In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, music titan Bob Dylan offered his perspective on the effect of streaming and social media on the music industry. In an era of rapid technological advancement and similarly speedy consumption, Dylan laments deteriorating creativity and the end of civilization as we know it.
Conquering the world in the 1960s with his unconventional lyricism and anti-war sentiment, singer-songwriter Bob Dylan went on the sell millions of records, earn 10 Grammys, an Oscar for, and the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature. He’s also gained notoriety as an accomplished painter and an international bestselling author.
Dylan has witnessed the evolution of music from nearly its dawn to now. Having a front-row seat to the explosion of technology and culture in the mid-20th century and the rise of social media has, in my opinion, granted him the authority to make judgments about how the music industry has navigated our ever-changing reality.
At the interview's beginning, Dylan talked about how his listening habits had changed. He says he first listened to music on the radio, portable record players, or jukeboxes. Now, he occasionally listens to CDs, satellite radio, streaming platforms, or his vinyl record player. His record player provides a tone quality so powerful and rich that it reminds him of when life was unpredictable, and songs were simple and direct. Dylan talks about his visceral reactions to music and how he can’t listen passively as he’s constantly assessing what’s unique and where he can draw inspiration.
He grieves a time when listening to music was a much more personal process that required a lot of happenstance and research. Record store sifting, radio channel surfing, and stumbling upon live performances were interactive ways of discovering beloved and underground music that isn’t often employed anymore. Crafting a customized playlist, mixtape, or center console used to take time and effort, introspection, and exploration, whereas now most of us, not all, but most, consume music like we consume news: passively and with little fervor.
Perhaps the dwindling passion is a product of our new world. If we’re entirely online and concerned with everything because suddenly everything is visible to us, then, of course, we can’t focus on little but meaningful things like tracking down our favorite record. If Tik Tok is constantly forcing overproduced corporate pop to trend instead of profound and masterfully composed artistry, then what is there to seek sonic solace and meaning in?
Dylan discovers new music primarily by chance or through other performers’ and songwriters’ recommendations. “If I look for something, I usually don’t find it. I never find it. I walk into things intuitively when I’m most likely not looking for anything,” said Dylan. He believes streaming has made music “too smooth and painless.” One click is all it takes to access millions and millions of songs and artists. “You need a solar X-ray detector just to find somebody’s heart, see if they still have one,” said Dylan.
Famous music artists now are more carefully strategized brands than people trying to share their craft, no matter their intentions. The goals of 70s stars to spread love, foster unity, and express their creativity have been abandoned with hopes of generating the most significant revenues and winning cheap brass awards. Dylan attests that very few of today’s songs will become standards. Most of the records he’s observed are “music for the establishment,” songs that parody real life and go through the motions.
With every celebrity now expected to comment on political issues and social justice crises, no one is allowed to do what they love with no strings atta. And I believe that is where we can track a portion of the music industry’s devolution from its original purpose.
Dylan refers to the technology as sorcery that “conjures up spirits” and maybe the “final nail driven into the coffin of civilization.” Now, I may not be quite as cynical as Dylan, as I believe technology has granted us the tools for invaluable improvement in medicine and energy production. However, technology has provided humans with an unforeseeably addictive drug: immediacy.
The money-hungry business plans of most prominent entertainment companies now involve frequent and frenzied production designed for virality. PR teams work overtime to cater to the short attention spans of the youth and turn out desirable content in unprecedented timeframes. They track user data on popular apps such as Tik Tok, determine what’s popular, and then empty their budgets trying to encourage 15-year-olds to like, comment, and share.
Because of this phenomenon, we now have unrealistic expectations of how quickly we deserve content from our favorite singers, artists, and directors. And to meet these expectations, these creators are forced to sacrifice the quality of their craft to remain relevant in a time where popularity has never been more fleeting.
Creativity, in Dylan’s eyes, requires splendid isolation. He says when we’re creating something, we’re more vulnerable than ever, and it’s usual to be unfriendly and distracted. In a society that no longer grants or tolerates this isolation, it’s not surprising we find ourselves in a creative drought affecting both production and consumption.
I don’t think we’ve doomed ourselves beyond repair just by reaping the benefits of technological advancement. We’re not devoid of creativity. It’s just not what’s being highlighted in today’s capitalistic machine. I’d be lying if I said I have a solution for this that’ll transcend the efforts of multi-billion-dollar companies, but I have a little advice.
Wean yourself off social media a little if you’re like me and struggle to find the time to discover music that fits what you like and doesn’t just coincide with a trending sound on Tik Tok. Be thoughtful about what art you consume and support, as it’s more impactful that we know to take care of ourselves and foster our creativity when we’re not fueling corporate America. Dylan may be approaching the end of his time, but his influence is as limitless as they come. Music is personal, so don’t let an algorithm decide it.
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