Monday, December 5, 2011

Indie rock is intelligent design

Mrs. K: Now, class, the big magic recital's coming up, so we're going to start with some basic toad-to-prince spells. Everybody get out their toads.
Lisa: Hocus-croakus!
(Her toad turns into a tidy prince.)
Mrs. K: Oh, excellent, Lisa. A-plus. (Aside to prince.) And we'll discuss your grade over breakfast.
Prince: (Gulps and chuckles nervously.) Yes, rather.
Mrs. K: Well, Bart, did you study your spell book last night, or did your fairy godmother die again?
Bart: I studied. (Waves wand.) Abraca... turn-into-a-prince-guy?
(His toad turns into a monstrous cross between a toad and a man that can't stop throwing up.)
Mrs. K: Sloppy work as usual. Lisa's casting spells at an eighth-grade level; you've sinned against nature.
Toad-man: Please kill me.
Bart: (To Lisa.) You think you're so great just because you have godlike powers.
Prince: (Walks between Bart and Lisa.) Stand away from milady!
Bart: (Picks up toad-man.) Get in there! Defend my honor!
Toad-man: (Throws up on Lisa's prince.) Every moment I live is agony!
--The Simpsons, in the episode "Treehouse of Horror XII."
Those who defend the theory of evolution often bristle to see religion asserting itself in a debate where it has no role to play. What tends to get overlooked, however, is that a very secular reason still exists for why some out there might prefer to see an omnipotent hand in life's creation: natural selection is just mind-blowingly brutal. The random, unguided process of trial and error necessitates that innumerable creatures had to struggle in pointless existence, and entire branches and lineages had to be wiped out with nary a protest from the indifferent universe, just so that we could be here today.

The thinking goes like this: we don't have to give up on the technical processes of evolution completely, but wouldn't it be great to know that some conscience up there was in charge of the whole operation? Because if it was known all along that the goal was to steadily push towards humanity, then there would have been no need to branch out into countless detours and dead ends that could only result in widespread suffering and mass extinction. And the miracle of human life would not necessarily rest upon past cycles of cataclysm and genocide after all.

When you think about it, the major labels in the 80s and 90s worked very much according to the evolution model. In their attempt to seek out the strongest and longest-lasting, they laid a claim on any and every aspiring contender they could find. There was no central, coherent vision, as exemplified by Geffen's signing of both Guns N' Roses and Nirvana, two bands that could not be more different in their ideals and temperaments. And every once in a while, a lackluster Pablo Honey today blew up into a world-changing OK Computer tomorrow. In fact, it was exactly such surprise successes that kept the wheels churning and justified every Material Issue that inevitably got trampled by the wayside. Survival of the fittest, after all, means that the unfit do not survive.

The major labels had no idea what they wanted, and therefore they simply looked everywhere, indiscriminately exploiting and tearing apart music scenes as they went. The indie labels vowed not to repeat this sin. Partly out of necessity and partly out of principle, they took the opposite course, choosing bands with great care based on predefined aesthetics, methods, and values. When you know in advance what you want, you need never unwittingly string anyone else along, allowing them to chase false hopes and empty promises down countless detours and dead ends. I think you know where this is going. Indie rock is based on the model of intelligent design.

Now, I support the theory of evolution myself, but it's not so essential to my argument which side of the debate you're on. Perhaps the amazing diversity of flora and fauna on this planet was brought about by random processes taking place on a global scale over billions of years, or perhaps it was guided along by an all-knowing and all-powerful entity. Either way, it definitely couldn't have been micro-managed by any one of us, and this is the flaw of the indie label model: they're human, so what comes next is only what they can readily envision. Now sure, if you're an indie label, it's quite possible to find and be charmed by something a bit off-kilter and completely unexpected, should it happen to land in your sights. But your fundamental assumptions regarding who, what, how, and why will remain unchallenged, and your scene will fail to evolve.

I'm not saying we need to go back to those uncaring days when the major labels threw everything against the wall to see what would stick and then tossed away the rest. But the indie labels have left us with a music scene that isn't committed to thinking differently so much as it just happens to think differently, in a manner no less fixed or rigid than the mainstream it sought to overcome. What makes it the worse scenario is that faith in their intelligent design allows us to revel in a feeling of progress, without actually having to endure the kind of woefully unfair and world-shattering upheaval that actual progress often entails.

Because, for better or worse, pain is an unavoidable part of making history.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The danger of loving the probable

When you flip a coin 10 times, your odds of getting ten heads or ten tails in a row are about 1 in 500. Your likelihood of getting six or seven in a row is, of course, much higher: about 1 in 10 and 1 in 25, respectively. So if you were to do a hundred such trials, chances are pretty good that you would get quite a number of sixes and sevens, an eight or nine here and there, and a full ten if you're slightly lucky.

Yet if you were to ask a hundred people to simulate a random sequence of 10 coin tosses in their minds, it's unlikely that you would get a single streak of more than five in a row. As humans, we are really, really bad at recognizing and recreating true randomness. And that's important to keep in mind, because the universe itself is random. It doesn't behave according to anyone's prescribed narrative, and history rarely follows a predictable sequence of events. In other words, if you're trying to anticipate where things are headed, it would be good to leave room in your calculations for some impersonal and objective metrics, because whatever you're capable of visualising probably won't be it.

The problem with indie rock, though, is that it's all about the highly subjective and deeply personal. The idea is not to make decisions based on concrete numbers and objective traits, but rather to correct the damage wrought by them. I'm sympathetic to this; I was attracted to this scene for these very reasons, even when they ended up working against me. When we were rejected by Secretly Canadian, for example, Chris Swanson made it clear that it wasn't based on any objective judgment of our talent or potential. He simply listened to his heart, and it told him we weren't the right fit.

Fair enough, but what if Secretly Canadian and all the other indie labels following their hearts out there are no different from those people tossing coins in their minds, whose seemingly random sequences betray an overarching homogeneity of thought once taken as a whole? We all want to discover and proclaim the ideal band, and we all have a fixed inkling of what that would look and sound like: familiar enough to be loved, yet unique enough to be respected. But when every band getting signed out there embodies this perfect combination, then the result is a boring, static mush.

A scene made up entirely of well-rounded individuals is, paradoxically, not itself going to be well-rounded. Without the occasional outliers taking things too far and giving us an improbable nine or ten heads in a row, we no longer get a diverse range of visions and perspectives. Just a predictable selection of signature quirks, each interchangeable with the next.

There's nothing wrong with loving the probable, of course. It's fine to want bands that we can visualise in advance. The danger only comes when our subjective preferences tweak the results to ensure that they get chosen all the time, every time, because history is disproportionately shaped by improbable events. Woody Guthrie couldn't have guessed that his successor would be a middle-class Jewish kid from Minnesota, and back when rock and roll was synonymous with Southern rhythm and blues, the next big sensation after Elvis was unlikely to be four blokes from Liverpool. No improbability, no history.

So if we care about the future of music, perhaps each of us would be best advised to just relax, take our thumbs off the scale, and allow the momentum of concrete numbers and objective traits to take its natural course.

Update, November 25, 2011: It's official, I'm coining a new term, which I shall call "Bennett's paradox":
"A well-rounded scene must include those who are not well-rounded. If everyone is well-rounded, then the scene itself ceases to be well-rounded."
In a future post, I might write about why I think this helps explain not just the current state of indie rock, but also the current state of Western society as a whole. Until then... pass it on!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The problem with reclaiming music for the people

It's really interesting when you see the way we look at the whole history of music, we think of it all as being classical and then one day it was jazz and then one day it was rock and roll. But, in a lot of ways, I think what you're really seeing is the music of the people taking over. Taking the position it should have always had.
--Will Sheff of Okkervil River, in an interview with Pitchfork.
Homer: Oh, Lisa! There's no record of a hurricane ever hitting Springfield.
Lisa: Yes, but the records only go back to 1978, when the Hall of Records was mysteriously blown away.
--The Simpsons, in the episode "Hurricane Neddy."
So here's the problem with Sheff's statement: the history of music is actually awash in populist movements; it wouldn't be far-fetched, in fact, to say they've consistently outnumbered all others. The idea of reclaiming music for the people, of bringing it back to its folk roots where it rightfully belongs, has been around since early humans started carving flutes out of bones. If Sheff or anyone else has never heard of these movements, it's not for their lack of numbers, enthusiasm, nor even prominence. No less than the revered poet Goethe himself railed against the artistic liberties taken by Schubert in setting his poetry to music, for example. He much preferred the simple, strophic works of Reichardt and Zelter, which were more closely attuned to the feeling of authentic German folksong that he was after.

