Sunday, June 9, 2013

Devolution of Music Part 5: Conclusion/What to do?

Devolution is not about reverting back to cavemen and women. It isn't about returning to the trees, or before that, the oceans. It's about entropy. Energy and abilities not utilized leading to systems breaking down, leading to stagnation and eventually the loss of ability, loss of complexity and finally the loss of the physical and mental skills that are needed to maintain and build societies. The first step has already been reached on our descent into devolution and it has taken our quality of music away.
  The question is: what do we do about it?
   I don't know.
   The truth is that I don't have the answer, and I don't think there is just one answer. But I have some suggestions:
1. Use less technology: And be more choosy about what technology that you do use. (This might be where myself and the actual members of Devo part ways, though Devo still seems to use largely the same synthesizers that they did in the late 1970's) All of us seem to believe our future and our survival is dependent on constantly making and using more and more complex, powerful and 'impressive' technology. But high-tech electronic equipment is not the source for the vast majority of hundreds of years of musical entertainment by human beings. Technology is the new addition to the mix, and technology hasn't been proven to make better music, only to facilitate larger quantities and faster production (much like mechanized labour). High-tech also often pushes aside human skills to be replaced with computerized ease of use. Technology is, in many cases, talent-squandering. Many of our abilities are left unused because, once the technology is made, we in turn become the low-skilled labourers who fetch and generate the simpler resources, the raw materials of creativity to feed to the machines, hoping the machine will provide better and more complex content than we can create as humans. The machines can 'tune' us, meter our timing and generate 'instrument like' noises in a repetitive way, but so far they haven't really impressed anyone with music that is exciting, meaningful or influential... At least, not by themselves, and not without human influence. Yet...
    It's my assertion that: We think we need technology more than we actually do. Here we see 'Alpoko Don' able to perform what is undoubtedly part one of a freestyle gangsta-opera with nothing but a pen and a porch railing. (This piece is called 'Sittin' Sideways' which has a few follow-up pieces, and they are excellent examples of Freestyle and low-tech, but very high creativity.)
I think the fascination with technology in music has more to do with Materialism and Marketing than genuine artistic use. Just about any musician of any type or genre of music, has fallen, at least once, for some salesman's trick. We bought the more expensive keyboard, the digital effects rack, p/a system, or mixing board based on a slew of added tech- features that were not really worth the amount they added to the price of the product. Many times, musicians, and perhaps yourself, have realized the cheaper model, or even the used amplifier, might have been better (and would've kept us out of debt).  In the same way, we've been sold the idea that some new technology 'is the instrument of the future' and some old technology is 'on it's way out'. Guitars, drums, basses, pianos, turntables, or even pens and porches are chosen by the musicians, and it's the musicians and artists who should decide what's best, not salespeople hired to sell whatever happens to be new and expensive.
  High-tech is also over-hyped. Wub-noises can become annoying just like anything that's repeated over and over. Similarly synthesized guitar effects take an analog electric guitar signal,  convert it to digital, add whatever distortion or phaser/delay effects and then converts the whole thing back to analog to send to the amplifier and speakers so that the audience can hear. The same set of effects can be done entirely with analog technology, much more cheaply, and provide a better sound and clearer signal to the audience. The more you depend on technology, the more you're depending on an engineer. That engineer might be a very good engineer but generally he or she is not nearby and easy to talk to, but an engineer working for a very large company in a factory far from where you want to make music or art.
   In addition to using less technology, you might want to replace it with more people-power and skills. Less technology usually means more collaboration with other human musicians. Collaboration lends itself to more new ideas and new sounds and sometimes two heads are better than one head and a computer. Social skills are human skills, and if it's our computers getting in the way of our human communication, then perhaps we should set aside our technology for the duration of a conversation or three.
   Besides, new tech is expensive so that leads me to suggestion 1a) Watch where you spend your money.
     If you put thousands of dollars into high-tech wub-noise machinery and electronics, then guess which industry is going to make another update, a new model, for you to buy? That's just the way industry works; if you buy the wub-1000, they will immediately start work on the wub-2000, along with the wub-2000xc the extra-crispy model. Whereas if you buy a fifty-cent pen and tap on your porch railing, you immediately put all those annoying and costly wub-gineers out of a job. And sometimes low-tech tricks can make even weirder sounds than even the most expensive  equipment. I'm pretty sure that no music teacher told Jimmy Page to pick up a violin bow and use it on his guitar, but he did anyway, and made some pretty weird and cool sounds from it.
