In today’s fast moving world the path that the future will take can be very difficult to predict. Fads come and go faster than ever before and music is not immune to the fickle nature of modern life. Someone can be on top of the world one day and then be all but forgotten the next. (Remember Gotye? Anyone heard from him lately?) Likewise acts can be plucked up from obscurity and thrust into the limelight seemingly out of the blue… I bet Rick Astley’s bank account is looking nice and full after all those millions of rick rolls! But even in the disorderly world of pop culture there are patterns to be found. Perhaps the best way to make predictions is to look at how the industry itself is set to change and think about what effect it will have on music.
One change that we are already starting to see is increasing album length. Back in the days when vinyl was king there were few albums that stretched over 45 minutes, as that is how much you can comfortably fit on an LP. CDs and downloads eliminated the need for restraint when it came to running times, but even though the option of making long albums was available, there was simply no incentive to until the advent of streaming. With the current rules surrounding streaming, enough plays of an individual song counts as a sale of the album itself. Thanks to this silly loophole the more tracks your album has the more sales it is likely to generate. With streaming by far the most popular music format, and looking set to soon make CDs and downloads all but obsolete in a few years, music has changed to work with the changes. It’s now much rarer to find an album under an hour in length in this new world of streaming.
But what about the actual music on those albums? There are many ways to categorise music, probably too many, but for the most part we can sum up the current music climate into two groups.
The first group belongs to those acts dominating the charts. Overproduced, overly simplified, unambitious and constantly shoved down your throat. One glance at the charts will make you wonder why these songs are so popular. The simple answer is they are made to be popular, whether people actually like them or not. If you have an artist that has a track record of topping the charts then just about anything will sell and get airplay if it has their name on it, regardless of whether it’s actually any good. With the pop acts yet build up to that kind of status they can get the same end result by simply throwing enough money at the problem. With enough publicity, with advertising, viral campaigns, playlists on streaming services and radio airplay all working in their favour just about anyone can worm their way into the charts.
The second group consists of the talented acts that make the music their priority, not money. They write and play their own music instead of it being gifted to them. These are the bands that slave away on non-stop tours just trying to make ends meet and hopefully sharing their work with people as they go. If they’re lucky they might make it, get a decent record contract and sell a few albums. Sadly regardless of their effort, or their talent, the heady heights of superstardom are beyond their grasp. Granted there are a few immensely talented artists, Adele or Hozier for example, who make genuine authentic music and have managed to capture the public’s attention in a big way. These are the lucky few, as for the most part what is good and what is considered “popular” rarely seem to coincide.
This big divide is an instigator for change. In the same way that the worse things get in politics, the more people realise that things need to be shaken up. The more we get the vapid and emotionless noise thrust at us the more we long to find something real, some singer/songwriter with a beaten up old instrument and a personal and heartfelt message to share. Things will get worse before they get better, the divide between the manufactured stars and the home-grown artists will deepen, but that needs to happen to prompt a change.
But what comes next? That’s the tricky part! I believe diversity is key. Once the great divide becomes an unavoidable obstacle people will try to bridge the gap by trying to ensure the best of both worlds. The best way forward is to try and capture the accessible pop sheen and yet maintain artistic integrity by being impossible to pin down. Take for instance Jack Garratt; he plays drums, keyboards and guitar (often simultaneously) so there’s no denying his talent. His music dabbles in rock, folk and electronica, and all the while maintaining catchy chart friendly choruses. My go-to artist to represent my prediction for what the near future will sound like would be Grimes. Her music is nothing short of bizarre but there’s no denying that it wouldn’t sound amiss in the charts and yet at the same time would provide something new and exciting for those tired of the norm. When the big change comes it will be brought about by these artists who can blur the lines between genres, mold the familiar into strange new forms and force you to expect the unexpected.