Pop music may reflect the character of a year, but to a certain extent, pop music has always been pop music. It's always been simple and catchy, featuring the same handful of chords and repetitive, easy-to-learn lyrical hooks. These mechanisms are simply the most pleasing to the ear and can appeal to the widest audience without requiring anyone to think too hard.
However, pop music has taken a troubling turn of late. Recent research shows that over the past 50 years, pop music has gotten more and more homogeneous. Songs have fewer melodic, chordal and timbral variations, and most producers are simply replacing all that it's lost by cranking up its volume. But why is it that now, when we have the absolute greatest variety of instruments, genres, production effects and styles of music accessible to the mainstream does every song have to sound like a DJ Mustard track or have a wonky Jason Derulo horn sample?
The answer is simple: Follow the money.
"The situation right now is a little bit like the 1% with financial and economic inequality. There is a financial and economic inequality in the music world as well," Larry Dvoskin, Grammy-winning songwriter, producer and author of the new book Do What You Love — Songwriting, told Mic. "The people who are making hits today have gone into fewer and fewer hands. It's like the Occupy movement. There's 99% of people in the business that are barely earning a living and then there's a 1% that are making a ginormous amount of money."
It's a well-known fact the industry isn't turning half the profit it used to, and because of this, Dvoskin explained, the industry is far less willing to take risks on new artists or songwriters trying to strike out in new directions. "The real secret is that if you wrote an artist's last hit, you're the first person they're come to for the next hit," he said, "It's a Catch-22. It's like it is in the acting world: You can't get an agent until you have a hit role in a movie, but you can't get a hit role in a movie until you have an agent."
Increasingly, labels are losing the incentive to take that risk.
"It really sucks when you put all your faith in somebody who did so well online based off this handful of songs and they don't deliver, especially because labels don't have the money like they used to," said Kristine Acosta, an A&R formerly at Island Def Jam Records and now at Republic, in an interview with Mic. Rapper Trinidad James, for example, made a huge splash on the Internet last year with his song "All Gold Everything," but was recently dropped from Def Jam because he couldn't pay back his $2 million advance.
"You throw all your money into one these guys like Trinidad James and nothing comes of it, it's a huge let down."
This need for a surefire hit, then, is pushing the labels towards making the same songs again and again. And as a result, mainstream pop songs and artists are getting even more ridiculously expensive to make.
NPR ran a piece two years ago attempting to calculate the cost of crafting some of the world's biggest pop songs. They took an in-depth look at the making of Rihanna's "Man Down," one of her lesser singles with a few unique patois elements. They calculated the total cost to a staggering $1,078,000. Of that sum, $78,000 went to paying numerous people who expertly crafted small sections of the song to make sure all of it came together with that flawless pop veneer. They paid beat-makers, songwriters, lyricists, engineers and vocal coaches to make sure the artist sang every line perfectly. That's how nervous the labels are about guaranteeing a hit.
But Dvoskin actually thinks NPR's production estimates are on the conservative side. "Man Down" came out of a writer’s camp, where different teams of amateur song writers compete to come up the best single, so this was really a song done on the cheap. "The bigger producers, like your Dr. Lukes and Max Martins, will usually charge the label at least $100,000," Dvoskin said. "And they have such minimal costs on their side, they've got a team of writers churning out hits for Britney, Katy Perry, Carly Rae Jepsen, just cranking away on salary."
The other million in NPR's estimate goes towards promotion to make sure that pop song appears everywhere — on the radio, in movies, commercials and television, so that you hear it, hopefully start to like it and then buy it in as many ways as you can.
"Labels are now the marketing machine, and boy oh boy, what a good marketing machine they are. There's no way a new artist can make it without that kind of marketing power behind them,” said J Chris Griffin, a producer, remixer and engineer who's worked with Madonna, Missy Elliott and Kanye West, among others. Now that beat-making software is so accessible and high-quality, anyone can make a beat, but it's this marketing money that keeps pop radio in thrall to the major labels. Many songwriters actually work for free on the front end, according to Dvoskin and Griffin, hoping to get a song distributed by a major label. These writers hold out hope for a payoff once the song becomes a hit, and this is more likely to happen if they use firmly established formulas.
This is the system that's killing our music. But there is hope. Both Dvoskin and Griffin feel that audiences are starting to tire of the pop homogeneity. "When you equal the playing field, it always goes down to the least common denominator — which is what we have with a four-on-the-floor beat and two chords. It’s very equalized," said Griffin. "I think you'll see that unequalize again ... What will set people apart is 'Oh, it's my knowledge of chords' or 'Oh, it's my knowledge of how to sing better.' What you'll see in the next five years is a disequalization."
Until then, it's on the consumers to fix this. The only thing to do is to put our money where our ears want to be. Ultimately, the music industry has never been about anything other than the money, but its songs don't have to be. Support fresh music and just maybe we'll see pop music start to get more creative and sonically diverse, like it used to be.