Friday, September 05, 2008

Your Product Sucks

Offnotesnotes runs with my riff on the democratising/emancipatory effect of downwardly-mobile music tech, albeit with a few stumbles: I'd say the mystical patina of live performance began to flake much earlier, with the introduction of radio; and thanks to the magic of VST orchestras, note-perfect recreations of Beethoven symphonies are a few (thousand) mouse-clicks away, no session musicians required. But the real problems arise when someone named Benjamin joins the conversation:
With the emancipation of specific artistic practices from the service of ritual, the opportunities for exhibiting their products increase.
Italics included, by the way. Now, it's very telling that the word "product" is used in place of "art," or even "work." Do I detect the foul stench of commercial over artistic interests? Indeed, "the trend has been toward greater economy, portability, and accessibility," but none of that has anything to do with innovation, emotional resonance, intellectual stimulation, or any other quality of good art. Certainly, "a panel painting can be exhibited more easily than the mosaic or fresco which preceded it," but does its ease of transport & display necessarily make the panel painting better art than the mosaic or fresco? Obviously, that's a subjective judgment dependent on the pieces in question. But the implication seems to be that the piece with greater commercial potential is de facto "better." This is a vivid example of how capital poisons not only the public perception of art, but the creation thereof.

The machinery of the music industry has always been sufficiently difficult to navigate that restless effort was required of anyone serious about their career. Even novelty acts like The Fugs or Blowfly had to work and tour their asses off to get anywhere. This, ironically, meant that major labels were more willing to gamble on weird acts: as laziness threshed the wheat from the chaff, if an act came calling, Verve or A&M could safely bet that these cats took their music seriously - no matter how freakish they may have been.

Not only the blessing, but the curse of digital media's democratising effect is that now even the most hopeless layabouts and half-talented wannabes can foist their creations upon the public. Consider that there are currently 8 million-odd musical acts on MySpace. Now, let's say that your assessment of bands according to your particular aesthetic considerations assumes a normal distribution: a very few are solid-gold genius, a very few are unmitigated dogshit, and there's a whole lotta half-baked twaddle in the middle. So, if you hit 100 different shows in your hometown, 2 would be be a religious experience, 14 would be worth the cover charge, 68 would be forgettably pleasant, 14 more should have ended after the first song, and 2 bands ought to have their hands cut off and larynx removed.

Now move back onto MySpace and apply the empirical rule. Of those 8 million music sites, 160,000 are actually damned good (and are probably the "official" pages of already-established acts we know & love - including the dead ones like Raymond Scott). Another 160,000 are the kind of barrel-scraping excrement that occasionally goes viral for how stratospherically bad it is (see: Mickey Avalon). But waddling in the middle is a mountainous five million four hundred and forty thousand artist pages that are just kinda... there. Sure, Parts & Labour are unimportant fun, and Blaqstarr is at least better than Flo Rida, but how much of this cut-rate competent fluff do you have to wade through to get to some next-level shit?

Obviously, a lot.

Bitching about the abominable state of music probably began when the second caveman who started banging sticks together was dismissed as a pale imitation of the first. Rock is dead, hip-hop is dead, r'n'b sucks, country is horseshit - we've all heard it before, and the rejoinder remains the same: the good stuff is out there, the trick is finding it. The difference now is that we're so inundated by the deluge of digitally-peddled pop-crap that it requires a monk's patience and God's time to dig deep enough to hit diamonds.
"Evil is not in the extremes - it's in the middle mass."
There was a serendipity in the near-simultaneous 1998 release of two documentaries about two critically-canonised bands - Meeting People Is Easy, about Radiohead, and Instrument, about Fugazi. The former captured Radiohead touring the globe in support of their 8.4 million-selling masterpiece, OK Computer, and hating every second of it. The latter was a decade-spanning survey of an independent slash-and-churn post-hardcore band, who never charted higher than #126 on the Billboard charts, but by all appearances were diggin' the shit out of it. The contrast suggested most obviously that artists fare better (at least mentally) to struggle autonomously, rather than shake hands with a Mephistophelean corporate handler. But the Damascus moment comes in Instrument, when Guy Picciotto is waxing belligerent about Fugazi's anti-commercial M.O.:
It's more important that [our music] exists in a forum that people are comfortable with - and more importantly, that we're comfortable with - and people are invited to participate, but not forced, and not have it crammed down their throats with someone mouthing off every goddamn five minutes about how unbelievably great our new album is, or exactly what all our lyrics mean.
In other words, the primary purpose of art is not finding an audience, but existing on its own terms, to which the nature & size of the audience are subordinate. The great mistake made by all artists seduced by the possibilities offered by digital media is that the questions of distribution & presentation becomes a consideration within the creative process. No doubt, the constant connectivity of contemporary culture sands down idiosyncrasies, replaces grit with glam, tethers artists into a creative topiary, and leads to the kind of source-anonymity/nomadalgia that remodels individual artists into mere artistic archetypes - the middle mass.

Since the release of my last album, I've been asked innumerable times if I was going to tour to support it. As it stands, I don't have a band, and so would be forced to resort to backing tracks. (And since I don't do folk, it would be necessary to flesh out the sound.) Ignoring that I find laptop-oriented shows to be less a live experience than a sleeping aid, I refuse to do this because it's not how I intend the music to be presented. Is this the right choice? Perhaps not according to my bank account, but I'd prefer not have been dishonest with - or to - my art.

Update (12 hours later): Oh, that was Walter Benjamin, eh? Well then... that doesn't actually change anything. It's worth noting that, from the start, Offnotesnotes and I have been kind of talking past each other: he's been considering the sociopolitical ramifications of digitally-mediated communication, whereas I've been venting about the effect it has on the art itself. Yes, it'd obviously be silly to complain about the Frankfurt School as art critics. Yet at the same time, to focus on the media through which art is communicated (as I argued above) misses the fuckin' point of the art itself. I wouldn't look to political theorists to influence my creative philosophy for the same reason that people don't take Bono seriously on economics. As noble as Benjamin's fervor may be regarding the enhanced mobility of "de-ritualised" art, to consider capital at all (even as a purely corruptive Big Other) within the act of creation pollutes the process. Again, the use of the word "product" betrays a conception of art as little more than a commercial unit.

The necessary malevolence of capital's influence upon art clearly wasn't lost on the Frankfurt School. In Minima Moralia, Theodor Adorno suggested that a film that satisfied the plethora of moralist nitpicking enforced by the Hays Office could indeed be made - so long as the Hays Office didn't exist in the first place. This could be in line with what Benjamin was suggesting was beneficial about separating art from ritual, in that art could be created independent of whatever authority oversaw said ritual. The same potential exists in the portability & accessibility of digital media - that an artist can work with total autonomy - but the problem is that artists' behaviour has swung in the opposite direction: towards total self-subjugation to the frothing "marketplace of ideas," one eye on the canvas, the other on the hustle.

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