The Madness of Old Media and the Delusion of the Obscure (NYT, GFY)
The New York Times has done it again, this time just a little more than a week after indulging the out-of-touch but well-intentioned Bono, creating what appears to be a bandwagon of sorts. This bandwagon is filled with oily-faced people in suits, nearly out of jobs or recently fired/made obsolete, scrambling for self-worth and value while their status as middlemen continues to be rightly marginalized. But there’s a new hope in their pinched, angry faces. A false smile of satisfaction and “I told you so” smarminess. But trust me, folks, it’s as temporary a state as it was when Napster was taken down. Beyond the tired, old, inaccurate, dusty analogies with car theft and insane assertations of decrease in quality “content”, Jaron Lanier is quoted in the NYT proclaiming that the “illegal” sharing of files with one another “undermine(s) the artificial scarcities that allow the economy to function” .. quite boldly, without even a hint of sarcasm, wit or acknowledgment of the stupidity inherent in the statement. How he can say this without explaining why such economies even DESERVE to be preserved is far beyond my pay grade and status. He states this without a mention of how well the mainstream entertainment economies are functioning quite well, thank you, while the very foreground digital underground thrives as well as it ever has. In some cases , far better than it has in a very long time. But recognizing this will not sell your books or make friends with the old media masters you so clearly wish to kiss the asses of. Either that, or you are simply being contrarian to spark debate. You seem far too intelligent to throw yourself under that bus though. I think this might just be sincere, and that makes me terribly sad.
You see, back in the early 90s, I followed and hung upon your every word. I felt that same enthusiasm as you felt in the promising early days of VR (virtual reality) development. Back in the old days, when we all felt it was right around the corner. And then had the carpet ripped out from under our feet as the bubble burst and expectations were so out of control that R&D for entertainment-focused VR went down the toilet, not to be seen again. Not even now do we hear much mention of the possibility of VR making a return to our collective wants and dreams as 3D technology becomes mainstream, recognized for the non-gimmick non-fad is truly is, and invested in by many of the world’s largest technology manufacturers and entertainment companies in a VERY big way. You were one of my heroes. But not anymore. Not to assume you want that status, but that does not negate the way I felt about you back then.
Why? Well, partly for the small-thinking. But also for ignoring a culture that is exploding right under your radar. You write…
“It’s as if culture froze just before it became digitally open, and all we can do now is mine the past like salvagers picking over a garbage dump”
Excuse me? This sounds awfully familiar. I remember making music with a guitar player years ago that was a few years older than I and we used to have conversations about new music and old. He would invariably argue that there was no good new music. That some time in the late 70s, the quality of music froze and nothing good was made after. (I always pointed out of course that he’d have to include himself in this criticism) And it just so happened that this “freeze” of quality occurred right around the time he graduated from High School. Over the years I’ve encountered similar arguments from others and the timing of the “cultural freeze” always seemed to coincide with the year the person making the argument graduated from High School. Having heard this type of argument so many times in the past, I find it VERY difficult to believe that CULTURE froze rather than your tastes. And if you take a good, hard look around, genuinely, with an open mind and ears, you will see at the very least a musical culture that is exploding with young, fresh creative minds making music that far surpasses anything coming from previous generations in the realms of both creative risk and collaborative generosity. And this generation gets it when it comes to the reasons why we create at all. Sure, they want to make a living at it. Who wouldn’t? But they see the way the industry has changed, realize the new realities and challenges these changes present and see it as an opportunity rather than a way to make excuses for failure. Tim O’reilly said it best when he said “Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy”. He said it best because he’s absolutely right. It’s far easier to blame piracy when your fairly obscure musical experiments fail commercially, than to blame the truth of the matter. People simply have no idea your music even exists, let alone get regular opportunities to sample it through the curation of radio or MTV-like video promotional programs/networks. I’ve written loads about the death of radio already, so I will not elaborate again(much), but I can safely say that radio (and certainly not MTV/VHI/ETC) is not what it used to be and find absolutely no-one to argue with that point of view beyond the people who OWN radio. And I say “people” purely for the reason that corporations are afforded the same rights as individual human beings now. Is it that those evil corporations are controlling the marketplace and promoting only artists that can afford to pay their “fees of entry” or fall under an affiliated corporate umbrella? You could still make an argument for that, sure. But I think it’s far simpler than that. It’s the same problem anything mainstream has ever had. Short-sightedness and risk-aversion. And since the cost of entry into traditional radio is now astronomically huge in comparison to other old media, we simply have no new voices in radio beyond existing college stations and non-profits. Even so-called decade-stagnant “alternative” radio has fallen into these traps and takes far fewer risks than they used to, relying instead on becoming the best nostalgia-opiate in their markets. Well, I guess I have run on a bit about radio now, but the point is that YOU are not exposed to this revolution because you have likely not taken the time and made the effort to seek it out. Maybe through peer-pressure? A misunderstanding and mis-labelling of genres such as “emo”, associating anything “indie” with something that was just too far off your taste radar and put you off the whole thing at some point. But whatever the case may be, this underground exists. It’s creating musical beauty unsurpassed, unprecedented. And it’s doing it for a reason you may not be as familiar with. Because they MUST. For the music itself, regardless of it’s financial success and reward. But the rewards are to be had, no doubt about that. You may think that we are all “undermining the artificial scarcity” (and boy, I cannot wait to tell my cell-mate that this was my crime), and I think you may be right. But I also think it needs to be undermined. After all, it is artificial, as in FAKE scarcity. No business model can survive on only artificial scarcity, especially ART!!Maybe oil, energy and shelter. But not art. Artists and especially those that make money from it’s curation and distribution sometimes forget just how lucky they are that a business model EVER emerged around what used to be passed for free or for a pittance from person to person.
