25 March 2011

The Trivial and the Ephemeral

While 2000 bands and uncounted hoards have descended on Austin for SXSW 2011, I've had a couple weeks of less exciting but entirely satisfying musical exploration and reflection myself. It started with Loretta Lynn and ended with death metal, so I've covered a bit of ground. There's a lot of great music I haven't heard, and a lot I've heard that I just don't appreciate yet. Seems self-evident, and goes for everyone, but sometimes I just get bored or jaded. Aggressive and open experimentation makes all things new again.

SXSW is about bands, beer, BBQ, and less appealingly, intense navelgazing about the future of music. In a curious keynote, well-spoken has-been Bob Geldof decried the flood of Web music and dished on contemporary American musicians, calling them "smug" and "exhausted," no longer revolutionary or relevant. Critic Greg Kot rightly says Geldof is just not plugged into socially-conscious music, which is of course being made. "Perhaps the deeper issue is not that no one is making that type of music, but that much of it is being lost amid what SXSW executive Roland Swenson called 'the trivial and the ephemeral' culture that is clogging media. The great life-affirming and potentially life-changing revolutionary music that Geldof seeks is being made. But without discerning voices to champion it, who will hear it? Certainly Geldof could use a little help in finding it."

Precisely. Democratization of means of production and broken filters. That's really what bedevils Geldof. He can almost see it, but not quite. He says of social and economic inequality, "What’s music got to say about it? I don’t hear it. Maybe I can’t hear it. Maybe this hyper democracy of the Web simply gives an illusion of talent. You can download a studio. Download any instrument. You can pick up any instrument for nothing. You can make, cut and paste to create fab artwork to make your CD. Everybody has got the means to say anything they want, but nobody has anything to say. We need to talk about it."

"Nobody has anything to say"? Does he only listen to Top 40? So it seems, and top pop is indisputably formulaic and vapid. Jay Frank of futurehit.dna documents at morbid length how totally one-dimensional pop music is. Summed up in numbers, the top 100 songs "account for approximately 36% of all new music track sales. . . . The #1 subject matter in the Top 100 selling songs were variations of 'I want to take you back to my place so we can have sex' songs, accounting for 21% of the top titles. . . . The more traditional subject matter along the same line is the 'I love you' song, which was the 2nd most popular at 17%. These songs just edged out the 'Out Of Love' songs, which accounted for 16% of the titles."

Party songs do well, too, says Frank. Even really bad ones, if they follow the basic pop formula faithfully and can get lucky and go viral. You don't need talent or a label, though ambitious middle-class parents are a big plus. 14-year old Rebecca Black's parents paid $2000 to ARK Music Factory to make a video of her DIY single, "Friday." They posted it on YouTube February 10th, and to date it's attracted over 44 million hits. They quickly put the single out on iTunes, where it's selling 40,000 copies or so a week. The video is bad, it's being parodied, but the Blacks are printing money from it, and Rebecca's bigger than all of SXSW combined. Says Frank, "If you combined every view of 'Friday' and its parody videos, approximately 62 Million minutes were spent on this song [to date!]. . . . In the meantime, if the approximately 15,000 SxSW attendees watched 12 hours of music a day for all 5 days, that would only add up to 54 Million minutes spent watching music."

Rebecca Black - Friday (OFFICIAL VIDEO)

Feel free to cry, as the labels surely are. They've completely lost control of the system. Or if you're Bob Geldof, go ahead and feel validated, because this is future of pop music. Democratic production is here to stay, and it will mostly produce music like this, because this, and Gaga, and Britney, are at the top of the popular taste bell-curve. But at the same time, it permits an expansion of genres that has me buzzing with adrenaline and anticipation.

But if there will be no more Harper Lees, we may likewise see no more Pink Floyds, green and thoroughly non-commercial artists nurtured by generous and patient label A&R into astonishingly vernacular and catalytic talents. Even money-grubbing tastemakers occasionally have good taste, but the labels are losing all power to promote it. Great books only have great power if everybody reads them. Same with music. Revolutionary music proliferates, but out of the vernacular spotlight, buried under the ephemeral, starved of social power. Geldof's assessment is askew, but sadly, only by a quarter turn.

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