For my final reading assignment in this course, I decided to read the first chapter of our text entitled "Mass Technology and Popular Taste: The Tin Pan Alley Era." Now some cynics (such as my wife) would conclude that I chose this chapter because it is the shortest in the book and, for a slow reader as myself, makes it a bit more economical. There is a more devious motive for my choice and that it that I am interested in the way the new technologies influenced the path of music...or at least tried.
First, let me say that I am not sure why this thought kept coming into my head when I was reading this chapter but I will run with it anyways.
It has been said many times through history that "the only thing that stays the same is that everything changes." I would like to contest this logic by saying that "despite that everything changes, it all stays the same." Perhaps I am showing my pessimistic side with this thought, but let's look at our music industry as a case study. We go back to Tin Pan Alley and they are big businesses attempting to sell sheet music, which means that they, in a way, determined who would be famous and who would not as a song writer by whom they chose to publish. "It was the publishers who turned the creations of songwriters and lyricists into commercial properties."
This can be seen as we move into the era of records and radio (although, Tin Pan Alley did themselves in by not embracing the means of recording their hits when they had the chance, which hurt them drastically in the long run). This can be seen to further extent when see records and radio converging. Not only were the record companies controlling who had the ability to be recorded, but the DJs were making decisions on who heard those recordings over the air. This led to the whole idea of Payola (or pay for play) that got a bunch of people in trouble at one point.
What point am I trying to make. It is the business men who have made the determination of what "good music" is or at least decided regardless of the music, that they could promote an image. It is not the public at large who has make people or decided who would be the next biggest thing...that is perhaps until American Idol came on the scene, and even then, while the public decides, they are greatly limited in their choices by three people who think they are the end all be all of music. Where does that leave someone who thinks they have the stuff to go all the way in the music scene? Maybe what has finally changed is that ones only recourse is not hitting the rode playing a bunch of sleazy backroom bar gigs hoping that they are accidentally found by some grand record producer. Thinking about technology and how it has influenced music, I think that the internet at the end of the day may end up having the greatest influence of all. Not in the fact that celebrities can promote themselves as we discussed earlier, but in the fact that now we have a medium where a person can make themselves into celebrity by getting the public at large interested in what they are doing. As much as I hate to say it, look at someone like Justin Bieber. Using technology perhaps against the record labels and their management to force them into taking a look into what he has to offer to the musical world. Like I say, I don't know personally that it will be much if anything that he offers, but it is refreshing to see that technology can affect the outcome of ones musical career and not a bunch of "suites" as perhaps in the past.
So, having said all that, where do I want to go from here? I think the biggest reason that I read this chapter was because of the inception of radio round about 1920. The idea that we can market something to a broad range of people is appealing to me. I don't find it odd necessarily, but interesting that radio had this internal struggle between "classical" music or "high culture" and "popular" music. It seems to me a no brainer that at the end of the day, regulations and all, that it would head down a more populist avenue. Unless your goal is to force a specific music on the public (say classical in this case) for the purpose of spreading culture, the medium is bound to be headed for a populist view point. I mean, this is a great deal of what made jazz come as close as it did to becoming a popular music...not an easy feet considering that origins that it held.
Did they envision back then that radio would become what it is today? How about records or just recorded music in general? Could they see the vast influence that both of these mediums would have not only on music and determining what the latest greatest music was, but on news broadcasting, the outcomes of elections? Did they for see that other technologies might actually take the power of "creating" an artist out of their hands? Perhaps more important, with the large conglomerates having so much control, how was a newcomer supposed to break into the scene?
I guess another, and perhaps more disturbing, topic is that of sheet music. As the technologies of the day developed, the need for sheet music and the ability for people to read music in general diminished exponentially. It moved music from being a popular art form that was PRODUCED in the home, to something that was merely listened to in the home. In fact, many of the musicians today in the popular world can't read a note of music. Now I realize that popular rock and roll is devised from the aural traditions of African music, and I would never suggest that we would want to forget the roots. But, it seems to me that, with the populist bent, music gradually began to dumb itself down, and I think that may be in large part due to the radio and the record album. I mean, Jazz is an aural tradition, and look at the complexity that exists there, but its heyday ended at the end of the Big Band era as a "popular" music style...and at that time the Big Bands were reading a lot of their stuff. The popular music of today are 4...maybe 5 chords and some words which is a far cry from someone like say Gershwin, and an even further cry from say Brahms who was not all that much before Gershwin.
I guess the point I am trying to get at is that with every advance that we have in technology, there is a shortcoming that seems to follow. We record music, and suddenly we do not need to play it and, as a result, in my opinion, we do not know how to be good musicians and interpret music. Let me hang on this thought for just a moment. It is not that perhaps we don't know how to interpret this music, but we have changed from ACTIVE listeners of music to passive listeners of music. The fact that I have students who say they only time they listen to music is in the background because they don't want to have to "think" about it is rather appalling to me. Music is one of the most primitive connections we have to our brains. It can move us, inspire us, etc. and we have chosen to turn it into something that is just "there" because we don't want to have to think about it, or worse, allow ourselves to be vulnerable to it. Continuing on...we get computers and it seems that people lose the ability to write things out by hand or do math with anything but a calculator. We lose the ability to work "manually" for lack of a better term. How many people have had the internet go down at work and all of a sudden everything stops...or worse, it goes down and the entire lesson you were going to teach for that day is lost because you didn't have access to your materials any longer. On the flip side, the internet now allows us to see the Justin Biebers of the world and catapult them to stardom.
There are some questions to ask in the development of popular music styles however. What happens to popular music if we don't have the radio or the sound recording? Do we continue with the Tim Pan Alley style popular hits that we are used to hearing from the day? Does rock and roll ever develop? Or if it does, does it develop the popularity that it has now? Does parlor music continue to be the form of entertainment in the home or does something else come along to replace it? What about music and the movies?
I feel like this reading has simply inspired me to get on my proverbial soap box once again, so...for the final time I will descend from my pulpit and try to think about what this means to me in education. It means that music is now disseminated quickly. It means that the way we look at the world changes instantly. It means the landscape of our nations ultimately changes with media as the focal point. It means that "the only thing that stays the same is that everything changes."