But of course, if you know your composers, then you already know how this story ends. You've heard of Schubert; you've likely not heard of Reichardt or Zelter. Here, then, is the great mystery: each generation might favour the backward-looking music of its contemporaries, yet remembers only the forward-thinking artists of its past. And as the present fades into history, the cycle repeats itself, discrowning yesteryear's populists and shoveling them underneath with such ferocity that when a new populist movement emerges, it looks around and genuinely believes itself to be at the forefront of rediscovery. What gives?

I have two explanations for this mystery. First, all populist movements share a common sense of aesthetics: simplicity and purity, as evinced by an artist's earnest conviction and lack of formal training. (Keep in mind that populist movements are urban, middle-class phenomena and distinct from the traditional music of rural folk they often seek to emulate, which tends to be less concerned with issues of authenticity and places a higher value on virtuosity.) There are only so many ways for populists to do simple and pure, though; by contrast, there are countless ways for visionaries to do multifaceted and challenging. Consequently, an established backward-looker won't sound all that different from an up-and-coming one and thus won't be missed, but each new forward-thinker is unique and irreplaceable. So over time, while the former simply rotate, the latter steadily accumulate.

Still, I think my second explanation is more likely, which is that backward-lookers always know who their audiences are, so they always know exactly which social language to speak in, which emotions to validate, and which well of shared values and cultural assumptions to draw from. Forward-thinkers, on the other hand, cannot foretell their future audiences, and thus are forced to express themselves in ways that transcend any particular time, place, or culture. So the populists of our own time will speak personally to us in ways that the visionaries among us simply do not. We might be convinced that this makes them superior and invincible. But our time--and our place, and our scene--can happen only once, and then never again. The future, however, is forever.

Will Occupy kill the indie rock star?

Indie rock is built on the romantic notion that heart and courage should count for far more in this world than unimaginative talent and routine effort. Certainly, this explains its historical appeal to college-educated young adults, many of whom have seen their lives stalled and creative passions stifled in unfulfilling careers. And ultimately, it is their salaries and prominent social status that have helped push indie rock to a level of cultural importance beyond its immediate capacities.

Today's college-educated young adults, however, are discovering that hard-earned credentials aren't enough to even grant them a first interview. Might the sting from this collective experience fundamentally change what this current generation will come to value in music? Bored with our careers, we once really loved the idea of a scrappy little band making the rounds, struggling to be heard, driven purely by earnest conviction. But now, with five or more job-seekers for every job out there, it seems just a little more crass that anyone should be asking for others' time and attention while feeling no need to match that sense of entitlement with superior results.

The worth of indie rock music is hopelessly tied to the goodwill that we feel towards its artists, which is not a sustainable economic model in the long term. It works only when times are good. And presently, times are not good.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

DIY is really MIY or SIY


This is the cover of Wired's April issue. A woman holds up a power tool next to the headline which reads "How to Make Stuff." The subheadings include "The DIY Revolution Starts Now" and "If You Can Think It, You Can Build It." In the tech world, DIY is about taking the initiative to build and fix your own appliances, furniture, and various other doodads. It's about having a hands-on relationship with the world around you and an inner understanding of how it all works.

By this logic, you would assume that a DIY hero in the music world would be someone like Todd Rundgren, who, on top of writing all his own songs and playing multiple instruments, is also a wizard at the mixing board. And, of course, you would be wrong. Among musicians, having the DIY spirit means not relying on others to promote or distribute one's music. It has nothing to do with how the music itself is created. If anything is being built, it is a band's reputation and career.

So the term DIY is rather vague, as it is used to recognise two completely different skill sets and mentalities. I propose that it be retired, and replaced with the terms MIY and SIY, standing for Make It Yourself and Sell It Yourself, respectively.

Update, September 23, 2011: I wrote this post rather hastily, so I'll clarify a few points.

I'm really only addressing the music community here. There is a subset of musicians out there who produce their own music, program their own synthesizer patches, and tinker with Arduino boards. Like the participants of the DIY revolution championed by Wired magazine, they're driven by a desire to have a hands-on relationship with, and an inner understanding of, their chosen craft. But there's no term unifying them as a movement with a common sense of purpose, because the term "DIY" is already reserved by musicians to revere those driven to promote and distribute their own music.

And this is weird, because in the real world, it's quite the opposite, isn't it? The musicians who salivate over Arduinos would be the ones considered DIY, while there really isn't a term to describe the self-promoting type, who would be neither admired nor despised for doing things like putting up their own show flyers and building an online fanbase. Let's face it, we've all sent out resumes ourselves, we've all rehearsed an elevator spiel at some point in our lives. People do what they have to do to get ahead, and as long as their actions aren't intrinsically altruistic or evil, then such actions by themselves don't merit any sort of value judgment. We all understand this.

So it's easy to recognise just how misplaced the music scene's priorities are, for anyone who actually takes the time to consider them. This hurts music in the long run, but it doesn't have to be that way. Let's just call the former group MIYers and the latter group SIYers. By distinguishing the two different tendencies and giving each the most accurate description possible, we can bring the values of the music scene closer in line with those of the real world, while ensuring that neither group gets thrown under the bus.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Thoughts for a new movement in popular music

I've been reading about the Stuckists, and how they define themselves in relation to today's postmodernists. I can't say I'm on board with all their principles, but I admire the underlying conviction. This got me thinking about my own creative intentions, and what values I would like to pass on if I could spearhead a new movement of my own in popular music. My thoughts aren't fully formed on the matter just yet, but the foundational ideal would be the betterment of each individual, be they creator or listener.

Let me be clear that I'm not talking about betterment through esoteric understanding, such as being able to identify a lyric written in homage to this or that obscure post-punk band. I mean betterment through the development of knowledge, skills, and character traits that will continue to be useful in any scene, amongst any group, for the entirety of one's life. I'm optimistic that the time is ripe for a movement based on this principle. Here are some reasons:

No future without craft. Conceptual innovation unaccompanied by craft is a cul-de-sac, existing solely for the benefit of its immediate residents. By itself, a concept is only interesting the first time; it requires craft to pave a path for future artists to build upon and expand. Now, a movement towards bettering each individual necessarily entails some mastery of craft. In other words, self-betterment isn't just the logical successor to postmodernism gone rudderless; it is, in fact, the unspoken ideal behind every artistic push towards the future. Defining a movement around this ideal simply brings it to the fore.

The welcome mat of competition. A system of ranking will always exist, regardless of anyone's intentions. So if a movement doesn't believe in elevating some works above others based on objective scrutiny, it will still be determined by other factors: image, identity, personal connections. But once this happens, it can never be corrected because everyone will insist it doesn't happen, meaning insiders will keep increasing in privilege, and the movement will grow further insular and stagnant over time. So if a movement hopes to stay vibrant and attract the new blood of outsiders, it needs to retain a few meritocratic elements. And one that's attentive to the self-betterment of both oneself and others can offer the best of both worlds, where camaraderie and competition coexist.

Skepticism of DIY culture. By itself, the DIY ethic is to be admired and encouraged. Today's music culture that celebrates and rewards this ethic, however, suffers from two fatal flaws. First, it actively favours visibility, meaning that those who do things themselves just to get it done will always be at a disadvantage to those who do it to get full credit. And second, it necessarily focuses on matters like self-promotion which have least to do with the actual music, since the whole DIY angle would be superfluous otherwise. But these priorities aren't shared by anyone on the outside, meaning that a DIY-focused music culture is explicitly designed to leave you with nothing once it's all over. Which relates to...

Meta-awareness of youth movements. The history of rock music's past steadily accumulates, while resources for learning about this history grow further accessible to everyone. So tomorrow's youth movements cannot help but begin in full awareness of the clockwork nature of these things, along with how they invariably peter out. Why go through all that trouble just to feel cheated at the very end? On the other hand, joining a movement that's explicitly designed to improve you as a person ensures you'll be left with something once it's all over. In fact, such a mindset may very well be the culminating stage in the evolution of youthful cynicism.

