Electronica vs. aesthetics

In addition to omnipresent, socially acceptable pop, I listen to music which quite a number of people hesitate to call music at all, merely tolerate or, most commonly, simply deny the status of serious or artistic. Quite like them, I view some established ways of musical expression with a weary eye, eager to comment and criticize. This is advocacy for the kind of sound that I like or, to some, perhaps an apology of it.

Preamble: pieces of a puzzle

My own musical taste revolves around a range of styles, some of which have little in common with each other. Most of it has black origins, as popular music tends to. Funk, blues, some soul and definitely jazz are nice, as are Jackson lineage pop and some of the more sugary MTV stuff. But what really gets me going is techno/electronica and the more aggressive variants of contemporary classical and electro‐acoustical work. Those are, then, what I mostly talk about in this text.

Eventhough the audience of electronic and experimental music has greatly expanded in recent times and some of their variants (like abstract drum’n’bass) have even been accepted by professional musicians, it is clear that the public still regards them mostly as light, unevocative, childish, amusical or downright braindead. The electronic avant garde is perceived either as a curiosity for a small, liberal elite or a naïve (or even dangerous) pastime of the musically unsophisticated. It does not fit into today’s depiction of good music as something that is commercially successful and/or somehow classy. In a word, the prevailing aesthetic does not favor instrumental, functional, repetitive‐minimalistic or trial‐and‐error elements in music, all of which contemporary electronic art is quite fond of.

On the social side, the surrounding urban Western culture cannot tolerate the anarchistic, utopian escatology of the related subcultures and so study, acknowledgement and respect, all much needed in the establishment of new artistic genres, are greatly retarded. Perhaps the best example of this grave culture clash is the devaluation of electronic dance music in the US, where the proper regard for the music itself has been all but killed by media touting the related parties as the acutest of threats to the sanity, sobriety and decency of the youth in attendance.

In essence, techno, which I see as the greatest gift of Northern America to current popular music, has been denied its proper heritage and audience. This kind of irrational, unsympathetic response represents the direst of challenges to a connoisseur of electronica.

In the following chapters I try to go through some aspects of music, musicianship and popular views surrounding them in an attempt to pinpoint what it is, exactly, that causes electronic music to be treated so badly on the social arena. Then I try to shed some light on my own views on music, musicality and the aesthetic of art in general which, I contend, are better in tune with the electronic and experimental music scenes. In particular, I attempt to demonstrate that some of the most deeply rooted concepts of the popular aesthetic of music, like analysis based on meaning, evocativeness and relevancy, are not sustainable in the context of the new electronic underground.

The tragedy of value aesthetics

Well becoming the competitive nature of contemporary Western culture, its stance towards music is strongly affected by valuation, the assignment of worth and mutual pecking orders on compositions, musical styles and their associated subcultures.

While most civilized people recognize that music, like all art, is a highly subjective experience, there are always those who think that there are absolute, usually aesthetic criteria by which we can valuate art. Although I too think that there are some criteria which should hold for music in order for it to be considered good, the current criteria used by the music press and the music education circles are something that I consider a bit outdated and elitist. In the following sections I’ll try to deconstruct some of the more popular criteria used to judge music, and raise a number of what I think are relevant objections.

Language and meaning

Almost all of today’s highly appraised, widely known music relies heavily on what are basically communicative elements in music: lyrics, representations of emotive content, political symbolism and referentialism carefully crafted to evoke meaningful associations. In popular music, we have a certain theatrical element, too: the carefully chosen attire and image of the performers, the popular cult surrounding them and the merchandise used to instill a sense of group belongingness in the audience.

I, like anyone who has taken to the simple sensitibilities of electronic music, find the concentration of popular music on language and meaning quite troubling, and in the end unobvious. While many people hold that music serves some inherently communicative purpose, needs to have an emotive message or, in general, should comprise basically symbolic content, it is not at all clear to the fan of the instrumental and avant garde that this is indeed a given. On the contrary, I would go as far as to say, meaning has no place in music. One can be attached to the other, of course, but music itself has no meaning outside of what it’s used to convey or taken to mean, and that whether or not a particular piece of music is intended to be or is taken as having a message is irrelevant to the definition of music, and to its aesthetic. From my viewpoint, even when present, meaning is always separate from, and peripheral to, the sonic art.

