Friday, October 23, 2015

The days the music died: Premature pronouncements of the death of music

"The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated," music could say. 

Today on Music Weird, we'll survey some premature pronouncements of the death of music.

Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring Is Destroying Music

At the first performance of Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring in 1913, the audience nearly rioted. Carl Van Vechten said that part of the audience considered the performance a "blasphemous attempt to destroy music as an art" and became "swept away with wrath."  Nevertheless, the ballet went on to become famous and was subsequently performed without incident. 

Motion Pictures Are Killing Music

The 1924 hearings of the U.S House of Representatives' Committee on Patents included some remarks on the role of motion pictures in killing music. A transcript of the hearings noted that "there was a great deal said about how radio as well as this terrible thing, the moving pictures, is killing the music business." The belief was that if you broadcast a song a few times—via radio or film—then it's dead to the copyright owner.

Radio Is Killing Music

In 1933, ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, issued a pamphlet that was titled The Murder of Music. What was murdering music in 1933? Radio.

Sheet music publishers and record labels were certain that the rise of radio could destroy their industry. After all, who would pay for a record or for sheet music if you could hear the music for free on the radio? In later years, labels would come to realize that radio could play an important role in promoting records and recording artists, but in the 1930s, radio was killing music.

Television Is Killing Music

In 1949, ASCAP's Television Committee dived into music rights issues related to television.The rights organization was concerned about whether or not its members were being fairly compensated for music when it was used on the growing medium of television. ASCAP's concern was that "TV would kill of other sources of income [for musicians], and therefore TV would have to pay for this," as Billboard reported on March 19, 1949. 

Hillbilly Interpretations of Rock 'n' Roll Songs Are Killing Music

In 1956, the Maddox Bros. & Rose—possibly the greatest country music combo of all time—recorded a crazed hillbilly version of Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman" and titled it "The Death of Rock and Roll."

Premature Deaths of Musicians Are Killing Music

Don McLean's song "American Pie" links the death of music to the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. 


Elvis Joining the Army and Chuck Berry Going to Prison Are Killing Music

A common narrative in rock criticism is that music died when Elvis joined the Army and Chuck Berry went to prison on statutory rape charges. According to this story, music wasn't revived until the Beatles came along.

An example of this oft-repeated story appeared in the LA Times in 2014, in an article that claimed that within "a few years' time" of the advent of rock 'n' roll, "the industry tamed rock 'n' roll. Elvis went to the Army. Chuck Berry went to prison. Bobby Vinton went to No. 1."

The article goes on to say that not a single #1 hit in 1963 contained an electric guitar solo, even though the first #1 hit of 1963, the Tornadoes' "Telstar," is a guitar instrumental.

Teenagers and Lack of Copyright Protection for Record Labels Are Killing Music

In 1965, Capitol Records president Alan Livingston testified for a House subcommittee when a copyright revision bill was introduced. He argued that the lack of fair compensation for record labels under the current law forced labels to give the public what it would buy rather than what it wants to hear but not necessarily buy. It was a strange argument that seemed to be rooted in a disdain for the teenage consumer. Livingston told the House subcommittee:
[Capitol Records is forced to] concentrate mostly on meeting that mass buying public of teenagers, who are buying the Beatles, who happen to be on Capitol Records, who are buying the Beach Boys, who are buying what the current hot artist is today. Next week it is another hot artist, and we move so fast and so furiously that really what the public wants to hear and use, and what is being used out of our catalog, goes forgotten, and I don't really know how long record companies, such as Capitol, Victor and Columbia can stay in business.

Disco Is Killing Music

Nelson George, in his book The Death of Rhythm and Blues, said that "on playlists nationwide white dance records in the disco style replaced songs by black artists." 

The disco backlash, which was exemplified by "disco sucks" t-shirts and the infamous Disco Demolition Night promotion in 1979, is often conflated with the rise of punk rock. Music in American Life: An Encyclopedia of the Songs, Styles, Stars, and Stories that Shaped Our Culture says that "punk rock helped to finish off disco's excess," even though the two styles of music reached and served different audiences. 

