Guest Post: DeVon Harris – “Race to the Middle”

by DeVon Harris

A recent study by the Spanish National Research Council clarifies what we’ve all noticed on our own: today’s popular music is sounding more and more alike, and on top of that, it’s getting louder. Artificial intelligence specialist Joan Serra told Reuters, “We found evidence of a progressive homogenization of the musical discourse. In particular, we obtained numerical indicators that the diversity of transitions between note combinations – roughly speaking chords plus melodies – has consistently diminished in the last 50 years.”

Why is that? It’s simple. Follow the money.

As margins and overall revenues hemorrhage and stores stock less music merchandise, there are jobs on the line. There’s less room for error and thus less room for risky investment (read: different-sounding content). Just like start-ups approaching investors, artists increasingly need to come to the table with more development or established fan bases. In VC parlance, this is de-risking the situation. The closer to the mean – what is currently playing on radio or selling well online/in stores – the less theoretical risk is at hand.

This kind of risk is actually good.

Besides the fact that decreased sales squeeze the total number of music releases (by major labels at least), the labels decrease their perceived risk by having the content sound as close as possible to what’s recently worked. This isn’t a new phenomenon but the questions surrounding the music business model add even more chaos and reinforce this behavior. If possible, they generally prefer to hire the same writers and producers that have made what you’re hearing now on the radio (In some instances they even put out essentially the same records. See Beyonce’s “Halo” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Already Gone,” etc.). The lack of risk tolerance trickles down so the people that feed the pipeline of content – writers, producers, and other creators – and are on the fringes of what’s mainstream tend to either be shaken out of the industry by a lack of demand for their product or pushed (explicitly or not) to create content, which is closer to the norm. I can’t tell you how many hip-hop studios I’ve been in that have transformed to making dance tracks – because that’s where there are opportunities to sell.

What’s important to consider, economically speaking, is that streaming services replicate an almost identical situation to piracy. From an artist/writer perspective, the payouts are essentially nil for all but the absolute biggest artists. If you enjoy ‘fringe’ music (which is essentially everything outside of mainstream pop, country, and rhythmic) know that the creators of it are usually fighting their own battles against their industry. Buy their CD. Download an album from legal sources. It’s not only a (potential) source of real revenue for your favorite artist, but is also a vote to the powers that be that there is demand, and income, from music that doesn’t sound like the middle.

DeVon Harris (aka Devo Springsteen) is a Grammy-winning producer, songwriter, entrepreneur, and regular SoundCtrl contributor. DeVon is also a former consultant and founder of interactive video company, Ochre. You can follow him on Twitter @springsteezy