Technological changes in the last decade made it so that you could fit your entire music collection, thousands of songs, into a contraption the size of a credit card. But beyond the boom of MP3 players, iTunes and the Internet, pop music itself changed dramatically, especially the sounds that fall under the urban umbrella-ella-ella. (Sorry. Got carried away.)
The “neo-soul” movement, which for a brief moment brought a lyrical and musical depth back to urban-pop at the close of the ‘90s, gave way to a colder, heavily digitalized sound in the last decade. Most of it was concocted on a laptop. Once upon a time, arrangements cushioned voices in urban music. Sure, the beat was always important, but the voice often drove it.
Not so in the last decade. Urban music – what used to be called soul, R&B and you can throw hip-hop in there too – is now all about layers of noise throbbing, whizzing, palpitating, bouncing off the walls. And the voice, even the most distinguished ones, is often reduced to just another sound in the arrangement, or robotized altogether by Auto-Tunes. Melodies have been supplanted by repetitive chants perfectly suited for ringtones, which saw big business in the last 10 years.
But as the music industry itself, crippled by the Internet age, struggles for relevance, as artists see less and less royalties from album sales, and as the pop audience continues to fragment, what will become of urban music in the next decade?
“Technology has helped creativity to go beyond one interpretation of an idea,” says Prince Charles Alexander, associate professor of music production and engineering at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
He says the proliferation of production software, like Pro Tools and Digital Audio Workstations, has provided almost limitless possibilities in urban music. Perhaps raw talent may not be all that important anymore.
“Can a great artist be great if there is specifically nothing great about them, or do we have to lower the bar in order to appreciate their talents?” says Alexander, whose production credits include Mary J. Blige, Destiny’s Child and Luther Vandross. “All of this is a direct result of technology freeing artists from the rigors of practice and focus.”
So new urban music, at least the sounds pumped through the mainstream, may remain hollow and ultimately disposable for a while.
But another great aspect of the technological boom of last decade is that the consumer can easily discover new music on his own. The more adventurous urban music, the sounds that fondly remember black music’s rich past while strutting into the future, is certainly out there. But given that the Internet has all but destroyed a shared pop culture, major label infrastructures have crumbled and commercial radio has long become a wasteland, local venues for live music are probably the best way to discover new sounds in urban music.
“I think the urban music scene will continue to fragment into subcultures with more tightly defined forms and audiences,” says Curt Olsen, a member of Kitchen Fire, a San Francisco-based band known for its “urban twang” style – a little bit country, a little bit soul. “I think this is a real boom for small bands like ours.”
Even well established artists in the last decade reaped more success working outside irrelevant industry models. The alt-rock band Radiohead is the best example. But urban artists have mostly remained with major labels, often getting lost in the shuffle, or worked hard on an underground circuit that thrives mostly on word of mouth.
The aesthetics of urban music may still be in a state of flux, but its growth in the next decade will depend on inventive ways of distribution.
“The hope is that [urban music] can be defined by empowered urban artists that understand the power of the distribution process,” says Berklee’s Alexander. “Whether it be to10 people or 10 million people, that is a huge undertaking and responsibility.”
But in the meantime, there doesn’t seem to be an urban music renaissance on the horizon.
“Only if it is a cohesive creative statement and is controlled by artists that want to share in that cohesive statement,” Alexander says. “The current climate is not looking for one cohesive statement but is fragmented and drifting away.”