Hi, my name is Benjamin Groff, and if this is the first post you’re even reading from me (which I wouldn’t mind) let me introduce myself.
I’ve been in the music business for over 25 years, mostly as a music publisher at BMG and EMI (for 10 years) and Kobalt Music for 10 years, where I opened the 1st U.S. office, signing and working with over 100 + hit songwriters and artists such as: The Lumineers, Ryan Tedder & One Republic, Grimes, Big Freedia, Kelly Clarkson, Tiesto, SOPHIE, Cut Copy, TOKiMONSTA to Grammy hit writers like Greg Kurstin, Savan Kotecha, Ariel Rechtshaid, etc. I’ve also been a musician since I was 13, went to Berklee College of Music as a dual major in songwriting and performance, wrote some songs on the charts yada yada.
Simply put, I’ve dedicated my life to the pursuit of amazing music. So with that intro and context in mind, the question of the day - which you might be wondering as well is…
Why does music suck so hard right now?
And for your poignant question, I’ve got 10 answers for you below. And p.s. I also have a counter argument post called “Why Music is So Great Right Now” which you can read here (for those that don’t believe what I have to say is true and just might have their feelings hurt).
And look - am I upset that music sucks so bad right now? Yeah. I am.
As a music publisher and label owner - I’m literally obsessed with finding new talent - and let me tell you - the new icons of today, in my opinion, are slim and far and in between and maybe non existent.
I mean who - is the next David Bowie, James Brown, Prince, Van Halen, Joni Mitchell, Notorious B.I.G., U2, etc.
At this point – sadly, there’s no one in my opinion.
Now, this post is probably going to upset some people.
Great! And some people are going to watch this and think I’m some lame, jaded music person. And you know what – that’s fine by me. They’re probably right (the jaded part LOL).
So, let’s get started on why music sucks so hard right now.
Here’s the thing - today - a $500,000 studio can exist on your laptop for about $500.
However, in the “golden era” of music (which for our purposes we’re going to refer to as the 1960s, 70s, and 80s), you needed a key record label to bankroll you.
Just to step into the studio was major bucks. You had to pay for expensive studio time, gear, musicians, producers, mixers, engineers and more.
Now - the labels back in the day were actually GREAT at being the initial filters for music and quality. For all the hoopla on how creatively stifling or evil major record labels have been - they were actually awesome at opening or closing the door for those that were qualified - in all genres.
Yes! They were the F I L T E R S!
You had execs and A&R people who were skilled and qualified, often with accumulated decades of experience who would say “Yes - you are awesome - here’s a couple hundred thousand dollars, let’s make this record. No - let’s make this career."
Smokey Robinson? Yup! The Police? Yes! Bruce Springsteen? Yes! Otis Redding? Yes! Trent Reznor, David Bowie... Hell yeah! Someone who's just “really good” and knows how to use an app? Fuck No!
Compare that landscape to today, where as I mentioned, technology has put music creation literally in the hands of anyone.
For $500 you can get a home studio that’s 1000x times more cost effective and powerful than a recording studio 30 years ago.
Today - you just need a Chromebook, Fruity Loops software, a Splice pack, an interface and a mic - and you’re in business. Make a beat and a really “dope” song, upload it to Soundcloud and the DSPs and take your shot.
Now, while that might sound great for music “creators” - it’s terrible and the wrong environment, in my opinion for new classics to be made AND it’s bad for us consumers.
Well, I’ll tell you.
But I think it’s a big reason why - no new classics are being made. It’s just, the bar and level of quality has taken a serious nose dive.
Keep in mind with the technology in the hands of literally everyone – we’ve gone from about 75,000 key new music releases per year, say in the year 2000 to today, where there’s 200,000 new music releases - per week! That’s not an exaggeration.
I mean - Let’s do a serious side by side comparison of the two different landscapes of these eras.
We can use the 60s, 70s or 80s as examples.
Pick a year from any of those time frames and you get amazing music, icons and legends - compare to say - those amazing classics of oh ... 2019??
In the 60s or 70s - you had to be a serious musician, spending probably 10 years practicing your ass off just to get in the zone of being good - JUST to be taken seriously and just to be able to have an entry point to be in the room.
