Previously we looked at the Marvin Gaye Vs Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams ‘Blurred Lines’ court case. This week will focus on how, once again, the cyclical nature of the music industry is driving towards an increasingly single driven market, much like in the early to mid-60s, and putting less emphasis on an album as a full body of work or ‘concept’.
Berry Gordy Jr’s dream began to come to fruition with the creation of Hitsville USA and the Motown label in 1959. His main ambition was to start a music label which would create or “cut” and pump out hits similar to a factory procession line, much like the one he previously worked at in the Ford factory in ‘Motortown’, Detroit.
In the early days, Gordy would hold weekly “quality control” meetings every Friday with Smokey Robinson and a select few of others within the Motown Corporation and personally listen to every single that had been recorded at Motown that week before deciding which ones would be released. Sometimes these meetings would end in dispute, but ultimately, Gordy would have the final word, thus making him the gatekeeper of the new Motown sound and the sound of young America.
This pressure to continuously churn out hits left little room for songwriters and artists to develop a full album or explore musical and lyrical ideas within an album in depth and cohesively. However, this ideology was not limited to Motown by any means. The entire music industry in the 60s, save for the psychedelic rock bands in the later part of the decade, was based around the notion of creating radio-friendly pop tunes that were easily accessible. This began to completely change by the early 70s with the rise in popularity and number of ‘concept’ albums, even in Motown, with the recording of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album What’s Going On.
Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On is particularly noteworthy as it was one of the first concept albums since The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to venture into the realm of pop music and experience great success and garner mass appeal. It was a sign of a shift in the mindset of the public, and one that Berry Gordy Jnr had not kept up with. In fact, Gordy infamously proclaimed that the single ‘What’s Going On’, was one of the worst things he’d heard in his life, before realising a few days later that it had already sold over 200,000 copies. He then immediately ordered Marvin Gaye to record an entire album based on that one single.
Recently, the music industry has seen a return to a heavy emphasis on the single, rather than the album, more than ever before. According to the 2014 Nielsen Music Report, album sales continue their steady decline while on-demand music streaming and digital single sales have increased by 54%. Of course, manufactured pop stars and commercial pop songs that come and go are nothing new. But what is slightly disconcerting is the way that this single driven market is beginning to greatly influence the songwriting and releases of artists in other genres such as rock, indie, and electronic music.
The most recent album to gain commercial and critical praise that was clearly a ‘concept’ album, was Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, and that was already three years ago. Overall, songs are shortening in length, intros and solos are increasingly edited or cut out completely, and it’s as though radio stations and record labels are dictating how long our attention spans should be.
So what’s the benefit of this? For musicians and record labels, it translates to more sales, near constant promotion through increased touring, radio play and prominence in the media and higher consumption of their music. The downside? Quite simply, less artistry. It creates an industry that doesn’t promote or encourage further development and in-depth exploration of musical ideas. That’s not to say that a three-minute pop song can’t be artistically complex or of a high calibre, but it seems that these days we’re getting less of this:
And more of this…
As this is a recurring phenomenon, what’s the difference this time? This is not an article slamming today’s music and resurrecting the age old argument of “music is not what it used to be.” There is plenty of contemporary music to be enjoyed. It just seems that by pushing this single driven market, the art form of creating an album to be enjoyed in its entirety, as opposed to a stand-alone song, is quickly diminishing.
Also, this is Berry Gordy Jnr’s son. Let that one sink in.