The business of art has cried wolf far too many times now and we’re all so fed up with it that an entire universe of art under your radar and that of others with your way of looking at the world now exists and is poised to take over. At least in music. Wal-Mart can pre-order a few million of the latest 5 reality-tv pop sensations and have most copies sit at the stores for so long and call it a success before it eventually backfires. The rest of us know it’s a gigantic scam. Or as you put it, artificial.
Now don’t misconstrue this as an anti-capitalism rant. I believe that in order for capitalism to survive, it must evolve with society and more importantly progress/innovation. Capitalism survived other advances in transportation and communication/distribution. In some cases by subsidy and in other cases by necessary euthanasia. Would it have been a good idea to protect the horse-cart industry and hold the auto industry back? Did literature survive the spread of public libraries and cheap copy machines? (and would you call the optioning of novels for films crass commercialism or “selling out”? Yet this is another example of commercial adaptation to new challenges, some would even say not by accident) The film industry is now showing signs of survival through innovation. Music is and will do the same, though perhaps not quite as dramatically as film is with 3d. There’s a reason why you don’t see as much outrage anymore when an indie darling’s new single is heard in a car commercial. We all know now that a musician’s ways of making a living creating music and recordings are limited and slack is not only in order, it’s the right thing to cut. Same goes for inclusion in dramatic scenes of crap TV shows, cover versions on vapid vocal competition shows and end credits of big, stupid movies. We’ve stopped assuming guilt by association when it comes to these last-ditch efforts to afford a second album and tour. We get it! But your generation perhaps does not. You still see these things as huge sell-outs. But everything has changed, only YOU have not.
I’m sorry but no matter how much you feel above it, your experience with new music has more to do with your nostalgia winning out over your adventurous ears than the actual quality of new music itself. It’s not even a matter of opinion, acknowledging your right to one absolutely. It’s simply not true. Even if you consider it a matter of taste, far too many generations have said the same things you’ve said, in the same way, at the same age, almost identically. No matter how non-mainstream your own music may be.
*Things just aint the way they use-ta be*
To you. In fact, they are quite the same as they’ve always been. There’s a huge load of crap music out there and there’s an amazingly huge amount of critically-acclaimed, high quality new music out there as well. I admit I may be slightly biased. I’ve always had a certain amount of hate for true nostalgia. I love new music that is informed and inspired by the past. But actual nostalgia makes me nauseous. But this bias does not mean I don’t recognize the music of the past for it’s own innovations and creative explosions. I, like many others now, simply cannot tolerate a life (or music) that ends in our senior year of high school. You may find that this way of looking at music bleeds into other areas of life by osmosis. The world changes so fast now, it’s very easy to find yourself left behind culturally, politically, morally, ethically and ideologically. In an instant. Not all progress is good progress, this is true. But try stopping it. You do the world of entertainment no good by encouraging and re-invigorating old stale falsehoods and analogies. You simply prolong deaths, increasing suffering and giving false hope to those already accepting their fates. Like signaling to a trapped team of miners trapped so deep in a mine, rescue is impossible and saying “keep holding on, boys, we’re working hard to get you out of there”. Long after they’ve been informed about their fate. It’s just cruel. You know as well as I do that too much is already different now when it comes to music. EVEN IF everyone adopting these new ways of doing business suddenly changed their minds and decided to do things the old ways, the Internet is not going to disappear. And it WILL forever route around not only censorship, but stupidity and waste as well. There’s a very good reason why the little, local indie CD stores are still around while Tower, The Wherehouse , Virgin and other major music retailers are either dead or nearly dead. The people who LOVE music support them, and they are the same people who find ways to support artists. Those other folks would just as well love to buy a pink pillow that has “Rock Star” cheaply stitched into it in Singapore than buy a CD by some obscure artist that only recorded one song they like. YOU CANNOT win that consumer over by punishing him or her for downloading that album for that one track. You can try, sure. But you are MORE LIKELY to punish the one cool kid in a small town that would have spread that album around to all his friends. That invisible curator every town has, every group has. The unpaid A&R teen in every village, every social network. And then you make him your enemy instead of your unpaid employee/promoter. Do you honestly think you can sue that kid and still have him come back a year later and risk his finances and freedom in order to give your artist free promotion? Doubtful. And chances are, you will have simply educated him on the evils of your particular form of commercial music, which he will now avoid like the plague. And remember, this is the cool kid. He will influence others. And if he served time for it, he’s a cool MARTYR now as well. And these things tend to have a sort of reputation domino effect. When a company does something bad, evil, unfair or stupid, we all learn about it very quickly. How many people knew who the RIAA was before they sued kids and grandparents? You didn’t run out of finger or toes, did you? And how many now think Amazon is great because they offer DRM-free mp3 music downloads now? Millions.
