I’m an underground musical artist on hiatus. No more songs to give and certainly no money or gigs. So when something like COVID-19 comes along, and it just isn’t going your way, you give it up before it consumes you to death. It’s called listening to that inner voice that’s telling you, “Listen to your mother.” So now I’m just a music fan again, which means I can catch up on what’s been going on for the last 25 years or so in popular music.
When you become an artist you commit yourself to the process and believe 100% in who you are and what you are doing. You must have this approach because no one else will believe in you. You rely on yourself because only you know what is in your head & heart. This is why I haven’t paid much attention to what’s been happening in the popular music realm these past two decades plus.
What I did musically (& with this blog) can be defined as underground. This is the realm of revolution. I always look at making a record as trying to set a standard that’s hard to beat. When you seriously listen to AC/DC’s Powerage (1978), or any of their other great records, you finish shaking your head & saying to yourself, “That’s hard to beat.”
That’s what inspired me over the years. I was always trying to make that song, EP, or LP/CD that was hard to beat. You have to know it’s going to be great before you record a note. Every great record you’ve ever heard in every genre had that. They all knew they were about to do something great, and then they did it. It’s a great feeling when it’s done. You know it’s going to be a classic because it’s hard to beat.
It’s harder than ever today to make a great record. It starts with great songs which have become scarce. A dirty truth of the music industry is that their popular music stars rely heavily on professional songwriters. These manufactured stars just don’t have much to say, and I get bored with that. I know I’m not the only one.
Songwriting is also a dividing line for those such as myself with punk ethics. Underground music in 100% organic, meaning it is not using professional songwriters, but instead creating its own material. Most of it isn’t very interesting, but there are genuine artists in every genre at all times, you just need to know how to find them. They’re all more interesting than Diane Warren & Max Martin.
For decades, you had to be a fan to know who the major artists were, especially in more esoteric genres such as electronic, dance, etc… Today, AllMusic & YouTube provide any eager listener with everything they need to decide who they really like. The basic rule for going into unfamiliar genres is to do early research and figure out who the major artists are– past & present. How long has the genre been around? Who started the genre, and who is the best artist today? Work your way forwards & backwards from there and you won’t get too lost. Lost means you don’t know and buy too much junk.
Let’s take country music as an example, as I’m not the biggest country music fan in the world. I lived in central Florida for over 25 years, and I’ve been around a lot of country music fans so I understand how they feel about it, but generally their contemporary stars don’t move me. I love Bob Wills, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Willie, Waylon & Jessi. But contemporary country largely doesn’t catch my ear. George Strait, Reba McEntire & Garth Brooks were the best & biggest country music artists through the early-1990’s, which is where I left it, so I’m looking for the best since then up to the present.
As you may have guessed, I’m more interested in songwriters & story tellers, especially in the country music genre. Contemporary country largely has the same problem that pop & rap absolutely have; there’s so few vital voices/performers who are their own songwriter anymore. The last time there was an “excess of originality” in songwriting was when indie grunge & hip-hop turned major label artists from John Mellencamp to Winger into has-beens overnight, when Nirvana hit with Nevermind in September 1991.
The mafia which runs the corrupt music industry machinery weathered this crisis and adapted by buying-up all the indie labels & college radio stations. U2, REM, Metallica, Soundgarden, etc, were then canonized into classic rock. 1980’s indie label bands such as the Minutemen, Husker Du, the Pixies, Fugazi, Sonic Youth, etc, never reached mainstream radio. They had too much VU & Andy Warhol in them. The mafia that owns & runs the music industry hates its artists because they can’t control them. They hate artists for devaluing all of their mediocrities & posers which they throw stupid money at to promote. If the kids only knew…
Artists take everything seriously which means they must develop a razor-sharp sense of humor with ironic sensibilities in order to get along. You can’t be serious & on-point forever, especially without money, as it will burn you out and/or kill you. You have to be able to let it go & adapt.
I celebrated Record Store day during the few weeks leading up to it, as well as the day itself. It was April 23 this year, the day after Earth Day. The truth is every day is Earth Day and I wrote that long before it became a meme.
Vinyl costs a lot for a good reason. Its expensive & dirty to produce. New CD’s now list for roughly half the cost of vinyl on new releases. It is my professional record collecting opinion that records have gotten too expensive in every sense, therefore I go for what I only absolutely need on vinyl, otherwise I go for CD. I’ve always been like that in building my music collection: whenever the market is zigging, I zag.
That’s how you find the best deals and stay on budget. Records now cost ~$25 apiece. If you want 1000 records in your new collection that’s $25,000 cost. The used record bins have all been scoured at this point, and there are very few bargains remaining, with too much to hunt through to get to them. That’s my feeling on record buying at this point.
I’m not so much about the format anymore as I am about having the music itself. CD’s & records let you play what you want, without an app tracking you & sending you messages. Put mp3’s on an external Ipod and connect it into an auxiliary input on your stereo. That’s how you have a rocking music collection that doesn’t need to be online.
