The Cycle of Mediocrity in Mainstream Music

As someone who spends way too much of my day immersed in music, thinking in depth about the music industry itself seemed to come as a natural extension. I can't say it's always an enjoyably tangent to dwell on, as usually I end up thoroughly frustrated by all the greed, unethical practices and general lack of artistic vision that are a big part of the music industry, but overall it's pretty productive and has led to some interesting insights.

Recently, I've been caught up in this idea of a sort of "cycle of mediocrity" within the mainstream music industry. I'm pretty sure I've touched on this topic at least briefly in the past, but I think to really even come close to understanding what's "wrong" with the music industry, it's worth going into more detail about... especially in rant form.

Here's the concept...

Lets start with a band... a good band... No, a GREAT band. They have a great sound, killer songwriting, are innovative, unique and artistically driven. And now lets say that this band by some miraculous turn of events... the stars align, pigs fly and hell freezes over... they make it big in the mainstream. People and critics alike are floored, album sales soar and everyone is left with a great warm fuzzy feeling from all the amazingly artistic and powerful music.

Success in the mainstream by it's very nature is fleeting though, especially with artistically driven bands (those ones that like to continually evolve) like our hypothetical starting band. Within say... oh 5 years... the band is burnt out, possibly dead, broken up, has lost their creative touch, or maybe the mainstream has just moved on, leaving our band to continue to produce awesome music, but remains at a level below their initial burst of success... and they're ok with that. Nothing wrong with being only moderately successful, especially if you're creating good art and are happy.

But lets look at how the music industry reacts, when this mythical band (lets call them Band X) breaks onto the scene. Record execs around the world... not all of them, but a good portion... look at Band X and say,: "Now there's what we need. There's what's currently popular, we need to capitalize on that... ASAP". I've spoken out on this topic before. Marketing is what drives business. They look at the current trends of an industry and then use that data to draw conclusions. If a band is popular it only makes sense that they are going to say: "Hey, that must be what people want." In the past when discussing this topic, I've gone into lengthy rants about how these marketers and all this marketing is what's killing the music industry etc, and I might believe all those things. Whether they're motivated by pure intentions of bringing good music to the masses, thoughts of "doing their job" or satanically inspired, unadulterated greed is not really important to my ranting today though.

Instead, lets look at how the industry reacts again.

So record companies start to snatch up or produce bands that sound like Band X... or maybe they coerce other bands into changing their sound to fit the time... again, the tactics involved, even if they're malicious and mafia-esque, aren't important right now. Suddenly the market is all flooded with bands that sound similar and sure enough, as is with all markets, people eventually become sick of it. The sound of Band X is no longer as popular as it was and in extreme cases might even become cliché and shunned. This saturation might even be part of what pushes Band X out of the mainstream in the first place... could be who knows. And then the market recedes back into mediocrity with all these rehash bands trying to capitalize on what's left of a trend until the next alignment of the stars occurs.

Then the cycle repeats... hence the cycle of mediocrity, albeit with brief spikes of genius from the Band X's.

So what exactly are the implications of this cycle should it be an accurate description of the music industry? Well that's an interesting question... lets explore that a little bit.

First, following the logic of the cycle theory, we end up with only one in say... every few hundred bands in the mainstream... being a "Band X", an innovator, artistically driven, creative, compelling, arguably "worth listening to".

As I believe I've said before, I am VASTLY more interested in the artistically driven bands than any particular genre or movement... mainstream or otherwise. The rest seem more like rehashes and pale imitations of past greatness. I'm sure those bands are good too, they just don't seem to interest me as much because... well if I want to listen to a band that sounds like The Cure, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, Metallica, or "insert your favorite successful band here"... well then I'll listen to "insert your favorite successful band here", not "insert new band that sounds so much like favorite band here". So for me at least, these numbers (one in some large number worth listening to) are probably relatively accurate.


