The Role of Music in Human Culture
In these exclusive interviews, we speak to Moby (Multi Award Winning International Recording Artist, DJ and Photographer), Hans Zimmer (International Award Winning composer and music producer who has composed music for over 100 films) and Rusty Rueff (Chairman Emeritus of The GRAMMY Foundation). We discuss the fundamental question of ‘what’ music is and the role of music in human culture. We also explore the business of music, and how technology has impacted the production and consumption of music around the world. Digging deeper, we discuss the secrets of what makes a great piece of music and look at why music is fundamental to our very experience of being human.
“… Whenever humans come together for any reason, music is there,” writes Daniel Levitin “….weddings, funerals, graduation from college, men marching off to war, stadium sporting events, a night on the town, prayer, a romantic dinner, mothers rocking their infants to sleep and college students studying with music as a background….” He continues to note that, ….music is and was [always] part of the fabric of everyday life. Only relatively recently in our own culture, five hundred years or so ago, did a distinction arise that cut society in two, forming separate classes of music performers and music listeners. Throughout most of the world and for most of human history, music making was as natural an activity as breathing and walking, and everyone participated. Concert halls, dedicated to the performance of music, arose only in the last several centuries. Understanding why we like music and what draws us to it is therefore a window on the essence of human nature….” (This is Your Brain on Music, 2006)This may seem like undue hyperbole, but the fact is that music is one of the most primal and fundamental aspects of human culture with many researchers even arguing that music (at least in a primitive form) pre-dates the emergence of language itself… A fact (ironically) not lost on some of the greatest writers in history, as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once observed, “….music is the universal language of mankind”
Given our understanding that most (if not all) of our physical and social faculties are adaptations for success in our environment, the origins of music remain an enigma. Prof Oliver Sacks (in his book Musicophilia) notes that even “Darwin himself was evidently puzzled [about the origin of music in culture], writing in The Descent of Man: ‘…as neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing musical notes are faculties of the least use to man… they must be ranked among the most mysterious with which he is endowed….’” Sacks continues to explain that, “We humans are a musical species no less than a linguistic one. We integrate all of these and ‘construct’ music in our minds using many different parts of the brain. And to this largely unconscious structural appreciation of music is added an often intense and profound emotional reaction to music.” He then quotes Schopenhauer who said “The inexpressible depth of music… easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all of the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain… Music expresses only the quintessence of life and of its events, never these themselves.”
Alongside the social and philosophical context, music plays an important economic role. Conservatively it is estimated that the broad industry of music contributes over US$ 160 billion to global GDP- around the size of the entire New Zealand economy.
So what is the role of music in human culture?
In these exclusive interviews, we speak to Moby (Multi Award Winning International Recording Artist, DJ and Photographer), Hans Zimmer (International Award Winning composer and music producer who has composed music for over 100 films) and Rusty Rueff(Chairman Emeritus of The Grammy Foundation). We discuss the fundamental question of ‘what’ music is and the role of music in human culture. We also explore the business of music, and how technology has impacted the production and consumption of music around the world. Digging deeper, we discuss the secrets of what makes a great piece of music and look at why music is fundamental to our very experience of being human.
Q: What is music?
[Moby] One of the really fascinating things about music is that technically- in a very literal way- it doesn’t exist. A painting, a sculpture or a photograph can physically exist, while music is just air hitting the eardrum in a slightly different way than it would randomly. If you were a space alien trying to define music- you would define it as humans manipulating the way in which air molecules hit someone’s eardrum.
Somehow that air- which has almost no substance whatsoever- when moved and when made to hit the eardrum in tiny subtle ways- can make people dance, cry, have sex, move across country, go to war and more. It’s remarkable that something so subtle can illicit profound emotional reactions in people.
[Hans Zimmer] Music is organised chaos! ….but not necessarily in a bad way, as organised chaos can sound pretty good!
I feel music is an autonomous language. As you are speaking to a German in English here, I am trying to make sense of words- but there’s a whole bunch of things I can’t express in any language. I’m not Shakespeare or Goethe, so I have to resort to notes. Sometimes with two little notes, I can hit an emotional target with more precision than could ever be possible with words.
For me, the operative word in music is play. I’ve never been very good at ‘growing up’- and in fact, that was reflected in what I did last night. I went into a room with a bunch of musicians- we sat down and we just started playing, we didn’t even need to speak with each other. That level of communication, trust and friendship is phenomenal. It’s one of the most special things in my life, and I feel that anyone who can’t have experiences like that may be living a less fulfilling life.
