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.