Today It takes limited talent to sound “pretty good.”
In today’s era, anybody can (yes, I’m going to say this) unfortunately make music and have access to free tools, vocal plugins, melodyne, free beats, etc…and essentially sound “really pretty good!”
I mean do you remember that Masterclass commercial with Deadmau5 – yeah, the one where he says “this is the death knell of EDM production – and proceeds to take his one index finger – press down on a midi controller and a whole beat, bass line and track comes up pre programmed? Someone gets to say "I wrote that" aka I pushed that one (literally "one") key button.
Yes, this is where we’ve gotten to today.
Anyone can press that button. Literally anyone.
On top of that, literally anyone can upload these new “masterpieces” to Spotify, iTunes, YouTube or whatever.
And hey - maybe that person in their bedroom studio might be the next Prince … I want to believe that.
But you know what - we’re at a disadvantage today of this happening - which leads me to point #2.
In the golden era of music 30-60 years ago - labels would actually develop recording artists.
Labels were in it for the long haul and knew that it might take up 4 album cycles, 4 touring cycles, hundreds of thousands of dollars, a team of people to see if they might have the next icon. That’s what happened with Bruce Springsteen. 4 albums even before he had his 1st hit and breakthrough.
In the year 2020 + Labels - no longer do that.
Labels today essentially follow data research reports.
So, if your song (no matter how good or average or bad it is) starts gaining some traction on Spotify or showing up in a viral chart, the labels are going to offer you a deal and try to throw some proverbial “gasoline” on the spark your song created.
Often – and I know this for virtually a fact – a lot of these offers and emails are robo generated.
For the most part - (and I’m emphasizing "for the most part") artists today have no chops nor incentive to have them. I’m saying this also in context with having been honored to be in Prince's personal presence for a chunk of time in Minneapolis. Prince - from what I could tell - was relentless as far as his craft was concerned - always (I mean ALWAYS) writing, recording, practicing, performing, etc.
And hey – maybe that artist is indeed going to be the next legend of our time. But I don’t think so.
I mean the labels and the artists of today – personally, I just don’t think I want to put in the time, the money nor the effort.
For the most part - artists today have no chops nor incentive to have them.
Let’s take a look at history.
In 1976, someone like Prince (or anyone of that era) had to seriously shed, practice, refine their craft and put in their obsessive, Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours, even before setting foot in a recording studio.
And for those of you who don’t know – 10,000 hours is the general barometer for the amount of time it takes to become an expert.
You see, in the “golden era” of music we’ve been talking about, you had to be a serious musician. It didn’t matter what genre of music - you had to play your instrument or sing with a level of skill wayyyy beyond just “very good.”
In other words, are you willing to practice 4-5 hours a day for 5 years straight just and only just to hold your own and be at a starting point to have an entry ticket to be “in the room!’
That’s right! You would play dive bars, coffee houses and anyplace that would have you and/or your band for years and years - you developed and honed your skills like a stealth ninja.
You needed to have serious skills as a musician - because by playing an instrument (yes, shock and awe actually being able to play an instrument) is the only way something could get recorded!
Every band / artist was known also as a serious musician.
In Fleetwood Mac there was Lindsey Buckingham, in the Motown house band you had the best players in the world (we’re looking at you, James Jamerson, to name just one genius) and if you were a singer/songwriter be it Elton John or Joni Mitchell or Stevie Wonder, it was a given that you were an incredible solid, skilled musician.
Let’s compare that today, where In 2020 + you’re literally shocked and amazed when someone can even play an instrument much less sing competently.
Like literally, people will look at you like you’re some type of alien or wizard from another dimension.
You might not believe it – but today, the process of getting music into the computer - often is not even played but literally “drawn” into the computer via a programmer.
Let me ask you - if you’re an artist - are you practicing or putting in 6-12+ hours a day into your craft? Every. Day. Weekends included. (HINT: These hours are excluding social media.)
The bar has been exponentially lowered. It’s sad.
