Music 2.0 and why it’s filling the world with platitudes

Why are so many bands filling their social network feeds with cliches and wooly new-age platitudes? It seems to be impossible to open up a musician’s webpage without having some inane quote from Sartori, Lao Tzu or Sting being shoved in your face. In a way, it’s not that surprising. Musicians are looked upon to express what is usually inexpressible in words, through their music. A lot of them are quite good at doing so, but asking them to be as eloquent in written language, and things fall apart quicker than an orderly queue at a Ryanair check-in desk. The music business, and more specifically, the part of it that is devoted to presenting a public, interactive face for the musicians that populate it, is somewhat devoid of a vocabulary or symbology to fall back upon. That’s a pity, because it’s going to be demanded of them more and more as we get sucked into the great false hope that is known as music 2.0. It is my firm belief that the further continuation of music as a viable, self-sustaining activity will depend upon the music business employing techniques of persuasion and proselytising that were previously only used by shamen, priests and preachers. It’s the next step. Right now, the sale of a musical recording depends upon the buyer making a choice to spend their hard-earned cash to purchase a product that is available elsewhere for free (often in a transaction that is more easily performed via the illegal, immoral route than via the legitimate channels). At the moment, I see the music industry as depending upon the same impulses as charities. When music is available for free, without consequence for those who steal it, the hope that people will pay for it is dependent upon a sense of obligation or morality within those consumers. As anyone who reads this blog regularly will attest – I put a lot of effort into awakening and exercising that sense of obligation and morality. Enter the ‘Superfan’. The superfan attends every concert that is given by his chosen act. The superfan subscribes to the act’s blog, tweetfeed, MySpace account and Facebook page. The superfan is the wet dream of the faltering music industry: he is the tastemaking uber-consumer who will drag his mates along to gigs; purchase overpriced box-sets packed with ‘limited-edition’ crapola; hassle music critics on twitter to do features on his beloved band; rant viciously on genre-related forums about how his chosen act is the only authentic artefact in a slagheap of fakes and h8rs; will do the type of street-team PR for an act that fills gigs; and will pre-order albums that have yet to be written. There are music 2.0 ‘gurus’ who claim that an act needs only 1000 superfans to maintain a self-perpetuating level of success. The superfan is an entity that cannot be created by plucking at the charitable heartstrings of the average consumer. Awakening and exercising the sense of obligation and morality in the consumer, as described above, will never create a superfan, and this is precisely why the lumbering mechanics of major labels and superbands will never be efficient at creating them. A massive, massive amount of effort is being expended right now by departments of corporations devoted to ‘strategy’ and ‘demographics’ and ‘market trending’ on finding ways to create superfans. Most of that effort is stymied by an assumption that this level of devotion to an act can be created or manipulated by marketing techniques. Essentially, there are a bunch of goons in thick-rimmed square glasses and skinny jeans desperately trying to recreate Beatlemania, without acknowledging that even the most turnip-witted music consumer in 2010 has levels of media, PR and marketing savvy that would have won them the cold war, Eurovision song contest and Pulitzer prize if they’d had it in 1965. The superfan, if he exists at all, is too clever to be swayed by the hype that surrounds an act – he is driven to devotion by qualities that cannot be bought or faked. If I am to indulge in a rare moment of optimism for the music industry, it is this: that if the future of music depends upon the creation of superfans, then at least acts will become successful depending on whether or not they can move something within the souls of those they are heard by, rather than because they had the backing or budget simply to be heard by more people than anyone else. Don’t make the mistake of completely writing off the major labels in this either. It’s comforting to all of us who care about music to cast the majors in the role of dim-witted dinosaurs: too slow and unwieldy to dig themselves out of the mire they find themselves in. Comforting, but a false assumption. Major labels have A&R departments staffed by people who are devoted to new music, who love it and nurture it and tear their own hair out trying to convince the bean-counters and cheque-signers that the music they have found is worthy of investment. Right now, the A&R guys are under a lot of pressure to somehow fix everything that has gone wrong in music by finding the next U2 or Coldplay, thus reversing the demise of the label in question. Impossible pressure on the A&R departments, and the reason why freelance A&R is such a growing sector within the industry at the moment – they’re all getting fired. Yet if anyone knows how to find superfans, it is the A&R guys. Why? Because they are superfans. If major labels can shift a bit more of the decision-making from the rigid and empirical realm of the bean-counters to the intuitive, emotional arena of the A&R guys, they might get somewhere. Fucking hell, my blog’s just turned into Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Anyhoo, where was I? Wooly platitudes. Yes indeed. Anyone notice how many band pages and twitter-feeds spout fatuous philosophical floor-sweepings these days? The ‘Worry is a destructive force in our lives, open your heart to difference and embrace every ‘failure’as an opportunity to grow and evolve’ school of heartwarming drivel? I actually just made that one up, but I’m sure it’s on the Facebook live feed of some band or other, if not in those exact words. Pick ‘n’ Mix spirituality. What you do is take a very cursory scan through the major faith systems of the world, discard all the bits that actually demand anything difficult from the believer, and pick out the touchy-feely quotes that offer solace. Either that or copy them out from The Little Book of Calm. Tough luck though, the snippets don’t work. Well, they do work, actually, but only when combined with