In 2010, I had a revelation looking at the hundreds of CDs and DVDs that were taking up tremendous space in my room. I was simultaneously dealing with some music and video files on my computer, and understood in that moment that I could get rid of the physical copies of all my favorite music, films, and television shows, and still have access to the material on a hard drive. Since then, I’ve gotten rid of 90% of those items, and haven’t bought a CD or Blu-Ray in years. This is a clear example of a paradigm shift.
It’s always better to catch these dramatic changes before the tide turns and you are left out in the cold, behind the times, and resentful that the world has passed you by. A similar revelation just hit me like a train recently when I was working at a hip hop festival called Camp Flog Knaw in Los Angeles, an event featuring Snoop Dogg, Tyler the Creator, Atmosphere, A$AP Rocky, etc. On the mainstage, the only act that had a full band with guitar, bass, and drums was ironically called The Internet. The group performed hip hop, which is a genre where having live instruments is not the norm. Hip hop spawned out of the DJ being the lifeblood of the party, and transitioned to being the “backing band” once the MC became the center of attention. Although I shouldn’t have expected rappers to have backing bands, I have seen Snoop with a band before, and big timers like Kanye, Jay-Z, and Kendrick Lamar employ full bands.
My moment of revelation struck during Atmosphere’s set. The backing track during one of his songs had a very organic, bluesy sounding guitar as the core instrument, but there was no guitar player to be seen. As a guy who has been playing guitar for over 20 years and playing professionally for over 10 years, it dawned on me that I’m like those towers of CDs and DVDs in my room half a decade ago. While many people still currently buy physical albums and movies, the market has dwindled significantly and may be be obsolete very soon. In other words, I am being phased out.
That being said, the idea of the band isn’t going anywhere soon. Even if you can’t get rich from it, that won’t stop kids from getting together and making noise in the garage. Trends come and go, but classical, jazz, and blues still exist. Although they are peripheral, and more so appreciated by the music and art connoisseurs. Society still honors virtuosic instrumentalists, but pop culture specifically has moved on. Since pop culture has co-opted hip hop culture, hip hop operates in the pop stratosphere. The same thing can be said to a lesser extent of country music as well. Additionally, with the rise of EDM and superstar DJs, young people are placing less value on the idea of a performative group of instrumentalists in a live format. The youth speak for the pop culture of any given moment, even if mid 30s upstarts like me want to stick our nose in a conveyance that’s passing us by.
For measure, just look at last week’s Billboard Chart– 32 entries out of the Top 40 were solo artists, and that’s not counting the Drake & Future album (which is a pairing of solo artists), or compilations like Now That’s What I Call Music 56 and Empire: Original Soundtrack, Season 2, Vol 1, which are both comprised of solo artists. 82 out of the top 100 global tracks on Spotify right now are solo artists, and about half the “groups” are comprised of duos of producers, DJs, and pop tandems like Jack Ü, The Chainsmokers, or Snakehips.
As hip hop has become pop, nowhere has the concept of the individual taken root so dramatically. Early hip hop was probably defined by groups more than individuals, be it Run DMC, Beastie Boys, NWA, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Public Enemy, Eric B & Rakim, Wu Tang Clan, Naughty By Nature, De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, Cypress Hill, or Geto Boys. It’s not that hip hop groups don’t exist anymore, but they’ve certainly become the outlier. Hip hop is still reliant on collaboration. Almost every song features a guest rapper, or a hook being sung by another prominent artist, and you can’t forget the imperative chemistry of pairing an MC with a complimentary producer, but the overall trends skews towards solo acts.
Hip hop, as a genre, has always been about the cultivation of superstars that exude palpable charisma and relentless confidence. This is why so many rappers end up being actors. That same magnetic, Type A personality that makes you a great rapper translates into most entertainment fields. When you are talking about stars, you are talking about the idea of celebrity, and that’s where we are at. I write for VH1, which is a site that is dominated by celebrities. They cover celebrities because it’s what moves the needle. That has filtered into how we process our music, and who we deem relevant. Without a star, you have no brand. Without a brand, your business is dead.