    And lastly, but perhaps most important, there's also the freedom that comes with not being dependent on the help or assistance of a machine. If you learn to sing, either through lessons,  karaoke or just practice, then auto-tune suddenly becomes something like training wheels on your bike, useful at first, but more of a hindrance when you've become competent. You don't keep training wheels on your bike once you've learned... and understandably you don't want the machines telling you what to do, and why would you? So maybe it's time to just let the technology crutch go. And just so that I feel like I've covered everything: I'm going to go to Suggestion 1b) Rather than using expensive technology to make the music itself, it seems far more effective and less expensive to apply technology to the distribution and promotion of the final product. Making promotional 'videos', CDs and copyable mp3s is much easier than ever and more effective than using high-tech to generate content. If you make/write the best music you can make with whatever talent and technology you already have, and then use the best technology you can afford to distribute and spread that music around to those that want to hear it, then you are bypassing the 'music industry' as best you can, and that is probably where you get real value for technology. It allows you to own and promote your own music, while dealing with less of the sleazy promoters and producers that are always attracted to large companies and the smell of money.
2)  Don't forgo local talent When being a music consumer, don't be afraid to take a chance on some local talent. If there's one type of music that is easier for non-musicians and non-artists to understand and relate to, it's local bands and artists. They're often talking/singing/writing/reciting about things familiar to yourself, including the streets where you may have grown up, communities you've visited, and perhaps even people you know. One example would be this flash-mob in Hartford CT which utilized entirely local talent to perform Beethoven's Ode to Joy in some local Mall. The result is pretty impressive. 
3) Try Harder. Take a little bit of personal responsibility. Use your brain/creativity/ingenuity/including your physical body and skills. This would include those of you who want to simply listen to music. Try karaoke, guitar, drums, dancing, keyboards even Freestyle. Educate yourself on music instead of just listening to it. And sometimes you have to listen to something new, and with the T.V. off. My personal suggestion would be to consider buying some analog recordings of your personal and family/friends favourites. Analog tapes and vinyl records often provide a resolution and resonance to music that doesn't exist in other forms (yet). I fully realize that constantly wiping the dust off a record seems old fashioned and quaint, and cleaning tape-heads might be a strange challenge to those who've never done it before, but by going Analog you can avoid the 'loudness wars' that have forced CDs and mp3s to be constantly amping up the volume and compression that takes away from the dynamic range of hearing and often actually hurts people's ears. Developing an ear for music takes time and little bit of effort, so allow yourself time to learn. Also, give yourself a break from your trusty and reliable Huey Lewis and the News or the Bon Jovi album you grew up with and try something that someone else likes, perhaps your girlfriend/boyfriend or spouse or your kids. And with the personal responsibility there's 3a) A little bit of parental responsibility is worth the trouble. There's a reason that giant media conglomerates target teenagers with a boatload of songs that are repetitive of the eighties-style pop, pop-rap, cheezy-punk and the basic four chord structure of a pop tune. It's because to the adorable and innocent children, this tired old crap seems new and exciting. The adults in the family have heard this junk before, and can help, at least a little bit, to prevent kids from hearing only one genre of mainstream pop, and most of the typical pop-copies of the world. If teenagers aren't allowed and encouraged to look/listen for something different from mainstream, then sleazy producers like Simon Cowell will fill your children's heads with terrible music in a pretty boy-band wrapping. So stand up for your kids, even if they decide they like really weird music, it's probably better than the most commercial stuff out there. And, if at all possible, once you learn the basic idea of a pop song, try to move beyond it. There's much more to listen to than just catchy songs about cars, girls, partying, drugs, dancing and sex. Which, obviously leads me to...
4) Let the Pop Song die. As catchy as it may be, the pop song might be near death. It's typical and easy structure is becoming tiresome to most people and it might be time for it to finally go. Without corporate backers to fund and promote boy and girl pop stars, usually of a young age, there may be a day when the pop song era ends. (Party Time!) Media corporations are constantly targeting a younger and younger demographic to swallow the constant churn-out of pop music. It isn't because kids are catching on quicker and quicker, but because they're being turned off sooner and before they've spent their money. Understandably, they seem to grow out of it. Perhaps the sooner you're exposed to it, the sooner you get sick of it, but it also might be the case that we all might be able to grow out of this repetitive pop-single madness and move on to more interesting and diverse forms of music. Perhaps if we weren't so obsessed with the next diva or boy-band or pop idol TV show, we might find live or even televised entertainment of a higher calibre, perhaps one where looks mean less than pure singing or musical talent. There may always be catchy simple tunes to hear, but more diversity is what's really important. We don't need another king or queen of pop. We need more variety and higher quality.
5. (And this should be an obvious one). Re-introduce art and music classes in public schools. I really don't think private schools can help but exacerbate the problem. I don't believe that art is only for the rich or well-to-do. It's supposed to be for everyone. Stupid, devolved and generally horrible governments around the world are continually cutting back on the arts in public school funding and we can see that it's everyone who suffers. Maybe ten years ago, someone thought that music appreciation class was just an easy credit, but it may have prevented someone from buying lousy music despite the advertising. (I guess that the last thing that the current crappy music industry would want is educated consumers.) It's shocking how little education children get in schools that concerns art and music, and it isn't just because they dropped 'band' class in grade ten. It's because arts for public education has been gutted, slowly but surely over the last forty years. Which brings me to my last suggestion.