the discipline and rigour of the demanding bits that go with them. Tucking into Easter eggs doen’t really have the same emotional kickback when you haven’t actually given up chocolate for lent. (Non-Christian readers – remove references to Easter and lent and replace with the appropriate substitutes from your chosen faith’s version of delayed-gratification/ascetic-enlightenment ritual. They all have one.) What I’m getting at, obliquely, is that musical acts which were previously called upon for nothing more spiritual than a heartfelt lyric or a thumping power chord, are now peppering their public personae with (admittedly facile) nuggets of text that endeavour to bring emotional succour to their fans. Now, in my ideal world, their music alone should be enough to do that. Frankly, in my ideal world a good piece of music will soothe the soul more effectively than all the sacred texts combined, even if the Dalai Lama were to juggle them whilst sitting on a blue whale and chanting ‘ommmm’. However, if we lived in my ideal world I wouldn’t be sitting on my kitchen floor writing blogs in the futile hopes that you lot might get your bloody PayPal details out and buy some of our flippin’ music, I would instead be having this discusion with Paul Gaugin in 19th century Tahiti, whilst I waited for the nubile island-girls to finish lovingly waxing my surfboard. Alright, alright, that was a digression. Well, why shouldn’t musicians throw some cod-philosophy into their social network profiles? After all, music has been used the other way round for centuries. When Johann Sebastian Bach sat down to compose organ fugues, he did so with the express intention of inducing the experience of the sublime in the assembled congregation of the church where he played. Depending on your level of paranoia about the workings of the Christanity, you can choose whether you wish to believe that he was a) accentuating their receptivity to the majestic power of creation through the medium of music or b) befuddling their simple sensibilities with disturbing sonic stimuli so as to render them emotionally vulnerable to dogmatic propaganda. Either way, it’s an effective trick. A good musician can use music to develop emotion in the listener; we’ve all heard it done on movie soundtracks. That’s their trade. Providing emotional solace via the medium of twitter-length snippets of ‘eternal wisdom’ though? Frankly, I’d rather base my emotional stability upon interpreting the shape of dogturds in my local park. At least it wouldn’t stink so badly. Are we offering them an alternative though? Music 2.0 is dependent upon a level of connection with the act, through social media, that is incredibly time-consuming to maintain. I’m not talking about established acts who log into MySpace once a month, posting details of their hilarious antics in the backstage jacuzzi at Glastonbury. Truly, there are attempts at fan interaction on major acts’ webspaces that read more like the golfcourse adventures of Bruce Forsyth and Jimmy Tarbuck than the annals of rock and roll excess that we ought to be seeing. Anyway, that’s not music 2.0. No act which existed before 2002 has any claim to being music 2.0 anyway. I am heartily sick of having acts pointed out to me as examples of how the web can be made to work for musicians when their profile, reputation and career were established in a period when paying for music was not seen as the act of an eccentric. For an act to develop any sort of fanbase through social media, gigs, radio-play, low-budget promotion and digital distribution, the amount of time spent updating their online profiles with original material is astounding. The absolute bare minimum, just to retain the attention of an increasingly fickle fanbase, is daily updates. Unfortunately, musicians often have no more interesting experiences to share with the world than computer programmers, traffic wardens or civil engineers. There are only so many times you can update your Facebook profile with variations on ‘did some scales today, tried making them a bit trickier by adding a random note each time I played them.’ So eventually the lure of the Little Book of Calm proves too strong to resist, and their profile fills up with ‘Smiles are the currency of the truly affluent’ and ‘The more people I meet, the more I am struck by how very similar we all are’-type shite. Apart from folk music, which has at its heart the obligation to express and celebrate that which is universal to us all, musicians have no responsibility to console, succour or soothe their listeners. Once again, the hoops we are forcing musicians to jump through are destroying the very qualities that we need them to maintain, in order to function as artists. This breaking down of the barriers between the artist and the fan, demanded by music 2.0, is steering music towards a bland and populist approachability that is counter-productive to their craft. If you give people what they think they want, we all end up with U2 and Coldplay and landfill indie. It’s not supposed to be democratic, it’s supposed to be messianic. Music should be capable of shocking us, challenging us, disturbing us and making us uncomfortable. This is why the death of the album is such a tragedy – cherrypicking individual tracks on iTunes that instantly appeal to us robs musicians of the platform through which their more complex and rewarding creations can be heard. Is there an alternative? I think there must be. For a new act, with great music and ability to perform it, the internet must now look like as restrictive and imposing an edifice as major-labels ever did. The weight of expectation is immense – the outrage from the online population to any decision that twists the norms is swift and savage. Watch what happens when a new act announces that it doesn’t wish to make full-length track previews available, or that it won’t sign up to streaming sites, or that is won’t even release mp3s. Conformity, demanded of acts by the attention economy in which they find themselves fighting for recognition, is becoming the price that is expected for a decent level of visibility on the web. The real creative types will recognise this soon enough, and reject it. I’m not sure what the alternative will be, because I’m not one of the creative types referred to, but it will happen. I wrote about one man’s rejection of what is now the monolithic establishent last week, I’d be interested to hear about any other acts or labels who are beginning to see the internet as an unappealing place for their music. Comments?

