Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond

It’s 2016 And We’re Looking For Magic In All The Wrong Places

April 25th, 2016 | 8 Comments | Categories: Musing on Music · New Music Strategies |

“All of the magic in the world is leaving”

– this is a quote from a friend’s blog about the death of Prince. He was quoting what another friend said to him, but it echoes a VERY widely held sentiment that the number of stars/legends/genuises dying is leaving us bereft of talent, of magic.

To which I say ‘bullshit’.

Statistically incomprensible, culturally myopic, yet completely understandable bullshit.

I know why it feels like that. I get it. I succumb to that in the moments after the announcement of the death of a Bowie or a Prince or a Papa Wemba… ‘not another one??’

Another what? Another dead human, another dead musician, another lost piece of the consensus around what made the late 20th Century so special for mass consumer art. That last bit is key. Musicians die all the time, musicians who changed people’s lives, musicians who made music that meant so much to people. Just *not enough people* for it to register on the global radar. Whether or not another 100 million people liked someone isn’t a measure of how important they were to me. The global population is somewhere north of 7.1Billion – that many, many of those will be making music that could change your life is a statistical certainty. That you haven’t found them yet is the product of a whole shit-ton of overlapping choices, cultural phenomena, the outworkings of a capitalist media and a level of inertia that happens to most people in the west when their music consumption switches from being primarily about discovery to being primarily about nostalgia when they are in their early 20s. Life gets busy, and the messaging in music journalism for grown-ups is almost entirely about the importance of the music we loved when we were teenagers.

So when those musicians die, we feel like part of our history is gone. And the sense that there’s a finite pool of genius is magnified a million fold by our total unwillingness to change the mechanism of our quest for magic and to allow our understanding of how our sense of magic is validated to evolve. When I was at school, music lovers came in two distinct flavours

  • Those who enjoyed being at the heart of the consensus – those who could wax lyrical about multi-million selling records and knew all about those things that everyone considered to be the canonical works of greatness in western culture,
  • Those who enjoyed the wilfully obscure – the classic ‘I loved their early stuff/I was into them before you’ trope of students who got upset when their favourite obscure band had a hit and ‘sold out’. Both of these positions are media constructs.

John Peel unwittingly fed the latter, EVERYTHING else in our media-industrial complex fed the former.

And we’re now in a place where for many generations of music lovers over the age of 30, that kind of thinking is so ingrained, so utterly part of how we see the world, that any attempt to say ‘seriously, there’s LOADS of amazing music around, just go looking for it’ is met by a derisory – and sometimes deeply angry – ‘oh yeah? Prove It!’ as though amazing music can be discovered and appreciated without any context at all in a situation defined by extreme antagonism, in opposition to a lifetime of confirmation bias. As though that amazing album on Bandcamp that has changed my life this year is going to counteract a lifetime of media-fuelled, mythology-laden adoration for Prince/Bowie/The Smiths/The Beatles/The Eagles/Kate Bush/Joni/Led Zep/GnR… Even the later work of so many of those classic bands is seen as flawed, almost entirely because it’s not what they were doing 20/30/40 years ago, and we refuse to allow artists to grow up… And when you do love their later work (see my post about Bowie getting interesting for me with Tin Machine) that’s seen as wilfully arch. As though at the age of 43, after 29 years of music making, I could still give any fucks at all how some faceless readership of my blog judge my take on Bowie…

So what’s up? What’s up is we’ve ignored how the music economy, the music ecosystem, the media-industrial complex, the INCOMPRENSIBLY MASSIVE growth of music making has impacted the world we live in, and we’re still expecting radio, TV and magazines (and for the hip, the handful of blogs that are mainstream enough to function like magazines) to stay anywhere close to relevant in terms of the music that will shape our lives. The kind of thinking that sees the death of Prince as a monumental cultural loss, measurable against what? I’m REALLY sad that Prince has died, I loved his music, and part of my own music path was defined by listening to him and being terrified of his musical mastery, but I don’t feel like the pool of music in the world is shrinking, is disappearing down some cultural plug-hole in a way that will leave us with nothing… In fact, the cognitive dissonance at the heart of the conversation around dying megastars is that the hagiography is pretty much always about their ‘classic’ early work. There are rays of light, of course – the fact that Bowie’s last album went to number one following his death, that the tour Prince was in the middle of was being celebrated as a series of utterly masterful performances… but the listicles and restrospectives focus, for the most part, on the glory years. The Ziggy Stardust and Purple Rain era. That’s only logical. That’s the stuff that the majority shares, that’s the stuff that has mass appeal and mass significance. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just that we need to then look up, and out, and not allow our sadness at one musician dying cause us to conspicuously ignore the fact that we’re in the middle of a tsunami of amazing creativity. That music’s meaning is evolving and changing, it’s role in our lives is changing… The pre-eminence of music recordings as THE cultural ephemera ended in the 90s, prior to the Internet explosion of music releases… The Internet actually reinjected life into music at a time when gaming and the proliferation of ever bigger TVs and better ‘home entertainment’ systems has relegated music to just one of many entertainment choices, rather than the cultural signifier above all others. The role it played from 1955 until the mid 90s…

