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How the Profit Motive Sucked the Soul Out of Music

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Nothing is valued unless it can make money

Every decade of the twentieth century was defined by a distinctive sound. Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry in the 1950s. The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix in the 1960s. Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd in the 1970s. Queen and Michael Jackson in the 1980s. Nirvana and Notorious B.I.G. in the 1990s —and this is just the cream of the crop, there are far too many musical giants that came to define each decade. 

While each decade of the twentieth century has a uniquely identifiable ‘sound’, something weird started happening at some point at the beginning of the twenty-first century. 

The sound that defined an era evaporated into thin air. 

A few bands will stand the test of time, Radiohead and Kanye West being notable exceptions. But the last twenty years have been defined by largely forgettable music. Why is it that music, such a key element of cultural expression, has become so vacuous and devoid of an identity?

The musical conveyor belt

The problem is that over time, music has been treated more and more like a market, where decision making is influenced by the profit motive.

Today music feels akin to a factory system than the forefront of cultural expression. 

As time has gone on, the desire to profit from music has sucked the life out of music and replaced it with a steady stream of clean-cut, straight-laced ‘stars’. Such is the similarity of each iteration of pop ‘star’, it’s almost as if they’ve been removed from a box and someone has pressed the ‘play’ button. 

Slightly different face, eerily similar sound and personality.

The reason they are all so alike is that they are products designed and moulded by record labels for one purpose, to sell as many records as possible, as quickly as possible. 

When the label has eeked as much as they can from these largely forgettable products, they are swept off the conveyor belt and replaced by another iteration.

The same bland, dreary, meaningless music, but a different face for the adoring fans to swoon over.

The tragedy is that today’s pop stars are created to do one thing. To make money out of commercialising music, not to make good music that then becomes commercial. There is a fundamental difference between the two.

Before the profit motive sucked the soul out of music, every artist who came to define an era wanted to push boundaries. If the music made money, great, but that was merely an outcome of having made great music. 

If the great music didn’t sell many albums, that didn’t make the music less great, it just meant it made less money. The Velvet Underground  may not have sold many records but their music is now critically acclaimed.

Making music to make money

Today it’s the exact opposite. The aim is to make music to make money. If it doesn’t make money, then it is a failure.

The stars of today, who are simply a variation of a theme, are everything the musical geniuses of the past are not. But this is done intentionally because record labels have a formula for what sells and what doesn’t. 

And because decisions are defined by making as much money as possible, we have ended up with the destruction of music as an art form. 

There are still great bands and people producing great music, and there are, of course, lots of people listening to that music. But these musicians have fallen by the wayside. They don’t get airtime because record labels know that’s not where the money is.

As time has gone on and capitalism has had more influence over the music industry, artists are less likely to be driven to make good music and are more likely to be driven to become a ‘star’. They don’t care about making good music. They don’t care about anything other than their own vanity.

The star of the show

And in a world where the individual is glamorised and narcissism is celebrated, everyone wants to be the star of the show because that will feed their sense of importance. 

The stars seem to have no problem with having a shelf life of no more than a few years. They have no issue being used by record labels. And it’s fine that after they’ve been taken advantage of, they will be thrown onto a scrap heap like all the other forgettable stars.

They will still form an orderly queue, desperate to be the next chosen star because each individual is obsessed with having their moment in the limelight. The glitz and glam of the life of the rich and famous are so tantalising that they will happily be used, knowing, for the briefest of moments, they will be the star of the show.

That thought — that dream —  is the epitome of success for many. Any downside is well worth the admiration and envy of everyone else. 

To boil culture down to one where decisions are made solely based on how much money it makes is plain sad. But that’s what happens when a society becomes consumed by greed. In the end, everyone suffers, but the majority remain blind to their suffering, content that maybe, just maybe, they’ll be the next ‘star’ of the show.