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Music 2.0 and why it’s filling the world with platitudes

  1. Hey man, enjoyed your article. 99% of the music I released is free on the web through netlabels (mono211/diggarama). A small portion I release through the normal industry. Here’s one of my recent sketches: http://www.schauw.nl/izmar/mp3/bananaheart1.mp3 and a recent finished unreleased tune http://www.schauw.nl/izmar/mp3/beatski2.mp3

    Take it easy,
    Izmar
    http://www.izmarmusic.com
    http://www.ayahuasca-info.com

  2. Ken

    Brilliant, keep this up. I’m glad you’ve drawn a distinction between the Radioheads of the world – the acts who already have fans and a profile earned by the record company they rejected – and anyone starting from scratch. You could also mention the fact that people’s impressions of music these days are limited to 30 seconds of a highly compressed streaming mp3. That’s not going to make you a fan, super or otherwise.

    What we’ll miss when the album dies is the experience of committing to a piece of music by paying for it and having it lying around the house. You always had to come to terms with the damn thing, so you’d give it a second or third chance, even if you had doubts at first. Some of my favourite music has been discovered that way.

    • Ken, sorry not to see your message until today, you’ve hit the nail right on the head in terms of the commitment to an album you’ve bought. I have so many albums that I just made myself like, by repeated listens. That’ll sound really weird to anyone who hasn’t done that, almost a great argument FOR the death of the album. But like you say, it opened me up to the brilliance of some of the more challenging songs I’ve heard over the years, the songs I’d just have skipped past if I’d been listening to 30 second previews. BAnds always made a distinction between singles and album tracks, the more creative stuff was almost always in the latter group.
      It’s all a learning experience. When we were recording Mil i Maria’s album (Nadie es Nadie), there was a track on there that Rocio, the singer, really wanted to do. She had the lyrics, but she wanted Robin, the producer, to sit down and write the music with her. This isn’t how she usually works, but she insisted. I have to admit, when I heard the song (Meu Amor) I HATED it. I was as clear about that as I could possibly be. But when it came to it, majority ruled and the track went on the album. It’s a bit of an in-joke in BlancoMusic now, because after a couple more listens, it’s by far my favourite track on the album. In fact, it’s one of my favourite songs, ever. It just needed time.
      Doesn’t work with every album though. I have one or two absolute stinkers in my collection that no amount of listening to will fix.

  3. Ken

    That’s what they used to call vision I believe – the opposite of jamming. Funnily enough, over the years I’ve developed a reflexive mistrust of any music I find immediately compelling. It’s as though it’s pissing in my pocket, pandering to my sensibilities in a way that’s almost craven. That sounds pathetic, but it’s a surprisingly reliable impulse.

    I saw “Strange Powers” last week, the Magnetic Fields doco, and Stephin Merritt came to the bleak conclusion that nobody engages with music anymore because it’s now ubiquitous. So he’s decided to throw in his lot with film because, even if the music isn’t the centre of attention, at least everyone’s engaging their focus on the final product.

    I couldn’t be that pessimistic. An endless diet of finger food, however tasty, gets depressing after a while. I may be naive, but I have a feeling there’s a desire among music people for a reconnection with something more meaningful, and that may lead to new, or even old, developments. The Lord loves a trier…

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