If you were a young artist 40-50 years ago - you would be compelled and inspired to write a song as good as The Beatles, Bob Dylan, James Brown, Carole King, Leonard Cohen, Irving Berlin, Stevie Wonder, Queen, Otis Redding, Burt Bacharach & Hal David, etc. That’s where the bar was if you were to be taken seriously.
Today - if you want to be the next big, singer songwriter, as an example … you might be looking / listening to I don’t know - the latest transient artist showing up on a New Music playlist.
And I’m sure there are some good singer / songwriters over there - but the next Leonard Cohen? Pahh-lease.
Any of those artists on such and such playlists are (prove me wrong) 95% just "really good," 3rd hand generations and watered-down versions of the greats.
Side note. Now sure - in rap, I think it’s another game.
I think you have people breaking new territory all the time and holding the bar incredibly high.
Artists like Kendrick, Anderson .Paak, Drake and many more artists on the way are setting new trends for new generations in my opinion.
As far as everyone else...
It’s just a watering down process.
In other words, today's generation looks to the generation before it as a “how good do I have to be in order to make it” barometer.
As example, today’s teenage artist inspired by Billie Eilish - will be looking at Billie Eilish as the bar. Like – this is the upper limit and the very best I can shoot for.
Now, that actually might not be a bad "bar" and level to look at!
But who did Billie look at for inspiration (or, I mean Finneas). Turns out in an Earmilk article it was revealed an inspiration was Imogen Heap.
And who inspired Imogen Heap? Maybe Bjork.
And who inspired Bjork?
According to Wikipedia: Brian Eno, Chaka Khan and Joni Mitchell.
So, the question is - which 13-year-old aspiring artist is going to study Brian Eno as “source.”
I’ll tell you who – probably no one.
You are what you eat.
Hence - today’s artists are nowhere near the bar of anyone close to the classic hit makers, icons and artists.
Summary - Every Generation Musically Waters Down and Degrades the Previous Generation Music.
This is again, kind of sad but 100% true.
For those in the music business - it’s obvious.
For those that are not in the music business - shock and awe - people aren’t “really” signed anymore off their musical abilities. Well yes - kinda sort of.
I’ve spoken to a few of my A&R friends and colleagues - those at the very top, senior levels (including Presidents) - and those that are at the more junior to Creative Manager and Director level. Bottom line...
As far as maintaining a label’s market share (and that means A LOT for these labels) - these labels MUST sign and chase these viral stars popping off on TikTok, Instagram, or whatever.
Virality and Data first - music, songwriting, credibility, and long haul careers second.
Please note! This is not every A&R person and label, of course. There are certainly amazing execs out there really doing the hard work, development, sticking with artists, putting in the (literally) blood, sweat and tears and who are exceptionally over the top talented (any of those people reading this - they know who they are).
But getting back to labels signing artists from research reports - to be honest - this mentality - mindset, well - regrettably, they have a point!
Why spend 2, 3 or 5 years developing an artist that you don’t even know will take off - when - voila - this artist over here is already taking off! And the audience has spoken! Not just taking off - but going VIRAL!
So, whichever artist is taking off right now - the labels need to sign immediately (and grab the next 14-15 minutes of fame, which is quickly evaporating). The audience has spoken. And I get it.
But I also think in many cases, the result is (in my opinion) worse than novelty records.
I mean at least in previous decades - we had novelty records and/or one hit records that were real songs and hits, still being played today, i.e. Toni Basil "Mickey" or Dexy’s Midnight Runners' "Come on Eileen" to even Tiny Tim and "Tiptoe Through The Tulips."
Now we just have “moments.”
Certainly not any copyrights or any songs you will care about next year much less (probably) next week when there’s a new playlist or #challenge out.
What I’m also seeing pile up is a “cemetery” of forgotten artists who had that 1st #challenge song, got snapped up in a panic by the majors and then after that - not so much.
Here’s a new hashtag challenge for you: #seeyoulater.
Personally, I think there’s going to be a tsunami of those “types” of artists left behind, after all the remaining juice has been squeezed from that “artist.”
That being said - it’s not like anything is really changing with the way the business operates. The music business always squeezed as much as it could out of an artist to get the last drop, the last hit.
It’s just now happening on a very shorter, super time compressed window now.