The idea that we should again crack down on fans rather than adjust to reality is absolutely stupid and backward. And you have not convinced me that artists WITH an audience cannot make some kind of living off the music they create. In many cases more than if they were signed to a middleman that plotted to take most of their money, for years after they’ve been forgotten by even a semblance of mainstream listeners. The world does not owe you anything for the opportunity to listen to your creation. You owe the world something for giving you the opportunity to be heard. And as the fat rises, the same people that were left at the bottom of the jar 25 years ago will be the same people there today. With one exception. Perhaps we’ll have more fat now that we don’t have a multi-billion dollar industry trying to sell us that thin, slightly opaque brown liquid at the bottom while spending millions trying to convince us and sell us the illusion that it’s actually fat. But once they have been found out by the culture, trust me, they will find a way to survive anyway. But the entire time they continue to cash those checks and drive home to their mansions, trust in one thing… they will continue to cry wolf and proclaim their status as paupers and victims of theft. All while taking home 98% of the royalties their enslaved artists provided to them. I mean, after all.. “they’re nothing without US!!!” (said the abusive husband trembling in secret fear that he’ll be found out as the coat-tail riding, hanger-on he is and abandoned)
My best advice to you, Jaron, is to have a look around blogs. Discover that most of the artists who matter even a little now send their music out for the public to hear, free of charge and expectations, for one reason and one reason only. TO BE HEARD! Sure, some of them are still tied into the idea that they have to put their fans through a process first, such as asking for an e-mail in exchange from time to time. But I don’t see a lot of fans complaining. And some of them, if they like the music, will lay down the cash to buy that deluxe edition, the limited vinyl edition, the advance concert tickets, the backstage pass packages, etc etc. And to almost everyone, this is a much better process than the old days of undeserving curators with pockets full of swag and cocaine hanging around radio stations, signing their college buddy’s band or much worse. Remember, not too long ago we still had pop sensations created entirely in studio backed by session players, recording songs written by “hit-makers”, all part of an empty, soul-less machine of money-making sludge. (ouch, did that hurt American Idol? of COURSE it didn’t, because you have STUFF to prove your worth) I think we are far, far better off disposing of some of that artificial scarcity and the economies it supports in favor of new economies. Economies that promote artists, not machines. That reward musicians, not middle-men. Will there be fewer dollars to go around? Yep. Will it matter? Sure! It’ll matter most to those who did nothing to deserve a penny of the money they took from artists. And paid no price for their immoral theft, ever. Well, except their own obscurity. An obscurity they’ve had coming for a LONG, long time. The days of the rich rock star just might be over, but that does not mean artists will not make a decent living. And the ambitious ones will find creative ways to monetize their creativity. And it won’t be crass commercialism when all it does is pay a mortgage on an unassuming country home with a studio out back. It won’t be selling out when it merely means food on the table. The whole reason we used to call it selling out is that these “rock stars” were already rich and famous. That’s just not the case anymore and the rules have changed. Learn it, know it, get used to it. Because it’s happening whether you like it or not. So do everyone a favor and quit yelling down the mine at those poor guys telling them it’ll all be okay. It won’t be. Why not hand the mic over to their wives and kids instead so they can say their goodbyes with dignity.
I still think you’re a hero. Just a bit fallen.
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