Here’s a thing I’ve seen happen more times that I care to remember. And every time I see it, I wonder what on earth is going on in the head of the musician concerned. I’m talking about the experience of seeing a musician whose entire online output is a series of hagiographic celebrations of the music of the past, steeped in nostalgia and the palpable sense that all the decent music was made during some golden age…
This is presented objectively, even though in almost every instance it was the music that the person in question discovered between the ages of around 14-20. The music that first showed them the life changing power of music. When it comes time for that person to release some music of their own, the conversation switches to one of sadness and often some degree of anger that no-one is paying enough attention to their music, and the Internet has ruined everything, and no-one has any attention span and blah-blah-blah. The extreme version of this also includes them sharing all of that music via the medium of Spotify links, or YouTube clips, with no useful conversation happening about the sustainable funding of whichever bit of the music economy they happen to occupy.
The musician in question is always wholly oblivious to that which is obvious when the two things are juxtaposed as I’ve just done – the fact is that they have very successfully and artfully trained their audience to ignore all new music. They created and daily reinforced a world where music’s meaning is all about nostalgia and the mythology and mystery of a bygone era of rock gods and goddesses. The myth of the golden age. Their audience has bought it hook, line and sinker, and as a result, view the artist’s new work with at best a passing curiosity and at worst a scathing judgement that it doesn’t do what the music of yesteryear does (without that expected nostalgic resonance, how could it?) and is therefor meaningless.
My entire life in music online has been lived in opposition to this. The magical wonder and beauty of the internet is that we don’t have to buy into a commercially driven narrative about the great music of the past – we can delve into any part of our history, but we can see it as part of a continuum that is still alive and well – an unfolding process of humanity explaining itself in sound art. We desperately need new sounds and new songs to help make sense of the world as it is, however much we may want to live in a world where Led Zeppelin or The Beatles are telling a current story. The Internet is not there for me to sell music the old way just with lower advertising costs – it’s a place where music can be shared and discovered, remixed and repurposed, where conversations can happen around music, through music and with the people who make it, where the context for the existence of the music can demonstrably be more than just ‘I want to write a hit because my label will drop me if I don’t’ and we don’t need magazines and radio DJs to be the sole custodians of that conversation. Mags and radio and TV still have a useful and beautiful role as discovery engines, as mavens, nodes of discovery and context, gathering points for like-minded music fans, and hosts of wonderful words about music and the stories around it, but in the ever more commercially motivated quest for big numbers, they are increasingly making themselves obsolete as the home of art…. the beautiful exceptions prove the rule. (thank the Lord for 6Music and Radio 3 in the UK, and for those college radio stalwarts in the US who still lovingly seek out new music for their listeners.)
So what does this mean for our classic rock/soul/jazz fetishist from the start of this? Here’s the rule – you have to live a life in music where your music makes sense. If you want new music to be meaningful to your listeners, it HAS to be meaningful in your life, beyond the shitty reciprocal marketing deals you do with other artists whose work you half-heartedly tweet about in the hope they’ll do the same for you. Not. Good. Enough.
- Do the things you want people to do – get excited about new music, share it, review it, encourage people to discover it.
- Show that it has meaning.
- Promote and nurture those parts of the Internet where discovery is facilitated, promoted and managed in a way that is artist and audience friendly.
- And if new music doesn’t have meaning for you, stop pretending it should for anyone else. IF listening to Chic on Spotify is where you get your meaning in music, give up your anger over other people agreeing with you.
For my part, my life is one great quest for new music, for conversations with artists that help me understand their music more, and to bring it into my life in ways that make sense, for making new music and exploring new ideas for what music can be. I buy more music now than at pretty much any time in my life. And certainly a much, much bigger percentage of that money goes directly to the artists.
So, try it:
- spend a month listening to nothing that’s older than 5 years.
- Go foraging for new music
- Ask for recommendations
- Write enthusiastically about the great things you find, without expecting the person you’re writing about to do that for you.
- Do it because all of us finding more great music is what matters, much more than you swapping an il-conceived bit of Facebook promo with someone whose album you couldn’t even get all the way through….
All the tools are there for us to remove ourselves from the bullshit conversations about the music economy that revolve around the diminished role of megastars. We can instead plunge headfirst into a world where our concern is creative ecology, a quest for a ‘bio-diverse’ art environment, where the diversity of practice and expression is valued above the imbalance of a small number of megastars sucking up all the air and blocking out all the light. I couldn’t care less what happens to any millionaires. Not because they don’t matter as people, but because they’ve got enough money to keep making music anyway. I’m far more concerned about how we distribute the billions and billions of pounds/dollars/euros that are still pouring into the music economy every year, but are still – despite all the incredible tools we have available – piled up in the pockets of a small number of execs and megastars. We’re better than that, and it starts with us living a life where new music by independent artists matters to us. Be the change…by