I believe every project I've undertaken thus far has followed this principle. I started the comic book project to develop my graphic storytelling skills, for example, and I wrote Bobtail Method to help others write better melodies. But of course there are countless possibilities I'm not seeing and haven't considered, and that's for all of us to continue exploring. The thing that escapes me most right now, though, is what to call this movement. I just have no idea. If you have a suggestion, let me know!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

More Braid, less Cage

The Company of Myself is a fun and simple puzzle-platform game in the vein of Braid, where the player manipulates time in order to successfully navigate to the end of the stage. And, like Braid, its storyline is a little depressing, so skip the words and stuff if that's not your thing. Anyway, as I whiled away an hour playing it today, I was thinking about all the video games I've seen lately that have explored new capabilities for the puzzle-platform genre: the aforementioned Braid, Portal, Shift, and so forth. In doing so, I was suddenly able to pinpoint exactly what it is that troubles me about a lot of conceptually inventive musical works.

When a video game designer comes up with an innovative concept for a new video game, the real work has yet to begin. Countless weeks, months, and even years of sweat and toil still need to go into executing this concept before the results are ready to be seen and judged by the general public. When a composer or songwriter comes up with an innovative concept for a new musical work, on the other hand, all too often this means it is more or less fully formed in essence. For example, John Cage wrote Atlas eclipticalis by tracing notes from star charts. Now, I'm not denying the artistic relevance of this piece; I'm just asking whether I haven't already absorbed 95% of everything there is to know about it through that explanation alone.

In a video game like Braid, the point of interest is the execution of its novel concept; in a piece by Cage, it's the concept itself. And that's problematic, because a concept is novel only once. After that, if it doesn't fundamentally call for an overlying craft to be developed further and taken to new heights, then it's an evolutionary dead end, existing only for itself. It strives to mark, not to pave. And that's what frustrates me about a lot of conceptually inventive musical works: they don't plant seeds of ideas in my head that might benefit my own music later on. From my perspective, then, they're not the best way to spend my time.

But never mind what all this might mean for other creators. Think about what it means for us purely as consumers. Experiencing someone else's work is a time-consuming commitment; the opportunity to explore the implications of a novel concept together with its creator is what makes the experience enjoyable and meaningful. But if the underlying concept is a means to its own end, then the remainder of the creative process simply involves going through the motions. Which means that the creator, upon releasing such a new work, is essentially asking the user to go through the motions as well. Yet, we would never tolerate such self-importance in a video game, so why do we indulge it coming from composers and songwriters?

Perhaps we shall do so less and less as time progresses, as each subsequent generation grows further entitled regarding what it deserves to get for free. That's my personal hope, anyway.

Addendum, August 18, 2011: I declined to list more examples of such musical works, as I thought it would distract from my argument. However, my singular focus on John Cage led a friend of mine to infer that conceptual invention for its own sake necessarily makes for a disagreeable experience. That's not always the case; if one enjoys a particular artist's aesthetics and musical habits, then it's hardly a liability to see them used as window dressing for his or her novel ideas. I'm really commenting on such works as an aggregate phenomenon, not as standalone entities. Here's a good analogy: Edmund Hillary and Albert Einstein are both renowned for inspirational feats, but only one left behind work upon which others may build further.

Although I don't care for his music, I do hold Cage and others like him in high esteem. The questions they raise and the points they prove do serve a purpose, even if, for me, they only serve to confirm why certain boundaries are better left uncrossed. I just think that when we set out to find and reward conceptually innovative works, it's important to remember there are actually two kinds: those that mark, and those that pave. And we must stay vigilant about not letting the former overshadow the latter, because, let's face it, invention removed from craft requires so much less time, thought, and labour. It's just inherently easier, and anything that's easier to do will be attempted much more frequently, with much quicker turnaround, by many, many more artists. That's not a knock against this kind of approach; that's just a commentary on human nature.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Existence is altruism in indie rock

Go to Pitchfork's curated page for Kickstarter right now and you will see five projects: a photography book on NYC block parties, a woodcut graphic novel, a film exploring the relationship between Chicago's architecture and its post-rock scene, letter-pressed greeting cards, and a webseries on African inventors. These are all interesting projects that are admirable in their worldliness and creativity, to be sure; what's odd, though, is that only one out of the five has anything to do with music, despite the caption at the top describing Pitchfork as "the web's most popular music resource." And even then, that one is actually a film about music, not a music project itself.

Now, I could be wrong, but my hunch is that the average person wants to know which projects interest the Pitchfork crew specifically in their capacity as music writers, not as ordinary individuals who follow a wide variety of interests. After all, other pages never stray too far from their general theme and purpose; Sundance mostly spotlights films, and RISD showcases art projects. Pitchfork is the only one displayed on the main page that's related to music in any way, so it's pretty obvious what Kickstarter was expecting from them. Don't get me wrong, Pitchfork can do whatever they want; I'm not arguing that they're obliged to meet anyone's expectations. I'm simply observing that they clearly feel no pressure to do so. And I think I know why.

In every other artistic medium such as film, dance, fine arts, or graphic design, the path beyond entry-level competence is still very much through academic institutions. Music seems to be the only medium in which independent artists are at no disadvantage, and may even hold an advantage, for possessing little formal training or acquired expertise. Most would argue that this is a good thing, and I don't disagree myself, but such institutions at least provide some measure of objectivity. There are too many musicians itching to get ahead, and in the absence of an objective system for ranking the music itself, one will inevitably arise based on other criteria: image, ideology, personal connections, and so forth. And one has.

But who would argue? We support this scene and trust the indie labels to bring us the best music out there, yet we're given very little transparency regarding how they go about doing it, and most of us don't bother to ask. On top of that, if objective standards just don't exist, then there is little reason for them not to sign their friends and ideological compatriots. In fact, some respected labels like Sounds Familyre and Kill Rock Stars virtually declare such to be their mission statements. In other artistic media, the process of selecting independent artists for exposure is a weighty task often reserved for impartial juries. In indie rock, though, it's a simple matter of going to a party and looking around the room.

I'm reminded of a Simpsons episode in which a representative from a soulless toy company assures Lisa that all the profits go to benefit children, only to then follow with a disclaimer that, well, we're all somebody's child. Similarly, if you're in a scene that's all about supporting independent musicians, and everyone you know is an independent musician, how can you ever be criticised for being good to your friends? It's altruism, not favouritism or parochialism, and all of us in this scene have internalised this mentality to some degree. In indie rock, being who we are and doing what comes naturally to us are celebrated as noble qualities in their own right.

So Pitchfork may write about music, but their real job, the one for which they're most admired, is to be themselves. That's how they see it anyway, and clearly, they're not exactly wrong.

Update, August 23, 2011: It's still the same five projects, as of today. Their curated page hasn't changed in any way.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Artistic invention needs top-down models

I made a Kickstarter page to help create buzz for my upcoming Rosalind Franklin comic book and album, and now it's looking pretty likely that it will fail, having reached only 25% of my stated goal of $2000. I didn't ask my friends and family for pledges beyond sending just a casual email, for the same reasons I hate badgering them to come to my shows. This ultimately hurt me, I think, not just by denying me visible momentum, but because earnest self-promotion is probably the kind of thing that Kickstarter's crew looks for before considering a project worthy of further endorsement. I bring none of this up out of resentment or disappointment. Rather, I've been thinking lately about top-down versus bottom-up models for music distribution and exposure, and what it all means for artistic inventors. My thoughts on Kickstarter happen to tie in rather nicely with this subject.

At any given time, there are eight projects being promoted on the Kickstarter main page, and twelve for each individual region and category. Click to see more, however, and the results immediately grow too numerous for any one person to reasonably sift through. And since each search is based on only one criterion, it's not really possible to narrow the choices down any further. I don't think this is an accident. There are too many truly amazing projects out there, and not enough donor money to fund them all. If each of us was able to find the one project out of hundreds that speaks to us the most, our money would be spread too thin, and few projects would meet their goals. The present layout is probably the optimal way for the highest number of projects to be successfully funded.

Don't get me wrong, I'm confident that Kickstarter does its best to shine a spotlight on the most interesting and unique projects out there. But as more and more projects pour in, this role of curator becomes increasingly difficult, forcing them to step further aside and let things run their natural course. This seems to give the advantage to three categories of projects: inventions that serve an immediately useful purpose, works by professionals and established artists, and those by amateurs with enough friends and family who support their efforts. Not coincidentally, all three hold a natural advantage in the real world as well. So the more projects there are, the more Kickstarter becomes an impartial forum for conducting transactions between creators and consumers. Like CDBaby a decade earlier, its early adopters might remember it as a true game-changer, but for most of us from here on out, its reputation will be that of a trusted facilitator.

