Saturday, April 07, 2012

erosion



I feel a great need to respond to Alexandra Molotkow's musings on music, obscurity and coolness in 2012, because this 27 year old neatly summed up everything that is wrong with music fandom today. I got a lot of this out on twitter last night but I think it bears repeating.

At one point Molotkow narrates her internal struggle at finding herself enjoying Azalea Banks's "212" even though she's the three millionth person to play it on YouTube. While she likes the song, the fact that she was late on it makes her enjoy it less. She goes on to lament that "there is no longer any honor in musical obscurity". Why was there ever?

Obscurity was never an end in and of itself.

It was the result of the music industry constructing ever-higher barriers to entry to minimize competition and thus maximize profits. Everyone on the outside had to work ten times as hard to get their piece of the pie and this made them bitter and angry. With good reason. As fans, it took a lot of blood, sweat, tears to keep up with indie music pre-internet. Whether you were going to hardcore shows or scouring Murder Dog every month, it took quite an effort to get into anything that wasn't on the radio. You earned your knowledge.

This was a time when "selling out" was a real thing. DIY soldiers that managed to build enough of a following to gain major label attention often faced Faustian bargains in which they were offered major label money in exchange for ditching all the things that made them unattractive to major labels in the first place. And, because the music industry is shady as fuck, those deals rarely worked out well for those who sold their souls.

So that was the value of obscurity. Being obscure meant you were too interesting for pop radio, too challenging for squares, too dangerous for corporate America. Indie music was a labor of love, and it was, for the most part, miserable. But the inaccessibility -- both as an artist and as a scenester -- had cachet, and that cachet was redeemable for sex and drugs. So at least there was that.

But, along came the internet. Suddenly, what took a lifetime of touring and hand-labeling seven-inches, or selling tapes out your trunk, or hustling mixtapes etc, could be accomplished relatively easily from the comfort of one's home. You still had to be hard worker and make good music to cut it as an indie artist, but the ceiling was infinitely higher on that strategy. Meanwhile, fans suddenly gained access to a plethora of music and information from a world of indie artists. Thus the last decade of music history has been the gradual dissolution of the connection between obscurity and quality, to speak incredibly broadly.

Unfortunately, people still haven't figured this out. And people are still judging music on who else knows about it, and evaluating their own self-worth on whether they were up on something first. That's dumb as hell. You should like what you like and support artists you like no matter when you discover them.

That being said...

I'm not gonna pretend like music fandom is ever going to be 100% about the music, nor should it be. Artists are movements, liking an artist is a social statement and a badge. The bigger the movement, the less personal the connection is to the artist, which makes liking them less exciting. (This principle isn't limited to music ... as an activist in St. Louis in 2004, I can say with pride that I was up on Barack Obama way before you were, and anyone that played high school ball in the Bay Area whenever could say the same thing about pre-Linsanity Jeremy Lin.)

Generalize that to the whole hipster/blogger "you probably haven't heard of it" complex, and you get the only smart thing I said while tweeting profusely while drunk and tired last night was the following:

"i mean "cool" is useful cuz it incentivizes ppl to question and challenge their tastes and step outside their comfort zone"

Weird, interesting people like weird interesting music! And a cosign from someone like David Byrne or Wes Anderson a good way to draw people to weird, interesting bands they might not find otherwise.

But don't get it twisted -- sometimes that's a marketing decision! And sometimes it's a marketing decision made by a major label who won't officially admit to signing an artist until they've spent a year bankrolling that artist's rise as an indie commodity. So someone like Molotkow, who really only likes music if she can say she got there first, is being straight up pimped.