Thursday, September 10, 2015

Calvin Harris, the New Musical Star?

Depressing news of the week: EDM (electronic dance music) is now a huge business and one of its stars, DJ Calvin Harris, made more money last year than Jay-Z:
Late last month, Forbes published its list of the world’s top-earning D.J.s. Calvin Harris, 31, who less than a decade ago was stocking groceries in a Scottish supermarket, came in first place, earning $66 million over a 12-month period beginning in June last year through club fees, endorsement deals and music royalties. That’s more than what Jay Z ($56 million) or Kim Kardashian ($52.5 million) grossed in the same period, and it’s one of many recent indications that EDM, or electronic dance music — once the commercially marginal soundtrack to underground parties — has reached an impressive new level of mainstream success.
Let's have a look/listen to Mr. Harris:

Obviously quite different from what Deadmau5 is/was doing, but we can hear the genealogy I think. How is this different from any other singer/songwriter? Here's this guy wandering around, singing a song. Well, sort-of. It's not quite a song. It is a small fragment of a song, repeated a couple of times, with long stretches of a dreary synthesized lick in between. It's the fantasized visuals that are selling this: car racing in the desert followed by a night at the dance club with chicks, chicks, chicks. It is as if Calvin looked at the music scene and decided that the main problem was that a lot of the product (the "music" or "songs") was just too complicated and confusing for the average listener so he decided to trim it down to just the essentials: two or three lines of lyrics, the simplest, most repetitive soundtrack and lots and lots of pictures of hot babes in short shorts. This video is a bit like a Fast and Furious movie but without the complex character development (and the joke there is that I'm NOT being sarcastic). Voilà, success and $66 million yearly income.

Here's an odd socio-economic note: all these D.J.s are male but all the big pop soloists these days seem to be female: Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Nikki Minaj, Rihanna and so on.


Marc Puckett said...

'Fast and Furious without the character development'-- very amusing!

I counted up the 'influential DJs' on Spotify's page dedicated to them; 30 of 'em, one being a duo, a male and a female. That's what? 3%, more or less, if we count Faithless in the female column; as you suggest, for some reason there is no great outcry about this horror.

Christine Lacroix said...

Yikes Bryan! That was a terrible clip to wake up to! I hope you're not planning on doing that regularly.
I don't know Calvin Harris but I recognized the name so I found this other clip. To be fair let's listen to one of his better 'pieces':
He composed it, I promise.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oops, sorry to mess up your morning. Here at the Music Salon we try to cover all corners of the music "business", but in the case of EDM, as briefly as possible.

Christine Lacroix said...

What I think is the truly interesting thing about Calvin Harris is why so many people like what he does. Can we reduce it to 'they must be peasants who don’t know anything about music'?

By the way Bryan what’s the sound of one hand clapping? Think about that. I’m still wondering about the damn boat having it’s parts replaced one by one. Tit for tat.

You know more about all aspects of the music industry than I do. I'd never heard of EDM. I don't love the Calvin Harris covered by 2CELLOS but I like it enough. I've always thought that I could find something in every genre that I could, if not love, at least like enough to understand how other people enjoy it. Would you believe I actually made the effort with Lindsey Stirling and found one or two pieces that were acceptable to me? If you're wondering why I bother it's because I'm afraid of missing out on something. I see the number of views on YouTube, read some of the comments and think ‘what am I not getting here?' One of the comments was 'anybody who doesn't love Lindsey Stirling doesn't love life’! I actually wondered about myself for a moment. Seriously though, how do you explain the views on YouTube?

Bryan Townsend said...

As always, you pose the most interesting questions, Christine. No, I think that calling people who like this music ignorant or insensible is misleading--even though many of them may be! If I put my musicologist's hat on for a moment, I think that we can discern three stages of the reception of music since the 18th century. The first stage, up to the first quarter of the 19th century, is one where a very sophisticated aristocracy employed composers and musicians to provide music for their private enjoyment. The music-loving members of the aristocracy were very knowledgeable and provided patronage and employment for all the composers we know so well such as Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and all the lesser ones. The only other significant employer of composers in this period was the Church (who employed Bach for much of his career).

Then in the 19th and early 20th century the source of employment shifted from the aristocracy, who lost a great deal of their power and prestige following the French Revolution, to the middle class. They tended to synthesise the moral foundation of the lower class with aspirations to some of the refinements of the upper class, including the enjoyment of classical music. This period saw composers beginning to derive most of their income from publishing music, from public concerts and from teaching music. Chopin, for example, derived most of his income from giving private lessons in Paris. Most of the symphony orchestra concert series and the necessary concert halls were established in the 19th century. The newly prosperous middle class bought music and instruments (most middle class homes had a piano) in great quantity. The profession of the music critic also began as they also bought periodicals talking about music. At the very end of this period the gramophone was invented and people started purchasing recorded music.

In the 20th century some of this remained, such as the concert series, but other forces became important. Music in the 19th century was crafted to appeal to middle class tastes. A lot of it was considerably cruder than the more refined 18th century music. In the early 20th century a reaction to this occurred. I'm not sure if I can even give a good explanation, certainly not in this brief note. But we start to see the artistic movement we call "modernism". Partly a reaction to the too-obvious tastes of the middle class and partly a reaction to the violence and inhumanity of the First World War, composers began to write much more acerbic and challenging music. They were, I suppose, composing for a new urban elite. In any case, as the century wore on, modern music became more and more difficult and had a smaller and smaller audience. Two other trends became important: popular music became a huge economic force and some of the classical music world "went retro" and began rediscovering older forms of music: Baroque and pre-Baroque.

I guess the conclusion I am leading to is that the function of music has changed radically. In the 18th century it was like a kind of conversation between people of considerable intellectual capacity. In the 19th century it became more sensationalistic and emotional. In the 20th century it fragmented into many different categories: some soothing, some challenging, some intellectually complex and some, like Calvin Harris and EDM, designed to function on a very basic level.

So on YouTube, you get a cross-section of all those different views and functions.

Personally, I think life is too short to spend much time digging for quality in genres like EDM. But that is because, for me, it provides no very useful function. For others it does.

Marc Puckett said...

But there was always 'popular music' outside the courts and churches, surely, and the Uccellinis and Bibers and Bachs et alii were the professional musicians, not the 'popular musicians'? I am wanting to hypothesize that Calvin, Justin and Rihanna are the heirs of those anonymous pan pipe and gittern players, while Pierre and John Luther are the descendants of Bach and Beethoven... hmm.

I'll admit to listening to EDM very occasionally, when I'm doing laundry or cleaning the house etc, and that I used to listen each week to a trance etc playlist on Spotify from Armin van Buuren-- 'to keep up', as Christine suggested. But, 'life is too short'. :-)

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, quite true Marc, and a good point. Two responses: first, we don't know the popular music terribly well before the 19th century and, second, whatever popular music there was, was not of great economic significance--unlike now.

Marc Puckett said...

I hope our friend Calvin realises how lucky he is! eighty million a year, gosh, and there must be hundreds if not thousands of people who could do what he does just as well as he does it.

Christine Lacroix said...

Small correction Marc. I never said I listened to music to 'keep up'. I'm afraid of missing out on something that I might enjoy if I only gave it a chance. Same way I've tried for years to enjoy wine. Can you imagine living in the heart of wine country in France with a network of friends who are wine connoisseurs and not liking wine? How depressing is that?

Bryan Townsend said...

I live in Mexico and I don't care much for tequila! But I try not to cry myself to sleep at night...