6. See things as they are, not as you wish them to be. If people don't see the problem, they won't do anything about it. Which means you/me/all of us may have to see what we may not want to. Global Warming is real. Evolution is real, and therefore so is de-evolution. It doesn't matter that you or I, individually, don't want to believe it. It only matters what we, collectively, do with this information. Many people blame the 'system' and then say 'what can you do?' but sometimes the system really is the problem and something has to be done about it. Are we all, as a species, going to sit back and let our social, mental and physical skills diminish further and further until we're incapable of turning things around? Take a good hard look at the world around you and don't make excuses for things because you don't want to believe it can be true. All you have to do is look and you'll see devolution for what it is. And when you do see the world, with all its silliness, don't then try to rationalize it with ridiculous arguments. Recognize what is indeed happening and proceed from there.

And after all these suggestions are taken into account and done with, what then? Will we be okay? Maybe...but in all honesty, I don't hold a whole lot of faith in mankind turning it all around. Worldwide, our politicians are mostly idiots. On a monthly basis, people have to send them large petitions telling them not to pollute our water (This is how stupid politicians are: They have to be told by thousands in writing that polluting our water is bad! I can only imagine their ignorance of the arts.)  Our current market-system is easily skewed to allow rich people (with far more money than brains or morals) set the rules and dictate what we hear and see on broadcasts and decide our entertainment and culutre for us. And likely soon they'll do the same on the internet (new rules will likely come through stringent copyright legislation of some kind unless we the people are continually vigilant in stopping such overreach of the law). Unfortunately, the odds are against us. We are creating a world where music is likely to get nothing but worse for the next several decades.
  But that's no reason to stop trying. I believe that people want good music, and they also want real diversity of music, not just more pop with new rap-flavour or added punk-flavour. Much like those great albums of 1970s, there's room today, and always, for many different genres of music. Maybe I'm devolving along with the rest of society, but I'm going to fight the good fight so long as I'm alive and breathing. I know it's far more likely we human beings will destroy ourselves through stupidity and violence, but we just might have a better choice of music when it all goes down; and who's to say that isn't worth it?

The End

P.S: If you missed previous parts click One:Technology, Two:Copying, Three:Complexity, Intermission:The Old Pop Song and/or Four:Hear No Devo. And if you're still interested in the devolution of music, read our most recent update entry on the subject:
Words, Cups, Trock and The Rage Factor