the industry has not only been flummoxed, it’s wandering in the wilderness with no direction home.
But there’s a way back: The future is in trusted filters directing the audience where to partake of desirable music.
We watch the programming on HBO because HBO is a trusted filter. It doesn’t add shows to fill the schedule. If HBO lays down its cash, we deem it important; we want to check it out. And Showtime and now Starz are gaining that trust. But the truth is, with more than 400 original shows a year looking for traction on all channels, it’s impossible to check them all out. Shows get canceled before they get good and reach critical mass. Even “Breaking Bad” took years to become a hit.
Undeniably, we live in an on-demand culture; we want to check out the wares on our own time. And our trusted filters must be built upon the insight of human beings; algorithms don’t work with art. Apple Music’s playlists aren’t bad, but who made them? Zane Lowe may be a trusted source in the U.K., but he’s yet to achieve that level elsewhere. We live in a culture of stars, but the makers of these playlists are complete unknowns.
But whittling down music to a few hit tunes is anathema to the labels and the musicians, because it means most people will be left out. Yet music will be healthy only when its parameters are focused, and right now, they’re not. We might need a playlist for every genre, but there might be only one that we all pay attention to. That’s what radio gets right — giving us a playlist that’s been vetted. And what if you excised the deejays and ads, and you didn’t have to listen all at once?
Then you’d have the future.
Like television, music is driving toward the great consolidation. Everybody can make it, but not everybody can be heard. Getting our attention comes first; monetization comes later. It’s not about where people are listening, but what they’re listening to.
I want to find the good stuff, and talk about it with others. I want to go to the concert and enjoy the communal moment.
And so does everybody else.