Why the Music Industry Hates Singing – Loz Kaye
I have taught song and singing in various ways for over a decade now. One of the things that has never ceased to amaze me is the trauma and anxiety this simple act seems to produce in even well balanced students. People who have no problem speaking, laughing and breathing can suddenly be left mute by a simple request to use their vocal chords in a slightly different way. To any of you reading this who have burst in to tears in one of my classes, you are not the only one.
And no wonder. The act of singing has been appropriated and professionalised, turned from an expression of participation to one of exclusion. One of the significant driving forces of the modern recording industry has been the shift of focus from the composer to the performer. The way to sell units has been to identify them with a gifted vocalist. Who can compare with Elvis? Who has the consummate presence of Aretha Franklin? Who has the range of Whitney Houston? OK, not even Whitney any more, but you get the point. Just fill in your own hero.
In traditional societies song permeates every aspect of life and is entered in to by the whole community. For some in the west singing in church or at a football match may be a regular occurrence, if very specific in time and place. As it is now, most people would no more consider singing something that they would do every day than brain surgery. In classic business terms those who make a living out of flogging music have found a good way to restrict supply. It is by making song an activity reserved for the few – educated or talented, or both, rather than the many. All kinds of choirs are reporting a worrying hemorrhaging of numbers, whether school, Anglican or welsh male voice, even despite programmes like Last Choir Standing.
The advent of recording has altered music irretrievably, there is no getting away from that. Whereas a piece used to just exist in time and vanished in the second it was born, now it is captured, preserved. It is possible to hold a performance up to scrutiny and dissection. And the the search for performers who can live up to that kind of scrutiny has lead to an ever increasing obsession with different types of imagined perfection. It fascinates me for example to listen to the classic recording of the film of West Side Story- the Quintet has some very dodgy tone and intonation. It would simply not be allowed nowadays. Yet it remains one of the recordings that never fails to send a chill down my spine. When we come to the Te Kanawa / Carreras version the difference is already clear. The well manufactured sheen may be impressive, but gets in the way of us truly identifying with the score in my view.
It is almost as if singing has become a kind of sport, rather than a branch of the arts. Whenever I see the latest contestants in ‘Britain’s got XFactor’ I can’t help imagining that the luckless souls on stage have a coach in the wings barking “Louder! Higher! Louder! Higher! ” at them. My colleagues (well a few of them anyway) gleefully discuss “the money note” – the particular sound that will have them weeping in the aisles, and clicking on pay to download. All too often these sounds are impressive, yet shorn of any real emotional connection. I am sure this is why we flocked to support ‘Rage Against the Machine’. It was not just a ‘fuck you’ move, but an appeal for music to mean something rather than just be an exercise in jumping through vocal hoops.
Equally, these competition based programmes are also based on the humiliation of ordinary mortals who dare to think they might sing without being blessed with the voice beautiful. These people are deliberately selected to be mocked for the entertainment of the rest of us. (The participants you see are not just randomly off the street, they have already got though preliminary audition rounds). The message is clear- music is not something for the masses. Only a select breed are actually worth listening to, so you had better pay through the nose to hear them. It suddenly becomes clear why students are left angst ridden when asked to take a solo, the fear is that they might end up like one of the plebs who crash out in the first episode of the series.
Oddly enough this quest for the perfect voice may be the undoing of the music machine. There has been much discussion of the use of autotune recently. I am not surprised at the rise of this phenomenon, not least because the TV shows emphasise personality and dreams rather than work and training. It takes work and training to achieve intonation- if that is what you are after. However listeners are beginning to kick against it. If song has become a kind of “Louder, Higher!” competition, autotune is the equivalent of doping. It leaves us feeling cheated. It exposes an emotional emptiness, and leaves a strange plastic aura ringing in our ears.
The act of free singing threatens the music industry. It is a counter to the idea that only a precious few can take part in music, and that they are offering you some kind of luxury item. There are are shelf fulls of scores in libraries all round the country. Just imagine if more people actually took them out and brought them to life. So relax, throw your head back, and sing like autotune was never invented.
Loz Kaye is Leader of Pirate Party UK