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The State of Music 2013

Over the past 15 years, few industries have gone through more upheaval than music. Of course, music is an art, and art is always evolving, but rarely does it go through a macro-evolution this substantial. It’s not just what kind of music people listen to that’s new, but how we listen to it, how it’s affecting us and even what we consider to be music.

For something as personal as music, it’s virtually impossible to get an objective grip on where it is, what’s most interesting about it and what upcoming trends and artists are most shaping its future. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try.

RELEVANT rounded up a panel of a few seasoned music experts to talk about what current bands they’re most intrigued by, their take on the current state of the music industry and what they see on the horizon that has them most excited. The conversation that follows touches on everyone from Katy Perry to Kendrick Lamar.

We also spotlight a few fast-rising artists you ought to put on your radar. Long story short—if you’re looking to get caught up on the state of music in 2013, this is a great place to start.

The Panel

Andy Barron:
One of our favorite music photographers, who's shot the likes of Switchfoot, Mumford & Sons and the Civil Wars.

Laura Studaras:
A prolific music journalist who's covered everyone from Johnny Marr to Ben Gibbard to the cover story of this issue.

Propaganda:
Rising star of Los Angeles' hip-hop scene and artist on the Humble Beast label.

WHO'S ON THE RISE

Tyler: What is one band that’s small-time right now that you’d like to see get big? That it’s time. They deserve it. They’ve worked hard long enough.

Propaganda: Seryn. The show is such an experience. To the point where, and maybe it’s because I’m new to all this, but I had to step out of the venue for a song or two because it was just so overwhelmingly beautiful.

Laura: I’m going to say White Sea. It’s a member of M83’s band, and her name is Morgan Kibby. I’ve watched her grow and evolve as an artist over the past couple of years. She’s not afraid of pop hooks, she’s not afraid of R&B, she’s not afraid of big statements. She’s finishing up her debut album, and it should come out this year.

Andy: Two bands come to mind—

Tyler: I said one band, Andy.

Andy: [Laughs] They’re a super new band, but I have some friends who work with them. Their name is Sir Sly. It just sounds massive. It’s very Foster the People, electronic-rock kind of stuff, but it’s a lot more mellow. They’re just so good. Also, Superhumanoids.

Laura: I’m resisting the urge to start spitting out band names now.

COMEBACK KINGS

Andy: I’m honestly more excited about Justin Timberlake coming back than David Bowie.

Propaganda: I’m not going to lie to you: Justin Timberlake’s songs give me chills. I don’t care. He’s amazing to me.

Andy: Just the fact that he’s going to be in my life more—I’m fine with that.

Propaganda: I’m telling you, dude. He is black people’s guilty pleasure. Nobody wants to admit we like that. We’re like, “Man, that white boy is funky.”

Tyler: I’m more excited about that album than Destiny’s Child’s reunion. But I’m not not excited about a Destiny’s Child reunion.

Laura: You know, I’ll throw a curveball in and say that Solange is my favorite Knowles.

Andy: Blue Ivy is up there.

Tyler: I agree with Laura. There’s an edge to Solange that Beyonce just never had.

THE MOST ANTICIPATED RELEASE THIS YEAR

Tyler: Timberlake’s new album. If it’s as good as the last, man.

Andy: I do want to hear Earl Sweatshirt’s record, too. Like is it going to be [slows voice] so mellow, and he’s talking like this—or is it going to keep my interest? I’m curious.

Laura: Maybe it’ll be a sedative.

Andy: I don’t know when it’s coming out, but just the idea of a U2 record with Danger Mouse gets me really excited. I’m really excited for the new Cold War Kids record. I just always forget how much I like that band.

Tyler: When the last Cold War Kids record came out, I remember being pumped about it, but the girl I was seeing at the time said it’s the sort of music that “not cool kids who wish they were cool kids” liked. We ended things on the spot because I am very cool. But I do see how they’re in this weird limbo, which is where a lot of bands are finding themselves. They’re a hipster band that got too popular for hipsters to like them, so now they’re huge, but they’ve also been abandoned by their fan base. They get written off as “pop.”