When we get into why these shifts are taking place, the reasons are fairly simple.
As illegal music downloading in the early 2000s took hold, the economic pie of the music industry became much, much smaller than it was 15 years ago. Having a band became a luxury. If I’m Snoop Dogg, and my band was costing me thousands of dollars per show, I could cut that from my budget, and the crowd probably wouldn’t notice the difference very much. It’s smart business. Artists are not selling nearly as many albums as 10-15 years ago, which means less royalties, smaller advances, and less tour support from labels. This overall smaller revenue filters down to making decisions like cutting live bands. Artists like Jay Z and Kanye can have bands because, frankly, they are making much more money, and they want their live show to be comparable to artists that have been packing arenas and stadiums for decades like U2 and The Rolling Stones. They are gunning for a different league, and have the resources to invest in the show. Paying for the band is like paying for pyro and or LED screens. It’s all part of the elevated concert experience.
When it comes strictly down to the idea of looking at music as a potential business model, starting a band is tantamount to having a destructive gambling habit. No one wants to pay you until you are very popular. Before that, you have to pay out of pocket for equipment, rehearsal space, a vehicle, fuel, studio time, and sometimes to even play at a real venue. All while having to rely on usually unreliable people. Even if you start making decent money, having to split your profit 4 or 5 ways after paying your manager, label, agent, and lawyer can be demoralizing.
If I’m a young person, it makes sense to become a rapper or DJ from a financial standpoint. You don’t have to rely on anyone, and all you need is a laptop and maybe a microphone. I don’t even know if live DJs are doing anything more than hitting a space bar, but whether or not the emperor has clothes seems to be irrelevant to EDM consumers.
Nothing has probably killed the idea of the band more than the advancements in digital home recording. Back in the day, you needed other musicians just to fully realize your songs. Free applications like Garageband, and cheap interfaces and mics have made it so you could be completely self-reliant from composition to mastering. While there are clear benefits to this technology, I think it’s made the new generation of musicians distant from each other. It’s analogous to what happens as individuals gain wealth. Once to don’t need anyone else, you tend to isolate and lose empathy. This is not an admonishment of wealth, but has been studied as an effect. The more money we have and plugged-in technology that exacerbates our independence, the essence of collectivism becomes unnecessary.
Collectivism as a political construct is antithetical to our national character. It conjures up scary cold war buzzwords like “socialism” and “communism”, and we picture breadlines and rows of marching, robotic soldiers following a shouting fascist.
Our national psyche is characterized by the mythic, rugged individual: the self-made man, the strapping pioneer, the cowboy. Hell, we even elected President Ronald Reagan, who played a cowboy in films, and George W. Bush, who played a cowboy in real life.
The American Dream is Manifest Destiny – it’s that you can accomplish whatever you want, as long as you have the will. Never more has this really been true because of the changes in the way our modern world works. The 2015, post-industrial age, “rugged” individual creates an app , self publishes a book, or vlogs on their own YouTube page. Even though the giant’s shoulders on which we are standing is the infrastructure of smart cell technology and social media itself, the tools to do things on our own have never been more abundant.
Our country celebrates this arc, while slightly hinting at the cracks in the foundation of the story. We deify Steve Jobs, and passively reference Steve Wozniak. Mark Zuckerburg’s former collaborators will just become footnotes in history. Thomas Edison’s track record as an invention thief just becomes fodder for history nerds. It’s easier to print and later believe the legend because it’s easier and more concise. Why bog down your gentle mind with so many details, caveats, and pesky contradictory narratives that make it unclear of the difference between good and bad guys?
America’s biggest export is our pop culture, films, stars, and the mythos of The American Dream. As we elevate the individual, the world follows our lead, and takes note of what we consider important. It’s no surprise that Kanye and Donald Trump dominate the headlines. They are exactly the stars we deserve, because they perhaps best represent modern pop culture’s psychological profile taken to it’s logical extreme. They believe their own mythology: that they are the best in the world at their job, and that they did it on their own.
In a country where we proclaims dreams as reality, and that we can manifest our own destiny, who is any of us to say they are wrong?