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Musical Stockholm Syndrome – America’s Captive Musical Tastes

American musical tastes have been taken hostage by a record industry far more concerned with making money than developing art. The result is a captive audience willing to accept anything new as if it were original; and anything over-marketed as if it were musically significant. I contend it has resulted in Musical Stockholm Syndrome. I also contend there’s a way to fix it and indeed, that process has already been started by some enterprising, creative and dedicated individuals.

Just a heads up, this is a necessarily long article that gets into some music geekery that many may be turned off by (and others may be turned on by, rowr). But it took me a lot longer to write than it will (should?) take you to read, so maybe it’s worth it! 😉

The Definition

From Wikipedia:
Stockholm syndrome is a term used to describe a paradoxical psychological phenomenon wherein hostages express empathy and have positive feelings towards their captors. These feelings are generally considered irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims, who essentially mistake a lack of abuse from their captors as an act of kindness.

The Personal Q&A Research
One of my favorite questions to ask someone is, “What sort of music do you like?” I’m intrigued by what sort of music people find enjoyable. The answers vary wildly, but the most common is, “A little bit of everything.”

After giving the subject of my question a little time to respond, and as I ponder their answers, I like to follow up with, “What is it that determines whether or not you like certain music?”

The most common answer to that question is, amazingly, “I dunno, I just like it.”

The Conundrum
Just about everyone likes music and just about everyone claims to have somewhat specific musical tastes. Music helps people define moments of their life. I’ve seen people take unplanned trips down memory lane in the middle of a conversation just because a specific song began to play from a barely audible source. Some scientists even maintain that music has a similar familiarity response as odor, which is the most intense human familiarity response (geek alert link). If you’ve ever spent time in front of an audience while playing music, you know people inevitably request something specific to their tastes no matter what style of music you’re playing. You are probably also painfully aware of the disappointed and defeated look they have on their face when they are denied. People are heavily emotionally invested in and attached to their music.

But why is something so moving, so personal, so intense as musical tastes such a mystery? Shouldn’t we be able to more clearly define what it is that makes something that important to us?

The unfortunate truth is that most people simply don’t know why they like particular music. They just “like” it.

The Science of Music
Have you ever wondered how Pandora, the customizable internet “radio station” that seems to have a near psychic ability to pick only music you like, works? While the ability to play cool music for you and introduce you to new artists is its most notable success, the truth is that the most important initiative of Pandora is the Music Genome Project.

To summarize that project (which you should go read about now if you haven’t before) there are people who painstakingly break songs down into categories. 400 different categorizations for every song, in fact. Instrumentation, structure, meter, stylistic choices and things of that nature are carefully considered. They focus on what makes a song unique, so they can match it with other songs which have similar characteristics. Picture a chemist in a lab reverse-engineering a complex compound to discover its basic chemical makeup. They find and list the smallest elements possible and then figure out how they interact with each other to accomplish an end result. What you end up with when everything is distilled is the “formula” used to create the song.

This shows that music can be studied and broken down to the extent that there is an absolute formula for making it. Having a musical formula is an incredibly powerful thing. Most of the bands you’ve heard in your life followed a specific, predefined formula to make their music. Some set out with a goal of perfecting a chosen formula, some unknowingly made music that abides by a formula just because they liked a particular sound. Some artists even mix parts of more than one formula to create new, more complex formulas. Every once in a while there is an artist that tweaks a formula drastically, or starts a new formula altogether. Those creative devils are often considered “ahead of their time” and generally aren’t truly appreciated until other artists create music using their new formula. That’s when you begin to see those “original” artists cited as an influence. As long as an artist is making these creative choices, everything is ok. It’s kind of like having a powerful element in the hands of those with good intentions. As long as the power is being used for the greater good (or at least with good or innocent intent), everyone is happy.

The Villainy of Music
Then the suits show up and everything goes awry. These are the people who care nothing for music as an art form. They only care that there is money to be made and they have discovered that utilizing these powerful formulas they can grab a pile of that money. They identify a “marketable” act who is willing to do whatever they ask. They then put them in a studio where producers make sure their music is created to a very specific, predetermined formula. Then the most insidious of dastardly musical plans takes place. Knowing that people prefer music that they are familiar with they utilize a marketing effort to bombard the public with their product, generating familiarity by force. So no matter how bad the latest Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber song actually is, playing it on every radio station and every commercial targeting a specific demographic forces the song into the psyche of the unsuspecting targets. Once a song is familiar, people think they like it… just because.

This is how the music industry bigwigs have taken our musical preferences hostage. This is why mainstream music sounds so similar across the board. This is why “artists” can put on entire tours without ever actually singing a single note themselves on stage… and make millions… as “musicians.” The travesty of this is that there are a limited number of “music fans” in the world and those fans will actively spend only a limited amount of money. If they are being actively deceived and dominated by the money makers, their formulas and their marketing departments, then those who don’t have all three of those things (money, a formula or a huge marketing department) have an even slimmer chance of success. It happens in your town every single day. A local act with a great idea and unique sound can’t make ends meet and disbands, its members destined to become part of the machine. Many of them never make music again.

The Hostage Situation: Musical Stockholm Syndrome
We’re now back to the beginning of the article. These money makers have literally taken the musical tastes of Americans hostage. You get to hear only what they want you to hear, and because it is forced on you repeatedly you begin to “like” it. You can’t figure out why you like it, you just do. This is Musical Stockholm Syndrome. Your captors (the record industry suits) have abused you into submission. Everything is relative, so you have begun to see anything that isn’t outright abuse as good treatment. So you accept the slop they throw your way without question. You don’t even fight back any more. You just resolve to yourself that you like it, and you don’t know why. In fact, you probably don’t even care why you like it. In the absence of the sun even the moon seems blindingly bright.

The Solution
You don’t have to continue to suffer through this psychological ailment! The solution is simple, but not easy. Begin to figure out exactly what you like by defining why you like it. Listen to all music with new ears. Don’t just listen to it, hear it. You’ll have to work at this. Chances are you’ve spent so much time being bombarded into “liking” certain music that your senses are pretty numb and uneducated as to what you actually prefer. So try a LOT of new music, with no preconceptions, during your time of rediscovery. Listen to some things you have previously rejected. Go see some local acts that you’ve never seen before. Utilize services like Pandora, satellite radio, The Hype Machine and musically snooty friends to figure out what you like (or don’t) about specific music. Then start rebuilding your preferences (and music catalog) to be uniquely yours. You will end up with a new appreciation for what it takes to create good music. You may end up with some new favorite music. And the next time someone asks you about your musical preferences you’ll be ready to respond.

The Call To Arms
If enough people were to begin to figure out why they like music the music industry would have no choice but to begin fronting more acts that actually mirrored the preferences of music fans. This has already begun with the ubiquitous digital music player. Independent (Indie) acts have begun to get front and center billing on a lot of playlists and they have begun to book much larger stages than before. The RIAA (the representative wing of the record industry) is NOT happy about it. They cite decreasing album sales and blame the ability to download music. The truth is that as more and more music fans (and their money) become enlightened the record industry becomes the master of its own demise. Once their marketing tricks stop working, they lose their control and their power. They would prefer to continue to force you to listen to what they want you to hear. Every time you purchase music from an independent artist the record industry feels a little more control slip through their fingers.

Over time, if all goes well and this trend continues, we would ideally end up with the inverse of Stockholm Syndrome, called Lima Syndrome, where captors develop empathy for their captives. The record industry would get back to the business of discovering new and interesting artists and out of the business of creating them from a factory. If that happens, music evolves. And when music evolves, society listens.

May 9, 2011

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