My aim isn't to criticise either of these fine resources for artists and creators. They just serve to illustrate my point that every top-down system ultimately settles into a bottom-up one, regardless of original intent. Now, I'm naturally predisposed towards top-down models myself, given my own artistically inventive tendencies. My music just isn't accessible enough on the surface to build grassroots momentum from the bottom up; it needs to be validated first from the top down by music writers and distribution agreements. So I recognise that my perspective on this matter might be biased. Even so, I believe this argument is perfectly reasonable: we all have to concede that history is the final judge, and history is very much a top-down affair. Historians ultimately have the final say over who gets remembered and which works are deemed relevant, with or without the consent of the general public.

So why is it so difficult to preserve top-down institutions, given their greater accordance with history? I think there are four reasons. First, as evinced by the Kickstarter example, bottom-up is really just the default situation in the absence of any input from a curator. The top-down mindset seeks to impose a value system, but extracting order from entropy requires constant effort; at some point it slips or gives up, and then everything returns to the default manner of ranking. Second, we all want to belong to the elite, yet none of us wants to be an elitist. (The English language, incidentally, is a beautiful example of bottom-up design!) So it isn't rare to see some of the biggest beneficiaries of top-down thinking in bygone years turn around to become its loudest critics today. (One word: Radiohead.)

The third reason is that one person's top-down might be another's bottom-up, and vice versa, so it's easy for one to be given the other's credit or blame. For example, which one aptly describes the major labels? If I understand today's indie rock scene correctly, the accepted narrative is that the corporate bigwigs shoving their generic music down our throats represent the top-down model, while those bands working hard to win over one new fan at a time represent the bottom-up. But for me as a college student in the 90s, it was the opposite: the music of the masses was what you heard on the radio. Meanwhile, I wanted to be like the snooty record store clerks who told me I had to check out Tortoise and Mogwai, just because. Good music wasn't determined by vote back then; it was decreed by a mysterious league of enlightened insiders. And I wasn't alone in feeling this awe.

The more I think about it, though, the more I realise that neither of these viewpoints captures the bigger picture, which is that both major labels and indie labels began as top-down systems, and both eventually subsided into bottom-up ones, just like Kickstarter. And there is no parity between top-down and bottom-up: the former turns into the latter, and never the other way around. So regardless of which approach anyone favours, I think one point is indisputable: top-down systems are much more rare, and may even be extinguished long before new ones arrive to take up their mantle. This is worth pondering because each privileges a slightly different subset of the creative population. I mentioned earlier that certain projects hold a natural advantage in the real world. Technological invention makes our lives easier, for example, and we all crave artistic beauty, so we're inclined to reward creative pursuits in either of these directions. This is where top-down and bottom-up thinkers are in complete agreement.

Artistic invention, however, doesn't solve any problems; on the contrary, it makes things more complicated. And rather than work with familiar notions of beauty, it strives to create exotic and alien ones. So no one needs it, and understandably, most don't want it. History does reserve a high seat on its totem pole for artistic inventors, though, and top-down thinkers are more likely to consider the bigger picture of how the present fits into history. So they'll readily champion the tendency towards artistic invention, even if, like everyone else, they're not always enthusiastic about the results. This is the one issue, and perhaps the only issue, on which top-down and bottom-up thinkers disagree. But it's big enough to give us the fourth reason for why top-down models are so difficult to sustain: top-down thinking will always reserve the right to give the world what it neither needs nor wants. And that, to nearly everyone's sensibilities, is just plain crazy.

So what is there for artistic inventors to do? I don't know, but as we walk the earth in search of unspoiled top-down pastures, I think it's important to remember that we did sign up for this. Even if we never did read the fine print, this was always part of the agreement. Beyond that, I'm afraid there's probably not much else to do but sit back, keep trying out our half-baked ideas, write some long blog posts, and wait for history to give us our big break.

Update, August 10, 2011: The Kickstarter campaign failed. Again, I want to make it clear that I didn't write this post in bitterness or frustration. I just care deeply about the future of music, so I'm always contemplating how this business model or that social ideal will shape its progress. Up until now, I've been treating this blog as more of a repository for talking points. It's not that I've intentionally kept mum about it; rather, I've just been lackadaisical about making it public, the same attitude I harbour towards anything not directly related to creating music. However, this carries the disadvantage and danger of keeping my thoughts locked inside an echo chamber. So, in the next few days I'm going to be more proactive about promoting this blog. Feel free to leave comments, especially if you think any of my ideas might warrant a rebuttal.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Academic respect for rock and hip hop?

I've met many people who believe it's only a matter of time before rock and hip hop come into academic respectability the way jazz finally did a couple generations ago. The thinking goes something like this: a new musical movement lowers the cost of entry for participation, drawing disdain from the mainstream establishment. But among this new influx of participants, a select few will find a way to stand out, thus raising overall standards of proficiency. Over time, they'll become so good at what they do that, despite its different aesthetics and approaches, the genre as a whole will win the respect of established musicians. Jazz shares equal footing with classical as serious music now; and as it went with jazz, so it will eventually go for rock and hip hop.

I think comparing jazz to these two populist genres, however, ignores one crucial difference between them: the former, like classical, is product-oriented, while the latter are persona-driven. Classical music wasn't always free of biases regarding those behind the music, of course; in the past, opportunities for Jewish, female, and ethnic composers and performers were severely limited. However, this was symptomatic of the societies which spawned classical music, not the genre itself. Today, few such barriers exist, with many schools and conservatories actively courting females and minorities in the name of diversity. And jazz was a melting pot from the very beginning, since its focus was always on how well you played. Dave Brubeck and Bill Evans, both white men, faced no difficulties in being embraced by the genre's black pioneers.

In rock and hip hop, by contrast, it matters quite a bit who you are, where you're coming from, and how you go about doing things. And I'm not just talking about all the superficial fluff out there; I'm talking about the kind of music that gets critically acclaimed and is undeniably relevant and important to music history. Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet could only ever have been made by young, disaffected black men. The members of Pavement could only ever have been young, unambitious white men. The former were angry about lacking empowerment and demanded to be heard; the latter casually disowned their natural privileges. For both bands, the power and appeal of their music had everything to do with who they were as individuals.

In other words, it's not just fans of Nickelback or Soulja Boy preventing rock and hip hop from joining the ranks of classical and jazz; it's also the Robert Christgaus and Chuck Klostermans of the world, along with people like you and me who recognise that identity is central to the message in these genres. We want to know about Dizzee Rascal's troubled youth, Liz Phair's feminist views, and Daniel Johnston's schizophrenia. Their stories don't just bring these artists to our attention; they actively infuse their music with greater meaning, helping them reach deeper into us. We don't want to see them crowded out by hordes of middle-aged, gray-haired men who possess the advantage of time and money to cultivate superior technical skills and musical craftsmanship.

But this is exactly what would need to happen for rock and hip hop to come into academic respectability as jazz has done. And no fan of rock or hip hop today believes the trade-off would be worth it. So let the academies have their music, and give the masses theirs; interested listeners can make the effort on their own to trek back and forth between the two camps. Because at the end of the day, we really don't want them to meet; we really do want to preserve rock and hip hop as refuges where youth, image and back story will always reign supreme. We just don't want to be caught saying so.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Indie rock's place in music history

Let's say you know nothing about classical music, and you ask me to recommend a good composer for you. Suppose I were to respond, "Well, there was this guy two hundred years ago who was really well liked by everyone in the Hamburg scene. He was always promoting upcoming shows, and he would always stick around for hours afterwards, signing autographs and chatting with fans. Oh, and get this: he started his own music publishing company, because he wanted to empower himself and others as independent artists!" If I were to say all that, I think you would look at me like I had sponge cake for brains. These aren't traits we typically value in long-dead composers.

And yet, it's openly acknowledged and celebrated that building up a following and being self-reliant in matters of promotion is precisely what gets a band noticed and respected in the indie rock scene. The kind of priorities which set indie rock proudly apart from the popular mainstream, in other words, are also counterintuitive to music history as a whole. If a band aspires to get signed to an indie label, they're expected to expend enormous amounts of time and energy on doing things, and being things, that really don't matter much to the greater world of people who listen to and appreciate music across oceans, generations, and ideological divides.

