I heard a report on NPR this morning about the new indie flick "Monde de Vino" (or something like that). It echoes the types of things I've been thinking/writing about, but its focus is on the wine industry and the role globalization plays in the business. Which I think is pretty similar to the music industry, although I've never really thought of globalization as the culprit. But they both revolve around the same principle: creating a product with the broadest appeal.
In the movie traditional boutique wine makers lament the current state of the wine industry, much like indie rockers do at Spaceland here in LA. Seriously, these old French vinters sounded exactly like kids running around the scene out here. They were pissed off about the power of wine critics, especially one American guy. I don't remember his name. I guess in the movie they play him off like the bad guy (like that one McDonald's rep in Super Size Me). This American critic has gained a lot of power and consequently winemakers are pressured into catering to his tastes - otherwise their sales will suffer.
Someone in the report made a great statement, that no matter what, Velveeta still sells way more cheese than any carefully crafted small batch Italian cheesery. It's just the way things work. If you want to market a product to the masses, you're going to have to eliminate a lot of the nuances that give a product a unique identity and complexity, because the average consumer simply does not have enough time to devote to developing the knowledge to fully appreciate said nuances. In the case of wine, the average consumer wants a taste that is immediate and familiar. They are people who don't drink a lot of wine, and if a bottle does not immediately appeal to them then forget it. They have no interest in developing a taste for wine, they just want something to complement a meal (or to get wasted).
Music is the same. There are countless songs that I absolutely love, but that I didn't even like the first time I listened to them. Songs like these are never singles, they're always the 10th or 11th track on an album and sometimes it takes months for me to finally 'get' them. But when I do, the payoff is supreme. But time is the critical factor, and musical knowledge is ancillary to time. Most people don't have the resources or patience that I do when it comes to music; for them the single will have to do. Something immediate and familiar. The vast majority of people are like this.
The big question here is, is this wrong? That is to say, is the dumbing down of wine and music - Art - intrinsically bad? Obviously not, in my humble opinion. Since art is subjective, it's impossible to denigrate mass produced pop songs in any objective way. Look at the Ramones. What a shitty band. Seriously. When they first arrived on the scene they were just not good musicians. And their music was incredibly simplistic. But they stood for an attitude, a style, and they're in the rock pantheon because of it. There is nothing wrong with this.
Yes, pathetic pop music is different from the Ramones, but it's still music. You can't deny the talent of the songwriters who create these MTV countdown tunes. You can't deny the talent (or sex appeal) of the vocalists. Pop music is, in all respects, art. It has every right to exist, even if it purposely appeals to the lowest common denominator.
In fact, I blame the indie scenesters and the old French vinters for being far too bitter and elitist. (Yes, I'm calling myself out on this one). We carry around such an air of superiority that we alienate the masses, the possible converts and potential fans. We eschew corporate marketing tactics and mainstream media because using those avenues would be selling out. But they are incredibly effective methods of promoting music - we musicians dislike them simply because corporate America thought of them first and we hate everything corporate America stands for. But that's our own fault.
Underground music has its own culture, but that culture perpetuates itself: indie musicians only promote their music in indie magazines, on indie websites, at indie shows and venues. Essentially, anyone outside the indie community has to come to us to hear about our music. This is wrong. An true artist should not care about his/her audience, only the art should matter, right? I shouldn't care about who listens to my music; if some kid's grandpa in Kansas can somehow relate to one of my songs, how is that any different or less meaningful than if a skinny guy with tight-ass pants and a swooping haircut likes one of my songs? If anything I think it would mean more.