Until my recent record store binging, I hadn’t considered 21st-century artists very seriously for the reasons stated above. When I began my artist journey it was Alanis Morrisette, Brittany Spears & American Idol coming online. That didn’t impress me much. But Shania Twain did, so I bought all her classic stuff that she made with her then-husband, the famous rock producer who did so many records I love. Shania Twain is perfect pop, with irresistible hooks & a beautiful voice. She translates best to CD in terms of top sound quality and typical album length which exceeds the LP format.
Compact discs are perfect masters which means they can be ripped onto a computer & pirated, which is what happens everywhere. CD’s have wav files of the songs with all the metadata. When Napster came along, kids who had ripped their CD’s shared them online as compressed audio files known as mp3’s. YouTube is mp4, an audio & video file. Compression means some loss of fidelity. The gain is smaller files which are easier to share. I review all this basic stuff because this is how you look for & buy music today. You research & listen online. After you figure out what you really like, go to the record/CD store and buy what you love.
Vinyl is the original format of rock & roll. It was 45’s when Elvis Presley hit in 1955. Black artists such as Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Little Richard & Bo Diddley became huge stars. Jim Crow racism had kept black artists down, but when rock & rock was unleashed it was irresistible to the kids. After Elvis hit, rock & roll became bigger than Jesus, and young Presley was vilified for it along with all the rest.
Scandals & tragedy took most of them down, except for Fats Domino. It wasn’t until Elvis first became a GI and then returned as a teen idol, hopelessly behind-the-times that he became mainstream with adults. He still produced hits, but when the Beatles arrived in 1964, Elvis & the rest went into the oldies bin. AM radio formats this “golden hits era” as oldies, as compared to the FM dial’s classic rock. It’s the difference between mono & stereo.
Rock in 1955 was 45’s in a jukebox format. Kids would meet wherever there was a jukebox and room to dance. 45’s are different than albums which are 33.3 RPM. 45’s are singles, so you’re always looking for that GREAT song that grabbed you from the first time you heard it. If the artist who made that song never made another one, then get that single on 45 or mp3. Most flip-sides of 45’s aren’t good songs, but occasionally there will be a gem.
When vinyl (33’s & 45’s) was deleted by 1990, the singles format disappeared, as CD’s don’t work as singles or as EP’s. This was a creative problem for nearly a decade until mp3 sharing came about, because there are many, many more artists who can make a great song or two, versus those who can make a great album. Those who can make multiple great albums are the major artists.
The advantage of CD’s (over records) is their ability to hold up to 80 minutes of length. A vinyl record sounds best if the album can be split into two 22+ minute sides. Anything at or over 23 minutes/side degrades the sound quality significantly, meaning you must either make it a double album or else go to CD.
My advice for young artists is to make great CD’s. The CD revolution was not only a quantum leap in audio fidelity, but also creativity. If you’ve got 75 minutes of great music you can put it online & onto CD. Then people like me will want to hear it. Once you impress enough people and become a huge success, then you can sell that album as a double LP on vinyl.
Making records involves the use of toxic petrochemicals which degrade our Earth’s ecosystem. Therefore my rules on vinyl are these. Reissue only great & very good records. No more Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Supertramp, Yes, ELO, etc, re-issues. These such albums sat unclaimed in used bins I looked through for years, so why is the industry still pumping out fresh copies of this mediocre, industry-produced fodder? It’s the great rock records of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, Mott the Hoople, along with the groove of P-funk & David Bowie that represent the best of 1970’s rock. Punk, reggae, funk & disco are what people covet most from the 1970’s.
Releases from 1990 onward are universally considered CD’s. Genres like pop, rap, country & rock are all recorded digitally with in-studio multi-tracking. Songs are constructed over hours, days, weeks & months on computers with the musicians, engineers & producers. This allows the sound geeks to get the best (loudest) sounds.
This has led to the “loudness wars” an industry term extensively discussed by serious sound professionals in online forums. Basically everyone in pop, rock & rap wants the loudest records, so we’ve reached the point where there is so much compression on all the tracks (guitars, bass, vocals, drum kit, etc) that the music lacks heart & soul. It’s sounds too slick & digitized because it is.
No popular artist in any of these genres does live-performance studio recordings on their albums. It’s kinda been that way since the Beatles did Sgt. Pepper’s in 1967. You can always make it cleaner & louder if you multi-track, because it allows sound separations and treatments (reverb, compression, etc) of each individual track.
So which format (record/CD/mp3) is best? Here’s my rule, if it has great songs and performances it will sound great on any format. Pre-1990, everything was released as a vinyl record. Pre-Beatles was 45’s, except for Bob Dylan who was always an album artist. Note that these are guides and that when you are record shopping you have to adapt to what is actually there. Don’t go insisting on a certain format when it’s unavailable or too pricey everywhere. The best deals today are on used CD’s. Major artists past & present in every genre populate the “used CD’s” bins, so find them.
Good stuff can be hard to find, and when it’s a good deal you should jump on it. If it moves you and has great songs from start to finish it will sound great in ANY format. The exception is cassette tapes, which degrade over time no matter what you do. Cassette tapes always have hiss, and are susceptible to getting eaten by vehicle tape decks & boom boxes.