I won’t be giving it up anytime soon!
Q: What is the role of music in our experience of being human?
[Moby] I think the human condition is just baffling for everybody. We are alive for a few decades in a universe that is 15 billion years old and vast beyond our imagining. We define ourselves as having a fixed age of 30 or 40 years when the truth is that at a quantum level there is no part of you that is less than 15 billion years old.
Music provides us with a strange self-generated celebration of the human condition in the face of a universe that is ancient and vast beyond our understanding.
[Hans Zimmer] Music is one of the few things we, as humans, are any good at. If you look at the history of music- way back- you will find things like the Balinese monkey chants. It starts out as a bunch of monkeys yammering in a forest, and turns into a chant. If you go to any rave, or any football event, you will find people chanting in a rhythm- human beings do that. We have this sense to participate and organise- this is music at its most crude form. We then go to something more sublime like the second movement of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto– you can’t fail to be moved by it!
Music lets you rediscover your humanity, and your connection to humanity. When you listen to Mozart with other people, you feel that somehow- we’re all in this together. This is, I suppose, what great poetry strives for.
[Rusty Rueff] For me, music is the language, which allows us to express emotion. We each have emotion inside of us that we need to get out, and ones we need to experience; and often words are not enough. Music is that vehicle to express emotion, when words don’t suffice.
Think… Why do we put music behind slideshows we make at home? In sound tracks to movies? To change our mood when we get in the car? To help us deep think?
Music is that language that helps us express and experience emotion.
Q: What makes a great piece of music?
[Moby] This is a question of whether there are any inherent or innate properties of music that affect people regardless of temporal or cultural context is one that people have been coming up against for a very long time. And the truth is, I have no idea.
I hear Indonesian Gamelan music and it makes no sense to me, but for someone who grew up with it? the same music can create a great emotional reaction.
[Hans Zimmer] I’m sure much has been written on this question, by academics and thinkers, but as for me- I’ve had a rotten education. I make music from my own instinct.
Let’s stay with the example of Mozart. Yes, he wrote remarkable pieces! But could anyone else have written them? I’m sure! It’s the initial idea… the balance between geometric form, mathematical precision and emotion- the aesthetic of the piece.
There’s a great Duke Ellington quote, “there are only two types of music- good music, and bad music…” I experienced this last week! Here I am, a film composer, talking with Pete Townsend and he’s explaining the last four Beethoven Quartets to me. We musicians are funny, we’re incredible snobs about music- but this is not dependent on style. We could have been discussing some fantastic country and western song, or a piece of electronica.
[Rusty Rueff] A great piece of music has a lot to do with being in the right place at the right time. There are timeless pieces that hit the zeitgeist, and change people’s thinking… but are relevant to the time. If Mozart was alive today, and was composing what he composed during his lifetime, it might not have the same impact now as it had then. At the moment it was being created, it broke a boundary, did something new, grabbed us in a way we hadn’t been grabbed before… and as we look back over time, we can see this is why things withstand time. Why do we still chill when we hear Sinatra, or Presley or The Beatles or Mozart! It’s because at that time, they were breaking through, taking us to a new place. It’s getting harder and harder in today’s world.
Why did the song Happy by Pharrell Williams become the international song that it became, and one of the bigger global hits of the past few decades. I think it’s because, at the time- the world was looking for something…. we were recovering from recession, war and many other things… and we needed a moment of hopefulness that allowed us to stop the madness for a moment, and pick us up. Will it be timeless? Maybe for the generation who were in the heart of the trouble…. Maybe they will reflect back on this time and remember this song, and make it timeless.
Q: What have been your inspirations?
[Moby] I’ve been obsessed with and in love with music since I was three or four years old, and I’m reminded of one of my favourite quotes from the movie “Almost Famous.” At the very end of the movie, William Miller (the journalist) is interviewing Russell (the guitar player from Sweetwater) and the question he asks is, “what do you love about music?” and Russell’s response is, “well, to start with… everything“.
For me, music is an end unto itself but also a way of representing every aspect of the human experience. You can represent joy, despair, confusion, anger and so on.
[Hans Zimmer] There are many things that inspire me, but they’re usually not music.
The reason I went into film-music is that I love people telling a story. I love images. I love paintings. Let me tell you a story… When I started working with Ridley Scott– I realised he was really a painter- he would have been a damn fine painter too. The tragedy there was he was in the same year as David Hockney in the Royal Academy. He had to figure out that maybe he needed to do something else… This is a characteristic shared by Terry Malik too. I feel that we talk in colours, and these colours become the story you want to tell, and how you tell it.
