The enshitification of popular music

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, July 18, 2023, 12:43 AM | comments: 0

Diana and I were being slightly nostalgic about music the other day, relative to our first meeting. I made her a mix CD (that was a thing) around that time. Among the things on there, it included a track from Natasha Bedingfield. Around 2007-ish, she was pretty popular in the UK, and her song "Unwritten" was a fairly big deal in the US. I don't remember how I found her, but I bought her debut album, back in the day when iTunes still included DRM on purchased music. And that was fine back the day, when iPhone didn't exist and I had an iPod.

A few years after that, Apple finally let go of their DRM, sort of. Some of what you bought automatically became DRM-free, and what wasn't, you could give them a few bucks For what you already bought  to convert to DRM-free files. I thought that was kind of bullshit, but I gave them money for a great many albums anyway, and those songs join the 8000+ songs in my personal music cloud.

But there were a few albums that they just never offered to convert. The most immediate concern was the Veronica Mars soundtrack, which I begrudgingly re-purchased because it was too good to not wait for some alternative. There were two others that didn't transfer though. The first was Jill Cunniff's solo album, City Beach (fans know her as the singer from Luscious Jackson). I bought that one too, but at least it had bonus tracks that I didn't have. But Natasha's album...

When I repurchased that, it had a different album cover, but I didn't think much of it. Well, that was a mistake. When I listened to it, the songs were in a different order, two were different, and the arrangements of those present were different. It was like listening to something completely different. It was all over-produced with useless embellishment, and that's unnecessary because I think Natasha's voice is unique, and she's a belter. I think she's had four albums total, and she's a little older at this point, but what they did to that first album was bad. Research shows there were several. variations on it. My DRM iTunes version was known as the "North American" version, which was surprising, because US versions of anything tend to be extra shitty. See also, one-hit-wonder Republica's "Ready To Go," the UK versus US versions.

But it gets back to a problem we've had in American pop music for a long time. Why does it have to be enshitified to be "viable." I'm not really a big pop music guy, but I recognized that first Natasha album as being something unique and special (and UK charts validate this). So I bought the album again, only it wasn't the same album. What I got this time had two different songs, and the others had different arrangements that were frankly obnoxious and not good. I'm enquiring about a refund, while Diana may have scored a CD version of what we're familiar with.

It begs the question, how did this even happen? From what I've read, Bedingfield has had a tough career beyond her first album (she's had four). She writes much of her stuff, and collaborates, but she's definitely a songwriter. So why did people who decide such things mess with the authenticity of her art? Her voice is different, and her lyrics are a little weird, in the way that Alanis is weird. I dig it.

Pop music in the general sense seems to have been going this way for years. A lot of "good" pop stars have been relegated to obscurity for not playing the game. Think Avril Lavigne, And at the other end of the spectrum, a talented vocalist like Beyonce has been turned into cold product that exploits her voice, but has no authenticity relative to her songwriting, because she's not writing her songs. It takes a hundred people to make her album. Meanwhile, really unique stuff like Imogen Heap has fallen into obscurity, and yet, people are sampling her music vocally ("Hide and Seek"), so at least she's getting paid.

You know who is winning? Taylor Swift. I vaguely know some of her music, and it's pretty good. Not my thing, but I recognize. That's why she's selling out stadiums. And she writes her own stuff, with trusted collaborators (not an army of people). It's deeply authentic and personal for her, and the kids dig that. They can smell a phony like a fart in a car.

The popular music machine is broken. It's worse in the age of streaming.


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