You could argue that all bands are interconnected and therefore really there are "no new ideas" but I think that argument is often a cop out used by artists/people trying to justify their own laziness, lack of innovation and copying off of others. Great bands can take a little bit of all their influences and use them to create something unique and new... mediocre bands take their influences and create something that sounds just like there influences.

You could also argue that it's the record companies that cause bands to not pursue their unique artistic impulses etc... and you might be right... but that's a starting point for another article.


Ok, back to the rant...

I would never claim that every part of the music world (or even the rock and roll world) works like this. We're talking primarily about the mainstream markets, and even that is not all inclusive... so we're talking more about a particular majority slice of the mainstream market. There's plenty of good music out there in all sorts of genres, but it hasn't reached the mainstream yet. Instead it has to be sought out by those who desire it. 99% of music fans are probably NOT driven to do that. That's not a knock against anyone, it's just an observation. I completely understand that continually seeking out new bands is primarily a pass time for only the truly musically obsessed and not for the everyday listener.

What that means though, is that most people's experience with music is very much grounded in the mainstream because that is what is presented to them... what they receive without much effort. It bombards them from all directions of popular culture... they don't have to seek it out at all.

We combine that idea the our cycle theory that says only a few bands in the mainstream are worth listening to and we reach an interesting conclusion. We've reach the conclusion that much of what people listen to isn't really "worth listening to" at all... most people have "bad taste in music"! Or at the very least they aren't listening to the innovative Band X's of the world.

I don't think we should blame people for that though, I think the problem has more to do with an active versus a passive response

For example:

If record companies took a more active role and decided to "find the next great band" as opposed to "find a band to fit what's currently popular" then there would be a greater variety in the mainstream. They would be taking action to shape the mainstream market as opposed to reacting to the market.

Same is true for bands. If bands decided to take action to develop their own sound, as opposed to copping other people's sounds, then there would be more artistic diversity to choose from and record companies would be more inclined to sign unique new talent (because that would be the majority of what's out there) over something that fits the trends.

And if music listeners took action to say that they aren't going to listen to the junk that's out there and instead are going to go actively seek out good music, then the market would have to response because record companies would want to give people what they want... supply and demand.

Each is an issue of people/bands/record companies taking a more active response instead of being passive and reacting to the situation... the passive solution is sort of like taking the easy way out, the safe choice, the sure thing, while the active one may be more difficult and doesn't supply the immediate gratification, but is more rewarding in the long run. You could look at it like being a "leader" (active) versus a "follower" (passive) too, if that makes more sense or you prefer that terminology.

Individuals (although not the majority by any stretch of the imagination) are already doing this to some extent by going to the internet and finding music for themselves... part of why the mainstream music industry is slumping. I believe bands are doing this as well as it becomes easier to self produce an album and release it online. Perhaps as always, it's the record companies that are lagging behind and in the modern age it's turning the mainstream cycle of mediocrity into a spiral.

Here's how the cycle becomes a spiral... and possibly why in recent years much of the mainstream music scene is pretty ridiculously awful (In many people's opinion... like mine), and continues to slump more every year.

Band X becomes big --> Record companies market bands that sound eerily similar to Band X to the populous in an effort to capitalize on the situation. --> People get fed up with the the sound/style/genre of Band X and start complaining about how "there's no good music anymore". --> In the age of the internet though, it's significantly easier to find new music outside of the mainstream than ever before and so many of the disheartened masses do just that --> Many find great music and are much more reluctant to return to the mainstream now that they have a new music source they like --> The mainstream market slumps even more --> Record companies are less likely to take risks and start looking to market even "safer risks" (bands that sound tremendously close to a winning formula). --> People become more put off by the increasingly formulaic approach of record labels and start leaving the mainstream more and more --> More market slumping ...

You get the idea...