Very often it’s the same story I get to tell. How many people have I had die on the screen, or kiss on the screen- and I have to find a different way of contextualising all of that.
If I reflect on the most successful things I have worked on, they keep asking the same questions- who are we? How do we all fit into this crazy world? …and these questions never get answered, and that keeps you writing.
Q: What is the relationship of music to language?
[Moby] This is an issue that western philosophy has been dealing with for millennia… the question of what can be known and how it can be communicated.
In the early 20th century when Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, he basically tried to answer this question, saying that the only meaningful way that human beings can communicate is through mathematics. He felt this [Maths] was a language that left no room for interpretation or subjectivity. A few decades later, he almost refuted this. He didn’t say that art, speaking and writing had no meaning- but rather that they were inherently subjective forms of communication.
Music transcends the limits of language. The English lexicon is vast, but still is limited. Music comes in to fill the gap. It looks at the way we can’t express ourselves through the spoken or written word and makes up for the lack.
[Hans Zimmer] Music is definitely an extension of language.
Bernstein explained this beautifully in his Harvard Lectures where he talked on how music came about. We have one universal word, “mama….” If you sing it a little faster and a little louder, mama will hear you and come and feed you. In this sense, music had a survival necessity.
Like all good things- sooner or later we get past bare survival and turn things into art.
Q: What is the relationship of music to the wider arts?
[Moby] There is a symbiotic relationship that all the arts have with each other. Photographers listen to music, musicians look at photographs, and everyone can be friends.
One of the things I love about a pseudo-interdisciplinary approach to arts is that when a musician (for example) walks into an art gallery, they tend to have quite a lot of innocence when exposed to the art as they are not a visual artist. When a musician walks into an art gallery to look at paintings, they’re not concerned with how they were made, nor are they jealous of the artists career, they are just having a very direct and honest reaction to the work. In this sense, some of my favourite musical opinions come from non-musicians as they tend to see things more innocently and naively- in a really healthy way.
If a painter walks into an art gallery where another painter is showing their works, the criteria by which that painter is judging the other painter’s work rarely has much to do with the innocent way in which someone else might react to the work.
Q: How do you feel the concepts of aesthetic and beauty exist in music?
[Moby] This goes back to understanding whether these concepts are influenced by culture, context and such variables and whether there is a platonic idea of musical aesthetic and beauty.
I don’t think there is such a thing. There’s some music that I find incredibly beautiful which others may find dissonant and horrifying- and vice versa. Someone might play me one of their favourite songs and it may sound- to me- like nails on a chalkboard while to them it’s a sublime expression of the time…
[Hans Zimmer] One of the things I love doing is to juxtapose truly horrendously ugly things. You can get away with a lot more in music than with other arts.
We live in the age of Dissonance… Dissonance in the form we have it now grew out of 1910, leading up to the First World War and ever-after. We live in a dissonant world, and there is a way of describing it in music that can become very exciting and very satisfying. Suddenly something as dissonant as the little thing I did for the Joker in The Dark Knight can become hugely commercial. I don’t think anything as obnoxious, crude and ugly as that- in any other art form- could hit such a nerve and zeitgeist.
Popular music hasn’t really developed that much. The sounds change a bit etcetera, but those same three chords can be immensely satisfying- and sometimes you throw a fourth chord in. You’re dealing with a very narrow pallet, and you can say an awful lot with that. Every composer tries to escape that pallet, find something new and move forward. Against this we have the very old fashioned notion the avant-garde- with all the baggage that comes with that. I feel sometimes they truly lost touch with who they were writing for.
This links back to something I said earlier where I was in a room with a bunch of musicians and we were having a great time playing together. There is another party you have to invite into your music- the audience- they have to become active participants in one way or another. People sing in the shower! I don’t think there is much poetry recited in showers, or much discussion of paintings…
The great thing about music is its humility. I am working on a score right now, and to achieve one of the sounds I am using a cardboard box and a rubber band! It just so happened that was the sound I was hearing in my head. Anyone can go make an instrument, tap on a table, and get people to participate.
Participation is important. I grew up in England, and was very shy. When I came to England, I could not speak any English. The only way I could communicate was to play a bit of Piano. This has happened to me time and time again where I would work with musicians and we wouldn’t be able to speak the same words- but when we start playing, hours would pass and there was no need to exchange words! We would know exactly where to turn, where to go, whether it was going well or not… and would know instinctively how to steer the music to reach an unspoken result that was aesthetically satisfying.