It's not that actual music is incidental to indie rock; rather, the goodwill that a band naturally generates by being out and about invariably carries over into our assessment of their music. Objective standards provide a mechanism to counter this tendency, but a scene like indie rock that rejects such standards will grow to cheer it on instead, comfortable in its assertion that a band's artistic worth is inextricable from its likability. So if one runs an indie label, and one likes Band A better than Band B as individual people, then one will attend more of their shows, one will hear and like their music more, one will judge them to be the better band, and one will ultimately sign them over Band B. And since supporting indie labels is how bona fides get earned, we're left with relatively few past instances in which these judgments have been openly called into question.

But how long can that kind of support last before it finally begins to erode? After all, the difference between Band A and Band B is still a blind taste test for the general public. We'll always choose Band A over the Band B we know nothing about since they didn't get signed, of course, but we don't live in a vacuum; all of us know some amazingly talented Band B working our local scene. Overall, they probably number in the tens of thousands. Check out the most recent addition to any indie label's roster, though, and chances are it won't be readily obvious what advantages their music possessed to have vaulted them over the tens of thousands of other bands equally worthy of consideration. Don't get me wrong, they're almost always pretty good. But the same could be said about all the forgotten bands snapped up by the major labels in the heady 90s. Remember Chalk FarM?

Back then, the major labels were casting a wide net, signing every band out there who had worked hard to build up a regional following, hoping to find just a few that could make it big and recoup all their investments, with a tidy sum added to boot. The rest had their fins sliced off before being thrown back into the sea. The majors were hoping to make a killing; by contrast, the indies in these uncertain times are simply trying to make a living. Signing bands who signal a can-do spirit towards self-promotion minimises their risk of losing money. So it's easy to sympathize with their struggles to stay afloat; nobody will be penning an indie label counterpart to Steve Albini's rant against the major labels anytime soon.

And yet, their respective criteria for choosing which bands to sign aren't really all that different, are they? And as such, couldn't the same be suggested about their respective places in music history?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A resistible Canaanite's request for crumbs

I don't pay much attention to what's happening in indie rock these days, but I still keep tabs on Bon Iver. Justin Vernon is like my doppelgänger of sorts: heartbroken and feeling like life had reached a crisis point, he and I each retreated into seclusion to write and record an emotionally cathartic album. Our stories kind of diverge from there, of course. He got signed to Jagjaguwar; I got rejected by their sister label, Secretly Canadian. His album made it onto numerous best-album lists; mine sold something like fifteen copies, mostly to friends and family. His latest album is now receiving the same level of critical acclaim as his first; I've spent the past five years unsuccessfully trying to convince music critics that I exist.

I think his music is quite beautiful, so this post isn't meant to criticise Bon Iver in any way. Rather, it's a commentary on the Pitchfork review of his latest album, in which Mark Richardson writes, "There's something irresistible about the thought of a bearded dude from small-town Wisconsin retreating, heartbroken, to a cabin to write some songs..." Some of you may remember my thought experiment from last month, in which I asked you to imagine the music of Sufjan Stevens and Beirut being made by people whose physical appearance probably wouldn't lead anyone to presume an indie rock affiliation. As you've probably already guessed, this post continues where that one left off.

Richardson isn't trying to argue that image and identity should matter in indie rock, but his statement reveals an ingrained comfort with the notion that some physical appearances and provenances possess greater myth-making potential than others. This probably doesn't bother women from small towns or bearded dudes from big cities too much, but we might ask whether there exists some point beyond which an outlier's personal identity is just too distant or foreign for his or her music to be considered relevant by this scene. I'm not saying that Bon Iver doesn't deserve the respect and attention he gets. He does. But I think we can also be sympathetic to the fact that not every band starts out with the same advantages.

Now, some might argue that music, like romance, isn't and shouldn't be concerned with providing equal opportunities. It's about what we as listeners and lovers want for ourselves, and nothing more needs to be said or defended. I understand this. But what people want can also expand and mature over time, so those of us who aren't presently wanted can still work hard to build up our merits, knowing the day will come when those efforts finally mean something to somebody. We all understand this as well. That's why, as a short man, I've learned to be gracious and not to gripe about my lesser fortunes. And that's why, as a songwriter, I've learned to write music that showcases objective mastery and isn't vulnerable to the subjective tastes of any particular time or place.

Well, here's where it gets tricky. So far, indie rock hasn't appreciated any of my efforts in the latter department, and now I have to wonder whether this modus operandi of mine will always backfire in a scene that values humble sincerity and frowns upon calculated effort. But really, how else could I possibly do it? I'm not a bearded dude from small-town Wisconsin, and there's nothing irresistible about the thought of someone like me doing anything, period. So if it's blindingly obvious that I don't exactly know how to go about things, rest assured that I'm not completely naive, either. The reason I don't bother to make the kind of music that indie rock never fails to appreciate is because I have good reason to suspect that indie rock wouldn't necessarily appreciate it coming from me.

Here's a personal anecdote. When Liz and I left New York, we shipped a lot of our stuff through Amtrak. Their website doesn't give a whole lot of information, so when we got there, the charges turned out to be way more than what we had been quoted. I tried to stay good-natured and compliant, but Liz started sulking and shooting daggers from her eyes, and amazingly, that's what worked. The poor guy let us go with our original quotes. It then occurred to me that we all instinctively do things in ways that work best for us. Liz is very small with a soft-spoken Southern drawl, and I'm a short Asian fellow, so we both get walked upon with some regularity. But no one actually likes to see Liz upset, whereas I'm only an amusing clown when I get upset. Hence, we've learned to react very differently to the same situation.

So getting back to indie rock, I'd wager that few in this scene would sympathise with my current lack of recognition, given my insistence on creating a bloated, unwelcoming monstrosity filled with Easter mondegreens, doublespeaker rhymes, and emotions buried only beneath thick layers of sardonic wit. But I'm just not someone who can hole up in a cabin for months, laying down my unadorned whispers into something painfully earnest and vulnerable, and expect to be loved for it. That wouldn't work for me. I've been who I am my whole life, I've seen what that signifies to others, and I'm pretty self-aware as an individual, so you'll just have to trust me on that one. If it does work for some, I'm only glad to hear it; I wouldn't want to live in a world incapable of spawning Bon Iver, Joanna Newsom, Daniel Johnston, or any other artists making the kind of music that only those like them could ever be loved for making.

In turn, everything I do is done with an intuitive understanding of what works best for someone like me. Given that my life's journey up to the present has been an endless series of sputters and false starts, it's obvious that my intuition is oftentimes downright wrong. But in my defence, I really don't have many precedents to work with, much less goodwill to inherit. If, by some miracle, Mark Richardson were ever to review a Bobtail Yearlings album, he wouldn't be tapping into any universal sentiment about short Asian boys from California. And so I strive over and over to create new archetypes from scratch, despite my perfect record of failure thus far, because creating new archetypes is all there is for me to do at this stage. It doesn't get me a whole lot of love from this scene here and now, true, but it's the only way I can do it if I'm to get any love at all. Tomorrow's music historians will certainly be sympathetic to this predicament of mine, and I think some of today's indie rock fans would too, given the chance to know about it.

The question is, will they ever get to know about it? That's not my decision to make, unfortunately. I'll leave you here with a parable. Jesus only preached to his fellow Israelites, so when a Canaanite woman persisted in begging him to heal her daughter, he told her, "It isn't right to take the children's bread and cast it to dogs." The woman replied, "Yes, but even dogs eat crumbs that fall from the master's table." To which Jesus then said, "Woman, you have great faith! Your wish is granted." My point is that I'm not looking to be anyone's favourite here. What I'm asking for really amounts to just table scraps, and I've certainly proven my persistence. Hopefully, one of these bearded dudes around here will rise up to be my messiah!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Rise of the comic book album

When a band is established and widely respected, fans will spend hours parsing lyrics that were written in a minute. But if you're a complete unknown, no one will spend a second bothering to understand a line that took you days to write. When it comes to discovering and judging new bands, most of us are only willing to give a single perfunctory listen at best, all the while asking ourselves just one question: "Do I dig it, here and now?" This isn't a judgment of anyone's priorities; I do it as well. Time is precious, after all, and there are just too many other bands out there waiting in line to be heard.

But in any case, this means that when you're just starting out as a band, you're at a huge disadvantage if you aim to create music laden with deeper meaning that's evident only after repeated listens. Time and effort are finite resources, after all, and while you're busy investing them in things you won't be given any credit for as an unknown band, plenty of other bands are happy to focus solely on those features that are immediately visible at the surface. In the end, they're the ones who have the best chance to become viral sensations on Fluxblog and Stereogum, not you. In fact, you're really not part of the competition at all.

