Thursday, October 07, 2010

In the Logic of the Market, the Market Is Always Right

Providing context for the Albini/Sonic Youth controversy, Eric Harvey has a very interesting history of Sonic Youth's business dealings with labels minor and major. Most valuable is the reminder that, as businesses in the '80s, indie labels were hardly a utopian refuge from blood-sucking behemoth corporate culture. For sure, Dischord and Touch & Go were famously equitable with their artists while totally disavowing commercial ambition, but they were - and remain - the exception. Meanwhile, I've yet to find anyone that has a kind word to say about the likes of SST's Greg Ginn or Homestead's Barry Tenenbaum. (British indie labels seem to have been less regularly corrupt.) As Harvey says, "Who wouldn’t, in the early 90s, want to be able to make music for a living, with health care, while working right alongside one’s trustworthy indie pals?"

That said, I take serious issue with Harvey's argument once he moves beyond historical summary. First is his contention that "there’s an actual Main Stream into which bands are able to steer their ships" is an "ill-founded idea." In the age of the internet, that may be true: the only extant "underground" is just the shit people aren't listening to, as opposed to a separate, self-contained culture. But this is only true within the past decade. Does Harvey honestly believe that people going to Einstürzende Neubauten or Nation of Ulysses gigs and people buying Avalon or Achtung Baby were operating within the same social context?

The fundamental difference between Harvey and Albini is that the former believes the whole point of making music is to be heard by the widest audience possible. To wit:
Distribution and promotion is the key here. Indie labels used to suck at it, but in 2010, they’re really amazingly good at it, and they’re not shy about partnering with corporations like Warner to gain access to their monopoly on big box stores. And thankfully, it seems, the vast majority of indie fans... don’t care.
Anyone who praises "the usefulness of major corporations" sees music as little other than a commodity and is a foot soldier for cultural homogeneity. Albini, on the other hand, views music as a communicative mode, an expression of a localized cultural identity, a sonic individuation. What bothers Albini about corporate encroachment is not merely the crass desperation & hucksterism of marketing & promotion, but how it corrupts the very creative process. As he explained in a superb interview with Ian Svenonius:
Whenever [bands] start making decisions based on their anticipation of the future response from the outside world, then they're talking out their ass and they're making decisions based on a fear of a future reprisal or something...

A lot of the music industry sees the record as the object, like the record is the thing. And if you have to fuck with the band a little bit to make the record good, that's okay, 'cuz that's what we're selling... But if you compromise the band for the sake of the shows, or the sake of the records, then you're fucking with the business. That's the franchise right there.
This returns us to Albini's very purposeful separation between his work (engineering) and his art. As everyone knows, Albini is rather mercenary in who he'll record: anyone. But Shellac is infuriatingly uncompromising as a group of artists. They refuse the record-release-tour-repeat hamster wheel, turn down more shows than they play, and rigorously limit their public exposure. To someone like Harvey, whose musical philosophy is a synthesis of populism & capitalism, of course Albini comes off as provincial and exclusive. It simply means that he and Harvey have essentially different understandings of music's purpose.

But personally, I think Albini is right and Harvey is wrong. The very benefit Sonic Youth won with their major label deal - "We’re able to work 24 hours a day at making music" - is impossible in the internet-oriented music industry, because it forces bands to operate first & foremost as a business concern with the music itself reduced to mere product. The ultimate evil of disintegrating the divide between underground & mainstream culture is that D.I.Y. becomes unworkable and collusion with corporate interests is forced. When any band with a Bandcamp page can reasonably entertain dreams of making fat mad stacks of a Honda TV ad license, musicians are attempting to realize Bowie-sized commercial ambitions on a Black Flag-sized budget. In the old-school punk paradigm, being in complete control of production/distribution/promotion, while not easy, was more manageable because winning over the world was not the point. No one was hoping to headline Madison Square Gardens. But now, every band hanging onto the long tail is baited by the corrupt conflation of making music with making a living. Ultimately, both these musicians and the music itself will suffer.

1 comment:

victor said...

on a related, more recent note:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/10/arts/music/10brand.html

"Chris Kaskie, the president of the music Web site Pitchfork, noted a lack of debate about the implications of bands’ working with brands. When Nike makes a cool mix-tape, he said, there is little comment in the indie-rock world about the company’s labor practices, which have drawn criticism in the past.

“Young bands are growing up in a culture where there’s less off that discussion happening, less of those underlying issues being addressed,” Mr. Kaskie said. “But the experiment that these bands are doing is important to see where it goes.”"

that last bit of the quote. wtf does it even mean. what's the 'experiment' exactly? get money, make some tunes, don't ask any questions. boy i can't wait to see where this goes.