I believe this ability is intuitive. The idea that music is the universal language is only true insofar that it is music… but music has different meanings from culture to culture. Folk music is different from culture to culture… The word happiness doesn’t exist in German, so we have to make do with music to fill that void.
Q: Is genre an extension of culture?
[Moby] All the variables that contribute to the birth, sustenance and morphing of a genre- and the way in which people feel married to a genre- enter the realm of chaos theory. The variables are myriad and unknowable.
I don’t want to sound too esoteric, but I do think a lot of this has to do with neural plasticity. As time passes, neuroscientists become more aware of how fluid and plastic the brain can be- but research also shows there is a wilful desire to hold onto a degree of rigidity- maintaining things that are familiar, and to which we have allegiance. We see this a lot with patriotism and attachment to sports teams- but it also leads to genre. It’s not just a preference, but an atavistic tribal allegiance.
There used to be a utilitarian aspect to this. When records were expensive and hard to come by- the purchase of one used to be an expression of allegiance to a genre. Now, music is ubiquitous and doesn’t cost anything- so it seems that as time passes, genre is becoming more of an antiquated idea. If we were having this conversation 30 years ago, almost everybody you and I were friends with would have had genres they were very deeply attached to. When I think of all of my friends now? …rarely do they speak in terms of genre, but rather in terms of music that they like.
[Hans Zimmer] Absolutely!
For example, I have always believed that rap music- in one way or another- grew out of the blues, and work songs. It’s a genre where pretty strong political and social ideas are expressed. European Art Music on the other hand comes out of a need to play nice music for people’s expensive dinner, or the opera. One is real and authentic and charges forward, while the other is becoming redundant and hanging on for dear life.
You have so many varieties… militaristic music- which I don’t think is music at all- in fact I believe it is a horrible proclamation, a misuse of music. There’s a reason why there are a million and one love songs… They all try and say the same thing, albeit in slightly different ways…. In popular music, you have the notion of the band. There is something about being young and coming together with three other guys to form a band and make music- it’s a natural thing.
To make great music, you have to have that certain recklessness which you have when you’re young. I think this is why a lot of bands fall apart… the recklessness and the adventurousness is there, but I don’t think they know how to be socially fair to each other… They have to behave as one single body, with collective responsibility for the sound they make.
[Rusty Rueff] Genres are created by editors and marketers, not by artists. In fact… artists hate to be put in a genre box. If you tell an artist that you are putting them in say, the country & western category, they’ll say “no! no! no!” Even though our classifications of genre say they would fit there, artists rarely agree.
In the earliest of times, there had to be events and concert promoters. If I was at a bar in Ireland in the 1700s and 1800s and wanted to put a sign up to show what was playing that night, I’d probably say- Irish dance music… or something like that. I would have began to classify music to help people understand what the music was going to be. When radio showed up, we had to quickly categorise music into genre so we could tell consumers what to expect.
This is no different to genres in books; for example fiction and non-fiction, and within fiction sub-genres like horror, crime, mystery, fantasy and so on…. In visual art, you have watercolour, painter, modernist, impressionist and more.
We classify art forms, and music is a victim of that. Without genre however, it would be difficult for artists to find acceptance.
Q: What is the role of the composer in music?
[Hans Zimmer] It really depends. I write so many different things and transgress so many styles. That’s what I love about film music- nobody is telling me to sound like my last hit single or something like that! I can go from a Thelma and Louise into Gladiator- they’re completely different sounds of music with the same Director.
My role is fundamentally selfish. I like playing music. That’s the thing I like doing more than anything else- at the expense of anything else. I am not good at parties… it’s tough to get me to go to dinner… all I want to do is sit in my room and write music, I’m very, very, dull!
At its most basic, you are giving impetus. You throw three or four notes into a room and say, “…where can we go with this?” or I can get into my German dictatorial thing where everything is written out and nobody can even change an inflection. Composition lies somewhere between creating a possibility that allows other people to express themselves and making something which is a single minded point of view.
Q: Is the challenge of composing based on the blank slate?
[Hans Zimmer] I have a blank slate, always- even in movies.
There are many ways to interpret anything. Part of the job is to be a little ahead of everyone else. This creates its own problems… As someone once said to me after I had written something particularly offensive, “..it’s called show-business and not show-friends…”
At the end of the day, what keeps me sane is that I always know I am serving the film. When we sit around and have conversations about music, you see that people are kind. They come up with ideas. They see you sitting there staring- like a Deer in the headlights because you have no idea what to write. You have to re-interpret these suggestions at best… The job of a composer is not to do the thing they can think of, but the thing they can’t imagine.