‐there cannot be a comprehensive grammar to music
 ‐hence if such a decoding exists, it must be ambiguous/context sensitive
  ‐either a learned or an innate decoding
     ‐relies on sound having some basic response in humans
      ‐to some extent true
       ‐bass equals fight/flight
       ‐transients/rhythm cause arousal
      ‐beyond very basic patterns a futile explanation for any response
       ‐there is extensive research, but nothing exceeding basic emotions
        can be found
       ‐the test material isn’t representative: mostly Western listeners
      ‐lateralization studies on Japanese people suggest there are
       anatomical/functional differences between Western and Eastern music
     ‐funk/testosterone/primitive values
      ‐for the most part superstition/actually learned
      ‐associations learned from the period of rock rebellion
     ‐different people learn different things: there are multiple musical languages
      ‐either for an individual
       ‐more likely when we speak of experimental/avant garde music
       ‐the capability of an individual is limited
      ‐or for a whole culture/linguistic domain
       ‐one needs to know and consistently utilize the given dialect in order
        to carry meaning through the music
       ‐a language has a grammar, a vocabulary and a bunch of other rules
        ‐this also means that the linguistic constructs limit opportunities
         for creative expression
         ‐sound tracks are a prime example of a limited vocabulary
       ‐but such linguistic domains are highly limited
        ‐multiple grammars can be shown to exist with contradictory rules
        ‐this means that cross‐cultural influences seem at first sight incompatible
         ‐this is easily shown to be futile: world music is likable
         ‐so only in the context of purely predetermined grammars can we
          really say anythin meaningful
       ‐especially placing any meaningful music above others is bad
         ‐the history of music reveals that the valuation of meaning/descriptive
          sound only begins in the baroque
        ‐such a valuation is artificial and dismisses e.g. purely functional music
         as bad
         ‐given that most of music is functional, this is bad
         ‐parallel with architectonics: there can be art which is inherently or even
          primarily functional

Through their concentration on recording technology, involved sonic experimentation, and really sound itself, electronic and experimental music have everything but shed the burden of language. The sparseness of vocals in electronica, for instance, is one of the more stable characteristics of the family of musical genres going under the name. And even when vocals are heard, they are often heavily mutated from their original communicative purpose and made instead to serve as an instrument very much on par with the synthesizers and effects the styles mainly build on. Contemporary classical composers have likewise abandoned the vocabulary of classical composition to end up with something closely resembling the sonic alchemy that techno folks conjure up from their synthesizers.

Yet it is clear that to a number of people, electronica is deeply enjoyable. In recent years so much so, in fact, that rock might indeed finally be about to die.

We see that even when no explicit message is encoded into the music, or the music is structured according to an unknown grammar, the music can have deeply emotional value to people. This parallels the fact that songs in languages unknown to the listener usually sound nice regardless. Inability of the listener to understand music in the traditional sense clearly cannot devalue it, then. It follows that there need be no recognizable message in sound for it to be music.

Indeed, the preconception that music cannot be good if it doesn’t have evocative lyrics is downright insulting, particularly to the non‐singing musicianship. After all, most musicians have little to do with with the lyrics themselves, which would under the above assertion mean that only the vocalist could have the proper status of an auteur. I think we can agree that this does not hold.

Generalizing a bit, we see that there are many efficient ways to carry abstract thought in addition to music. Written language is perhaps the most efficient of them all. So if indeed a message needs to be passed, why not do it in written form? To say that even instrumental music needs to have symbolic content implies that music as a whole is actually subjugated to literature. Since music likely would not exist if this were really the case, there must be something extra in it, and like the sound and image in cinema, there is no reason why the symbolism and the additional something couldn’t stand on their own as two separate forms of art.

If this is really the case, might we not further conclude that incorporating symbolic content actually degrades the perception of whatever this extra quality in music is? After all, speech tends to reserve a somewhat special place in our perception: one cannot for instance not‐listen‐to one’s native tongue, while at the same time it is almost too easy to listen to extremely annoying, trivial music if it has some meaning to the listener (cf. garden variety punk and karaoke).

I think that in many cases, popular music would truly be better of without the vocalist, or strict adherence to other established communicative idioms.

The belief that music can be valuated and appraised via investigation of the quality and nature of its symbolism is in stark contrast with the above views. It is not a wonder, then, that heard thru the ears of someone trying to decode some hidden message, electronica is often a big disappointment. Indeed, I find this the primary reason for the negative attention given it by the academia and the music press. This musical establishment would benefit greatly if it were to take a second look at the electronic avant garde and recognize that not all of the value of music lies in its ability to carry information, but that music can perfectly well be treated from a purely existential viewpoint.

The myth of the auteur

Above I already discussed the prominent role of the vocalist. While the human voice certainly has a lot going for it in music, it by no means suffices to explain the inordinate popularity cult surrounding established singers. In fact, there are known examples of other instrumentalists and even composers, DJs and producers with a similar following. While there is nothing inherently bad about a strong artistic personality, I think there is a serious issue to tackle with the way those involved in the Arts are currently put on a pedestal. What I’m talking about is the concept of the auteur, that certain, almost supernatural aura which is often attached to a successful artist.