Rap and Hip-Hop Are Killing Music

Many music fans and commentators, including Bill O'Reilly, have accused rap of "destroying" music. Some, including Ray Charles, have even said that rap isn't music at all.

Sampling Is Killing Music

Sampling has helped to kill music, critics say, because the "music" "creators" who use it can't play their own instruments or create original works—they only rip off and appropriate the work of others. The debate, as The SAGE Handbook of Media Studies summarizes, involves "the concepts and legal definitions of musical creativity and originality, intellectual property, and copyright" and "the moral responsibility of music producers in the exchange, appropriation, or 'rip off' of sounds."

Video Killed the Radio Star

Countless articles have decried MTV's role in killing music in the '80s and beyond, and the Buggles' 1979 hit "Video Killed the Radio Star"—the first video ever aired on MTV—has come to symbolize the effect of MTV on music as a whole. 

A common argument against MTV was that the visual medium of video shifted the focus away from song craft and musical performance and toward visual spectacle. According to this interpretation, the quality of the music—or lack thereof—had become irrelevant as long as the song had a cool video.

In Jon Goodman's book, The King of Novelty: Dickie Goodman, he says that "video did kill the radio star and no one will know until they read this book." Well, now we know. 

Home Taping Is Killing Music

Remember this slogan from the 1980s? The music industry was so bent out of shape about blank cassettes potentially destroying the sale of prerecorded music that there was even talk of imposing a preemptive royalty—to be paid to record labels—on the sale of blank tapes.

Overpaying Artists Is Killing Music

In 1997, the vice president of BMG China, Landow Lee, attributed the decline of the industry to artists getting too much money: "We all want artists to have their fair share, but overpaying them is destroying the music scene."

File Sharing Is Killing Music

Gene Simmons of KISS recently made this claim that file sharing is killing music. Simmons told Esquire magazine that file sharing has made a career in music "almost impossible":
It's very sad for new bands. My heart goes out to them. They just don't have a chance. If you play guitar, it's almost impossible. You're better off not even learning how to play guitar or write songs and just singing in the shower and auditioning for The X Factor.

Auto-Tune Is Killing Music

In 2010, Mother Jones ran an article titled "Is Auto-Tune Killing Pop Music?" The implication was yes, it is.

Lack of Education and Culture Is Killing Music

In 2003, the Scottish newspaper The Scotsman reported the death of classical music:
Welcome to the death of music, or that genre of it we define as classical. For more than a century it has captured the hearts and minds of millions, inspired the building of great concert halls in hundreds of cities, sustained thousands of musicians and created a discography that seemed timeless and enduring in its appeal. Well, timeless and enduring until now. For, despite private patronage and lashings of public funds, concert performance and ticket sales are in free fall.
The article went on to say:
Image from the Slate article "Classical Music in America Is Dead."
The thesis of the death of music is scarcely new, but seldom has the
speed and scale of the decline been more evident than now. And this
time it is being felt across every major orchestra right to the top.
Indeed, it is not at all lurid or fanciful to suggest that the
conventional classical music concert will die out within the next decade, unable to outlive the ageing demography of today's
That was written just over a decade ago, and yet my local university still has a robust classical music concert schedule.

Steve Jobs and Digital Media Are Killing Music

"Steve Jobs is personally responsible for killing the music business," said Jon Bon Jovi in 2011. How did he do it? With—as The Register reported—his "singlehanded transformation of music from vinyl to digital."

Bon Jovi explained, "Kids today have missed the whole experience of putting the headphones on, turning it up to 10, holding the jacket, closing their eyes and getting lost in an album." He must not have heard about the vinyl resurgence. 

Fans Are Killing Music

Digital Music News said in 2013 that fans are killing music, but their argument was really that file sharing was killing music.

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