What it comes down to is that you should never ask an audience or a director what they want to hear. That’s not their job to answer! If you ask an audience what they want to hear in film music, they may answer, “we want to hear another Star Wars… another Gladiator…” – your job is to invent, to be ahead of things.
Music is no good if it doesn’t get a little scary, there has to be some controversy going on.
Q: What is the role of different instruments in music?
[Moby] You have to take this on a case-by-case basis. The criteria by which a performance is judged has everything to do with the individual piece of music. Sometimes a wonderful guitar part may be transcendent, emotionally resonant and wonderful and other times a wonderfully played guitar part may seem like the most inappropriate thing in the world. The musician has to figure this out on their own.
When you’re playing music for other people, you quickly become aware of the reaction that people are having. The best musicians are able to stay true to themselves but also remain open to the opinion of other people. If you are rigid and closed off to the opinions of other people, you end up with music that nobody wants to listen to- and if you’re 100% based on the opinions of others? you end up with pablum…
Q: To what extent do you draw influence from areas outside music (such as politics, religion and so on)?
[Hans Zimmer] It’s all one thing!
If you take the three Batman movies I worked on, the music can be seen in a very political way. It’s about a post-capitalist society and its ideas. At the same time, all I tried to do is write from the moment a boy witnessed his parents get killed- and see where he got to three movies later- that’s my arc.
You can go off left, right and experiment- and you try to create a sonic world. That’s part of the fun of it.
Q: To what extent does music influence politics, religion and other social phenomena?
[Moby] The challenge is to understand the extent to which music informs culture, and the extent to which culture informs music.
If you look at the late 60’s, it’s very hard to figure out which was the primary driver. Was it cultural change? technology? or music? It seems in reality to be a messy symbiotic relationship between all of those elements. The music reflected the culture, the culture reflected the music and nobody can really tell which was the chicken or the egg!
Music has a way of being informative, and has a lot of capabilities. When I think of the Neil Young song Ohio – it’s informative, but also provides an emotional connection to a specific political and personal experience. I wasn’t atKent State– but when I listen to that song? I can get emotional and choked up. Even though I didn’t know anyone who was killed at Kent State in the early 70’s and I don’t know much about what happened, I can still have an emotional reaction to it.
For decades music has also legitimised certain world views. Music has taken-in world views that are often time left of centre and made them seem legitimate in the political, hedonistic or public realm. I think of John Lennon’s song Imagine. There are hundreds of millions of people who have been affected by that song, and it’s changed- to an extent- the way people see themselves, relate to people around them, understand the world cosmologically and more. It’s not a ‘Paul on The Road to Damascus‘ way but rather more subtle- shaping the way we perceive ourselves and our world.
Q: What is the role of awards in music?
[Rusty Rueff] Award shows, and the awards themselves continue to editorialise what we should be following or be exposed to. Without those, we may not get interest, or be able to find our way into what’s new, popular, critically acclaimed or what the masses are doing. They open up a way for us to get exposure and to follow!
If you’re a creator, awards give you a road map, something to aim for in your future journey. For example, American Idol had 11 or 12 seasons, and all of a sudden this kid shows up playing a guitar, Phillip Phillips… he played a guitar, won American Idol. If you’ve watched the past few seasons since he won, 80% of the artists that show up play the guitar… before Phil Phillips, practically nobody played the guitar on that show!
We know that those who get awarded and recognised create those trends. We’ll turn on the radio 6 months from now and say, ‘gosh, everyone sounds like Sam Smith!’ why? because creators need a way to understand what can best get them discovered…
Q: What is the role of celebrity in music?
[Rusty Rueff] The role of celebrity has been diminished through the power of the internet. Prior to the internet, the role of celebrity was very powerful in shifting and moving culture. When someone became a celebrity, it was our only way to be exposed to the new. When Buddy Holly became a celebrity, we looked at him and said wow! This is a change!. When the Beatles became celebrities and landed in the USA in 1964, they caused frenzy and shifted everything. At that time, the control of who did and did not become a celebrity was pretty thoughtful. You had a smaller supply of artists, huge amounts of pent-up demand, and very thoughtful people who made the decisions.
Today, celebrity can be manufactured and very targeted to certain groups versus the masses. That power of celebrity is watered down for shifting culture, and in many ways can be irresponsibly powerful in shaping certain people’s views within certain groups. For example… there are certain celebrities that have been manufactured and created using the internet that are not responsible whatsoever and cause more damage than they do good. What do we do about that? Nothing! The toothpaste is out of the tube!
