In Search of Musicality: How Musical Is America?

Featured Image of Bustle In Your Hedgerow by Samantha Sweeney

Music in America has taken on various roles of significance throughout the history of our national culture, ones that vary in range from being merely aesthetic to those of larger social influence and implications to the population at large. Music has been used in tradition and celebration, to lead infantries in to battle, to tell tales of some of our most momentous historical events.

Music has been used to rally support and inspire hope among those enduring different types of extraordinary circumstances and to articulate or, provoke feeling across the broad spectrum of emotion in order to convey a particular personal insight or sentiment.

Since the industrial boom of our country during the mid-1700’s through the mid-1800’s, as well as in the subsequent continual progression of industrialism and consumerism that followed, music has taken on other forms in terms of its significance as well. As technology met media, a new journey began that has led to a modern world of progressive digital platforms and communications. With so many options available to the average citizen, courtesy of advances in media and communication technologies, it is worth examining how musical America is or isn’t in its present state.

Newspapers took off as a fixture in urban centers during periods of industrialization and the popularization of the printing press when generations of men previously limited to farm work migrated into major cities to work factory jobs. While the children of many laborers families went to school and received an education during their factory hours, daily factory work produced things previously unknown to the working class: disposable income, free time on nights and weekends, and leisure. Illiterate men began to learn how to read newspapers as a means by which to keep up with their kid’s educational advances as well as to stay informed of current events and public opinion.

As similar advances in technology met the mass production and distribution afforded by industrialization…

…Inventions such as the phonograph record player became popularized as a more commonplace item in households.

During that time, vinyl records became the primary format by which music was consumed…

This started in the early 1900’s. There stood at the forefront of the then-budding music industry three top companies that dealt in the production of musical storage mediums for consumption and the distribution of those units: Edison, Victor, and Columbia. They were the “big three’ record labels of that era, much like the modern era “big three” records labels of today (Universal Music Group, Sony BMG Music Entertainment, and Warner Music Group). The difference between the original big-three and the modern big-three labels, however, is that these original three companies also were responsible for manufacturing the physical storage devices by which the music was played as well as the devices that read and played the music. Modern labels primarily deal in promotion, distribution and financing. The combination of producing music and consumer devices by which to enjoy it is best personified in the modern era by companies like Apple.

Back to the phonograph, the device would prominently remain throughout much of the 20th century, up until the middle of the 1980’s.

But, getting back to those early days, with disposable income, leisure activities such as the opera, baseball games, the theater, Vaudeville and concerts became more economically affordable and accessible as pastimes.

Economic prosperity among the working class combined with an increase in factory scale production of pianos during industrialization in North America permitted many families of different class systems the once exclusive opportunity to afford pianos and piano instruction, as pianos then became a social fixture in people’s homes for entertaining guests and one another, as well as in schools, hotels, and meeting houses. In the 1920’s came the popularization of radio as commonplace in the household, which like piano, became a social fixture of the living room and, like the aforementioned sources of entertainment, offered storytelling programming both dramatic and comedic in many varieties, along with music and news.

What’s more, by relying on sound, unlike the newspaper, reading or literacy was non-requisite for ownership or use of the radio, as evident in early cases through its developmental use in World War I and World War II by the military.

In the 1950’s, television became the primary medium for media consumption and communications, further marginalizing the role of newspapers, a process that had been initiated by the advent of radio, as well as home-ownership and mobilization in motor vehicle installations. Processes that have continued until the present, where we find advances in digital media technologies have continued to redefine communications, especially in the context of consumerism. As with radio, mobility would be a major factor in the invention of portable consumer devices for decades to come, which is why the Sony Walkman (and later the Discman) was such a success.

…and leaving a tremendous legacy that impacted portable music technology for many years to come…

…Even if that may seem unusual to current generations, who have only known iPhones and streaming services as their sources of music.

Like the radio before it, television carried the least requisite for consumption, with the most accessible output in influencing consumption. While it gave way to musical formats such as:

Bandstand…

Soul Train…

And, music videos!

Eventually that consumption would shift to modern day digital streaming formats, such as YouTube and Netflix, just as radio would give way to contemporary streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora and SoundCloud.

Music, through industrialization, had become a household fixture, an ingrained cultural practice and social staple of multiple generations of Americans from the late 1700’s through the late 1900’s. The development of consumer electronics, electronic devices, and electronics in music instruments and gear in the second half of the 1900’s only served to increase the acceleration of music technology, accessibility and creativity…

…as well as repeated advancements in physical storage devices that store musical data…

…and, subsequent advances in the music players…

And, also, in the device technologies by which to accommodate the mass consumer market, just like in the early days (remember, remember…the phonograph).

Those advances resulted in the re-formatting of primary mediums for mass consumption as well as the re-issuing of many artists’ albums in new formats over a short span of the historical timeline (such as eight-track tapes, cassettes, and CD’s).