I’ll sum up this point with a quick story.
I remember talking to one of my favorite A&R executives at a major label - a superstar executive, 30 years in. He was responsible for many of the biggest superstars and songs you’ve ever heard.
This was about 15 years ago and I could tell he was “trying” to get “excited” about this new artist blowing up on Vine (which was “the TikTok" at the time).
I looked at him and I was like “Really? This is what we’ve come to.”
He solemnly shook his head in defeat. “Yup.” And that was 15 years ago.
Again - this isn’t all the labels and all the signing activity going on - there are still some artist and song champions out there - but those executives (and labels willing to support that activity) are becoming fewer and fewer and fewer.
This is an un-obvious one but it’s huge.
In the golden era - as an artist - you had to report to someone.
That’s right. Someone who could say "Yes" or "No."
Now, I’m all for artistic freedom. And in me saying this – it sounds anti artist – but it’s just the opposite.
Back then - you had someone holding the bar of expertise for you. The label wouldn’t release the funds for your studio recording - if your songs weren’t up to snuff.
If you were a songwriter, the publisher would not green light demo fees to get your songs demoed. In other words, you had accountability. You had someone there as a coach saying “this isn’t good enough,” “this could be better.”
Those same people usually had real expertise and authority to say for example “your chorus isn’t working because of x,y, or z” or in the case of someone like Ahmet Ertegun, one of the heavyweight A&R executives and producers at Atlantic back in the day – might say – I think you could reharm this with G7 b9 #13 chord.
Because of technology and the absence of real funds needed to get into the studio … there just is no longer any artist accountability. There aren’t any “coaches.”
And while it can be great for the artist to have total control, if there’s no one around to say - I think you could have vocaled this song better, this EP doesn’t have a single on it, etc. - where does that leave our artists?
Let me give you a metaphor - would an Olympian make it all the way to the gold, if they didn’t have a great coach kicking their ass every day? Or someone to be around as an objective soundboard? Does Tiger Woods have a “swing coach?” Hmm.
Because no matter what – your right hand, simply will never be able to touch your right elbow.
In other words, objectivity.
Artists, creative people, and even myself need objectivity and accountability.
Today – it’s often just the artist doing whatever they want. Which is great on one hand – but where’s the “coach” or manager or A&R around to say “this isn’t good enough?”
And by the way, let me talk about managers.
Managers usually have an “at will” arrangement with artists. Meaning, they can get fired at any time.
If you’re a manager and looking after a successful artist – are you going to really risk your own career, by saying “this album is just - not good enough” or are you just going to keep your job and the ego of the artist on the high end by high fiving every new average song that comes in?
Great managers and great artists - I think have a special relationship and trust on that front.
But I see the opposite happening all the time. “Dope song!”
Summary – artists are future gold medal Olympians and ideally should have the best coaches in their corner - elevating and pushing each artist's known limits for excellence.
And BTW did Steve Jobs have a coach? How about Jeff Bezos? How about Larry Page and Serge Brin who founded Google?
Yes – they did. All the SAME GUY.
His name was William Campbell. Look him up. In fact, there was a book written about him called “Trillionaire Coach” - which was quite an accurate book title.
Billionaires have coaches and accountability. And so should you.
In the golden era - you had a team of excellence based around a music project.
Let’s look at the biggest and arguably best pop album of all time: Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
Do you think Michael Jackson, himself, sat down and solely wrote all the songs 100% (and A&R’d them objectively, rewrote and rewrote) created the productions, string arrangements, played all the instruments, did all the programming, conducted the sessions, mixed and mastered his songs, did all the choreography, colourized the videos, mastered the records, directed all the videos and then actually got the final product into the record stores and did all the marketing?
No way! You’d have to be joking!
Yet, in 2020 + it’s often just one person attempting to do all of this in a home studio.
And sure – many people can do more than a solid job of it.
But which artist today is making an album that is a MUST HEAR record – that you NEED to hear and will be a part of your life next year or 5 years from now - much less in 25 years of 50?
Almost no one. Wait - let me correct myself. Literally. No one.
The reason this isn’t happening in my opinion is because...