Good examples are given by the way most bands are identified with their frontmen (with Michael Jackson as the prime example—he neither writes nor plays), the ridiculous concentration of popular attention given to certain instrumentalists (like Slash) and the way artists are often given a say over matters hardly in their area of expertise (say, MTV’s many interviews with Madonna). The artist, in addition to her skills in music and stage art, is presumed to automatically have a world class personality, a serious message to deliver, and the intellectual muscle to make a valid contribution. In just about any arena of social debate, no less. Essentially, we have long ago built a kind of religious component around art and those who make it.

This sort of thought is directly reflected in the way we valuate art. The personality of the artiste, his personal history or neurosis, any hardship he may have gone through in a previous life, all that is used to assess the worth of his contribution. In particular, many people expect compatible social background of the musicians they are willing to pay attention to, and consider musicianship mastery earned through hardship. What is conspicuous here is the wealth of extramusical attributes people are willing to judge music by. This is of course not so different from the way things work in the visual arts, especially that of the more abstract variety. But as far as I can see, it also has very little bearing on the value, or quality, of music itself.

To me this is a telltale sign of the difficulties we encounter if we try to valuate music on its own. It probably can’t be done, at least with music in general, so the kind of aesthetic we have instead just reeks of artificiality, irrationality and elitism. We turn to status, fame, educational background, and other extramusical factlets about an artist to try and establish a pecking order without ever stopping to think whether such an order, at least in its current form, is necessary in the first place.

This tendency is deeply ingrained in the current aesthetic of music. The earliest signs of it can be seen in the extraordinary reverence for the manipulative capability of a classical virtuoso, and the view common among professional classical musicians that music is an age‐old craft which is to be carefully preserved. The mystical quality of good music is elevated to a level on par with the written heritage of society, and has to be both conserved in writing and cherished as a part of our cultural legacy.

This sort of view fits extraordinarily poorly with the kind of spontaneous creation most self‐taught musicians engage in. It also flies directly in the face of a view of music as something common to all, and unownable. This sort of aesthetic excludes from the arena of respectable all musical expression which does not have an identifiable message, a face to identify with, obvious stylistic roots, mechanically skilled (real) musicians performing it or the backing of the established musical elite. These attributes accurately describe most dance music and electronica. This is a shame because these are vibrant pieces of Western culture, and it’s very hard to point out any basic shortcomings in the music itself.

My view is that most of the structures and behavioral patterns described above constitute a severe hindrance to a proper appreciation of the variety of music in existence. I view music as something that should be enjoyed as‐is, without bringing extramusical concerns into it. If this leads to an atmosphere in which no consistent aesthetic can be brought into existence, then so be it. As music in my mind is very much a piece of the living culture, not of the dead, written, mummified one, the price we end up paying when artificial valuations cause some of the existing musical variety to be suppressed as bad is far too high. Music is a feature more of social interaction and mutual coexistence than of heritage, science, history or knowledge, and so its practice is far more important than having workable abstract metrics to aid in its analysis and organization.

Appreciating music as it’s created, is also good enough quite without instituting rules and conventions to artificially raise its perceived societal worth. Music does not have to have a message or the label of being good in order to be a useful and valuable part of the working society. When we recognize this, the subject vanishes from music, and it is permitted to stand on its own, as a cultural phenomenon separate from its makers. Dance musicians have already learned from this idea, as they commonly operate in a relatively anonymous fashion. They understand that an artist derives his/her fame from the work, and not the other way around. As far as I can see, this is the only way to stop art from converging with religion, and to guarantee that the music scene does not become dominated by strong personalities with little to give to the art itself.

Form vs. function

If we think about dance music, we see that it has little communicative value, and the visibility of the musician is low. Still it is quite popular, contrary to what the above discussion might suggest.

Most of this popularity comes from the fact that dance music is useful. In a word, it’s danceable; we might say electronica comes with a manual in the form of a compulsive rhythm. Even when absolutely perfect when you want people to be sucked to the dance floor, this is yet another example of a quality of music which usually isn’t given enough attention in the academic circles, or indeed the popular attention. Few people call useful music, like dance music, jingles, music composed for a movie soundtrack, or muzak good. We may appreciate a good rave, an evocative movie, the thrill one can get from a truly successful ad, or the particular mood one gets from walking in a department store, but mostly we do not pay attention to the precise part the music has in evoking the mood. And when we do, we are likely to dismiss the music itself as simply a tool, something which lacks artistic merit. In essence, the functional value of music, its suitability for a specific purpose, is rarely thought of as a significant artistic achievement, and so music primarily functional in nature is pushed to the bottom of the aesthetic pecking order.