I learned this the hard way after getting zero critical reception from my forays into doublespeaker rhyme on Yearling's Bobtail. So for this next album, I vowed to drastically simplify my songwriting, and I think I've been pretty successful for the most part. Still, I found myself writing lines like, "As a clamp for cords ties the slack in her gown." Rosalind Franklin had ovarian cancer, you see, yet ironically, she was placed in the hospital's obstetrics wing. So, you know, umbilical cord clamp, emaciated body in maternity gown... In theory, a listener paying full attention would make these connections by the end of the song. However, like I said, when you're an unknown band, such thoughtful listeners don't actually exist for you in reality.

And that's how I came up with the idea for this comic book album. With pictures arranged in sequence, the meaning behind my songs can be readily understood upon first listen, while the music itself remains perfectly uncompromised. At the same time, the sheer presence of a competently drawn, full-colour comic book might help to signal the album's seriousness to record labels and music critics in ways that all the bluster of an accompanying one-sheet never will. Of course, this isn't just a marketing ploy, but an artistic endeavour in its own right as well. And thank heavens for that, since I am the nobody I am today at least partly because I find unabashed attempts at self-promotion so unpalatable.

I don't plan to make any more comic book albums beyond this first one, though. Don't get me wrong, it's fun, it's challenging, it makes me a more well-rounded individual, but man... drawing panel after panel is really, really time-consuming! Plus, beyond artistic satisfaction, I really only have one purpose for it in mind, and that is to get my foot in the door. So if my little experiment succeeds, then there won't be any impetus left to keep doing it, since there are so many other uncharted paths to explore. And should I really want another comic book album to my name, I'll just storyboard it and use my newfound leverage to hire an illustrator.

Anyway, if I can set a precedent by getting the indie rock community's attention as an unknown band with this comic book album, I foresee two things happening. First, the playing field will be just a little more level for music that's less conducive to live performance. Good live bands have always held the natural advantage and always will, of course, but that advantage has become untenably lopsided in recent years due to changes in how music is distributed and promoted. Setting music to sequential art won't counter the imbalance for every innovative songwriter out there, but it could help a few.

And second, the notion of how unknown bands pay their dues might finally be expanded to include the time-consuming effort that goes into writing thoughtful and innovative songs. In the world of indie rock, respect is earned by winning over a new crowd every night, not by sitting alone hunched over a desk for hours. But no one in the world of comic books feels this way. And this isn't a minor issue. How much we credit a band with having paid their dues enormously affects how charitably we approach their music and how much we're driven to impress it upon others. So those few of us dedicated to songcraft at the expense of opportunities for performance have a vested interest in allying ourselves with those of a like temperament in different fields. It's always good to have strength in numbers, and those like us in the world of comics are especially many.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Subjectively better versus objectively better

Indie rock is largely about discounting hard work and cultivated talent in favour of more intangible qualities. No one here has a problem with this, since we're all aware that many of the most admired works of the past century followed this principle. But the thing is, the default advantages associated with work and talent are not arbitrarily handed out by some overseer; they are intrinsic to the very nature of work and talent themselves. In other words, if you keep working hard and developing your talents, you will eventually accrue enough advantage to overcome the disadvantage of anyone else's personal tastes being disposed against your favour. At that point, you will be the better band by all possible measures.

And if the scene continues to ignore you after that, it doesn't really matter, because objective talent can steadily deliver in a way that subjective aesthetics simply cannot. You will eventually make it, even if it takes much longer than expected. Once that happens, though, everyone loses. You end up looking bad for competing with bands below your paygrade. And they look bad because in a scene that's all about celebrating the underdog, suddenly you're shown to be the real underdog, not them. No one ends up looking good, obviously, so it's in everyone's best interest not to let this kind of thing happen too often.

Thus, we should keep in mind that in a scene where subjectively better bands are valued above objectively better ones, an objectively better band might still prove to be the better band overall. We'll find out in a year or so whether my argument is correct. And if I'm wrong, well, you probably won't chance to read this blog post to begin with!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Bias in reasoning and vision

I'm currently working on a comic book, but I'm just an amateur. I haven't devoted years of my life perfecting my craft. I spend hours drawing lines and shapes that I can visualise in my mind, but I'm constantly making value judgments with my eye because my fine motor skills are not developed enough to have what I want always be what I get. And sometimes what I think I see is not what's actually there. My mind easily wanders as I draw, and recently I drew a comparison between the way we see and the way we think that fits well with my last post discussing the possibility of racial bias in indie rock.

I talked about bias as if it's always this bad thing, but really, a bias is just a mental shortcut, nothing more. We need them because every minute of every day we are bombarded with information overload. If we're to get past the four-year-old stage of our lives, when we're constantly marveling "Look, a tree!" every ten seconds, then we need to form biases to help streamline the way we think. So we construct narratives out of random events, we group objects into neat categories, and we place value judgments on things that have no bearing on their actual existence.

It's no different from the way we see. When we look at a picture, we instantly recognise straight lines and sharp angles, symmetry and recurring patterns, facial expressions in moons and clouds. It all happens so instantly and automatically that it never occurs to us that what we're taking in might be anything other than what's objectively there, or that it could ever be possible to see in a fundamentally different way. This is why optical illusions are so jarring, because they provide a naked glimpse into our evolution as branch-swinging simians. So like our reasoning, our vision is primed more for efficiency, and less for accuracy, than we assume.

Of course, we can always whip out a ruler to determine whether two telephone poles that look to be of different height are indeed the same. There's no similar standard for measuring hiccoughs in our mental observations, however. I can only compare my thoughts to yours, which might be just as hopelessly subjective. It's only when we look at the bigger picture, and note that more than half of us consider ourselves above average, or that blacks are less likely to be hired for white-collar jobs than similarly qualified whites, that we can begin to detect the presence of this particular bias or that.

Which goes back to the idea of racial bias in indie rock. I don't think this scene actively creates them, but it certainly doesn't take steps to correct whatever might already be present, either. There's no centralised committee tasked with that kind of oversight. And when an indie label insists that it's run like a family and not a business, filling its roster with like-minded friends, our response is to feel warm and fuzzy inside, not to call the EEOC. But the key is to look at the bigger picture. Who gets lauded, and who gets left out?

Finally, I should point out that I myself am chock-full of racial biases. Some of my most unforgiving are those against Asian-Americans, and I'm an Asian-American! I'm also a social progressive, so I take steps to correct them, but my good intentions can only last so long before I become too tired or distracted. Because, like I said, biases are mental shortcuts, so we naturally resort to them in situations where we just don't have the time or energy to process information fairly and objectively. Like when passing a stranger in a dark alley, for example, or when slogging through a thick stack of resumes. I guess I assume that any intelligent and self-aware person would admit the same.

Of course, it's important to acknowledge that I can't ever know with absolute certainty the way anyone else thinks, so I still stand by my word that I'll believe anyone who insists on not being susceptible to any biases. But my faith ultimately lies with those who fully understand how human it is to have them.

Friday, June 3, 2011

For the record, I hate talking about race

I wrote my last post, the one about hip hop, the day after Gil Scott-Heron died. That was a coincidence. Actually, I was musing on what I would say if some Asian-American kid were to ask me for advice on getting started as a musician. My impression is that, as a whole, they tend to view the world of hip hop as being most favourable to their prospects. I'm not sure they're wrong, but in any case, I gave my impartial thoughts on the matter.

So I've actually been thinking about race, and contemplating how best to broach the subject. For the record, I hate talking about race. It's not a subject I enjoy discussing; I certainly don't base my identity on it. Most of my friends are white, for better or worse, and my girlfriend is a white girl from Arkansas. I go days without being conscious of my skin colour, and if I could go an entire lifetime, I happily would. But to the outside world, I am first and foremost an Asian boy. One of the earliest reviews of Yearling's Bobtail likened it to J-pop, for example. So I think about race not because I want to, but because I have to. Nothing less than my fitting into this world as a functional and well-adjusted human being depends on it. So here goes.

Indie rock isn't just a particular sound and musical style; it's also an image, an identity, an affiliation, all strongly correlated with race. In the same way that hip hop is ultimately defined by what black kids do, indie rock is ultimately defined by what white kids do. That's not to say that minorities aren't welcome to participate; it's just that they aren't given the same leeway to push the boundaries of the genre before they end up pushing themselves out. Which is a problem if you're a minority hoping to leave a mark making unprecedented, influential music because, well, pushing boundaries is exactly what influential bands making unprecedented music do. So it's all well and good to argue that minorities are perfectly free to fit into the mould of an older, respected band, but I'm not looking to be the Asian-American Pavement here.