1) It’s expensive
2) People think they can do it all on their own (and legitimately actually they can – because everyone else is doing it – however what happens is the “bar” just gets lower and lower).
3) The idea, concept and mindset of songcraft and rewriting and perfecting songs is gone, and…
4) There’s a general mentality of making and even finishing a song and a full production in a day or two.
That’s just not how the greatest records of all time were made.
The greatest records of all time were made with a collective genius, maybe multiple master songwriters, an incredible objective producer(s), musicians, A&Rs, etc. all collectively focused.
This is simply not really happening today (except for bigger upper tier superstar artists) and just another reason why today’s music sucks so hard.
Ooh. I’m sorry this is going to touch a nerve. But it has to be said. And I might get torched for this. Fine. This touches on one of our previous points – but in the golden era of music creation - music was a religion.
You were drawn to it like a magnet. There was magic, mystery, danger and sexuality to it.
If you were a musician / artist / songwriter back then - it’s because you were inspired beyond belief and obsessed.
And let’s be real – a lot of music creators got in it for attention and for the girls or for the guys (or both). If you were great – and could make it, you had everything in the world you wanted. Remember - there was no social media.
Today – if you want to be famous and make money from your originality (and let’s be honest, also get laid) … are you going to shed your craft for 10 years perfecting an instrument or songcraft – or are you just going to start doing some dumb stuff on Instagram or TikTok and start getting those instant dopamine hits and maybe build a career on how well you can use an app and “influence” people (nothing against those people but)...
Today, I’m finding we have less people who are truly inspired, innately talented and obsessed with their music craft.
In other words, I guarantee that your latest chorus is not as good as a Prince song sitting somewhere unheard in a vault in Minneapolis.
And today - I’m finding more and more there are looking to be famous … just to be famous.
For instance, if you gave someone an option of being able to have 100,000 Instagram fans right now for your "great abs" or shit antics vs just having 1,000 Instagram fans who are there who just love your music - I think most people would rather be internet famous for something dumb.
It takes 5 years just to get competent at an instrument – or you could make a TikTok skit and maybe be internet famous overnight.
In the golden era - before you really were put on that central stage - you paid your dues. You put in your Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours required to be an expert.
As an artist, you toured for years, and already had 1,000 shows under your belt before you had your big break.
The Beatles are the perfect example.
They got their 10,000 hours in as a local cover / house band in Germany.
They played like almost every night – 5 hours a day, 6 days per week at The Club Indra and KaiserKeller (learn more about this here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Beatles_in_Hamburg). By then, when their big break showed up, and the time was right, when The Beatles had that momentous huge break in the U.S. on the Ed Sullivan show, they were ready.
No, they were more than ready. They were 10,000 hours ready!
In 2020+ people are getting their “break” and getting on that main stage, in my opinion, about 5 years too early. I see this hugely evident in recently attending SXSW or another one of my favorite music festivals, The Great Escape.
On one hand an artists’ fandom, followers, and streams can indeed grow virally.
This puts them in a global spotlight to be signed to a major label and their music amplified. This is potentially great.
However, you can NOT scale live stage experiences.
There’s a huge HUGE difference between an artist’s 1st 20 shows vs their 2,000th. Yet, a lot of new artists are getting signed – and put on a global stage for the world to see – in their like 1st of a handful of shows (see Lana Del Rey’s 1st SNL performance).
On another note, I remember seeing a much hyped up and hotly tipped artist last year at The Great Escape in Brighton. The music was great, they had a major label, they had a credible manager. The live show – not so much.
Average at best. And really a huge miss.
Turns out I was seeing their 10th show. In the golden era – in that artist’s time line you’d probably be seeing that artist’s 200th show … where they’d have their road chops.
That no longer happens today.
Artists grow virally much faster (which is great) but when they get on stage – not only are they half-baked, they’re ¼ baked.
They’ve come out of the oven too soon. It’s a disappointment.
Wow - you just listened to this week’s latest best offering of music – and you’re literally blown away. The truth is. I feel sad for you.
And I feel sad for most of today’s new artists and writers.
