time to change the way we view music and the arts

The chain reaction riling up the (daily) beast

WRITING Scrabble tiles

What “points” are we trying to make as music journalists?
“Writing”, Online Image, Photos-Public-Domain, 20 March 2014, < http://www.photos-public-domain.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/writing.jpg >

Just this past Tuesday, a powerfully-headlined piece went live, over at The Daily Beast, that set Twitter temporarily ablaze with comments, insights and knee-jerk reactions by music writers from various publications of their own or to which they contributed. (See responses and various sets of two cents from Pitchfork, Flavorwire, Vulture, ClassicalLite.) I had almost taken it upon myself to do the same in a timely fashion for this one article but, decided to hold off and let the material sink in with everyone and marinate on the web a bit before doing anything, should I decide to take action at all. 

This is a decision that panned out well.

See, that same that day, a piece by David Pakman, was posted up on recode.net; one that visits and reviews data, revealing how much people are willing to pay for music in a year (spoiler, it’s not a lot whatsoever).

[T]he one retailer on the planet who would really know what consumer are willing to spend on recorded digital music today is Apple. …[T]heir data is very consistent — about $12 per iTunes account, per quarter, is spent on music, or about $48 per year.

Note that this figure declines year by year as iTunes users are confronted with many more choices on which to spend their disposable income, like apps and videos. Also note that total disposable spending, on average, is decreasing per account as iTunes gets bigger and bigger. As a service becomes truly mass market, it reaches fewer and fewer consumers willing to spend as much as previous consumers.

So the data tells us that consumers are willing to spend somewhere around $45–$65 per year on music, and that the larger a service gets, the lower in that range the number becomes. And these numbers have remained consistent regardless of music format, from CD to download…

Now, this morning, during an initial round of tweeting, a mini-commentary in the form of a few consecutive tweets by Andrew Faraday, (@Märmítè Jünčtīõn) appeared on my feed. Faraday shared his disagreement with society’s fixation on makeup, glamour magazines and fake appearances in general:

I’m having my eyes opened lately to just how literally made up most women are. The result is not ugly, just different.
— Märmítè Jünčtīõn (@MarmiteJunction) March 20, 2014

How can we have a realistic self-image when we’re so used to seeing literally everyone faked-up all the time?
— Märmítè Jünčtīõn (@MarmiteJunction) March 20, 2014

What’s more, the result isn’t repulsive, or unnattractive. It’s just different. The ‘money spent’ way and how we actually are.
— Märmítè Jünčtīõn (@MarmiteJunction) March 20, 2014

I dunno, just seems to me that the freckle is not the enemy of humanity. The glamour magazine is.
— Märmítè Jünčtīõn (@MarmiteJunction) March 20, 2014

There’s something almost amusing about the fact that these three things would appear in a consecutive manner of their own, as they are the foundation of a separate idea presented here:
Are we, meaning the members of the music industry, simply trapped in a domino effect that has led to the very frustration / writing degradation to which the Daily Beast’s contributor at hand, jazz expert and book author, Ted Gioia, alluded?

Who knows, perhaps editors have forbidden the discussion of music in articles on musicians. Judging by what I read, they want scandal and spectacle. Certainly the artists who deliver these get the most coverage, and musical talent be damned. 

It’s a sign of the times that celebrity trumps actual culture,” Billboard magazine editorial director Bill Werde recently complained in a parting shot before his departure from the periodical. He recalled his frustration after the American Music Awards when he tried to interest media outlets in covering some of the outstanding performances at the event. “I bumped into a producer for one of the shows that was contemplating coverage,” Werde describes. “And our conversation basically amounted to: ‘It was boring because nothing controversial happened.’” Werde concluded this open letter to his peers in music journalism: “Maybe, just maybe, we should focus on their art.”

What type of a domino effect led to the kind of thoughts shared above by Bill Werde in Gioia’s piece? That will be unveiled in a moment but first, there’s a fourth component that needs mentioning. Despite the fact that no one published a formal piece on it that I can neatly add to this “headliner collection,” this next point by me, connects with part of the rebuttal from Pitchfork:
We believe “everyone” can (or at least should have the opportunity to) have a say or potential for participation in the world of music. I feel this is the implication and sentiment the general, music-loving populous has gradually acquired, because, as Pitchfork writer, Mike Powell expresses,

Does [the language of traditional music theory] matter? In my experience, not really. I’m impressed by the way Brian Wilson used alternate chord voicings in “God Only Knows” in order to create the anchor of a descending bassline, but it doesn’t make me like “God Only Knows” more or less than I would otherwise. Like any specialized vocabulary, the language of music gives names to things that exist whether we name them or not.