Andy: I’m a fan of records that get big, just because I really like music. I always kind of secretly hated that I liked pop music so much. There’s definitely good pop, and there’s definitely bad pop.

Laura: There are a lot of artists like Alt-J and Charli XCX and Sky Ferraria helping to change the conversation between what is indie and what is mainstream as far as sound goes. Saying, “Hey, I can work with a producer and still make something that’s left-of-center and interesting.”

Andy: All the lines are blurring. Even on that Kendrick Lamar record, they sample a Beach House song. I like Beach House, and I like listening to them on this Kendrick Lamar song. It’s just so funny that all these worlds are coming together to make this weird, hybrid whatever it is.

Propaganda: That leads me to someone I’m excited about for next year, someone from [Lamar’s] imprint, whose name is Ab-Soul. I mean, if you have the Dr. Dre machine in your backpack, I don’t care how indie you say you are. Your record is going to do fine. But [Ab-Soul and Lamar] are very different in their approaches, who they’re trying to reach. I think that’s where a lot of hip-hop labels go wrong: They try to put every artist down the same tunnel.

THE EVOLUTION OF HIP-HOP

Tyler: Looking back at 2012, I think if you look at a lot of “best of” lists, you’re going to find Kendrick Lamar, you’re going to find Frank Ocean—interesting hip-hop has gotten really mainstream. Is hip-hop going to see the same transition that mainstream has had where it gets a little more toothless?

Propaganda: I always have to remind myself that hip-hop is relatively young in relation to every other musical genre. I think that, if anything, it’s going to have the same ebb and flow of any other music that has been tied to a movement. Which I feel is why hip-hop may survive this spotlight coming on it. It’s always been the the language of the broken. But I think there will also always be bubble gum dudes playing dress up.

Laura: I have to agree with you. I recently saw Odd Future at a festival. When watching Odd Future, I felt like it was something I’d seen before. It was almost like watching children learn to swear for the first time. Where I look at some of the electro-hip-hop producers out of L.A. like DJ Nobody and Nosaj Thing and people on the Stones Throw label. And suddenly I realize, “Oh, this is hip-hop too? I like this.” I like Flying Lotus. Once you take away the artifice of being outside the societal norm, it’s something that’s interesting to me. I would love to see more of that.

Propaganda: That’s interesting. Because the truth is that from an insider perspective, when you say the name Stones Throw, as far as we’re concerned, we’re like, “No, that’s hip-hop.” Even now, even with Aloe Blacc—that dude is a rapper. Odd Future is a movement. It’s a type of hip-hop, but in my opinion, it’s more of a symbol of youth rebellion.

Andy: Yeah, Odd Future always just felt like punk-rock hip-hop. They’re just like, “We’re just going to do our own thing.”

Propaganda: It’s just fun. And I think that it represents more our desire to rebel rather than make hip-hop. Even Frank Ocean rose to the top of that whole circle because that dude is making music.

NATIONAL ANTHEM

Tyler: Think of “Gangnam Style.” Or something dumber like “Call Me Maybe”—it’s akin to Odd Future in that it’s just fun. You couldn’t call it good, but it is unifying. It becomes a sort of a take on the old spirituals.

Andy: That’s going to be the takeaway quote from this: “Odd Future are the new old spiritual hymns.”

Tyler: [Laughs] I do wonder what’s going to happen next in terms of—are you going to see more of those pop songs that nobody likes but everybody knows? Are those going to become more and more of the norm?

Laura: I wonder if, as social media becomes more and more a part of our culture, in increasingly terrifying ways, having ubiquitous cultural anthems will start happening less and less.

Andy: Uh, One Direction. Come on.

Propaganda: I think social networking is the new A&R now. That’s the movement. We were told at one of our little label strategic meetings that, they were saying, of the twenty-and-unders, 80 percent get their music from YouTube.

Tyler: Everything is getting so niche-market and pulling us apart. You don’t have to listen to what everybody else listens to. You can find your own thing. If your thing is tribal beats, you can listen to tribal beats all the time, and it doesn’t matter whether or not the radio plays it.