When music is used for a purpose, its functional nature manifests in multiple ways. Mostly these are characterized by the fact that where there is a purpose, there are usually at most a few ways to optimally serve that purpose. This will usually lead to variations of a theme, and small families of repetitive features employed in combination. In dance music, we witness heavy repetition and a few basic rhythmic patterns on top of which the music is built: a four‐to‐the‐floor house beat, the more traditional steady divisible‐by‐three menuet pattern, broken polyrhythm danced to the lowest common denominator (samba, jungle, tribal and aboriginal) and beatless (ambient). The same evolutionary process which has lead to the development of language, and especially new words to express specific concepts, also drives the development of communicative idioms. A few examples of this development are:

  • instrumentation and overall timbral envelope characteristic of a musical genre
    • the invarying composition of the symphony orchestra
    • the 303 sound in techno/acid
    • the so called professional or pop sound
    • the club sound, with its heavy compression, and lack of middle frequencies
    • the use of strong, continuous bass noise in thrillers and science fiction movies
    • reverb/ambience used for an still, serene feeling
  • idioms characteristic of a style of music
    • the extremely stereotyped sound effects in both action and kung‐fu films
    • the sonata structure of classical music
    • specific chord progressions in baroque counterpoint
    • long, syncopated snare fills in goa, deep house and garage
    • breakdown in the end of many rock and jazz songs
  • easily recognized themes or their variations used as icons
    • certain trance/goa melodic patterns to get people in the mood
    • leitmotifs, like the Skywalker theme in Star Wars
    • the Jaws or Psycho string sound for impending gore
    • Stravinskian broken polyrhythm and irregular accentation for suspense in thrillers
    • the many widely copied themes in classical music, like the main theme of Šostakovich’s Leningrad symphony
    • the X‐files theme to imply a supernatural aspect to an event
  • referentialism in the form of pastiche, collage and sampling
    • common sounds used for their emotional appeal in musique concrete and ambient
    • hip‐hop’s sampling to create links to the message carried by a well‐known composition
    • juxtaposition for criticism in contemporary radio and television shows
    • DJs’ common trick of mixing in tracks wholly unconnected with the rest of the set for the comic appeal, like Madonna’s Like a Virgin on top of a hardcore techno track

But while evocative, and clearly communicative, the above are often not given a whole lot of value in musical aesthetics, even if used to a shockingly perfect effect. What is valued is words/lyrics, beautiful melodies, easy and simple‐minded harmony.

This is a shame, though quite understandable. In my mind the most likely explanation is the way art and artists need to preserve their integrity, and the social status of the art. To skim the resources needed to maintain on artist from the surrounding society, one must first persuade others to appreciate the art. Historically this has been difficult, since art hasn’t been an essential aid to survival, and those with the resources to spare have mostly sought to distinguish themselves from the surrounding society by patronizing the arts, instead of contributing to popular culture. Elitism in art is nothing new. And when music is used to communicate something, the one paying the bill likely has a large influence on the kind of message sent. Using music to proopagandize naturally rids the artist of some of his independence and sense of honesty. It is then no wonder that in order to protect the art, it has been necessary to create an aesthetic which elevates self‐expression above external agendas, formally educated artists above self‐taught ones, and depreciates commercial, useful music. This makes even the above communicative idioms too self‐evident, trivial or straight‐forward to be viewed as truly difficult to produce, and so do not serve well as examples of the difficulty of making music or the mastery of the artist.

We must never forget the long‐lasting ties between religion and music, either. In most human cultures, music was first a tool of religious worship, and only then a separate, trivialized art form. So, like ethics, older musical traditions tend to be self‐preserving, and optimized for a specific role in society. This preservation is likely where the elite of classical musicianship draws its longevity. Such self‐preserving musical tradition of course reacts violently to any use of the art beyond its original purpose, that likely being as part of a religious ceremony or experience. The important role religion has had as a maintainer of societal order and norms has lead to religious music suppressing other musical traditions, in essence monopolizing musical expression to get the evocative aspects of music to work for the maintenance of social order. This has lead to a sort of functional music, with a strict, seemingly rational justification, a highly conservative value system and general antipathies towards other forms of musical expression.

But current music also displays a strong cult of creativity, which places virtuosos, innovative composers, and balanced renewal of the sonic art above established musical forms. This is a recent development, and like has its roots in the appreciation of creativity and rationality evidenced in the thoughts of the ancient Greeks, Renaissance, Enlightenment and the Industrialization. In essence, it is borne out of reason infiltrating what has traditionally been a product of long‐term social evolution. This newer aesthetic borrows its justification and prestige from the older tradition, yet paradoxically leads to an aesthetic which discriminates against the functional. It fits with the scientific paradigm in that it is constructive in nature, requiring rational justification through a theory of music with near‐mathematical overtones.

The connection of classical music with the rise of science is easily seen in the shift from the practice of music to a strong preoccupation with notation, syntax and rules. This constructionism and rationalism reacts poorly to a functional or evolutionary view of music, as the latter produce families of musical forms highly optimized for particular social purposes, with few rationally justifiable features and a strong commonality of form. The constructivist aesthetic of music regards these as signs of arbitrariness, luck or lack of creativity, all signs of low aesthetic value. To assure oneself of the above, one need but remember Theodore Adorno’s theories about the trivialization of music, and its primary signature in how features in music become mutually replaceable, and innovation is stifled. This substitutability of parts is of course something strongly present in any art meant for a purpose, like architecture, functional music, graphic design and, indeed, ceremonial music.