Powell’s quote reflects two things: an individual view, and, a likeness of something. True, a rose by any other name is still a rose but, to say that inclusion of theoretical and academic explanations in a music discussion have no effect on whether or not/how much, one takes a liking to a piece is not something that can be applied to anything other than Powell’s own scope on music. When I finished and reviewed Richard Powers’s novel, “Orfeo,” (previously discussed here) the emotional takeaway that went into my review was absolutely bolstered by my understanding of, and passion for, traditional language and academic description. In the review, I did state that I felt traditional theory was not a necessary “pre-requisite” to enjoy Powers’s story, but, that if you were like me, it could definitely enhance the reading experience. That said, my view too, is individual, and you may or may not get a more exciting experience from talking about a song/book/film that involves music if the material applies formal rhetoric. However, since there is a portion of people that do gain the former, music theory’s existence and usage cannot be remarked as one that would go unnoticed or un-missed, if eradicated from everyday music journalism/criticism.
I genuinely want to join Powell’s line of thinking, which harbors a distinctly friendly viewpoint. The problem is, that even Powell’s stance has, in my opinion, itself become distorted; changed to that of an over-saturated, reality show-tinged view, and approach, that everyone –critics and non critics alike– has become increasingly bombarded with over the years, as easy uploading has intertwined with an “empowered DIY artist” culture. There’s nothing inherently wrong with DIY of course, as it has done wonders for many. Still, Powell’s views, (as much as he said about Gioia’s), can and have, gone beyond the well-intentioned place where they start. Much like I had to learn while composing a defense-style essay back in college, when presented with a crowd or label in need of definition and qualification, not everyone can be included under the umbrella or the umbrella has no reason to exist in the first place.
Returning to the chain of Faraday’s tweets that I embedded at the beginning, and now touching on a second point Powell used in his rebuttal, similar to the nature of fashion, the music industry is willing to “dress up” artists via effects or artificial manipulations. To Powell’s defense, this is not to say that things like Auto-Tune are without any practical place in modern composing/production. Conversely though, connecting to Faraday’s rant about unrealistic glamour and the continual distortion of female aesthetics, music, like fashion, has taken some things to an overblown level of abstraction, sometimes adorning their industries’ participants with an excess of makeup or Auto-Tune respectively. 

No one may tell you to “go home” if your way of making music and expressing yourself is to crank up a bunch of synths, play with every plug-in or pedal imaginable and go full on robotic in a cover tune you put on SoundCloud or YouTube. Yet, leaning entirely on the inherent subjectivity of music to “justify” any desired level of traditional abandon means changing the underlying fuel of the music consumer and the business, over to a fuel based solely on “appeal for whatever reason suits you,” which inevitably waters down the view, interest, discussion and relevance, of music as being a craft capable of/worth being honed with structure.
Having put so many points of thought out there, the domino effect that setup this whole post and ends with Gioia’s hot topic, could conceivably run like this:

  • How much disposable income we are willing to spend on music reflects an ongoing preference for largely cheap/free access to music and creates a subsequent devaluation of the art form as worth compensating or deserving of being considered something of specialized challenge…
  • …Lack of emphasis on music’s academic and fundamental origins creates a wider, “anyone can do it if they like it” mentality, also creating potential for a correlation of “appeal=potential.”…
  • …The exploded ratio of material to listeners means an inevitable increase of things like hasty debuts and demos and or lack of planning with things like fundamental A&R. (which, even if executed differently to account for social media, still hold timeless conceptual value in terms of listener attraction via snappy PR and marketing) Thus, there will be an increase in reliance on unnatural manipulation to compensate or coast within a long existent trench, dug out by prior successes…
  • …And with a lack of aspects in an artist’s work/image worth discussing in-depth, either due to a view of non-importance or because of a need/desire to champion “universal appeal,” this has undoubtedly had an influence on the surge of “lifestyle reporting” and celebrity-centric music criticism reflected upon by Gioia.

Really, when you can only take the music discussion ‘so deep,’ for the reason of not wanting to isolate the general public via academic explanation, it only makes sense that the majority of written content about up-in-comers, who hastened their careers and or chose to go down already heavily hashed out routes, ends up intensely re-directing to irrelevant and miscellaneous things like political preferences, appearance, or, like I referred to in my last post, controversial behavior. In this way, it is not any single music critic/journalist’s fault that this trend of writing style began. 

Rather, it seems we as a business have been pointed in this direction for quite some time and there were just so many pieces that contributed to us moving in said new direction, that we couldn’t necessarily have re-calibrated our content on the way down. Now though, that we have hit the end of the momentum with this reaction, and now that we’ve considered, “This is where we are in our thinking and priorities,” I don’t believe it would be pointless to try and chart a new, more substance-balanced course for how we, as the public conveyors of words and feelings on music, mull over everything and make it interesting enough to pique deeper fascination.

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