This spiral can be broken though, just as the original cycle is broken every time the stars align, or when someone, and band, a music lover, a DJ, a record label, a blogger etc. takes the time to promote a band they feel strongly about even though they differ greatly from the "safe risks" of the mainstream. If mainstream record labels did that... took risks on a variety of bands that they feel strongly about, that they think people will like, even though it doesn't fit in with all their marketing data... then I think this cycle and specifically the spiral and could be avoided.

You see, I think there's a lot of people out there who have "bad taste in music" simply because they aren't exposed to anything else. I think this might actually be the majority of music fans out there. They aren't the ones seeking out underground bands for whatever reason, they love music, but they're locked into the mainstream. Yet, I think if the mainstream had a huge variety of ideas from all eras, then these people would constantly be exposed to new musical styles and would subsequently be open to more and more different kinds of music. Who knows, someone who into hardcore rap, might find their new favorite bands are noise rock? Maybe a death metal fan would find some dream pop? Or whatever...

Yeah, there's always going to people who are very genre specific, but the people who are that passionate about a specific genre aren't the ones who are paying attention to the mainstream anyways. Plus, like I said, I think the majority of people are actually the ones who love music, but aren't "seekers"... they're into what is presented to them... the mainstream

Here's the real kicker though...

If the mainstream had better variety ranging from "safe" to "experimental", I don't think people would be as compelled to A) complain about the lack of good music and B) in turn abandon the mainstream for the underground. In fact, in the best scenario, suddenly there is no such thing as mainstream anymore... it sort of evaporates to just become the "music scene" where any band making good music of any kind can be recognized. The mainstream is no longer some sort of ever evolving niche market, but a broader more all encompassing one.

In my mind, it's brilliant! And flies in the face of all that crazy marketing data... but that's what makes it so great.

But it seems like that isn't the way the music industry works right now... at least the mainstream music industry. On the internet it's a different story, but even there the number of sites that continually buck the trend in favor of what they feel passionate about is few.

There are people in the industry, regular people, bands and big record execs who take the initiative though. Those people are how we get those Band X's and spikes of genius in the mainstream that start the cycle. They see an artist as great even if they don't fit in with the current market. They believe that people will like it even if it's not what they're currently listening to. They make their music the way they want to, not based on any trends.

But, we need more people doing that... if not everyone... to really change things.

Of course, all of this is really just speculation in the form of a rant that has now reached sort of a critical mass and needs to be ended asap. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, this is sort of generalized and simplified to the extreme. It's ridiculous to think that a cycle like this is the ONLY thing governing the mainstream music industry... if it has any effect at all, or even exists.

I mean, maybe you're fine with mainstream music? Or maybe you're convinced it's all those gosh darn music pirates ruining it for us? Or maybe you like to use phrases like "that's just what's popular these days" or "that's just the way things are"?

That's fine, everything above is just some thoughts/opinions from someone who doesn't think, believe or say things like that. And also thoughts/opinions born from a specific moment... this one... If I came back to this topic tomorrow I might think differently...who knows. What I do hope you take from this though is the desire to take a more active role in your "musical activities" and recognize that the mainstream isn't the end all and be all of music.

Like, if you're in a band, then take time to craft your own unique sound and style that you like... instead of trying to sound like what's currently popular or has sold the most albums... or anyone else for that matter.

If you're a music fan, go out their and seek out good music, and then share it with others. Or if you're not a "seeker", well then at least be open to new ideas when they are presented to you.

And if you happen to be a record exec (I highly doubt any of you are) trying to find the next big thing? Well maybe go seeking bands that specifically DON'T sound like what's popular now... try and find the something people WILL like, not something just like what they DO like.

Ok, rant concluded. ::phew:: I feel better... I think I'll stop thinking about the music industry until my brain can recover and get back to actually listening to music.

Oh... one last thing. If you're at all intrigued by this idea of the cycle of mediocrity I've discussed here, take a look at how it applies to some other types of media. I find television and movies especially interesting to look at through the lens of "why is this what they're pushing?" Yeah... interesting...


- The Soul of Rock 'n' Roll is a division of Fifth Column Media - -