Core Values

Is ‘Artisanal’ Music the Next New Thing?

Processed and modified are out. Natural and crafted are in. Is the music business about to imitate the food industry? And will the industry giants get caught napping again?

10.11.15 4:01 AM ET

Forget crafted beers and artisan cheeses. The real artisan movement is happening in the music world. The first stirrings can be heard in almost every genre, and the long-term implications are far from clear. But this tectonic shift has the potential to shake up the entertainment business, and shift the balance of power among the various labels.

Even as synthesized sounds and samples are available to artists at the click of the mouse, a growing number of million-selling performers are embracing old school values of craft and musicianship. The power brokers in the music industry ought to pay attention—or a paradigm shift could once again catch them napping.

You don’t want to be a musical Monsanto in this brave new world! A smarter strategy is to establish street cred as the Whole Foods of the record business.

The analogy to food trends is appropriate. After decades of processed products and tech-created additives, the public rebelled and showed that a large market existed for natural and organic alternatives. The same thing is happening now in music, but the movement is still in its early stages. Yet similar forces are at work in both fields: a growing sense that that reliance on processing and tech additives may have gone too far, and that a return to core values might produce better long-term results.

The discerning listener can now hear this new paradigm emerging in every corner of the music business. Lady Gaga may have surprised fans with her unexpected collaboration with Tony Bennett and various associated jazz players. But check out Ms. Lauryn Hill channeling Nina Simone on her latest album. Or look at Queen Latifah doing the same with Bessie Smith on HBO. Or consider the implications of the unexpected ascendancy of sweet soul over in the U.K., where Adele showed that you can sell millions of albums without massive Auto-Tuning—and helped kick off a whole British neo-Motown movement.

How did Britain manage to steal the soul/R&B sound from Detroit? The answer is simple: artisanship.

Then listen to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, a number one hit and the most talked about hip-hop album of year, and hear all the top-flight jazz talent on that project. Well, maybe D’Angelo’s Black Messiah has gotten as much buzz, but here too we encounter outstanding musicianship from real flesh-and-blood performers … and again a marked jazz component. In the new paradigm of artisan music, a sample just isn’t good enough. Instead, you need to hire the cats who can really play.

In fact, jazz is serving as a catalyst in a host of unexpected places—from the The Late Show, where new host Stephen Colbert has turned to Jon Batiste to run his house band—to new high-profile Hollywood biopics focused on Miles Davis and Chet Baker. Even as the size of the jazz market remains small, the music seems to haunt the entertainment mainstream, serving as a touchstone for excellence and artisan skills.

We can see a similar ascendancy of craft and old school musicianship inside the jazz world, where the very players most famous for crossover slickness, from Kenny G to Robert Glasper, are releasing under-produced albums featuring acoustic instruments. And the hottest young jazz stars, such as Cécile McLorin Salvant and Kamasi Washington, stand out for their deep commitment to craft, and don’t seem much interested in fitting into slick processed-music categories.

And have you heard the extraordinary work of rock and pop composers entering into the classical music field? Or the remarkable creations of contemporary classical composers who are moving into rock and pop? Exciting new projects of this sort are coming out almost every week, but don’t expect to read about them in Rolling Stone or see this stuff on network television. These works don’t fit into radio formats or conventional genre categories. But make no mistake about it: This is a revolutionary movement underway, as significant in its implications as serialism and minimalism in their days of ascendancy.

For some examples, check out Caroline Shaw’s Partita for Eight Voices (a recent Pulitzer Prize winner but resonating with pop vocal influences), Richard Reed Perry’s Music for Heart and Breath, Bryce Dessner’s Murder Ballads (on the new Filament album from the chamber ensemble Eighth Blackbird), and Jonny Greenwood’s Popcorn Superhet Receiver. And don’t miss the eponymous album from The Knells, which mixes prog rock, vocal polyphony, and a string quartet in a stirring hybrid that resists any label you try to apply to it. These works are rewriting the rule book of contemporary composition, and also have the potential to shake up our conceptions of commercial music along the way.

Even the oldest megastars are paying attention to the new demand for artisan skills. Beck won the Grammy for album of the year with a pristine album driven by acoustic guitar—a release that seemed to violate every rule of music industry conventional wisdom in the current day. Elton John’s most recent album finds him returning to the crafted under-produced sound of his earliest work. Bob Dylan’s latest release finds him following in the footsteps of Frank Sinatra, of all people! Everywhere you look, hot stars are going unplugged and all natural.

A few of the old school labels seem aware that a shift is underway. But just as the big food conglomerates mostly missed the rise of natural products, the same thing is happening in the music world. Nimble young labels such as New Amsterdam, Brainfeeder, Innova, ANTI-, Sunnyside, Acony, Tzadik, Third Man, XL Recordings, Motéma, Mack Avenue, FatCat, and others are each pursuing their own vision of artisan music. But they have one thing in common: they seem more in touch with the new zeitgeist than any of the major multinational entertainment corporations. Only a few older labels (ECM and Nonesuch come to mind) seem ready to ride the new wave of crafted sounds.

I am not suggesting that Kanye West will show up on the unemployment line, or that Justin Bieber will start touring with a string quartet. Once again, we should look to the recent evolution of the food business for an analogous situation. Even as organic and unprocessed foods took off, the major companies still used their marketing muscle to push Jello, Velveeta, and Frosted Flakes. The processed foods still sell in larger quantities than the natural alternatives. McDonald’s serves up 75 hamburgers every second! But the high growth segments in the food market today are the natural ones, and the most discerning consumers don’t pay much attention to what’s happening in the frozen meal section.

An acceleration of this embrace of artisanship is the most likely path of evolution for the music business. True, the big companies will continue to push hard on processed and canned products. Dinosaurs don’t learn new tricks. Their sales have been shrinking since the dawn of the new millennium, and they just keep on doing more of the same—just like the corporations who pushed Folgers and Maxwell House while letting other companies build the (now enormous) gourmet coffee market. I don’t expect the people running Universal Music or Sony Music to change their approach just because of diminishing returns. But they are to music what McDonald’s and Wendy’s are to food—volume producers who will struggle to match the quality of the upstarts.

Yet there’s no mystery to the rise of artisan music. Craft always wins out in the end. That is true in almost every sphere of human endeavor, and especially in areas of culture and creativity. Even when technique, knowledge and skills seem to fall by the wayside, they inevitably come back to the forefront—for the simple reason that artisans can deliver end results that lesser talents can’t match. We are likely to see this play out in music during the coming years, no matter what the power brokers do to try to halt it.