The Sound of Muzak

By DANIEL BROCKMAN  |  April 18, 2012

BRAND NEW TO YOU

Of course, it is in the artist's best interests to ensure that the singer and the song remain attached in the listener's mind. This concept is at the heart of the superstar rock-and-pop experience. Disposable income, technological innovation, and the creation of the teenage class slowly transformed postwar singers into their generation's new celebrity ideal. But in the last few decades, as new generations went through the conveyor belt of pop-culture consumption, the correlation between singer, song, and the shock of the new seemed to fade amidst a bevy of other distractions.

Go into a department store today and you will be inundated with rock-star products aimed at the young, from pre-faded Who T-shirts to AC/DC baby onesies. But as teen marketing evolves in a Web 3.0+ environment, these ancient brands are as enticing to kids as a Frigidaire hoodie. A quick stroll through, say, the behemoth that is the new Newbury Comics store in the Natick Mall will cement this truth: sure, there may be seven different types of Iron Maiden bobbleheads, but a good 40 percent of the square footage of the store is taken up with new branded fashions, from scarves and jeans to fedoras and mittens. They may be stocking, for now, that $150 Pink Floyd box set, but the future of the Newbury Comics franchise rests more in the deals the store has made with the likes of Stussy and Betsey Johnson. Besides, boomer culture ethics dictate that older established artists feign protest at the link between their music and the consumer brand experience that is replacing album sales as their true revenue stream. But that maxim is dissipating, as the money moves further and further away from the world of music. A company like Newbury Comics caters to the young, and if the kids have moved on from worshipping rock idols, the chain will oblige them by selling them the products and brands that they do bow down to.

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR

If this sounds overly dire, fear not, fans of music, for at least the near future: more great music is being made now than ever before in music-business history. Instruments are cheap, recording is cheaper, distribution (thanks to the Web) is cheap to the point of being free, and anyone with even the slightest musical inclination can instantly find just the right influences out of which to fashion their own rad tuneage. The problem is the way that excitement is translated into the branded superstar idol experience for which we have come to count on music. For years, our towering idols have broadcast these messages through mass subcultures and movements, marketing attitude and ideas. But we no longer look to the pop star, or song, to say anything about current events or cultural shifts. (For example, note the lack of Occupy-themed songs on either the charts, or on obscure records, or really anywhere at all.) As tech gurus, video gamers, television personalities, and online gossip hounds take the place of the pop stars that once excited and united the young, music of the future will become more about the music itself, and fans will gather in smaller and smaller online huddles in sonic and genre-specific scenes. For better and for worse, those who railed against the commodification of popular music may eventually get their wish.

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