I CHOOSE not to listen nostalgically, I choose to look for music via mechanisms that are proven to find me music that changes me, and to change the mechanisms when they cease functioning. I stopped buying Smash Hits in the late 80s, NME and Melody Maker in the early 90s, Q Magazine in the late 90s, I stopped listening to the radio when John Peel got taken off Radio 1… each because they stopped supplying me with what I needed – they kept giving me what they could sell – nostalgia. I remember when Word Magazine started, targeted at people like me. The cover was almost entirely old white dudes who sang and played music predominantly in 4/4. For a magazine that aimed itself at intelligent music consumers, it was breath-takingly narrow in its focus. I enjoyed reading about all those old dudes. I dug the stories about Morrissey and Van Morrisson and Elvis Costello and Springsteen and Robert Smith, but it was so heavily weighted in favour of their past and slanted against their future, so obsessively about music that we already knew (of course it was, running magazines is almost impossible to do without total capitulation to The Market) that I had to stop reading. That reinforcement of the idea that music was great way back when and now it’s all crap… even though (to take one possible example) Bandcamp has more music on it than you could ever listen to in 100 lifetimes. literally hundreds of thousands of albums. The vast majority of them are new works, released in the last 5 years or so.

There’s so much music out there now that the role of ‘maven’ that we occupied in the 6th form common room, when we knew about everything, can only be retained if we maintain the idea that all music that hasn’t been written about by journalists is crap. If we pretend that those pre-millennial filters are still meaningful, and the music of the past is demonstrably better than all of that vast explosion of creativity. If we continue to obsess about people taking years in the studio, and ignore that some of our favourite historic records were actually recorded in a day or two, with less attention to detail that many of the bedroom records coming out today. We mythologise the past to anaesthetise ourselves against the passage of time and the growing obsolescence of our vast knowledge and tyrannical opinions about the music of the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

I was one of those people. I voraciously read sleevenotes, interviews, magazines, sat up all night watching any music related TV show, from The Power Hour to The Night Of The Guitars, The Chart Show to that weird arts show on Channel 4 on Sunday afternoons… I absorbed it from every mediated channel, I knew it all, could (and still can) quote all the right opinions, but as it changed, I let go. It wasn’t easy, but I saw a new world emerging where I didn’t need all of that to decide what was good, I didn’t need accredited channels to tell me what was OK to listen to…

In the 80s and 90s my taste was an amalgam of what was OK across every imaginable genre – so I listened to Weather Report, Napalm Death, Wet Wet Wet and Yes and that was all OK. I listened to The Pixies and Bill Evans and Tribe Called Quest and AC/DC and that was all OK. But they were all delivered to me through the machine, somehow. There were magazines and radio and TV on hand to filter it all. With the explosion in music making that the internet precipitated came the opportunity to couple our listening to an encounter with the artist. That messed with our notion that artists should be aloof and mythological. But that was all bullshit anyway. It helped sell stuff. It didn’t mean anything. We were always searching for context, it was just mediated and packaged via interviews and reportage.

