Music as Frivolity and Fashion

Recently, I had the benefit of speaking with a friend of mine who happens to work for a subsidiary of a large music label in New York City.  He’s a low-level data analyst at a company that scouts new talent and connects them with producers and executives for new deals.  In other words, he looks at the numbers—sales, web hits, video views, etc.—and processes them for executives to decide how to pitch new pieces.  He was telling me how the field has become so stratified and how an overwhelming bulk of listeners were consuming a miniscule handful of musical artists—the top ten or fifteen singles of any given cycle are all coming from the same circle of people.  Intuitively, coming from a culture that at least pays lip service to meritocracy, you’d think that these top artists would be the cream of the crop, both as artistic and musical geniuses, right?  Until you realize that he’s actually talking about the Justin Biebers, the Beyoncés, and the Katy Perrys.  It isn’t that the music is particularly good, it’s just that everyone happens to be listening to it.

And why is that?  The availability of streaming services has brought untold volumes of musical libraries to everyone’s fingertips.  The accessibility of recording equipment and software has blown out the market supply to the point that just about anyone can post a few tunes of their own online, often with no or minimal upfront fee.  There is more music out now than ever, and yet the top stars are more entrenched and the average person’s musical vocabulary is more limited than it’s been in decades.

Some claim that this is all because the record labels still have a domineering control of content, but the spread of more liberalized systems with the internet would seem to blow huge holes in that theory.  And yet, labels do still hold quite a bit of control over they content that they actually have signed, largely due to logistical necessity rather than a sinister conspiracy.  And of course, the standard free market assumption that there are more labels competing against one another which gives artists freer range of musical output is also only so compelling given the fact that most of these labels are all subsidiaries of massive corporations and conglomerates like Sony or Apple. These days, like many other industries, it’s a sign of success if the small indie record label that you started in your garage gets important enough to be bought out by Universal.  After all, no one can conceivably compete with a group that large unless they have subsidiary groups of their own, like Sony does.  Best to cut your losses and cash in when you can, so the smart entrepreneur would assume.  As the music goes, it’s this fact that is most worrying.

“Selling out” is, at this point, considered something of a sign of success for having been distinguished from the crowd.

That said, the market for band-sponsorship has removed some of the gatekeeping elements that traditional record labels used to have.  A self-taught guitarist doesn’t need to impress an agent at a local open mic anymore; he just needs a few hundred dollars for decent recording setup and access to the internet.  Services like Bandcamp and Spotify can help get him paid for his work on a song-by-song or album-by-album basis.  Patreon can get him a consistent income through a donation system, so long as he keeps pumping out content and subscriber exclusive material.  YouTube might even get him ad revenue, if he gets big enough.  And all of this without a contract, without a manager, and without producers.

Seems great.  No masters or anything.  Until he’s sitting in the back of his van on the side of the road without any gas, smoking his last cigarette, wondering how he’s going to get a meal ticket for the following day, and pondering in anguish how he exhausted whatever favor he’d garnered with his muse because his stress levels are just too high to get the music going again.

It turns out, even indie music-making is a full-time commercial endeavor.  Marketing and self-promotion would end up eclipsing what time he would normally be writing, practicing, or honing his skill.  Struggling with the recording equipment and software, once the producer’s job, makes recording a single song take him all day—he can record a few bars here or there, and then he’ll spend the next two hours mixing and editing it to fit, instead of perfecting it and getting the best take.  Needless to say, a sole musician-entrepreneur realizes quickly why bands often have all of these people in the background.  Yet if he makes that bargain—if he, say, hires a manager to streamline his promotional work, the manager will probably end up prioritizing whatever helps the manager keep his own paycheck.  So now instead of spending days in the studio wrestling with recording equipment, the artist will instead spend days behind the wheel of his van cycling through live venues and barely getting in his practice anyway.  Being signed to a major label seems like a reasonable conciliation, except now the artist would have a master, and he’d be spending someone else’s money when he upgraded his equipment.  And worse, he’s still not guaranteed a steady and stable income.

Is the artist better off under this system than he would have been under the previous one?  Is the audience?  Surely, they have greater access to more off-beat and unorthodox music, since this man would be “indie” in every sense of the word.  Yet this sort of workload leads to creative burnout, and he’s still unlikely to be making enough money to subsist on.  The added stress of that raw reality pushes artists further into washout mode, and that isn’t even taking into account the typical musician’s lifestyle choices that could include anything from a frivolous consumption of alcohol, drugs, women, and bad food, which is only going to make him more tired.  So he may not have record execs breathing down his neck for his next release, and he may not have producers harping at him from the mixing box telling him to redo his guitar solo for the five-hundredth time.  But instead, he’s slowly robbed of what enjoyment he once had from his craft, either by the dull vulgarity of the pursuit of his rent check, or by the steady realization that he won’t be able to keep this sort of behavior up for very long without a second source of income.

This scenario was presented as if this particular artist has a choice in the matter—as if he has the option to sell out and take that record company check to stabilize his wallet.  Yet in today’s ever-diversifying DIY-alternative indie market for music, that choice often never comes about.  An artist can spend years churning out material and performing at open mics and making the right rounds with the right bands and sending in demo tapes and still never get picked up by anyone.  What’s the point?  Even the labels have experienced their own bubbles of indie music, and given the overwhelming supply, those execs aren’t exactly pressured to be the ones taking the risks.  This is the same sort of pattern I mentioned earlier with the indie labels themselves: “selling out” is, at this point, considered something of a sign of success for having been distinguished from the crowd.  The only problem is, when the indie label owners sell out, they get cash in hand and can be shown the door, free to do whatever they want afterward.  For the artists, they’re guaranteed only marginally more financial stability, but the workload doesn’t really go away.

Modernity’s treatment of art has guaranteed that all artists are to be amateurs, with monetary compensation dispensed in sums determined by consumers, and patronage to be ridiculed as the handouts of an older, more broken generation.

As art has become increasingly democratized in the liberal atmosphere of modern civilization, artists all find themselves in a recognizable boat.  Relatively early on, they are each presented with only two options: a) stake everything on your artwork, dedicate yourself to being as good as you possibly can be, and then hope for the best, or b) resign your aspirations to backseat hobbies and prioritize the development of skills that will help you stay competitive in a workforce that’s as fickle as it is unstable.  The former option may be more pure, from an artistic idealist’s perspective, but it’s a doomed perspective; even if you get good—really good—our mass-market culture, despite all of its diversity and claims toward the value of authenticity, lacks the infrastructure to support you.  Your excellence will be determined not by your skill at the craft, but by whom you know and how well you can finagle your way into their circles of favor.  The latter option, however, guarantees that your artistic skill will never be more than a mediocre facsimile of what never was, and how good you could have been will always be on your mind when you practice.  Both options, ultimately, lead only to an amateurish fulfillment of your artistic pursuits.  Modernity’s treatment of art has guaranteed that all artists are to be amateurs, with monetary compensation dispensed in sums determined by consumers, and patronage to be ridiculed as the handouts of an older, more broken generation.  The entrenched elites, now more than ever, determine who the artistic professionals are going to be with nepotistic ruthlessness.  If you don’t have an in with someone important, then forget it—you haven’t got what takes to be an artist.

But let’s backtrack a little.  It’s clear that the artists really aren’t doing so well under the current system, but what about the audiences?  A hundred years ago, audiences existed to take in music from street corner performers, at concert halls, in bars or bordellos, and in the rooms of their own houses—often as participants themselves.  Music existed in its classical conception for the grand auditorium, and music of the folk was an activity that many both participated in and danced to.  The idea of a song as an economical unit—and of audiences as consumers of a product—was completely alien. Certainly, you could sell tickets to an event, but that’s just compensation in return for a service; the music of the performer had not become a commodity, and the ticket was itself just a token to the service being performed.  It sounds redundant, but the music remained the central purpose of the music.  The same can’t quite be said anymore.

Recording technology changed a bit of all that, and gradually, the rise of corporatized sonic enterprise and the decline of musical artistry became more and more apparent with each successive generation.  Music became more accessible, vinyl made it transportable and collectible, radio made it broadcastable, and by the time the internet came around, several generations had already grown up with this prefabricated song industry as the norm.  Songs were no longer things you did, they were things you watched other people make.  Music existed to create little tunes.  The tunes existed to please your ear.  And as the internet took off and music became ubiquitous, music became a token of fashion.  People listened to the same songs because they wanted to fit in more with their friends, for the same reason they wore similar jeans or used similar slang.  Music ceased to be an end, or even a means toward a spiritual end.  It was turned on its head to be little more than a transitory snippet of a popular culture increasingly geared toward the impulsive satisfaction of materialism.

Today, the top-10 pop songs of any given decade are appreciated purely as a form of ironic nostalgia.  There’s no greater cultural content to their lyrics and nothing of interest in their tonality.  Many of them can’t be sung easily, and most of them are only danced to in anonymous drunken club environments grossly misattributed as “festivals”.  And in fact, singing any of these songs as if they were music of the folk is an even more surreal experience than listening to them performed live in the first place—even with all of the blatant Satanist imagery and strangely cult-like performance art that live shows have proliferated in recent years.  Modern music, by and large, has come to be another simulacrum of what it once was.  The soul got emptied out in favor of a few convenient bars of mocking blues and the loud pulsing beat of a synthesized drum machine, programmable by anyone, marketed to everyone, and to be used up and thrown out at the end of the year.

As its ends and means get confused, the purpose of any given act becomes lost in the noise.

So back to our hypothetical indie artist.  Who is he even making music for?  Who are his audience?  Indie musicians really do have to think as entrepreneurs if they’re going to garner favor with anyone.  Music must cease to be an end in itself and turn instead into the vehicle of that musician’s business.  It’s no coincidence that this consumer attitude of audiences has arisen alongside the music corporation business.  It’s no coincidence that both classical music and folk music have ceased to exist inside this modern field of competing hip-hop beats, experimental noise-drone music, EDM, and metal.  As its ends and means get confused, the purpose of any given act becomes lost in the noise; musical artists don’t know why they do what they do anymore because their music is just a fashion statement or a simple distraction to their fans.  The big famous artists may claim to know why they make their songs—for the girls, the luxury, some may be lucky enough to genuinely enjoy the music that they produce—but they are businesspeople before they are artists.  Signing on to a record label is a trade agreement, artist feuds at awards ceremonies are wars of commerce, and the lists of top-billed pop songs are industry stock indexes.  Trying to find artistry in the music business is like trying to find physical nuggets of gold on the floor the New York stock exchange—you’ll find evidence and indicators of its existence, but nobody’s trading with it.

My friend, less pessimistic than I am, remained puzzled about how this shift had occurred.  Like many young, modern, genuine music enthusiasts, he recognized that something was very wrong about the present state of music and the consumer audience that eats it all up, but he found it hard to pinpoint what the problem was.  The broad purvue of classical music, for instance, are to most modern men a quaint and outdated alternative to the present musical vernacular, rather than modes of experience that signify lifestyles distinctly different from our present state.  There was an implicit understanding to his words that recognized the presence of a higher order that had been lost somewhere along the way, largely for the worse, as if a Faustian deal had been made that went exactly the way it was advertised and left everyone—the musicians, the audiences, the patrons and artists, the performers and composers, and even the family pianists that led evening songs—holding the short end of the stick.  Yet modernity denies the very existence of that higher order.  Trying to reconcile that paradox is difficult indeed.

We arrive thus at the present state, where Kipling’s “Conundrum of Workshops” meets Goethe’s Faust.  “It’s pretty, but is it Art?” Kipling’s Devil asks Adam in the Garden; “Maybe it’s Art, but do you actually want it?” Goethe’s Mephistopheles would have asked to our early moderns.  The Devil offered up the present industry in exchange for all the art of the old world: in return for piety and a ladder toward transcendence, he handed over limitless self-expression and renounced the boundaries of aesthetic beauty.  All he demanded was that we accept it without reservation and that we hold nothing back.

And we got exactly what we asked for.  All the music has turned out to be nonsensical, arbitrary, polluted with noise, and indistinct in tonal movement.  It’s omnipresent in urban environments and growingly inescapable even at home.  And the whole medium, once considered a pinnacle of Western achievement and the union between the intellect and the heart, is now little more than a fashionable accoutrement to the morning commute or empty conversation-starter at the water cooler, a totem of social status, a simulation of meaning in desperate search of something to signify.  The absence of music, it turns out, is neither silence nor ambience, but rather this modern noise made in imitation of song and symphony.

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