Let me propose a thought experiment. Sufjan Stevens and Beirut are two amazing bands who have successfully created their own archetypes. They're also relative outliers in the world of indie rock, in terms of both style and methods. Now, imagine if Sufjan Stevens were in fact some bespectacled Asian-American kid with bad acne wearing a band camp shirt from two summers ago. Imagine if Beirut's Zach Condon were actually a sweaty, middle-aged Mediterranean man sporting an unironic moustache. Would they be any less indie rock? More importantly, would this change in physical appearance and identity make their music less authentic or emotionally resonant in any way?

If your own answer is an unequivocal "no" to both questions, and you insist that you aren't prone to such biases yourself, then of course I'll believe you. But now here's a tougher question: how do you know that your musical tastes aren't being limited by the biases of others? That is to say, how can you be certain there isn't an entire legion of bespectacled Asian-American kids and middle-aged Mediterranean men out there making fantastic, mind-blowing music that you won't be hearing any time soon, due to the hidden biases of those sources you trust to expose you to new music?

Because, well, I can offer at least one example of a bespectacled Asian-American kid who put his life on hold for five years to create music that was objectively inventive in many ways, the "Ulysses of rock albums" as it were, and subsequently failed to make any impact whatsoever. In a truly unbiased world, wouldn't the number of people moved by that feat stand to be higher than, let's say, twenty? At the very least, I'd guess a number greater than the five or so who actually did buy Yearling's Bobtail and don't know me personally.

Of course, it would be dishonest of me to say we weren't ever given a fighting chance: Slim Moon, who at the time was doing A&R for Nonesuch, and Secretly Canadian both really liked our music and said so, even if they ultimately nixed the idea of signing us. I was never told why exactly, since of course I couldn't engage them in conversation as an equal, so all this time I've just been left to guess on my own. I certainly never believed it was due to any conscious bias on their part, and I'll believe them if they insist that unconscious bias played no role either. Perhaps they judge each band by the same unbiased criteria, and we just happened to fail some or all of them. That's fair enough, but can they be so sure that those criteria aren't affected by the biases of others?

For example, we invited Slim Moon to one of our shows. He came, poked his head through the door, saw Dave and I onstage without a drummer playing to a mostly empty room, and promptly hightailed it out of there. To this day, I still hear crickets chirping when I replay that scene in my head! I laugh about it now, but at the time, I was pretty depressed. We never heard from him again, and I sort of understand why: for the founder of Kill Rock Stars, self-reliance in getting ahead is surely an inviolable principle. But it's not like I never tried hard to promote my band or to find enthusiastic bandmates; for some reason, I just do those things badly. And how much of that incompetence might in fact be due to how I'm perceived by others based on my physical appearance?

I'll tell you my nightmare scenario: through the years to come, the indie labels can easily keep rejecting Bobtail Yearlings album after Bobtail Yearlings album, all the while signing any other band that isn't fronted by a bespectacled Asian-American kid, and as long as it's always possible to argue that no bias affects these decisions, then few will be bothered by this, and nothing will ever change. I have no way of knowing whether indeed this will forever be the story of my life, regardless of what I do, and it feels damn scary. It would be scary for anyone. Sure, I can assure myself that I'm only being paranoid, but like Kurt Cobain said, just because you're paranoid...

Now, some black professionals deal with this perpetual runaround by gutting half their resume, leaving off any hard-won achievements that might instantly reveal their blackness, for the short-term benefit of simply getting their foot in the door. And the actor Kalpen Modi changed his name to Kal Penn, instantly getting 50% more audition callbacks. But I don't need to resort to such measures, because I'm not trying to make it in the cutthroat world of business or the superficial world of Hollywood. This is indie rock. We're the good guys here. The only struggle here is in getting myself heard, not in being understood once I am heard. As long as my argument is reasonable, I'm confident I can get a sympathetic ear from each one of you.

And my argument is that at present, the ambiguity of whether indie rock might be biased against bespectacled Asian-American kids has indeed left us in a world where zero bespectacled Asian-American kids are recognized for pioneering inventive music, despite evidence that their numbers may in fact be greater than zero. This requires honest inquiry, and since it's clearly for my benefit most of all, I'm happy to be the one to press for it. This isn't a witch hunt; I'm not pointing fingers at anyone. I'm just asking everyone, including myself, to humbly recognise that none of us has rock-solid evidence to say one way or the other, so each of us is really just choosing and defending the one interpretation out of many available that most agrees with the world we wish to believe in. The sooner we all accept this, the sooner we can talk to each other, not past each other.

Now, I mentioned earlier that the company I keep is mostly white kids, so I totally get it that people really hate being accused of even the slightest hint of racism. I understand why someone would feel the need to insist that no bias exists. But I think you can also understand that I don't want to spend the rest of my life putting out an endless stream of albums that would easily be critically acclaimed if they could just get a minimal amount of public attention, only to see them rejected and ignored time and time again because they don't possess that elusive, indescribable "it" factor, and then tearing my hair out in manic paranoia wondering if "it" really is just code for "someone who looks and talks like me, i.e., not you."

So I'm simply asking everyone to consider that some bias might indeed be present, and it's not really important to pinpoint where exactly. Perhaps it's no more than just a droplet here and there, and perhaps each droplet is obscured by the much larger fluctuations of so many other random variables that it's hardly worth mentioning. But even tiny droplets on a small scale can add up and snowball to effect significant differences in outcome on a large scale. Who knows, maybe all it takes is just one harried music journalist mistaking Joycean lyrics for an immigrant's comically garbled Engrish to stop "the Ulysses of rock albums" dead in its tracks.

And how do we solve this? Truth be told, I don't know. But I think just being more alert to the possibility is by itself a really, really good start. And rest assured, the minute I get signed to a label, or once Pitchfork stops tossing my unopened demos straight into the garbage bin, this job of unwelcome gadfly will be going to someone else. It definitely won't be me.

Because, for the record, I hate talking about race.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Hip hop is like chess

As with minimalism and spectral music, I respect hip hop as a genre and I'm glad that others are out there exploring its creative possibilities, but I'm not too interested in getting into it myself. At its core, it's fundamentally defined by its near absence of many of the things I enjoy most about music. Meanwhile, I have been getting more and more into chess, and I now spend a decent chunk of my downtime playing it on the computer, reading up on openings and strategies, and trying to solve various chess puzzles. So I found it interesting the other day when I drew an analogy between hip hop and chess.

Hip hop in relation to melodic pop music is like chess in relation to competitive athletic sports in that they both require fewer discrete skills. There's no limit to how far one can develop and master those particular skills, of course; but in terms of quantity, there are just fewer of them. A rapper doesn't need to practise staying in tune, just like a chess player doesn't worry about the fine motor skills needed to advance a pawn. For this reason, they can concentrate all their focus on those few skills that do matter in their respective fields.

This makes it easier to start out, but also tougher to stand out. With fewer means to branch out in ways that are uniquely interesting, it becomes that much more important to be exceptionally good, to be the best of the best within a narrow range of abilities. This seems like an impossibly Herculean chore to me, because what happens when you reach a plateau? In such cases, I find it helpful to have the option of switching my attention over to other areas. And oftentimes, the fresh perspective I gain from this allows me to tackle and overcome my plateau in the previous area when I finally do return to it.

Taking a break from songwriting and working on this comic book, for example, has really improved my spatial visualisation, helped me to appreciate fine details, and given me ideas for exploring analogous relations between colour theory and harmony. Everything I do to make my music better also benefits me in ways greater than the sum of its parts. I don't actively try to make that happen with my progress in chess. Don't get me wrong, I love chess, but it's really just a fun pastime for me; it won't get me anywhere in life, and I enjoy it for that reason.

So my conclusion is that different genres and disciplines offer different prospects for advancement, and a general rule of thumb is that these prospects are inversely related to the ease in which an individual can start out already looking fairly competent. You love what you love, of course, but all things being equal, if you're hoping for recognition then it seems most advantageous to plant your feet in a genre that encompasses a wide range of components--and then, on top of that, to always lean with one foot poised to step out further.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The indie label signaling game is broken

The major labels have plenty of money to throw around, so it's no big deal for them to snatch up any and every band out there that can demonstrate a shred of artistic potential. If a band is successful, the payoff is enormous; if not, they are held in permanent indenture. Either way, the decision to sign is relatively straightforward and painless for the labels, since it involves little risk for them. In its heyday, this system was foolproof.

