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pop-music-licensingMy friends at Food For The Beloved wrote a great post yesterday about Pop Music and the ambiguity surrounding that term.  They’ve invited me to weigh in on the conversation, so that’s what this post is about.  It’s probably best to read Lars’ original post before reading my thoughts below.

Ok, here we go…

In any discussion about Pop Music, I think it’s helpful to acknowledge and define the multiple uses of the term “Pop.”  It seems that there are three:

The first definition: “Pop” as it refers to the sound/style of certain music.  In this sense the term describes a genre – the section of the record store where one would go to find particular albums.  These “Pop” albums, currently, would sound like something close to U2 or Phil Collins.  However, “Pop” as a genre description has been and continues to be used quite broadly, at times referring to artists who have VERY different styles and genres.  Wikipedia describes the “Pop” sound as “a lighter alternative to Rock and Roll… features a noticeable rhythmic element, melodies and hooks, a mainstream style and a conventional structure.”

The previous Wikipedia quote touches briefly on the 2nd definition: “Pop” as it refers to a level of commercial success.  This usage is best understood as the shortened form of the word “popular,” and it’s almost perfectly synonymous with the term “mainstream.”   Pop in this sense is a very unhelpful term, in my estimation, because popularity hinges on so many factors outside of actual music.  Era, promotion, politics, reputation, appearance… there are plenty of ways to achieve massive popular success without having a Pop genre/style, not to mention the quality of the music.  Furthermore, the whims and trends of culture will shift at least two times each decade, only adding to the difficulty of labeling music according to it’s popularity.  These often abrupt shifts in pop culture also make predicting the next “Pop” trend nearly impossible.

The third definition expands on the idea that music’s popularity is predictable: “Pop” as it refers to the commercial intent of music.  For this definition I prefer to use the term “calculated music.”  Calculated music is a business model, a market play, an investment.  Calculated music attempts to use the flow of culture’s “hip factor” to determine what genre/style of music will be the next big thing, and jump on that bandwagon in time to turn a large profit.  Calculated music will reflect any given genre/style, but by definition the calculated music will only be found in a genre/style that has potential for mainstream success (i.e., NOT jazz or classical or avant-garde… but often Pop).

As I said initially, a conversation about Pop Music will inevitably weave it’s way through these three uses of the term “Pop,” so it’s good to get them on the table at the outset.  Now that we have that taken care of, I’ve got some general observations and responses regarding Lars’ post from yesterday.  For clarification’s sake, I’ll use “Pop” only according to my first definition, and I’ll use “mainstream” and “calculated music” in referring to the other 2 definitions…

Pop music is fine.  I like it.  Coldplay, John Mayer, Justin Timberlake, etc… a lot of Pop music is super cool.  In fact, I have no principled objection to ANY style of music.  Every genre offers both quality and crappy art, so I just do my best to sort through it all.

– I have nothing against mainstream music.  Just because music is liked by tons of people doesn’t mean that the music lacks depth or artistic integrity.  However, in the same way, just because music reaches mass popularity doesn’t mean that it is automatically awesome.  My comment regarding all the various genres of music and the fact they all include both quality and crap – this applies to the mainstream as well.

Calculated music, although often succesful in the business sense, is annoying to me because it betrays the original existence and purpose of art.

Pop music contains many appealing and accessible qualities, and for this reason the majority of today’s mainstream music can be accurately placed in the Pop genre.  This accessibility in Pop also means that the music is often easy to understand and digest.  This is not a problem, but it does somewhat represent the lagging state of the current mainstream.  In past generations, a highly complex and less accessible style of music did not immediately eliminate the possibility of mainstream success, but unfortunately that is the case today.  Does this mean that today’s mainstream has dumbed down it’s comprehension and preference for music, or are many music fans just getting lazy?  Possibly both.

– Ironically, it seems calculated music rarely achieves the long-lasting mainstream success that it seeks.  This is most likely due to the fact that passionate music fans can sniff out calculated music, and it annoys them for the same reason it annoys me.  Your “every-day-Joe” (the guy who just listens to the radio on his work commute), will respond equally to music that is calculated and music that is truly expressive.  However, the genuine music fan will only REALLY respond to genuine music (i.e., artistically expressive music… whether that be Pop or Rock or Hiphop or whatever).  This means that an artistically sincere musician who successfully creates cool Pop music will attract both the genuine music fan and the every-day-Joe, while the calculated music will only ever be able to snag the every-day-Joe.

DISCLAIMER:  Please take all of my thoughts on this issue with a grain of salt, obviously.  I definitely don’t know for sure about any of this, these are just observations that seem to coincide with the music world that I’m regularly apart of.  I’d love to hear differing viewpoints on these issues.

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