Wednesday, April 6, 2011

SXSW: Does music matter less these days?

Even though SXSW 2011 is history now, one underlying theme of this year's music gathering is still echoing in my head. It's about the relevance of music in today's society:  does music matter less these days?

Notably, does music still have the cultural impact it had a generation ago? Or has music lost part of its power in today's society, and why? Do we have too much music? Can we have too much music? Does today's music have something to say? If not, why not? And is it good that everybody can say something with music now?

This existential challenge was hammered home by Sir Bob Geldof in his keynote and discussed in various settings by music critics, entrepreneurs, managers and musicians.

Based on his talk, it appeared clear that Geldof isn't so fond of today's music. In his keynote, he pointedly complained about too much music and too little meaning: "Everybody has got the means to say anything they want, but nobody has anything to say." According to Geldof, rock music should voice outrage about the growing inequality of today's society to be relevant, but it doesn't. "What’s music got to say about it? I don’t hear it. Maybe I can’t hear it."

Geldof wasn't the only one voicing his concerns that new technology has made it too easy for everybody to create and share music, supposedly lowering the overall quality. Chris Morris, music critic for Daily Variety, sang the same tune on the panel "I'm not old, your music does suck". He sees a problem in the amount of music produced every year. "How shall I sift through".

Paige Maguire, editor in chief for, disputed the idea that there could be too much music. "At what point do we say that's too many people being creative, that's wrong, that should stop?" "I don't think the amount of music is the problem. It's that we've lost our way in being able to quickly finding something that we like. But I don't know that that itself is what the problem is. I see people being able to create and share more quickly and easily and as often as they'd like as being something, that finally musicians and artists and creative are able to have complete control over what they do. If it sucks, it sucks. If it's good, then great. I see that as being a joy, as a really exciting time."

Geoffrey Himes, music critic at the Washington Post, made the same point: "From the 70's when I started, I've always felt, it doesn't matter how much bad music is out there, as long as there is enough good music to keep me engaged. That's what I care about. I don't find that that's changed." "There is a lot of really good music out there."

But Himes observed a different problem. There is great music out there but less of it is becoming hits. "You lose that shared experience which was such an important part of pop music. When the Beatles were in their prime, everybody had heard their music. You could walk up to almost anybody to have a conversation about it. You can't do that with Sam Baker. 95% of the people haven't heard of him."

Today's music universe is becoming increasingly more fragmented. Will that reduce music's social value? Morris: "For [..] our generation, music was 'it'. That was the art form. It was the central part of the culture. It was a part of the social fabric. I think that music occupies a lesser and ancillary role today. There are people [..] who are more interested in their Playstation."

A similar angle was taken by Ed Wards. He shared an observation he made in Japan in 2001, when he observed people absorbed by their mobile phones, and wondered if a major social change was about to happen. "The next big thing is probably not gonna be music. It's gonna be cell phones."  Case in point:  the biggest star of SXSW 2011 seemed to be the iPad 2. Big crowds were waiting in long lines for days to buy the new status symbol at the pop-up Apple Store in the center of Austin. Everyone talked about it, and (nearly) everybody wanted one.

Back to the state of the music landscape. Alexander Ljung from SoundCloud had a very different take on it. On the panel "Mobile Music Moves to the Cloud", he pointed out the unique ability of the Internet to create bidirectional communication and interactions between creative people. "It's all about engagement." And these new patterns of engagement are a source of tremendous creativity--for instance, DJs invite people to upload sounds in realtime to be used in a live performance. Ljung compares it to an orchestra of hundreds of people.

Ljung: "I talked to a lot of different artists. For people now, it feels like this is a very, very exciting time, because they can actually create more than ever before, they can be more engaged with people than ever before. I don't sense so much that people are scared of what's happening. And there is this enormous positivity around the fact that there are more people that can actually be engaged in creating stuff. I think, that generally for society that is a very, very positive thing." From his perspective, the Internet enables artists to get instant feedback on their latest creation and they have never been closer to their fans.

While the Internet has led to a more fragmented music landscape, it has also produced new stars like Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber. Their fast rise to the top would have been impossible without the power of social networks and the Internet, and their ability to connect with fans around the globe in a matter of seconds.

The Internet demands relevance in many different flavors, from the seriousness of Wikipedia to the cute humor of LOL Catz. Part of Lady Gaga's success is the fact that she stands for something. She provides meaning and that makes her a very powerful symbol. It is in the way she does things, the causes she supports, her art, and her special relationship with her fans.

Another powerful symbol of a different kind is Rebecca Black with "Friday" being dubbed as "the worst song ever". While hated by many of her viewers, she has received unprecedented global attention in just a few days with one--let's call it mediocre--music video. Her video reached already more than 70 million views on YouTube alone.

Lady Gaga and Rebecca Black's success in gaining global attention--as fundamentally different as they are--have two things in common. They got a lot of attention and both became socially recognized symbols around the globe. We can now use them to communicate. We can use them to make a clear statement. The fact that Rebecca Black became famous based on negative emotions doesn't stop her from fulfilling her role as a symbol. She has become a part of our culture.

According to Niklas Luhmann, society can be described as a self-referential, autopoietic social system consisting of communication. As such, society is constantly producing new acts of communication and new symbols leading to even more communication and so on.  Rebecca Black has become such a big symbol because she enabled many acts of communications around the world. It is less her than the collective's interest in expressing an idea. Rebecca Black's "Friday" video became a way to criticize the lack of authenticity and quality in many things we consume. There are many videos on YouTube displaying worse music talent, but "Friday" was produced as if it was something better. It had all the bells and whistles.

I am pretty optimistic that we will create other even more powerful symbols in the future using the Internet. Many of them might not come from the music space, like Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit-vendor who became the defining symbol of repression and unrest in North Africa and the Middle East. On a relative scale, music might have lost its edge because we discovered new ways to express ourselves that rival music. But there is no clear reason why music won't continue to play an important role in our global conversation.  It need only be relevant to become the symbol of choice.

So Sir Bob Geldof was right when he said: "Music needs to have meaning." The only thing is, society decides which meaning it wants.


  1. Soren,

    This was a amazing write up and I totally agree. I been observing the growth and saturation with music and the music industry for years..but at the end of the day something compelling will still grab someone's attention and find it's do artists like Rebecca Black. It just all comes down what we collectively choose to embrace at that point in time :)

  2. Ryan, thanks! I wonder if Bob Lefsetz is right, that income inequality will/should capture the minds of musicians and society like Vietnam did in the 60s: