Sunday, October 13, 2013

Consumption and Distribution of Audio Culture in the Global Online Marketplace

I know this is regressive, but I still love it. The Black Angels, Don't Play With Guns (fuzz and thunder)
"Marginality is today no longer limited to minority groups, but is rather massive and pervasive; this cultural activity of the non-producers of culture, an activity that is unsigned, unreadable, and unsymbolized, remains the only one possible for all those who nevertheless buy and pay for the showy products through which a productivist economy articulates itself. Marginality is becoming a universal. A marginal group has now become a silent majority" Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life p. xvii.
Online streaming of music is becoming the normal mode of consumption in many communities. Streaming removes the accidental element of finding music that was present with Mp3 blogs and once upon a time, record shops. Even the Forced Exposure catalog allows you to mix and match. On programs such as Spotify there are recommendations for similar music, based on record label classification -  in other words holding you pretty much in the structure determined by the companies that are taking 70% of proceeds on the service.

Streaming services like Spotify were always an attempt to find a business model that could function to the satisfaction of the labels in the infected climate of what was supposed to be 'post-Pirate Bay' marketplace, following the conviction of the three main players behind it. It was the publishing companies, studio owners and major record labels that wanted the Pirate Bay stopped and for a model to be introduced that would continue a capital flow in a market dominated by the Internet. Spotify founders Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon were in the right place at the right time. This does not solve the problem of artists not making money or "the showy products through which a productivist economy articulates itself".

“We’re punks because we’re restless,” Ek said recently. “We’re punk but in a positive way. What we’re about is trying to build something for the long term… Our mission is to bring all the music to every single person on the planet.” What would this entail, bringing "all the music to every single person on the planet”? It would basically lock us into a muzak-style delivery system where blandness is added to every note.

If all the music is available, what about the music that is not? There will always be music that is beyond the reach of easy delivery (thank goodness!) such as that brought to us by musicologist Christopher Kirkley who has put out two albums of Saharan cell phone music, under his excellent label Sahel Sounds. Mr Kirkley has to travel, and search and work for this music to be more accessible for more people. If it was otherwise, the music would not be the same as it is today, a voyage into the far sonic realms that bring the mind into a new experience. This still relies on the Internet, but it does so with a Do It Yourself (DIY) aesthetic that runs true of many folk cultures and genuine marginal communities, such as the Punks of 77.

Punk was about finding a relevant form of musical expression for what (mostly young) people where experiencing in the hard times of 1976-78 (as is depicted in this contemporary German documentary looking at the first wave of punk/anarchist culture in London in 1977). Today the online streaming of music is the same business as always just under a different brand name.  “We’re back to the same revenue levels as during 2004, and if the development continues in the same way we’ll be back on turnover similar to those during the “golden days” of the CD in just a few years,” says Universal Music Sweden’s MD Per Sundin.

Recently in The Guardian, former front-person with Talking Heads and leading figure in the second-wave of (New York) punk David Byrne made some dire predictions on how unlimited streaming of music will effect music culture. 
"The inevitable result would seem to be that the Internet will suck the creative content out of the whole world until nothing is left. Writers, for example, can't rely on making money from live performances – what are they supposed to do? Write ad copy?"
As an artist of some success I understand that Mr. Byrne sees the money problem with Spotify as the cornerstone of culture and growth. However I do not think the money problem is where the real danger lies in a service that desires to deliver "all music to everyone".  Streaming music will suck creative content out of the world because could well be the world. It will determine the perimeters for cultural expression. This brings me to my next point.

 Here's to the Future
"Bob Dylan is endlessly cited in discussions of innovation, and you can read about the struggles surrounding the release of Like a Rolling Stone in textbooks like The Fundamentals of Marketing (2007)."

This weekend I discovered two bands that on first listening to I am surprised I liked so much. The Black Angels and Thao and The Get Down Stay Down are two United States, (presently) West Coast acts that do their thing so very very well. The Black Angels have refined the late 1960s fuzz garage guitar sound with psychedelic overwashes to a degree one could have only dreamed of back in the day when we huddled around the latest import release of the Nuggets series (1984-89). The Black Angels revive the instruments (original Rickenbacker guitars,  effects boxes, must have cost a fortune), the images (psychedelic posters include the image of Nico as their logo) and the hippie trippy lifestyle with lyrics like

I hear colors running through my mind
I can feel it dripping in my eyes
I see colors ancient spectrum lives
In through me they enter, make me shine
So bright.
We could be in San Francisco without the conflicts and causes. The music of The Black Angels is exciting the first time your hear it. But I have found after a listening a few times it sticks in your head, but does not give anything new, and it follows a very predictable pattern.

Thao and The Get Down Stay Down are an equally brilliant, super-tight, folk-noise outfit that present poetic songs that soar and swoop on par with classic examples of the genre (Incredible String Band, The Band, The Carter Family, Bob Dylan and more). This is talent, no doubt about it. But it is technical talent  that is well presented and easy to consume. Thao creates quirky videos where she expresses her hipster self ("Thao arrives for the first day of rehearsals with the Get Down Stay Down prepared for anything...except music" - ha ha....because its not just the music, its a life and remember please avoid panic buying).

Similarly if you consider an artist such as Larkin Grimm, we have a timeless attitude to the production of music. When I saw Larkin some years ago, I felt she was channeling Buffy Sainte Marie. I suspect this is a general sense of nostalgia for these and many other contemporary acts (Thinking First Aid Kit etc). Those that take us back are those getting the major promotion. What about the distasteful Robin Thicke, who brings a 1960s gender politic with him, and he even looks and sounds the part as well.

When we listen to these acts that draw so heavily on some of the past high points of mass musical consumption are we paying for the museum? Is this consumption are the streaming services becoming more like the museum of music, in an attempt to get us back to "the 'golden days' of the CD". If this means forcing people to listen to the same music they were listening to in 1989 (CR-R was marketed in 1990), then that is what the labels seem willing to do. I believe this is what will kill real original creativity. Not ready availability, the creation of a mass minority, to evoke de Certeau again from my opening quote, and a resulting softening of edges and a mixing of styles for the purposes of marketing. It becomes a question of collecting a certain number of cultural signifiers and you have a 'edgy' act, as is refelected in (the serious I think) comment from the below video:

banjo? check
gang vocals? check
bearded man? check

However, I will continue listening to Thao and The Get Down Stay Down and The Black Angels as what they do is great, I would even say they are reassuring in these uncertain times (that is the idea I suppose). But I am worried we will see more culture that uses old tools, old tunes, old structures old images to reach present-day paying (trapped?) audiences. While more contemporary art forms and creative movements (such as remix) are forced offline and underground. This is a mass conservatism that does not have renewal as part of it structure. It recycles on and on and on edlessly (like a copy of Mojo Magazine). There is no change. I believe a lot of Indie labels share this gloomy perspective as they attempt to find a niche with some degree of originality in a hostile market. In the streaming world the DIY of classic punk is replaced by senseless name-dropping that means an image is as about as deep as the rebellion becomes, and associated renewal, goes by the wayside. Attitude is replaced by lifestyle, and hope by ambition. This says nothing about the times we live in today.

Thao and The Get Down Stay Down - We The Common (Live)

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