I am a strong supporter of an evolutionary view of art, and one which gives functional values their place in aesthetics. This view, with its naïve, untainted roots, gives high stature to the diversity of musical traditions of the world. I think the very nature of all human knowledge is that it is a product of interaction and evolution instead of the creative mind of lone individuals, and so always has an implicit, functional background, some need social evolution has sought to fulfill. Art in particular is neither science nor organized religion, and so should be permitted to draw from the functional needs of the surrounding society. If then this is how music works at a basic level, we should appreciate and valuate music through its real background instead of trying to fit it into the mold of a scientific theory or religious dogma. Through this background, music which serves its purpose well is worthier by far than the idle ramblings of a single troubled intellectual so often seen as the epitome of Western institutionalized creativity.

Genres, roots and formats

While it is likely true that no likable sound can originate entirely in the head of one composer, and that all music does have its influences and roots, I cannot see why those roots would need to be clearly identifiable in a composition. In fact if they are, I would think the composer runs into the risk of being identified as bland, someone who can follow the established rules of a musical style but not transcend them.

The trouble is, popular music actually seems to put a whole lot of value on the format. Sometimes it is even difficult for someone who does not follow the particular brand of pop a song belongs to to tell the song from others in the genre. This is easy, of course, as it means that one only need to know the single format to form an attachment with a new composition. An understanding of the wider scheme of music, its awesome variety, is not required to appreciate tightly formatted music. Formats are also a conservative record company executive’s dream—the difference is in marketing and image, something far better understood than the slight nuances which make for a tasty, new sound.

Formats form the staple good of the pop music industry, then, and the music loving audience will be suffer intense exposure to the recipes. As such there would be nothing wrong with that, except for the fact that during the past couple of decades, conformity to a format has become an aesthetic criterion. As a result, non‐format music has become all but killed by the kind with stricter structural conformity. A huge number of people worldwide no longer seem to be able to appreciate music without a familiar structure, and fashionable, easily recognized influences. This is sadly also what roots have come to mean. This precise development is what once happened to Wienese and baroque classical, so it is actually nothing new, but it does mean that we once again have a reason to denigrate music which does not clearly fit an established mold.

The most tragic thing is when a single genre goes on to dominate the market, and gets to set the worldwide measuring stick against which the globalized entertainment market valuates new music. This leads to a winner‐take‐all market, where a sizable portion of the Western population of listeners concentrates on just a single star at a time. Instead of diversity we get the kind of succession of highly similar artists which has been the norm since the birth of MTV. There is good reason to believe that the MTV generation has adopted a highly uniform, and rather narrow preference for the kind of music which played during their adolescence. Consequently little room is left for diversity, local musical tradition, and innovation. In what ought to be a multicultural world, this is a real tragedy. Especially so because wider choice on the popular musical media would work for diversity, instead of against it, making music as a whole more enjoyable to people.

In this process off narrowing down of the acceptable, chart show hosts, music industry reporters, VJs and other aesthetic authorities of their ilk deserve a special mention. They are both part of the tendency to give music aesthetics a face, and the effort to make music commercially viable. As these people usually have strong industry ties, or alternatively responsibilities to superiors who do, they tend to propagate views which strengthen the hold over the industry which major labels uncontestably have. They are the first to put down independent sonic adventures, and to teach the general public the rights and wrongs of music business. They have an easy ride doing this too, since people have been brought up to believe that some sort of uniform aesthetic of music does indeed exist. Coming from a popular authority, an affirmation of the artistic value in the prevailing record company hype lends added prestige to what would otherwise be just an ads campaign. We’re left with an aesthetic jury‐rigged for format pop, image above substance, conformity and conservation of the establishment.

The above represents a grave challenge to independent musicians, fans of fringe musical genres and those who wish to participate in the social life surrounding some chosen musical subculture. The makers and fans of electronica and old school ravers serve as a good example with the negative publicity they’ve had to put up with over the past fifteen years or so.

The makers of electronica are faced with a severe devaluation of their musical contribution, underrepresentation on major record labels, discrimination in leasing concert venues, and a media wholly unreceptive to their art. Their sound is often classified as cold, unemotional, or downright devoid of any artistic value, solely because of the lack of evocative lyrics and gorgeous band frontmen. It’s still not at all uncommon to hear comments like: that’s not even music, or they can’t be real musicians ’cause they can’t even play real instruments. The above comments betray the tendency of people to define and valuate music starting from commonly held extra‐musical starting points, and the MTV aesthetic, where all music has to have the Format, and all Good music is surrounded by the Show. And all Real Musicians naturally play Real Instruments, something totally unlike just pushing a button, something that anyone can do. Then when the whole point has already been missed, the last resort explanation for a musical phenomenon is faltering mental health: if you listen to that, you most certainly have to be on drugs, techno is music for the demented.