Then, as we approached the new millennium, at the turn of the century a boom in digital technologies would start a wave of technological advancement in music that would set a new course for the business surrounding it, from the top-down and from the ground-up; one that often presents many new questions with each answer it aims to provide… The wave of the Digital Revolution.

Like industrialization before it, advances in electronic and digital technologies have innovated new music mediums, genres, and formats; streamlined and expedited distribution and consumerism, and have developed products to accommodate optimal accessibility to the general public.

Unlike previously, when music was consumed via physical, analog formats, the digital era offers data programming…

…and the rise of the digital MP3 format…

And, offers “instruments” that do not require technical expertise but, instead (much like a video game) simple eye-hand coordination and the ability to weave together sounds in a musical way.

Methods of music consumption and even music production have become more optional and diverse, thanks to modern technologies via progressive computer programs, software, and online capabilities in file sharing, downloads, digital media and streaming platforms. As a result, the new music marketplace is now governed and dictated more directly by the consumer in a ‘buyers’ market’. Digital media and social media platforms have expedited and economized the accessibility of distribution, the marketing, and promotion of music, marginalizing the role of major labels and various opportunistic role players, narrowing the divide between the creators and the consumers and creating an economically level playing field that has resulted in a complete industry shift of corporate infrastructure to a more economic model. One in which the reformatting revenue money-pit “Wild West” days of the 1980’s and 1990’s have come to a close and in which independent labels and artists now compete head-to-head with top tier mainstream artists in the open digital arena. Digital production software has enabled entire generations to create music, without the requisites held by previous generations for musical capability or technical skill. Everyone can make music, but anyone can make music. In determining whether or not America is or isn’t musical in the context of the modern era, I believe it is vital to look at accessibility and en-ability. The same way that radio and television provided those with more limited technical skills or capabilities the means by which to enjoy the same consumption as everybody else, technology has now enabled the average citizen the ability to learn music at any age and to enjoy the same creative capabilities as everybody else, even if they do not possess a strong skill level in music theory or at playing an instrument. Hence, the level playing field of accessibility. Digital home production programs, such as Avid Pro Tools, Sibelius, Logic Pro X and Garageband provide the average citizen with creative musical opportunities on an unprecedented scale. Not to mention that, through online services, anyone can now register to digitally distribute their own music and protect their ownership rights, thanks to services like Soundexchange, Tunecore and CD Baby who provide digital distribution with platforms like iTunes and Spotify for a fee. They can then utilize social platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as well as streaming media platforms (i.e. YouTube or Vimeo) to promote their music and gain exposure. If they wish to take the next step, they can use the date, metrics and analytics of those platforms as well as those of Google and SoundCloud to identify their core demographics to market to them more directly. And all these programs and services are both user- and budget-friendly.

The important thing to understand about music is that it begins with the creative content creator and their instrument or ability, yet it extends to the full spectrum of the business and industry surrounding it. I believe that to truly love music is to love every facet of how it is made, consumed and enjoyed, and the business that surrounds and encompasses it.

Before anyone might take offense to these means of entering into or engaging music, it is important to remember that these capabilities only extend so far before pointing an individual directly towards the technical core learning and structure of music itself, if they wish to continue in it. I recently spoke to a successful Grammy winning producer who spoke of a session he did with a young band who, when prompted to play their song all the way through, were unable to do so on account of having recorded the song parts in fragments, using digital production software which then was used to weave them together. If technical ability and composite understanding of music is your basis, then one might infer that the musicality of America has diminished and dissolved. In all reality, however, as history has proven, technology has instead increased the ability of Americans to be musical by facilitating and enabling their accessibility at every skill level, marginalizing how often people would walk away from or give up on an instrument due to lack of interest, motivation, or to more appealing options that allow them to remain constantly engaged in progression. While this by no means replaces the power of learning musical structure via piano lessons as a child, that musical progression is now streamlined and expedited to be made more readily accessible to anyone in America in its most simple form, allowing for a progression which always leads back to the structural technicalities and compositions that comprise music. Technology has allowed for the musicality of America to reach an unprecedented, all-time high that will hopefully lead us back to a level of national engagement that will allow for the pianos in the living rooms in homes around the country to come alive once more, instead of serving as merely another piece of furniture.

It is a great time for musicality in America, as it is more widespread than ever in terms of overall demographic reach and accessibility, affording the opportunity of musical experience to the inexperienced and motivation to those once un-motivated to learn.

In a new era of techno-musicality and techno-musicology, all that remains is for a bridge to be built between those amidst new generations with a hunger to dig deeper and to learn and, those in previous generations with the knowledge to teach them, that music may continue to grow as one of our nation’s greatest exports to the world at large. Artists like Asher Laub are paving the way creatively in our techno-musicology age!

What do you think? Has musicality diminished in America? Tell us in the comments below!

1 Comment

  1. Devon O'Connor

    July 29, 2015 at 12:33 pm

    I absolutely love this article! Such a refreshing take on the modern role of music in America : )

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