Wednesday, July 1, 2009

King of Pop and Technological Change

So what does the untimely death of Michael Jackson have to do with rapid technological change? Well, to talk about it, I have to crowbar it onto the topic somehow, don't I?

And then there is this statement I read the other day: "Michael Jackson will be one of the last pop music superstars." By "superstars," the speaker was talking about Elvis, Michael, and the Beatles. And he was alluding to the fact than nobody will ever capture such a broad music audience, or sell anything near as many albums.

Albums? You remember those, right? Vinyl discs with ten or twelve songs on them, the music etched into the vinyl material in a continuous spiral that wound in from the outside of the disc to near the middle. You reproduced the sound by dragging a needle along the spiral groove. It vibrated in relationship to the material carved into the groove and was amplified so we could hear it.

How primitive! remember CDs, right...made those obsolete. But they also took away some of the "soul" that was captured in those vinyl discs.

Elvis sold records with starring roles in mediocre movies, but with plots that allowed him to flash that grin, wiggle those hips, and sing enough songs to fill an album. And remember when the Beatles released an album that didn't have silence between the various songs? It just flowed from one song to another, and the songs seemed to be related to each other. "Sgt. Pepper." The album covers were great. Pieces of art. Information about the songs and more. It was a package. And Michael Jackson sold albums by dancing his way through 20-minute-long music videos that MTV made a big deal of debuting and showing every hour on the hour. You remember music videos, right? And MTV?

Albums. Nobody wants to buy an album anymore. Forget the cover art and the information. Save money and don't do a 20-minute-long music video, even if your artist happened to be pretty and charismatic enough to pull it off. Record companies and artists got greedy. Of the ten or twelve songs on the album, only a couple were hits. Or songs anybody wanted.

But when the 45 RPM remember the 45 RPM single, right?...went away, if you wanted the song, you bought the whole album. When MTV quit playing music videos, we were exposed to fewer total stars...people who could sing and dance and look good. And radio went into a shell and stuck with "proven, tested songs," not taking a chance on actually introducing its audience to a new superstar, unwilling to take any risks whatsoever.

Now you buy the songs individually, if you even decide you want to possess them. And music as well as the places to get it is fragmented. You can get songs in myriad places. Just the song you want. Often for free. Or for a buck if you are honest. You don't have to own the entire album to get the songs you want. You don't have to care about or know anything about the artist or group. You just want the song. For a little while. Then you delete it from your iPod and put something else in there.

So with all that music out there and so cheap, the day of the superstar pop artist...the kind like Elvis, the Beatles, and Michael Jackson...will be no more. There'll be big stars. Coldplay. Green Day. Kenny Chesney. But put those names in the same paragraph with the real pop stars and I think you see what the commentator was saying.

Nobody will ever dominate music like those guys did. And technology is one of the big reasons.


Don Keith N4KC

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