An excerpt from Chapter 2 of my forthcoming book, Music: Notation and Practice in Past and Present.
What is the fate, then, of popular music in the twenty-first century? This question will be examined in-depth later in this book, but a brief consideration is appropriate here. The culture industry was predicated on the idea that most individuals could not afford to record and distribute their music. As a result, the music that was recorded was calculated to appeal to large numbers so that the sale and broadcast of that music would pay the greatest possible dividends. In the era of the Internet, with its cheap and easy distribution models, coupled with the ability of many musicians to afford their own home recording studios, the recording industry has gone into a precipitous decline, with annual album sales falling by more than 50% by 2009 from their all-time high of nearly 800 million units in 2000. While there will always be popular music, the consequences for the popular music industry would seem to be dire, and it is doubtful that the current model of mass-market popular music can survive. Various authors have put forward theories of what 21st-century popular music will look like. Here are some possibilities:
- There will increasingly be no truly popular music, as it becomes less and less possible for musicians to make a living providing a service that can largely be had for free.
- There will increasingly be no music that has a broad public appeal, as the variety of music available on the Internet allows listeners to consume only that music that fits their very specific tastes, and the eclecticism of, say, 1970s FM radio disappears.
- Popular music will become folk music, as more and more musicians make music for their own entertainment, releasing it to the Internet for the enjoyment of friends, family and a few die-hard fans, who may be scattered throughout the world.
- New music will involve fewer and fewer live musicians, as more and more relatively untrained (in the traditional sense) composers create “mashups” of historical styles using home recording technology. The future will sound like the past in a blender.
- As recorded popular music becomes more of a free commodity, musicians will return to live performance as their primary means of making a living, and have as their goal a contract with a national concert promoter rather than one with a large recording company.
- As the popular music of the past becomes ossified into a “canon” that resembles the world of classical music, it will be studied, dissected and, eventually, become a part of the human cultural heritage that will be treasured by educated adults and analyzed by intellectuals while some new musical form captures the young hearts and minds of the world.
Perhaps the only certain outcome of the revolution currently underway in popular music is the last of these, as scholars who have been raised nearly exclusively on popular music begin to gain influence in academia, and turn their minds toward the music they love most. This scholarly study will lend further legitimacy to discussions of popular music in elementary and high schools, and as the educational system, one of whose purposes is to impart culture to the young, presents, say, hip-hop as an acceptable, even admirable, means of music-making, the prejudices which have so far kept the public from comparing Beethoven and Mozart to 50 Cent and the Wu Tang Clan will begin to dissolve. In this way, the popular music of today will become the folk and art music of tomorrow.
 Kenney, Caitlin. “Album Sales Hit Record Lows. Again.” http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2010/08/25/129428450/album-sales-hit-record-lows, Accessed August 27, 2010. The year 2010 appeared no better, with fewer than five million albums (including digital copies) sold by the industry during the first week of August, the lowest weekly return since 1991. These figures reflect a trend that neatly parallels the developing abilities of consumers to buy, sell, record and share music via personal computers and the Internet. This has already occurred for jazz, and is beginning to take place for later popular styles in the realms of music theory, musicology, ethnomusicology and popular culture studies. The 2008 joint conference of the American Musicological Society and the Society for Music Theory, meeting in Nashville, featured at least one session dedicated to twentieth-century popular music in every portion of the four-day conference, including a plenary session entitled “Popular Music and the Canon.” The number of papers and sessions on popular music was such that scheduling dictated that a scholar of popular music would not have been able to attend every session in his field.