As for the dancers, they’re much too easily dismissed as just kids having fun, or even just kids getting high with few references to the music itself. The role of dance music as something around which whole cultures are built, or as something that in fact challenges the listener to do something besides sitting in a chair, listening, is largely dismissed as nonsense.

Then, after the musicians have been labelled a bad influence, the music is in more country than one being touted as a dire menace, and listeners/dancers are viewed as youth gone astray, in urgent need of industrial strength parental guidance, it is a regular miracle that electronica has survived as long as it has.

The above could of course be said about jazz, rock and punk as well. They’ve all had their difficulties, once. But today’s highly commercialized, and globalized, musical culture does represent entirely new kinds of challenges to the independent musician. My sincere hope is that the established model of mass produced pop, stars forged in publicity wars, teen icons as the face of big bucks music business, and the culture of strict adherence to weekly rotating playlists will eventually give way to a view of music which leaves room for the diversity of musical genres out there.

Social music

I’ve already hinted at the social value of music. Fan cults, subcultures united by a common musical preference and the emergence of bands and orchestras as the primary unit of musical creation are but a few examples which attest to this underlying communality of music. Music is a strong binding force between people, and judging from what we know of the early man, has been as long as music as an organized activity has existed.

It is also clear that the forms of communal musical activity have changed over the times. Music has changed from being a part of religious worship to primarily being a popular entertainment, only to take its place as an academic discipline and, more recently, a full blown, profitable industry. Contemporaneous culture largely defines how the communal dimension of music is permitted to manifest. Consequently today’s musical culture is largely structured by the rules of the music industry. This is not bad in itself, of course, but I think the current practices of the record industry tend to overly limit and channel the kinds of social functions music is permitted to have.

The role music has in the socialisation and individuation of the young serves as a particularly salient example. Along with television, pop music and its culture around are the most important influences on Western adolescents’ opinions outside school and family. Sometimes they are the most important influence, overall. The commercialism of popular music then forms a big part of the education of people into becoming dutiful consumers. This is most strongly seen in the formation of fan cults around boy bands, the capital poured on pop merchandise by young people and the cultural influence of pop lyrics. While gaining friends through common musical endeavors or tastes is certainly a positive thing, I’m not quite as sure about overt fandom, attendance in pop concerts, or huge collections of band paraphernalia. To me these latter seem an awful lot like adapting healthy social expression to suit the needs of the hierarchical music industry.

To me, fan cults are a particularly deceptive thing. It seems that fans commonly elevate the respective star to the position of a role model, a status one should hardly be able to earn through mere musical proficiency, let alone the publicity campaigns commonly used to put an artist into the limelight. This is clearly an instance of people grouping around a perceived leader, when in fact the leader is usually just another artist. The industry is well aware of this, but nary cares—stars make for a healthy cashflow, after all. I do not believe entertainers should be put on a pedestal just because they are popular, and so I tend to view the music industry publicity engine as a Bad Thing. There is nothing wrong with liking an artist’s work, or indeed the artist himself, but once fandom gets on the level of religious worship, it is no longer desirable. If music is to properly fulfill its social function, it should do so in an environment of equality between peers, not of a hierarchical power structure where the big time artist is at the top, with the audience mere sheeple at the feet of the benign giant.

Playing in a band, like attending sports, is a good thing. But it too is something which can go awry when players lose their sense of reality and start to think of musicianship as a prospective career. Like movie and sports stars, or fashion models, pop musicians form a sexy profession, a career opportunity few people would pass had they the choice. But at the same time, all of the attractive jobs usually have their downside, the worst of them being few ever make it. Everybody knows a sane musician never leaves his dayjob, except perhaps after making his first million; winner‐take‐all, with winners being the few. Music business ties into all this because music as a hobby, a pleasurable social activity, does not encourage people to abandon their careers or education. Big business, with its big bucks, does.

Overall, fitting musical expression into the hierarchical confines of the music industry far too easily rids music of its healthy social role, and instead makes the musician and his audience into producer–consumer pair, and a hierarchical one at that. I see this as a negative thing, something which greatly narrows what I think of as positive uses of music.

The economy of scale

The valuation of popular music, by its commercial nature, is heavily influenced by economic concerns. Good becomes what is profitable and popular. This is an easy path to follow, since price constitutes a single, unified scale applicable to anything requiring social contact. The legacy of free market theory, in itself so characteristic of modern Western thought, is that monetary worth is by definition the correct measurement of the need of any exchangeable commodity. This naturally pushes electronic music out of the popular arena. As a pastime of few, electronica does not have the height of profile it needs to thrive in a competitive market place.

