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Pop Music

Hey, have you heard that new Sabrina Carpenter song, "Espresso"? It has over 2.2 million listens on Spotify! Man, it must be incredible. And did you see that Rihanna's listed as the top-selling pop artist of the 2020s? That woman has sold a whopping 264 million units. Right up there with her are acts like Drake and Katy Perry (246M and 178M, respectively).

That's a lot of units! With astronomical numbers like these, we must be living in the deepest sea of musical talent in the last hundred years! But are we? Are these numbers actually representative of quality, or just indicators of mass appeal? Does mass appeal signify artistic value or just palatability? 

As many of us know, back in the days before the Internet, the world of mainstream music was remarkably different. Apart from the industry operations concerning how albums were produced and how record labels functioned, there was the musical landscape itself. Artists were typically discovered by the major labels' A&R guys whose job it was to find, develop, and recruit new talent for labels like Capitol, Atlantic, and RCA, and once this talent was making albums, those albums were sold in various formats which were the only places to go to hear them in their entirety, making the act of recording and releasing records lucrative.

This isn't so much the case today, and damn near anyone making music can get theirs onto streaming services. This fact, however, has naturally resulted in an oversaturation where it's significantly more challenging to connect listeners with the music they want to hear. That is, of course, unless you're talking about the ever-present mainstream pop, which brings us back full circle: what is the measure of music quality? What makes it good: that it's easily digestible, makes you tap your foot, sticks in your head? Or is it artistic merit and emotional impact that serve as more appropriate measuring sticks?

I suppose the question is to some extent subjective, but regardless of how any one of us might define it, it's hard to deny that much of mainstream music today seems to be missing something. In fact, I would submit that so many of these "units" being successfully sold by such a small group of industry "artists" is indicative of just how easy to swallow their brand of product is to the average consumer.

Much of it, dare I say - and pardon me if I sound like an old man here - sounds like a hundred songs that came before it. These products are formulaic and repetitive, inconsequential, bereft of meaning, overly simplistic, and might even make you dumber for having listened to them. So, then, why are so many still listening? To wit, there is a revealing piece online detailing how certain industry folks have figured out what makes songs catchy to the average person and have used this information to exploit parts of our brains by carefully weaving the formula into a good amount of our Top 40. More fascinating, or scary? You decide. 

My reason for touching on this today, other than simply out of my love for music, is just to bring attention to how and perhaps why the industry has changed over the past couple of decades and what those changes seem to mean in hopes of possibly sparking some thought and conversations about the topic. There's so much more I want to say, but I'm already over my word count, so I'll just close with this: don't be afraid to look beyond the most popular stuff next time you queue up your favorite music app! Some amazing stuff out there is just a couple of taps away. And hey, rejoice that we live in Music City! Tons of local musicians are playing live daily for any of us who'll listen. Keep stretching, keep growing, and I'll catch you all next time. 


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