Friday, November 6, 2009

Thanks Peter

I think I might actually like this BBC article more than the Pitchfork one, free as it is of any pseudo-academic posturing. John Harris is, I assume, the same John Harris who authored that Britpop book I quote all the time. I do take some issue with his purely celebratory stance, however. He claims this is the "golden age of infinite music." I would say instead that it may be the golden age of infinite music acquisition, but perhaps not the golden age of memorable music making. In order words, an idyllic time for rock scholars such as ourselves, who would like to hear Metal Machine Music and every bad '80s Rolling Stones album without having to pay any money to do so, but a bad time for anyone who wants to hear great new music that is challenging and honest and yet unites people on a broader social level. In one sense, yes, downloading is a rock scholar's wet dream. But as Newton once said, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. And if we take a step back and stop and think about what downloading has wrought, we realize, "! We'!" He writes:
For musicians, it's self-evident that there are all kinds of new openings for their music, but even if they break through, much less concerted attention will be paid to it. They may get an audience, but it will be very easily distracted. After all, endlessly playing the same album so as to extract your "money's worth" is behaviour that will soon seem like something from the dark ages. Woe betide the act that decides to make the kind of record that tends to be charitably described as a "grower" - something that may account for, say, the scant interest paid to the last U2 album. Certainly, as a record company MD told me a couple of weeks ago, stuffing your albums with mere filler is no longer a sensible option.
So why is it that, in an age where "stuffing your albums with mere filler is no longer a sensible option," how come every album now sounds like it is stuffed - head to toe - with filler? I would kill for a couple of "growers" right now, if by "grower," you mean "great album that I could play over and over again and rank up there with my other favorite albums." But there is no incentive in this current climate for a musician to put in the effort to make a "grower." A musician in 1968 could realistically have sat in his room and thought, "Well, if I could write an album's worth of great songs right here on this guitar, in a couple of months I could reach millions of people all over the world with my life-changing art!" In 2009, not even the Billboard #1 album reaches 300,000 people. Harris ends his piece by saying, "Really: what's not to like?" I'm not saying the "death of music" is something we're supposed to dislike, exactly. I'm just saying I'm not quite as excited about "the brilliant first album by Florence and the Machine" as John Harris is.


Peter Matthew Reed said...

Don't mention it. Oh, wait...
In all seriousness, I don't necessarily think a massive upheaval in the structure of music distribution spells the end of good music. As you yourself have argued, it is at these times of change and newness within the medium (e.g. with recording technology for the 1950s and 1960s) that artists are challenged and will experiment - music needs something to push it forward.

Sarah said...

Well, here's my bizarro insiders perspective:

I am in a band that signed a small deal with a big indie label. Small to the tune of 10k, which we put entirely into recording a full length album (it is, apparently, still pricey to work with a producer). Then they decided to only release it digitally, and not promote it, and not pay us our advance on royalties because they're laying people off and it seems wrong to fire someone and then cut a check to a band that can't sell MP3s.


We wouldn't have gotten rich; we were expecting about 2000$ each. But that would have allowed us to take time off work and rent a van and tour, where we could have sold actual hard copies and actual tickets and, more importantly, gotten fans who would give the album time to warm up and gotten feedback from listeners across the country. Now we have mp3s floating in cyberspace, two years of wasted time trying to meet label expectations with our craft, and not much else.

I totally agree, as a listener, it's awesome just to youtube the new jingle from the Chrysler ads until I'm sick of it, but as a musician, it's tough. The labels push you to find your "edge", or lame gimmick that will garner your ten minutes of web buzz, but everyone I know has given up on the idea of music as a career and that's sad. If most of the trends in current music are gimmicky, I think it's not because most of those bands lack the ability to create lasting work with aesthetic value. I think the market pressures keep us from doing it.

And it's fair to say the people buying music don't see a value in it, and therefore won't pay, but since the division of labor way back in our history, people have collectively agreed to recompense musicians for their craft- through gifts of food, exchange of labor, tickets to performances, patronage, or tips in the hat. If you want people to take the time to craft great things, you have to provide them with a living.

It's a death of a creative dream, not unlike the dream of become a full-time newspaper journalist, or employed Master of the Arts. It just happens to be one of MY dreams, and we were really really close, and that sucks.

Sarah said...

for the record, I rarely buy CDs either. I do pay for music through iTunes occasionally, but mostly I just don't buy new music because I don't like most of it.

I guess I'm the scourge AND the plagued.