On the one hand, electronica severs many of the connections with the more established forms of sonic entertainment and so makes it difficult for the masses to connect with it. On the other it lacks many of the extramusical or performance aspects of conventional pop, thus wiping out the possibility of a widespread following so essential to the most highly commercialized forms of popular music. Without lead singers and fanzines, the more extreme forms of electronica are all but faceless, which makes it next to impossible to build an industry of e.g. a single dance act.

Electronica has boiled down its expression to the minimum, the bare essence of music as directed, organized sound, and on its way rid itself of not only extra‐musical baggage but also a great deal of potential audience and income. The economy of scale so typical of popular culture simply isn’t there. If, and this is a big if, music is indeed bound to be appreciated purely on the basis of its current demand, the fringe phenomenon that is electronica is doomed to both aesthetic and commercial failure. But I also think that on a properly functioning market this would not need to come to pass.

While I’m a staunch advocate of individual freedom, and so don’t take kindly to government subvention or other interference with the development of the market, I tend to view the kind of musical monoculture brought on by chart shows, heavy promotion of individual artists, elitistic tendencies of music industry magazines and largely locked‐in distribution chains leading from major record companies to retail stores as a sort of market failure, the prime culprit of which is the intellectual property monopolies granted to the artists, or more likely, their respective record companies. Without IP, the centralization of media currently under way, and so harmful to the forms of art which are already marginal, would not materialize as a significant threat.

To make a long story short, the productization of music, mass distribution, and the inevitable near‐monoculture which results have made uncommercial music almost impossible to produce, and have lead to diminishing diversity on the musical arena. This is very bad, because even if fringe stuff doesn’t sell, it does feed back into the artistic process behind the creation of the more popular sorts of music. This is seen in how pop has taken many influences from the electronica and dance music scenes, over the past decade. Marginal art is needed to keep the popular kind alive.

While the structures of the recording industry fight a continuous, successful war against the image and popular appreciation of more marginal music, there is also a different kind of threat to electronica: market saturation. The industry also encourages it, and so saturates the market for music as a whole with considerably fewer artists than a lower profile cottage industry would. We get a market where the marginal is marginalized even further, and sheer economic pressures kill many promising projects. If this happened on a functioning market, all would be well. But on a monopolized one, like the market for music with its IP rights, centralized distribution chains, and big players, it is a sign of stagnation under monopolistic pressure.

My view is that, were the dominance of the music industry over music as a whole to subside, the resulting market would leave room for a considerably higher number of musicians than the current one, more variety, and people far more likely to have solid ideas about what making music for a living is all about. That sort of market would then promote the true, local context of music instead of using it to suck people into massive studios, stadium concerts or shows attracting hundreds of millions in home audience.

An alternative

So there is a lot to fix in our musical culture. Instead of just criticizing the prevailing attitudes and institutions, I thought it would be better to present an alternative picture of how music could be valued, and how the industry could work in a way I could say is better. That task is now at hand.

Music as sound organized for a purpose

‐per se, music is meaningless
‐well becoming the writer, music should be thought of as functional sound or
 sound with a purpose; signals without intrinsic meaning but rather residing
 in a flexible framework of genres, styles, aesthetics and groundrules
 spanning these all
‐we should aim at preserving the expressiveness/accuracy also of the language
 we use to speak about music/sound/whatever
 ‐hence the definition of music should be accommodated to uniquely identify
  what is music and what is not
 ‐the same goes for compositions
  ‐they are the logical units of measurement of musical creativity
  ‐such units are required so that music as a meaningful part of human culture
   can be preserved and built upon
‐hence a redefinition of music: those aspects of sound generated for people to
 be used as entertainment which the recipient cannot consistently and
 correctly decode as symbolic content knowingly embedded in the sound
 ‐kills the meaning in music
  ‐but not the musical elements of vocals
  ‐also works for non‐language meaning
  ‐progressively slides language of decreased intelligibility into the domain of
  ‐works for language used in non‐linguistic ways
 ‐makes the definition language‐independent
  ‐all listeners are forced to interpret without the benefit of language
 ‐kills natural/industrial sound
  ‐but not found sound used in music
 ‐kills purposely functional/communicative sound
  ‐but not functional music
 ‐kills sound not meant for human consumption
  ‐significant since music is an integral part of human culture, not of
   some culture of liveless/soulless matter
 ‐does not attach significant value judgements to the definition of music
  ‐especially does not expect anyone to listen to or to like the music
‐also a redefinition of a composition, a musical work: a unit of sound whose
 musical aspects can consistently and correctly be told apart from the musical
 part of any earlier composition by at least one independent observer, fixed
 into a tangible medium with accuracy high enough to verify the above
 ‐music is a flow/stream, compositions are fixed units
 ‐a minimum requirement of verifiable originality
 ‐requirement of tangibility
  ‐excludes partially specified works: different completions are different
  ‐one‐off musical performance does not constitute a composition if not fixed
   into a medium

