I was recently asked to perform, along with some other artists, at a memorial concert for a folk singer. The day of the show, I received an email saying that they had added an additional person to the bill (a speaker) and now were in danger of running overtime. Apparently, the hall they rented for the event had a hard time limit that they couldn’t exceed without incurring additional costs. So the organizer’s solution was: “No instrumental breaks.”
I was sympathetic to the problem, but not the solution, which was based on a blanket assumption that lyrics are the most critical part of music, rather than the instruments. And that’s related to a current trend in the music industry: the decline in the value of musicianship. Today, in most popular music styles, it’s all about vocals, and musicianship is secondary or nonexistent. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not pining for the excesses of the ‘80s, where narcissistic shredders soloed ad nauseam. But I do think the pendulum has swung way too far in the other direction, and, to me, it’s to the detriment of music as a whole.
Without question, one of the significant factors is technology. As more and more music gets made with a computer, without any actual instruments played, musicianship becomes less critical. Sales of guitars are dropping, as that instrument has become an afterthought in a pop world dominated by loop-based music and DJs. In large swaths of the music world, improvisation is an antiquated concept. After all, loops can’t improvise.
Music critics have exacerbated the devaluation of musicianship by focusing overwhelmingly on lyrics, and barely even talking about the instrumentation, arrangement, and musicians when they review an album. (I have a theory that the reviewers are probably not musicians themselves.) Of course, vocals are the focus of most popular music, but the instruments, which reviewers seem to take for granted, are an essential ingredient in the final product.
Back in the pre-digital days, there would occasionally be an instrumental song that became a pop hit. Granted, many of them were novelty tunes (“Popcorn” by Hot Butter comes to mind), but even so, it’s hard to imagine an instrumental even showing up on any of the Billboard pop charts these days. People would just ask, “Where are the words?”
So, given my feelings about this subject, it was inevitable that I’d be annoyed by the “no instrumental breaks” email. It’s not that I was planning on turning my performance into a Phish concert and jamming for 30 minutes, but I was annoyed by the knee-jerk response of the show’s organizer that the best way to save time was to cut solos. How about cutting one verse out of that 20-verse song? Maybe leave it up to the performers to decide how to cut their own segments? Give us a time limit, that’s fine. I can deal with it. But don't make a blanket assumption about what's important in my music. That’s a decision best made by the artist.