The speed at which celebrity is created should cause all of us to consider what celebrity is today, versus what it was. It used to take someone 5-7 years to become a celebrity, and now it can happen in moments. Just think, none of us knew who Sam Smith was 12 months ago, and now he’s there. The risk is that Sam Smith is unproven, we don’t know what direction he may go in tomorrow, and very few of us are built for fame and fortune that comes so fast – we will see greater and greater negative results of that for the artist themselves. If it took you 15 years to become an overnight wonder, you worked 15 years to make that happen. If you worked 15 months to become an overnight success like a Justin Bieber, Amy Winehouse or even a Sam Smith… it can be hard to understand it.
If you ever watched Flight of the Conchords, the band had one fan – Melanie. She was the one fan. Well, Kevin Kelly – the founder of Wired magazine, wrote an essay a decade ago about 1000 true fans. He did the economics… If you have 1000 Melanies that buy everything you create, whether that’s a button, t-shirt, album, tape, appendage, anything…. And every time you are in town they come to see you for every show, and they pay at the door for that… and they occasionally travel to see you… and tell their friends how great you are… you only need those 1000 to make a living. To get 1000 true fans is not implausible! If you can find 1000 people who like you, and personalise the experience to them, to make them more and more engaged, you might well hold them for a lifetime – new ones will come, others may go, but if you can hold that 1000, you will turn your passion into your livelihood. You may not become U2, but you certainly won’t need a day job….
Q: How have the internet and technology impacted music?
[Moby] It’s almost hard to remember how it was when I was growing up. Then, in order to listen to music, you had to be listening to the right radio station at the right time, you had to save up all your money to buy a record, ride your bike over to a friend’s house to listen to their records and so on. Music was scarce.
It’s really ironic that the music business was technically a lot healthier when it was a lot harder to access music. The record business did great when it involved people travelling great distances to go to record stores and spend lots of money on pieces of plastic. Now that music is ubiquitous and available everywhere, the record business is suffering. It’s a strange paradox.
It may sound clichéd, but technology has democratised music. The music business of the 80’s was a strange third-world country where 0.0001% of musicians controlled all the success and wealth. Now, the music business has become a lot more like Scandinavia where there isn’t as much wealth- but it’s spread more evenly among the people. It’s a long-tail effect. There’s a lot of musicians now who can make records inexpensively, who can distribute their work inexpensively and who- if they’re clever enough- can figure out how to have some semblance of a career. Before, there were literally a handful of musicians who were selling millions of records, and everyone else was left out in the cold.
There are so many successful music companies now, and most of them were started in the last 10 years. The paradigms of the climate in which music companies can survive or fail have changed dramatically in the past 15 years. The older companies are desperately trying to be Ostriches, hiding their heads in the sand and hoping things will get better one day. Newer companies like Kobalt are thriving because their business model is based on the climate as it currently is- whereas the old companies are all suffering because their businesses are based on economic and technological climates that disappeared a long time ago.
For the longest time, the criteria by which the success of music was calculated had everything to do with revenue. There were very specific physical metrics used to determine the success of a musician- how many records were sold? how many tickets sold?… now it’s much more nebulous. I personally find that now we have an incredibly dynamic dialectic between the musician and the listener. The musician is informing the listener, and the listener is informing the musician. It’s much less viably profit-driven. Musicians who are still out there desperately trying to just make money are not doing that well- whereas musicians who are embracing this new strange paradigm are personally, artistically and professionally succeeding more.
It’s also forced me to ask questions of myself, for example- why am I dedicating my life to making music? For me, the answer is simple- it’s because I love music, I love making music and I love doing what I can to get people to hear it. If I just focus on those three things and- without being egregiously stupid in the process- let the business side of things take care of themselves, then I will be successful.
In the new climate, when people are disingenuous, the audience becomes aware of it very quickly. In the olden days, artists and labels could be a lot more disingenuous and it would take the listener a long time to figure it out.
[Hans Zimmer] I would never have had a career without technology, I came at music from technology. I came at it not from doing piano scales, but from programming computers. I remember I had this little computer with 16K of memory, and everyone was astonished! What was I going to do with all this memory!
All musical development- in one way or another- goes hand in hand with technology. All musical instruments are advancements in technology. For a few hundred years they were mechanical advancements, then they became electronic advancements. I keep having the suspicion that society made a mistake when we learned to record music. We took away the eye watching the performance….