This speaks to a previous point, but today’s writers and artists – don’t even know how good music can be – because in the absence of better filters and the proliferation of transient songs on playlists – new artists don’t know the “greats” that have come before them. Sorry.
And sure, this takes time for anyone.
You can’t just wake up one day and have 50 years of the best music ever made ingested and comprehended and a part of your working vocabulary. Do you doubt me?
OK - if you’re an artist, then play me a David Bowie song - no, silly, I mean literally pick up your guitar or piano and perform it for me.
That’s what I thought.
I talk to too many young artists and songwriters – where we can’t even have a reference point for music.
Like I’ll mention a song like Simon & Garfunkel’s classic “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” or maybe reference a song off of the aforementioned David Bowie’s Hunky Dory, or maybe it’s classic Motown song reference. 50% of the time – there’s no knowledge base of the classics that have come before them.
How can you be an expert and a connoisseur of your art, if you can’t stand on the shoulders of the giants of the past.
Let me make a metaphor.
If you want to be a great filmmaker – you don’t start with a limited vocabulary from the decade that came before you.
Oh, but wait – those Fast & the Furious films were incredible! Umm.
No, if you’re an aspiring film director – you better learn Coppola, Spielberg, Kurosawa, Morricone, even before studying Tarrantino.
Because Tarrantino studied those masters (and every master of film directing from every country)! Tarrantino was and is a movIe junkie! And you know what? He was famous even before directing – as the local clerk at the video rental store at Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, where he probably saw every movie the store had while making $200 a week. Quentin earned his vocabulary. Voraciously. And with passion.
In other words – he knew his stuff!
But getting back to music - too many artists and songwriters will just never know or seek our greatness, much less study it – therefore – will never know how GREAT their art form can be.
If a new artist's Level “10” is really a “6” – maybe the best they’ll ever get to achieve and create is a “5” in the grand scheme of things?!
Think of it this way.
In my opinion, film and certainly television I think have been actually “pretty good” over the last few years and the last decade.
In fact, television has been incredible. And there’s a reason for that.
Even though everyone has a camera on their phone, it’s still Disney, Warner, Universal, Netflix, Hulu, Paramount, Bad Robot, etc. who have to green light projects to get made.
Now imagine this as a comparison.
Snap your fingers like (“snapola”) and let’s have all those film studios disappear.
And all that you could ever EVER watch were Instagram story feeds or what amateurs or “pretty good” film makers could produce on their own, put together and edit via their iPhone and iMovie and other free or low cost desktop production studio programs with “in stock” studio effects. And then those would be uploaded to YouTube, TikTok, Instagram.
How good would those films be.
Which ones out of the millions of videos being uploaded every day would you watch? Your right! All those movies would probably suck ... especially if you are a real movie fan, much yet a connoisseur.
Out of that gene pool - who’s going to make another Star Wars, Godfather, Pulp Fiction or Citizen Kane? I’ll tell you who.
And this is essentially – no, it’s exactly what has happened to the music business.
The faucet and flood gates have been opened to anybody and everybody with the bar eternally lowered not just for this year, but for the next year and unfortunately, decades to come.
The sad thing is – we’ve generally accepted this – and that we put on a pedestal the music today that is perceived to be great – but really just – something you’re not going to listen to next month, much less next year, or 10 years from now.
In the words of Billy Joel or at least I heard him say this (literally) in person – “I am merely a competent songwriter, vocalist and piano player. But in an age of incompetency – that makes me extraordinary.”
That’s my story.
Those are the 10 Reasons Why Music Sucks So Hard Right Now.
My name is Benjamin Groff – hate or love me - but at the least share this post to help others understand. If you love it - or if you hate it. Call me out on the socials one way or another.
I want to hear your opinion.
Don’t forget - I also have the counter argument to this post here called “Why Music is So Great Right Now & Why It’s the Best Time Ever To Be An Artist.”
Lastly, check out more from my personal songwriting blog at BenjaminGroff.com here, where you can check out my Teachable courses, Insider Secrets to Hit Songwriting and The Release Blueprint – how to DIY release your music from start to finish, or pick up a free copy of my book, "How Do I Get A Record Deal? Sign Yourself!”
I’ll see you there.