Propaganda: It’s the great equalizer from an artist’s perspective. I don’t have a fraction of the budget or popularity that other artists have. But because of things like social networking, we’ve been able to bring this tribe of people.

Laura: Do you think this is allowing the cream to rise to the top?

Propaganda: I think it’s definitely causing that. Because you have to weather it. Because anyone can load a song on YouTube. Anyone can do it, and to buy yourself a little Logic rig with a little M-Audio interface to record music at your house—anyone can do that.

Tyler: But then you’d find people who will say the exact opposite. You’ll find people who would say that because everybody can do it, some no-talent kid will manage to figure out how to work his Bandcamp, and then all of a sudden he’ll become really popular. But he’s never done the hard time of touring and putting out his own EP and burning CDs.

Andy: But even so, if he’s good, then he’ll last. If he’s not, then people will be like, “You shouldn’t do this.” I heard a record the other day from a band my friend is working with right now that he literally made in a closet on his laptop. And it sounds unbelievable. It sounds like this massive record. I don’t think something like that could have happened 5 or 10 years ago, even.

Propaganda: Last week, my little seven-year-old daughter, I’m making her learn how to tell time on a clock with hands on it. I’m frustrated that she’s not getting it right, and I’m like, “She needs to know this!” But then I’m like, “Why? Why does she really need to know?” I don’t know how to work a cotton gin. In some sense, I have this looming fear, not of aging, but not aging well. I don’t want to ever become irrelevant because of holding onto a particular way of becoming a star. That’s great that you can upload very well-mixed music to some social network channel. And then if that gets you on the road, you see if you can make it there. And maybe you didn’t have to play the dive bar, the hole-in-the-wall with 10 cats like what I had to do. Or you didn’t have to battle the local dopest rapper to get the mic. Then good for you! I can’t get mad that he didn’t have to go the way I went.

THE END OF GUILTY PLEASURES

Tyler: So do you think the radio is becoming irrelevant?

Laura: I’m not sure that the radio is necessarily irrelevant, but DJs are becoming more relevant. I don’t listen to radio in my car just to listen to it, but if I know that certain DJs are on, I will be all about it. Because I feel like they’re curating my experience in a way that I trust a little more than K-Rock.

Propaganda: Hear, hear. Amen. Retweet everything you just said. And to qualify that, my world of hip-hop is mixed, too. Most people in my hip-hop world are also hipsters. We like all the other stuff that we’re not supposed to like.

Tyler: Like, for example?

Propaganda: Well, there’s the second nuance with me on the fact that I’m in the Christian market. Where it’s like, I like this dude, but I’m not supposed to because they don’t say “Jesus” a million times in their songs. But there’s definitely a list of people who I would say I’m not supposed to like. One of which would be ... let me see ...

Andy: Just say Justin Bieber—get it over with.

Propaganda: Oh, I’ll tell you who it is: It’s Katy Perry. I think she’s dope. I enjoy her music.

POP AS THE NEW INDIE

Propaganda: Pop is a formula of making music that’s been tried and proven. This is research. It’s a science. This is how you make a top-40 song. That’s what it is. And, yet, everyone likes the guy who’s not a part of the system. Indie is the new mainstream.

Laura: I love the hipster backlash. There’s nothing funnier to me than slowly watching people get upset because bands they love hit the mainstream. I want my friends to eat and have shelter and not beg on the streets. I want my favorite musicians to do the same.

Andy: I have vivid memories from my sophomore year in high school; I would be listening to Clarity by Jimmy Eat World. They were my band then. They were the first show that I ever shot photos at. So when their album Bleed America then came out and it blew up, I totally had that exact feeling of like, “Dangit, this used to be my little band that I enjoyed, and now they’re everywhere.”

Propaganda: I think the first person that I was finally able to let that go for was Kendrick Lamar. I was genuinely happy the moment that he blew up. I’m really happy for him because I feel like we’re turning over a new leaf. Maybe this is a new sound, and he also represents an age group of kids who—when I was in high school, I hid my Nirvana and Alanis Morrisette. I would immediately lose street cred if I had that. [Lamar] represents, to me, this generation of dudes that that are like, “No, I listen to that.”

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