It was always considered smarter to buy vinyl, and then record it onto a blank 45/90 cassette tape, than to buy pre-recorded cassettes. That way you got two albums per tape and if it got eaten or lost, just record another. Turntables were considered a nuisance by most as the 1980’s progressed, as CD players changed the music market.
VCR’s had revolutionized television watching habits and opened up new avenues in home recording. MTV hit in 1981 and popular music was never the same. From MTV on, you had to look good in front of the camera, otherwise you had no chance with the kids. Before MTV, oldies bands & performers could hide & hang-on as “rockers”. MTV immediately assigned REO Speedwagon, CSN, Rod Stewart, Bob Seger, etc, to “classic rock” & “adult contemporary” status.
Of all of the classic rockers, it was Tom Petty who best survived the 80’s into the 1990’s when grunge & hip-hop exploded. By then Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Michael Jackson, etc, no longer had the kids attention, and were then considered legacy artists along with Billy Joel, Elton John, Eric Clapton, etc.
Grunge proved that kids liked bands influenced by the Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart & the Stooges better than those championed by the classic rock dogmatists. The music industry canonized classic rock in the 1970’s under the institution of Rolling Stone magazine in which a few ex-musician hangers-on anointed themselves as the preeminent critics on rock, country & pop music.
Since the grunge wave of the early 1990’s, Rolling Stone has lost much of its credibility as the unassailable critics of music & pop culture. The more one learns of this institution, the more it can be seen for what it is: a tool of the music industry which employs its legion of hack writers, fake journalists & unserious critics to prop up the latest project the music industry deems important. These industry creations will always get a positive review in Rolling Stone; and depending on their industry clout, they may also get anything from a quick (positive) write-up, to a cover with full interview. That’s mainstream popular music in all genres. It’s totally a business, and that’s why it sucks so hard.
Divas are the explosive phenomenon in popular music in the last 25 years. The last divas I loved were Gloria Estefan & Madonna back in the day. Before them, Deborah Harry (Blondie) & Pat Benatar were my original favorites. MTV & the internet made divas more possible. The original modern diva in pop culture was Marilyn Monroe. In rock music it was Nico with the Velvet Underground & Warhol. Nico was the original bad girl, and a fascinating study in the ephemeral character of divas. They all want to be considered as artists.
The previously mentioned Shania Twain was first American pop music diva of the 21st century. Just to define the term, divas have to be beautiful, stylized & talented. Divas are coveted by all straight men, so they set the standard for women. Country music never really had a diva before Shania Twain. The original female country star was Patsy Cline. For a long time Dolly Parton was the closest thing to a country music diva in a genre dominated by wholesome-image female artists.
Country music since the 1970’s (at least) can be classified into two distinct styles: Nashville sound & outlaw. It must be understood that all country records are recorded in Nashville, TN, but there is a difference in style. Outlaw is rootsier and appeals to purists, while Nashville sound is slicker and more pop oriented. Contemporary country has been profoundly changed by pop, rock & rap. I listen to country songs that have a singer with a twangy voice, but if it’s a fast song, it’s rock music. Maybe they throw-in a harmonica & steel pedal guitar track to countrify it, but it’s basically rock. All the country ballads are basically pop & rap production.
In contemporary country music, the biggest pop diva has been Carrie Underwood since she won Season 3 of American Idol. Her first CD Some Hearts (2005) had the entire music industry behind it, so it was going to be a success no matter what, kinda like Titanic (1997). My listening of her first few albums is that they are highly polished, with some good singles, but also with too much well-constructed filler. Carrie Underwood has an amazing voice, but I never much cared for Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, etc, and that’s her style. It’s too much syrupy pop for my taste, which leans towards rock. My best chance of finding something I like in country music was in the outlaw style that takes Waylon & Willie as its roots.
The biggest star in country music for the past 15+ years has been Miranda Lambert. Like Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert also came from reality TV, and released her debut album Kerosene in 2005. Reading both these album credits today provides definitive clues in advance as to who would be the enduring artist in country music.
Carrie Underwood’s Some Hearts has only one song that she wrote, “I Ain’t in Checotah Anymore,” while Miranda Lambert wrote (or co-wrote) every song on Kerosene except one. Both their follow-ups are they same way, and so on…
Miranda Lambert does use professional songwriters, but I get a sense that she really gets to pick the songs she likes. She also collaborates with these songwriters much more, in order to get them right for the album. Carrie Underwood had the material handed to her, and if Max Martin insisted that his song be on her CD, it got done. Carrie Underwood does the best she can, but too much of her material isn’t very inspired.
The songs that Miranda Lambert writes have more depth, heart & soul. These are songs of a restless artist who has the songwriter gift. I have nothing but respect & admiration for that because I know how hard it is. Carrie Underwood is more of a true diva, where Miranda Lambert is more of a Woodie Guthrie folk singer. They’re both country singers and both divas. Miranda Lambert is the true artist.