Then the internet came along and made us think of music in a completely different way. Digital has made music instinctively disposable. You just know that if you write something on a piece of paper, and someone digs it up in 2,000 years- they will probably be able to play it. If you found a hard-drive with some data on, I don’t think you would find a computer that could go and play that back.
Music has always had a sort of redundancy built into it. Music only happens in the moment, it’s not like a painting that you can stand in front of. It only exists in its relationship with time.
I aim not to create something that lasts, but rather something for the moment. It took me years to get around to not throwing scores in the bin thinking, “..we’re done with that one, onto the next project…..”
This has followed the story of knowledge in many areas of culture. I think the Church became very worried whenGutenberg invented print. Suddenly anyone could have access to books.
Ultimately, we can see this as having manifest in two ways. If we look at the consumption of music, there has been an incredible boom. In terms of people making music- I think there are just as many people making music as there were before. It’s more of a jumble now and very hard to figure out what you like…
[Rusty Rueff] Technology has had a huge impact on music, not just for our ability to create and find an audience, but also for us as consumers to search and retrieve things that we otherwise would never have been able to find.
I’ll give you an interesting factoid, which I think still stands today, and explains why there’s still power in radio, the charts, and award shows. When the original Napster came out, the pattern of usage went like this. For the first two weeks, people were rabid on Napster, and would download everything they could get their hands on. Then they stopped… Firstly, they thought they had all they needed and secondly, they didn’t know what they didn’t have! The next iteration was to put a discovery engine on top of it, and show that Etta James was very much like artist X and that Amy Winehouse was very much like artist Y… Nowadays, we have genre recommendation engines such as Pandora which create entire stations for you based on ‘sounds like…..’
Unless someone tells us what we should have that we don’t, we don’t know what to get or what to do- that pattern has not changed.
The internet and technology has been extraordinary for opening up music, but my guess is that we don’t sit there and spend 80% of our day exploring new music. We spend our time enjoying what we already have, and a small fraction of our time exploring. Our ability to consume has become phenomenal, music is now an all you can eat buffet, but we still have our favourite meals.
Where technology will take us next is the personalisation of music, and our ability to control and take-power over the industry itself. Right now, I am able to decide what genre of artist, what category of music, what mood I want to create. I can do all of those things; and it’s a conscious decision. I will decide the playlist I want to put together, the genres, the mood I want to shift from and to, and I will get pre-packaged stuff that comes to me. In a very short time, whether it’s through wearable technology, or a better way of reading how we’re thinking or what we’re doing by reading our calendar, patterns and such, we will be able to flip on a feed of music based on what the technology and data knows of us at that moment. If I have a wearable device on for example, and my heart rate is up and I am moving at a faster pace than I would normally move, I will probably have the opportunity to flip on a music feed that knows I’m working out, and I won’t be fed Enya! I’ll be fed LMFAO or whatever else is high energy and high tempo. Each time I modify that, it learns from me. That’s one thing; the personalisation of music consumption is on its way, and will become extraordinarily more powerful. Right now, the retailer enhances brand by playing music but doesn’t know me – but in the future, I may walk into a store and get music personalised to me, and to [in the retailers mind] spend more money.
Technology is also shifting power. We should be able to consume and use music in any way that we want to without the barriers between us and technology. Today the license for music is held by the delivery technology, so Spotify, Youtube and Pandora go and get the licenses for the music they want to provide. Where it goes is this… You and I will pay a flat fee per month, say $3.99 to our mobile carrier, and the same to our ISP or broadband provider. That will give us a music license, and if we’ve paid for that… any music we use for any purpose, is covered. The ISP and the carriers will measure and count the number of uses for each one of those songs, and then will split a pool of money each month for the rightsholder. In that way, Pharrell Williams, in 10 months, during the time where Happy was a global phenomenon being listened to around the world, streamed, shown and used in power-points, slideshows, behind TV and film and more…. Maybe he could have made a billion dollars a month for 10 months.
This makes music more democratic, and makes sure the hits are the hits because they create the most listens! The technology is there for this to happen, but we have a generation of rights holders who continually try to hold on and control versus understanding that a small slice of a huge pie is much greater than trying to hold a small pie all by themselves.
Q: What advice would you give to the next generation of musicians?
[Moby] First and foremost, don’t specialise. The days in which a bass player could have a 40 year career as a bass player are done. The music world as it exists now favours people who are prepared to do anything. My advice to musicians would be – learn how to make classical music, learn how to DJ, learn how to produce, learn how to play live, learn how to write songs for other people, learn everything…. dedicate your life to it… and hopefully love every aspect of what you do.
