Gallery B

Noise Without Soul
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Why We Don’t Like Contemporary Pop Music

By James Donahue

I remember seeing an early Moog Synthesizer when I was working as a music writer for the Kalamazoo Gazette in the 1970s. The music department at Western Michigan University purchased the device and the professors were anxious to have it publicized.

It was a monster of a machine that nearly filled the small room we were standing in. They showed me how it produced all kinds of sounds ranging from a guitar to a piano and the human voice. But there was a strange difference. The sound was so pure it sounded foreign to the ear.

Wall Street advertisers quickly discovered that sounds from a synthesizer drew the attention of television viewers so we began hearing those odd sounds during television advertising breaks. And musicians struggled to learn ways to utilize this new kind of sound in contemporary music genres.

The first symphony I attended at the university, featuring new music utilizing the Moog Synthesizer, sounded so strange I had a hard time liking it, and an even harder time writing an honest review.

About that time electric music was moving into the guitars, pianos and other old-time instruments. I remember attending a wedding of a relative and we were confronted by a band using electric instruments. I could not enjoy the music produced by that band because they had the sound turned up so loud it hurt our ear drums. I stuffed tissue in my ears but it didn’t help.

I found myself losing interest in the new pop music. I found it loud and dull. I preferred the older artists singing and playing the older songs that I knew. I don’t think I have purchased many new recordings since.

I have been a fan of the blues, Dixieland, the older country and pop vocalists like Neal Diamond, Willie Nelson and Emmy Lou Harris for years. Some of the early rock groups like The Beatles, and even The Grateful Dead catch my ear when I hear their recordings.

I have known something was wrong with the music industry now for many years, and I thought it might have had something to do with the electronic instruments. After all, nothings sounds like that big stand-up bass setting the beat in a great Dixieland song, or jazz performers like Dave Brubeck.

Apparently other music lovers have shared my frustration. Author Joan Serra of the Spanish National Research Council recently published a report in Nature Scientific Reports after doing an extensive study of nearly half-a-million songs recorded from 1955 to 2010. She wrote: "We have been able to show how the global loudness level of music records has consistently increased over the years" and the diversity of chords and melodies has "consistently diminished."

The study included a wide variety of music including rock, pop, hip hop, metal and electronic.

In short, Serra is telling us, all the new music sucks.

Or does it?

Because of my love for music and because of my years of newspaper writing, I still have friends working in the music industry. And they are telling me a different story. They say there is good music being produced, and even played on stage by many top notch bands around the world. But the way the pop music industry works is prohibiting the creative spirit among composers and musicians.

What is happening is that when a new band gets discovered it is because it produces a first album of music that attracts the corporate promoters. The band is contacted by an agent who entices the band to sign a contract agreement. Once this happens the band is caught up in a program of grueling concert tours to promote the recording, and pushed into making additional recordings. This forces the composition of new songs that are mass produced, lacking the inspiration that went into the original songs. This music lacks the soul of the composers and the bands.

The other problem is that the corporations are paying for the tours, the production and distribution of the music, but are not paying the composers and musicians their fair share. Most of the money is going to the promoters and corporate officers

Like all of the other things wrong in America today, corporate greed is virtually wrecking the music industry.