Recently, the Plain Dealer's Chuck Yarborough offered a “State of the Union”
-like address to discuss the state of concerts. In this article, Yarborough offered some critiques of the music industry and at this time I would like to address these critiques in a formal rebuttal, because it certainly deserves that treatment.
As a currently active musician, composer, and concertgoer, I was taken back by many of Yarborough’s comments. From the criticisms of use of technology in concerts to attacking the audience members themselves, there were many odd contentions.
He first attacked ticket prices:
“…concert tickets have become unbelievably expensive, largely owing to added “facility fees” and “processing fees” and “fee fees.”
I have no qualm with this. As recently as October of 2018, Ticketmaster was in court for business malpractice. However, this didn’t seem to be why Yarborough was concerned with ticket prices. It was because “people aren’t getting what they pay for.”
He claimed that this was because touring acts are bringing DJs along as opening acts. Now, OK, I’ve seen DJs open for big acts once or twice before. However, not once did Yarborough cite a single instance of this happening, so we’re left to just assume that he’s right and this happens all of the time.
Skipping any real complaints about ticket prices other than “they’re too high,” he proceeded to use his platform to rail into DJs.
(At this point, you should probably know that I am a DJ.)
“I won’t deny that it takes a certain amount of talent to DJ. But a DJ is not a musician,” Yarborough wrote. He also added “99 times out of 100, disc jockeys don’t even play whole songs.”
I don’t understand his desire to label some people as musicians and others as not. It’s not particularly helpful to anyone. I personally treat DJs as musicians. Artists like DJ Qbert, Kid Koala, and Mixmaster Mike have spent decades redefining what a DJ can do and how truly musical the art form is. Most DJs are also composers, and taking their whole rig of synths and records to do a live show is practically unfeasible.
In the event that he is talking about just a standard, run-of-the-mill DJ, he complains that they don’t play the whole song. DJs beat-match and blend to create a consistent mix as a hard-earned skill. I don’t understand what his solution would be. Should they play the whole song until it fades out and have a DJ mix with gaps of silence in between tracks?
But why is it truly awful (“unconscionable sins,” in his words) to have a DJ open for a headliner? Because it robs another up-and-coming musician of the ability to showcase their work. An “up-and-comer” like Charlie XCX who opened for Taylor Swift. Or OneRepublic who opened for U2. You know, real nobodies before they got their big break.
The job of a critic can be easy. You can complain about things being awful, which is fun to write and fun to read. I personally relate to this. I will never forgive myself for writing an immature, bad review of Kid Cudi some years back. But, a critic worth their salt is willing to befriend the new, the different, and the unpopular.
(Just as a side note, all Yarborough talks about or reviews are major top-40 artists. So if you were wondering why I wasn’t bringing up that time Muamin Collective opened for Kool Keith, it’s because Yarborough wasn’t talking about these shows.)
So when Yarborough writes “a computer is not an instrument,” that is the sound of a man unwilling to look at the beautiful new advances in culture. Even if these “up-and-coming musicians” were to open for a major headliner, would they even be accepted in the technophobic eyes of Yarborough?
The use of computers as an instrument, which started long before 2018, has opened endless worlds of possibilities. Artists can play to backing tracks (like they did in the 60s) without worrying about the tape failing. Keyboardists can access the world’s largest library of sounds. Musicians can manipulate their sound into something truly new and different.
Which ultimately leads us to his argument over the use of autotune. It’s understandable to be a little jaded over the use of autotune. I’m sure it’s not different from feeling like you’re being tricked into thinking the singer is talented. And, if all you listen to is top 40 music, then, yes, you’ll hear a lot of it. But remember, music is a choice and no one is forcing you to listen to it.
Interestingly, he wrote that Bob Dylan “may be the worst singer… but the beauty in his music is the poetry in his lyrics.” This sentiment threw me off. Why can’t a singer now have beautiful poetry in their lyrics and actually be on pitch, even if artificially?
It’s because Chuck Yarborough didn’t grow up listening to these new artists.
A casual browse through Yarborough’s article shows a trend of who he likes and who he’s aware of. Robert Plant, Ozzy Osbourne (who gets two mentions), Phil Collins, Bob Dylan, Cher, etc. all make his good list and are his shining examples of talented performers. Whereas current artists he name-checked, meaning ones that started their career in the past decade, are limited to Ariana Grande and Twenty One Pilots.
I also found his final point to be plain mean. It’s one thing for a critic to critique the artists, but to criticize the audience is weird in 99 percent of cases. Everyone experiences joy in their own way. We should all just be careful not to interfere with others trying to experience happiness in their own way.
My State of the Concert? I think it’s great. Every year we get exposed to more and more artists because of our increased communication with each other. We saw experimentation in onstage electronics, new takes on old forms, and wild youthful abandon. Cleveland got a ton of fantastic acts like Jungle, Prefuse 73, Punch Brothers - just to name a few I really loved.
This past year the Beachland Ballroom, the Grog Shop, Mahall’s, and many other venues saw hundreds of wildly talented musicians come through their doors. Concertgoers fell in love with each other. Drinks were shared. People came together.
The fact of the matter is that 2018 was a great year for music because every year is a great year for music.