If someone is just being technical and business minded, they can figure out all these things- but there won’t be any emotional resonance. If people love what they do, it increases the chances that they will work harder and also increases the chances that they’ll be really good at what they do.
I consider myself almost disturbingly fortunate in the fact that every aspect of creating music makes me happy…. whether it’s playing bass in a blues band, writing classical music, playing in punk rock group, making my own records or DJ’ing- there is nothing else in my life that excites me as much as making music, regardless of the context.
Q: What would the world be like without music?
[Hans Zimmer] A world without music would be unimaginable, a huge chunk of the social communication mechanism would be gone.
Music happens in very few other places. If you go to a football match,, you will see people rooting for the same team- for the same goal. Music does this effortlessly. You can have a few people around, play a piece of music- and everyone falls silent and gets carried along by the story the music tells.
Music tells a part of our story. That’s why it’s so important- to me- that orchestras get to survive. With all the modern technologies we have, it’s very easy to say “…we don’t need an orchestra…” but an orchestra is not just about the body of sound it makes… it serves a social function. You can beat Hollywood up about allsorts of things- quite rightly so- but one of the things you need to remember is that Hollywood is one of the last places on Earth where… on a big scale, you see the daily commissioning of orchestral music.
Look at the economy… one of the first thing that gets slashed is music and the art programmes from schools. This may seem like a tragedy but the inherent quality I know about musicians is that they’re born that way- they can’t help themselves- they have to pick up an instrument and learn how to play. My daughter once asked me what it was like to be a starving musician. It was the first time I’d ever really thought about this question…. Poverty sucks, but you never really thought about it because you were surrounded by other starving musicians and you just had a good time playing music! Somebody somewhere would figure out how we could pay the rent and get some food, but survival wasn’t the essence- playing music was.
Music is inherent in all of us. I don’t know what it’s like to not have music in my life, or live in a vacuum where there is no music. Years ago I asked a friend, “what music do you hear when you wake up?” …and they sort of looked at me funny and asked what I meant. To me it was inconceivable that someone could not wake up and be thinking of a new tune or something. I just assumed they were all more sensible and had real jobs… I’ve been told that there are people out there who have no affinity with music, but I think that is pretty rare.
To me, hearing and feeling music is the same as smelling, tasting or seeing- it’s just one of the senses for me.
[Rusty Rueff] Imagine being visually lost in low definition black and white television. Without music, we would be devoid of that essential emotion and expression that makes us who we are. We would be very insular, hampered from communicating and- I suspect- we’d almost be hermit like…
What happens when you’re standing in an audience of 50,000 experiencing music, or sitting across the dinner table with a soundtrack behind you looking at the one you love saying ‘that’s our song’, those are all essential parts of human experience and without music, we’d be devoid of an essential part of ourselves
In an essay for Harvard Magazine, the acclaimed biologist and author E. O. Wilson wrote, “…To create and perform music is a human instinct. It is one of the true universals of our species. To take an extreme example, the neuroscientist Aniruddh D. Patel points to the Pirahã, a small tribe in the Brazilian Amazon: ‘Members of this culture speak a language without numbers or a concept of counting. Their language has no fixed terms for colors. They have no creation myths, and they do not draw, aside from simple stick figures. Yet they have music in abundance, in the form of songs.’ …Patel has referred to music as a ‘transformative technology’. ”
On the impact music has on our species itself, Wilson notes that, “… To the same degree as literacy and language itself, it has changed the way people see the world. Learning to play a musical instrument even alters the structure of the brain, from subcortical circuits that encode sound patterns to neural fibers that connect the twocerebral hemispheres and patterns of gray matter density in certain regions of the cerebral cortex. Music is powerful in its impact on human feeling and on the interpretation of events. It is extraordinarily complex in the neural circuits it employs, appearing to elicit emotion in at least six different brain mechanisms.”
Leaving the neuroscience aside, we cannot ignore the abstract and profoundly deep emotional connection we have to music. It has an undeniable beauty, and a sense of truth- seeming almost as natural a part of our existence as breathing.
As humans, we can split our experience of the world into three domains. Firstly the domain of language (including writing) which allows us to exchange knowledge. Secondly, the domain of science (including maths) which gives our world comprehensibility. Third is the domain of the aesthetic (including art) which gives our world meaning.
Music is one of the few products of humanity which spans all three domains, giving it a unique position within our culture and existence. This is a phenomenon so fundamental to who we are, that it is inconceivable that we would have a world without it.
As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “…Without music, life would be an error.“