Capitalism Sells. But Your Music is Suffering
by Cullen James
I am a capitalist. In the grand scheme of things I believe that capitalism, tempered with some minor regulation, is best for a country’s economy and, ultimately, society and its political systems.
That said, there are some pitfalls to capitalism. One of the areas that suffer greatly under a capitalist system is the arts. When everything is a commodity, people are more interested in marketing what sells than what may be the newest or most innovative. And one area where this is very evident is in music.
A lot of people complain when an underground band they like goes mainstream. Some people may scoff at this, but there is some legitimate concern. Just take a look at the history of bands like The Offspring, Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and (and I REALLY hate to say this) Henry Fucking Rollins.
It’s insidious, this commercialism.
It starts with better production quality. Think back to Ride the Lightning or Freaky Styley. Then compare those to later releases like … And Justice For All and Mother’s Milk. And then compare those to later releases The Black Album and Blood Sugar Sex Magic. Hear the edge slipping away? Hear the raw power give away to that slick noise gate and compression?
On the earlier work, even though they were studio albums, you knew that under the best of conditions you could expect to hear something similar live as to what you were hearing on these albums. Then you have the transition albums (or albums, in some cases). These albums have better production but still maintain a sense of that raw energy from the earlier studio albums.
Finally, the “Fuck it, lets over-produce the shit outta this” albums come out. It’s the Bob Rock syndrome. Is that album a little too heavy? Lets just smooth it out with some extra chorus and mix it down a little. Let’s over-effect those vocals -- put the singer through some more vocal training first -- and overdub like our lives depend on it. Gotta watch that subject matter also. You have to sound like you’re being controversial without actually being controversial or offending anyone.
While all this is going on, the record label’s marketing team is aggressively pushing the band making them seem like the best thing ever. In the case of Metallica, to your die-hard fans, you’re being sold as “the greatest Metallica album ever,” but to pull in that elusive top-40 audience, you’re being marketed as “a new, edgy voice in this troubled world.” And then everybody and their mother buys the album. And then you hear Johnny McPopCollar singing Nothing Else Matters. And then nothing else matters ‘cept dumping your Metallica collection and forgetting that you ever liked them.
It has nothing to do with them becoming popular. It has everything to do with them trying so hard to get there.
Cullen has a copy of "Load", but uses it as a coaster.