By contrast, the indie labels don't have unlimited resources at their disposal. Thus, they can't invest in unrealised potential; they invest in working bands. The decision to sign can be agonisingly difficult: who can really say that one band is intrinsically better than another, out of the tens of thousands of bands out there? In the end, local buzz and a history of touring make all the difference; from the perspective of the labels, this kind of proven track record conveniently signals a band's seriousness and competence. And in its heyday, this system was pretty effective as well.

We all know that thanks to the Internet, the major label system has been broken for quite some time now. Few seem to have noticed that the indie label signaling game has been no less compromised, however. I would argue that a signaling game is broken once those sending the signals are: a) aware of its rules, and b) able to affect the outcome based on that awareness. In this age of the self-empowered artist, these two conditions are increasingly the norm. Bands today have both the incentive and the wherewithal to cultivate their signaling devices directly, while cutting corners on improving the artistic skills that such signals are meant to signify. To be fair, these efforts are almost always sincere, not cynically manipulative; they simply follow the wisdom of our day, after all. And the difference is so subtle and the change has been so gradual that few of us even notice.

Look at touring, for example. In the past, with nothing else at stake, bands used to tour only once they believed they were either good enough or popular enough to recover the exorbitant costs involved. Plus, it's easier to develop as a songwriter and musician when one isn't under constant pressure to tour. Doing things in this order just makes sense. Nowadays, though, bands barely half a year old willingly go on tour at a loss, playing to empty bars and clubs in cities where no one has heard of them, hoping that such efforts will signal that they're good and popular enough.

And it's hard to argue with this wisdom when the indie labels receiving these signals haven't bothered to modify their interpretations. But they will soon enough. I'm reminded of the emergency exit doors in the subway stations here in New York, which emit a high-pitched siren when opened. They also double as service doors for large carts, strollers, and anything else which can't fit through the turnstiles, in which case a station agent will deactivate the alarm. But due to budget cuts, many stations are no longer manned by an agent, so people are constantly streaming out the doors every other minute; as a result, the emergency siren is now just more background noise to tolerate and ignore. It no longer signifies anything; it is useless as a signal.

And since any band with a whole lot of free time can jump aboard a tour van, or badger their friends with emails about upcoming shows, the results obtained by these measures are now useless as signals of artistic worth; they have become just more background noise to filter out. Someday soon, the indie labels will have to acknowledge that their signaling game is broken. And then what? What will all that time and effort spent sharpening one's signals be worth then? I'd imagine it would feel like maxing out your credit card to buy leather pants the week before grunge broke.

So this is why I'm spending the next few months working on a comic book to go along with the upcoming Rosalind Franklin album. I enjoy drawing, I think the album will benefit artistically from it, and I believe there are enough people out there who can appreciate it. I'd like to get better at creating outstanding works, not worry about bringing those works to a wider audience, so that's where I'll concentrate my focus. It's a lousy mindset for getting signed to a label, yes, but a great strategy for being worthy of one. And it's only a matter of time before this observation becomes too painfully obvious to ignore.

So my advice to anyone out there interested in something beyond just transitory recognition, whether in the arts, academia, relationships, or anywhere else, follows this line of thinking: Invest in your talents, not in signaling devices. It doesn't benefit you in the long run to play anyone's signaling game. (Of course, only time will tell whether my advice is actually any good!)

Friday, April 1, 2011

Dredging up some mental detritus

I don't mean to sound so full of myself, but by this time next year I'm pretty sure I will have attained a modicum of recognition within some indie rock circles. I now know so much more about the way of things than I did several years ago, and objectively, this Rosalind Franklin comic book and album will be noteworthy and accomplished enough that it's difficult to imagine the outcome being anything otherwise.

The problem is, by then I will be completely immersed in my doctoral studies and probably too busy to do interviews, which would likely involve a few questions about my reaction to the failure of Yearling's Bobtail and our rejection by various record labels. Luckily, these past few weeks I've been brainstorming ideas for our Kickstarter campaign, and in so doing, I've revisited many of those old issues that I'd long since stored away for the benefit of my emotional recovery.

So I'm going to post some of them here on this blog now, for anyone in the future who might be curious enough to ask. I'll try my best to stay civil and gracious, but unfortunately, some of these thoughts probably don't lend themselves well to such an attitude. If this should ever be the case, please keep in mind that I'm simply spouting whatever was in my head several years ago, and that I've grown quite a bit since then.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Applying to a PhD program

It's official: I've been accepted to the Theory program at University of Washington and the Composition program at Florida State University, albeit with no word on funding yet from either school. I was rejected by Princeton and Eastman for Composition, and by Yale and Indiana for Theory. Overall, I'm quite happy with this outcome.

During the whole application process, I found Trevor de Clercq's webpage detailing his own experiences to be a very useful reference, as there really isn't much advice out there that pertains specifically to doctoral programs in music. My results are nowhere near as lofty as his, of course, but I'd still like to pay it forward and help shed some light on the process for any future applicants.

I should begin by saying that I applied to eight Composition programs last year and was soundly rejected by all eight: Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, Eastman, University of Chicago, Northwestern, CUNY, and USC. Eastman actually interviewed me for my second choice of Theory, but I was ultimately rejected for that as well. While I was there, I realised just how out of my league I was: I'd never heard of transformational theory, for example. In hindsight, it was probably a stellar recommendation from Poundie Burstein, a heavyweight in the Theory field, that netted me the interview.

Still, my weekend in Rochester was an eye-opener, and taught me two things. First, I should have put more thought into the schools I chose, and second, I should apply to some Theory programs for the next round. My pieces are overwhelmingly tonal and influenced by popular music, which isn't what the prestigious schools want. I felt like I would always be just an also-ran in the hopelessly subjective world of Composition; by contrast, the more objective world of Theory seemed to offer greater certainty and control over my future.

With guidance from my Theory professor Philip Ewell last spring, I began reading the recent literature on transformational and neo-Riemannian theory. Twice a week, I would read a journal article and then write a thorough summary. My Kindle DX came in extremely handy since I could download the pdfs from JSTOR and read them on the train. I became intrigued by the work on geometric voice-leading models, which led to the ideas outlined in my two writing samples. I chose schools and programs based on those who have written on this subject, which led to an even balance between Theory and Composition programs.

I also joined the Society for Music Theory mailing list, which kept me informed about various things happening in the Theory world. That's how I heard about a summer program in Durham, UK, to which I applied and was accepted. I also managed to snag a diversity travel grant to SMT's annual conference in Indianapolis last fall. Both experiences made me realise just how small the Theory world is. You can make friends and connections just by sticking around long enough.

Here are my academic qualifications in a nutshell:
  • UC Berkeley: BA in Religious Studies, 3.72 GPA, Regents Scholar
  • Hunter College, CUNY: MA in Composition, 4.0 GPA
  • GRE score: 760 verbal, 800 math, 4.0 analytical writing
Other components of my application:
  • Personal statement
  • Writing sample #1: "Using Geometric Models to Compose in Virtual Realms"
  • Writing sample #2: "Diminished Triads and Scale Networks in the Hexagonal Virtual Room"
  • "Amnestic Hexagon": a short wind trio demonstrating the method of virtual composition described in my two writing samples
  • "String Quartet": a four-movement pop suite performed by the Attacca Quartet
  • "Ash Wednesday," "Cremated," and "Kyon?": three Bobtail Yearlings songs, each displaying a notable musical feature (quarter tones, Shepard tones, and polyrhythms, respectively)
  • "Classical Symphony": my Master's thesis, a four-movement symphony; score only, since it was never performed
  • Letters of recommendation from Poundie Burstein, Shafer Mahoney, and Philip Ewell

Update, April 1, 2011: I've decided to go with UW. I would have studied Composition under Clifton Callender at FSU; at UW, I'll be studying Theory under John Rahn. Both are very good programs, and each has its unique merits. In the end, it came down to which city I'd prefer to spend at least the next three years of my life in.

Update, June 17, 2011: UW has offered me a $10,000 scholarship and an RA position for the first quarter, which comes with a stipend and tuition waiver. I found out about this a couple months ago but forgot to update this post. Sorry.