The existence of bad music

‐clarification: this certainly does not imply an anything‐goes aesthetic
 ‐only generalization from one genre to all genres is forbidden
 ‐music clearly meant for some given genre should be appraised based on its
  merits within the genre
 ‐there are some genre‐independent criteria
  ‐we must separate sheer noise from music (how do we justify this???) to
   keep up some standard
  ‐purely extra‐musical criteria are bad (as they are for any form of art)
  ‐as an integral feature of human culture, music should be people‐to‐people
   ‐purely algorithmic music should be excluded from the aesthetic
  ‐music should be completely specified (how do we justify this???)
 ‐hence: the current preferred stance when dealing with pluralism is BAD‼
  ‐based on a purely subjective view of music
   ‐asserts: in the age of musical pluralism/secularism/all‐round tolerance,
    apart from people liking some given music there are no other quantitative
    or even qualitative measures of the goodness of music
   ‐hence everything goes
   ‐intellectual reasons do not apply: music is transcendent
 ‐instead we should see that there are some objective criteria to be upheld
  ‐these criteria should aim at deconstructing and obliterating some of the
   skewed views with regard to music
   ‐especially misconceptions and wrongful accusations should be defused
  ‐at the same time we should aim at preserving the functionality and
   expressiveness currently associated with the art
  ‐hence we should not welcome anarchy but rather construct an infrastructure
   on which the current uses of music still work but which dissolves at least
   some of the problems described above
 ‐a proposition
  ‐music which does not require any skill is bad (garage punk)
   ‐minimum skill is needed so that music as a concept is preserved separately
    from sound
   ‐from the current overestimation of manipulative resources it does not
    follow that they should be completely devalued
    ‐there is always music which requires precisely musicianship
    ‐there aren’t computers everywhere
    ‐not all music can be computerized
    ‐instrumental music serves as a non‐technology dependent resource of
     acquired musical knowledge/expertise/innovation
   ‐to preserve music as vehicle capable of all of instrumental,
    entertainment, communicative and commercial significance, only music made
    with a certain appreciation and understanding of the mechanics of musical
    culture should be admitted into the arena of good music
  ‐music which does not require invention/novelty is bad (europop)
   ‐sufficient complexity is needed so that entertainment does not turn boring
   ‐too much change at rapid pace is bad too
    ‐the concept of perceptual time: we have a sort of optimum pace of
     resolution for perception of any kind
    ‐learning is slow by hearing things
     ‐first pass is never sufficient for an average person so we need
      repetition and more time overall to discern anything at all from the
      mass of sound
    ‐the ultimate limit is the ability to discern separate events in sound
     ‐people are, from the evolutional point of view, optimized to detect
      events instead of flow
  ‐music which fulfills a function and also the first two conditions is good
   ‐the principle of tolerance: we must tolerate music which fulfils the basic
  ‐music with a sufficient following and fulfilling the first two conditions
   is good
   ‐the principle of tolerance
   ‐a slight concession to popular mechanics
  ‐music which can clearly be identified to lie within a genre but fails its
   requirements/objectives is bad
   ‐this is an objective criterion: if somebody wants to go by the book, he’s
    bound by the book
   ‐also takes care of genre preservation: the principle of tolerance applied
    to social functions of music
  ‐music which is only partially specified, leaving details out, is mostly
   ‐also a way to appraise skill: leaving too much out of a piece of music
    either leads to extramusical shit (like 4:13 or danger music) or to an
    anything‐goes attitude
   ‐also a way of preventing dilution of music/compositions and preserving a
    kind of attributability of what is left of intellectual property after
    this mutilation

To each art its own

I don’t think that music should be seen primarily as a form of communication or of high art. Instead, it seems better to treat it as a separate part of living culture the way we treat humour, fashion or the spoken language. Music is not a tool for some abstract, higher level goal, but an end in itself, separate from the other forms of culture around it.

In particular, music is a cultural artifact similar to language, but mostly nonoverlapping with it. Instead of seeing music as a way to deliver some message not expressible in written form we should acknowledge that music is not communicative per se. It can be combined with language, and we can to a degree make symbols and metaphors from music, but such uses are secondary to the primary function of music itself.

Musical culture, like language, is a fragmentary, regional thing. It is not some magic, universal constant which can be used to transcend cultural barriers, but rather a mixing of many flavors produced around the globe. Then, we should teach music as such instead of trying to propagate some specific ideal of what music should be like.

Music is primarily a social function, and it should be valuated in that context, if at all. This means that function and popularity are more important in telling good music from bad than formal rules, grammars or traditions.