Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Music Business is About Lifestyle Choices, Not Actual Music

This is a great, great article.

It details what's wrong with remembering how the music business used to be and it demonstrates how well and truly fucked actual lovers of music are in terms of being able to sustain and experience music that has traditionally been made for profit and for somewhat narrow audiences.

And do you know what illustrates this fact?


Now, as a genre of alternative rock, shoegazing is dead, right? It was killed off by Britpop and abandoned for a somewhat more engaging and interactive form of music. It led a quiet existence next to an old country cousin called Madchester and it was primarily an English movement, originating with like-minded bands who knew each other through the social structure of the London and Thames Valley scenes. These artists went to see each other play, swapped songs and pedals, talked of distortion and noise mixed with dreamy vocals and Sixties melodies, and enjoyed a brief period of cultural relevance in the early 1990s.

Well, that's the short version. The long version of the story has the idea or the concept of creating music in the shoegazing genre surviving the initial explosion and developed into a more nuanced sound adopted by literally hundreds of different bands playing and surviving in scenes throughout the world. There are Brazilian shoegaze bands and French shoegaze bands and Seattle ones, too. Many of the original players of shoegaze music broke up their bands and then reformed them; not for lucrative album deals or tours but for the joy of playing the music to a fan base that has embraced the new bands while not forgetting the old bands. It's as healthy and as supportive of a scene as you would expect and those kinds of things are rare in a music business dominated by a handful of artists that suck up all of the money and oxygen.

A critic is the bridge between the superficial understanding of a musical genre or movement and the detailed version; artists hate to be lumped in with genres, but a critic is supposed to know how to overcome the artist's reluctance to be pigeon-holed and do the pigeon-holing in a way that enlightens and informs. Nobody really does this anymore because the artist's lifestyle trumps everything that was originally interesting about their work. When we abandon the value of their work, we ride the superficial. What drives this process is the absence of an advocate for the artist. The death of the strong music label and the A&R personnel means that the artist has to interface directly with fans and critics alike. They need a middleman but that person is gone.

You see, there really aren't any thriving music labels anymore. There are a lot of smaller ones, and they do well enough, but the money that would support 20 or 30 emerging artists at a label like Arista or Sire isn't there anymore. Those bands aren't there anymore--they've morphed into something else. So, the distance between them and Green Day twenty years ago used to be the difference between this desk and that desk; between putting out four singles as opposed to two. Now, the distance between them couldn't be greater. The emerging small-label band of today has to hope for a social media miracle to get talked about. Playing great live helps, but that's expected to be a given. No one wants to know who you are unless you can explode and sell everything instantly. Being able to move a hundred paid downloads a week is akin to being handed a chance at blowing up. Odds are, you won't. But you're going to have to do it on your own. No one will work behind the scenes to help you unless you're lucky enough to have a place at one of the few music labels still operating under emergency blackout conditions.

So, yes. Music criticism is dead. I can listen to stuff, and tell you why I like it or why it's terrible and I can use all kinds of tricks to do that, but it's not going to add up to much because of the subjectivity of music and the narrow genres bands are trying to work in so that they can survive on low sales and small live gigs. Things blow up occasionally, but, more often than not, reasonably good music played well and recorded in a decent manner is going to occupy also-ran status for as long as the band members can keep it going.

And the short answer is, they can't keep it up for very long, not in an age when everyone steals music and watches the lifestyle magazines for updates on people no one expects to produce a reasonably decent follow-up to whatever blew them into relevance. The shoegazers don't care about the oversized aspect of the music business; they like their genre and they support it. They support the artists they care about and those artists are doing okay for now, but it gets harder and harder to justify the investment in money and time in a business dominated by oxygen-sucking behemoths.

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