Being able to talk to the people who make my favourite records enhanced my music listening immensely. I’m now in some form of contact with most of the musicians I listen to, even if it was only to say thanks to them for making it via Twitter. Many of my favourite records have sold less than 100 or so copies. It just doesn’t matter any more. And obviously, I’m hyper-sensitive to this as an artist who makes music that is NEVER going to reach beyond the sub-cultural. That I ended up on the cover of a magazine for instrumentalists is a hugely welcome blip, but one that comes at a time when that kind of coverage doesn’t drive music sales, doesn’t build careers – that ship sailed in the 90s… My sustainability relies on people looking outside of that kind of validation, who are willing to engage with music in a whole other way, stripped of mythology and the bogus value of scarcity. I’m available, the music is available, and if you want to help support the creation of more of it, it’s 100% your decision.

We need new filters. The old filters are either selling nostalgia because that’s easier than discovery, selling TV tie-ins and music for adverts because that’s what ‘the mainstream’ has become, or are crushed under the sheer volume of music and are grabbing at stuff that might be good like a contestant in the finale of the Crystal Maze, pulling a handful of Gold out of the air while the rest circulates beyond their grasp.

There’s a shit ton of music out there, way more amazing music than you could ever imagine. So please stop trying to tell me that all the good stuff is dead. Try harder.

Here’s everything I’ve ever bought on Bandcamp. If you’re trying to prove a point, don’t bother listening – the artists don’t deserve to be subjected to your Zeppelin-tinted glasses – but if you want to find a whole load of really interesting, diverse, new music, have a rummage. There’s gold in them there hills.

…I’ll follow up with a more in depth post about Bandcamp discovery in a couple of days… Follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or subscribe to the blog via RSS (if that’s still a thing for you) to make sure you get the notification 🙂

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8 Comments so far ↓

  • Wulf Forrester-Barker

    Reminds me of Midas, finding a way to starve in the midst of endless riches. Given the vintage of that story, I suspect a lot of this goes much deeper than how the Western music scene has developed over the last fifty or sixty years and into the very nature of what people are like.

  • Jacque

    I’ll see Wayne’s “*applause*” and raise you a “*hell yeah!*”

    Now about that “everything Steve has ever bought on Bandcamp” link … where do I start?!! Trombone Funk, I guess.

  • Another Steve

    This article misses the point. The reactions cited are a expression of loss motivated by sentiment more than rationality. Assuming that the reactions have some basis in rationality is like criticising water for not being solid enough to walk on.

    • Steve

      Did you actually read it? (it’s long, you’d be forgiven for skipping bits) – I say at the start that it’s wholly understandable why people feel like that and then outline a whole load of ways in which our relationship with music is driven by a pre-millennial understanding of music’s value that have nothing to do with grieving our favourite musicians at all… This is more about a consensus founded on a ship that sailed 15 years ago, rather than a critique of people’s grief (which given that I also wrote posts about my own sense of loss at both Prince & Bowie’s deaths would be a little odd)

  • Ponor

    These three sentences resonated Steve; brilliant and thanks!!

    “…We need new filters. The old filters are either selling nostalgia because that’s easier than discovery, selling TV tie-ins and music for adverts because that’s what ‘the mainstream’ has become, or are crushed under the sheer volume of music and are grabbing at stuff that might be good like a contestant in the finale of the Crystal Maze, pulling a handful of Gold out of the air while the rest circulates beyond their grasp…”

    “…I CHOOSE not to listen nostalgically, I choose to look for music via mechanisms that are proven to find me music that changes me, and to change the mechanisms when they cease functioning…”

    “…There’s a shit ton of music out there, way more amazing music than you could ever imagine. So please stop trying to tell me that all the good stuff is dead. Try harder…”

    (As usual, the visual arts are a little way behind, our “industry” is even more corrupted as the model for sales is a kind of art “banking” – we traditionally made orginal objects so digital reproduction has really changed everything for us too – but everything you say, it’s analogous and therefor useful across the board).

    RIP Prince.

  • Nick burman

    I agree. New filters please. The Internet has become the best of things and the worst of things, but I choose to see the benefits in the changing musical landscape. The old filters and voices don’t even function anymore but we are left with more choices, avenues and opportunities.

    In reply to Ponor, above, I would say the visual arts have suffered as much as music, and perhaps long before. I know photographers who encounter the idea that all you need is good gear to take great photographs, and that gear is trickling down fast. As a visual artists I regularly battle the ease of which people can seemingly make anything with web apps and digital cameras. It has simply meant I made a shift to a niche that is more human.
    The world changes, people change and so does music, its role, its effect and how its made.
    I don’t have a problem with that!