Friday, August 31, 2012

Major labels not too shabby on the People's List...

In my last post while discussing privilege, I linked to an editorial that lambasts Pitchfork's recent People's List for being made up mostly of artists who are white and male. Plenty have discussed this aspect of it to death, so I won't. What I find interesting is that half the artists in the top ten debuted on a major label, including Radiohead, who occupy the first, second, and sixth slots. (The other three are the Strokes, Wilco, and Kanye West. Since Radiohead appears three times, there are only eight total.)

The fact that Radiohead makes the strongest showing by far is particularly noteworthy, given that few had any real faith in them when they were first signed. Remember, they were just a Nirvana clone like every other band of that era, all swept up by the major labels using the shotgun approach despised so much by indie rock kids to this day. And through the years, Radiohead themselves have tried hard to downplay this ignoble origin, along with the incredible resources afforded them because of it. But in doing so, they're doing us all a huge disservice, by obscuring the reality of where great music might come from and how it might get discovered.

The indie labels look for bands whose creative habits appear fully blossomed. This approach helps guard against nasty surprises, but it also ensures that a breakout phenomenon like Radiohead will probably never happen under their watch. And yet, Radiohead made the two best albums of the past fifteen years, according to the very subcultural demographic that most ardently supports these indie labels!

Isn't that weird? That's weird to me.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Juche rock

In my last post, I compared Beck's upcoming lead sheet album with my own comic book album about Rosalind Franklin. Music writers hail one as a clever idea with definite promise, and appreciate the other for the ease with which it slides right into the recycling bin. But let's be honest, if we were to ask people who know nothing about either project to guess which one met which fate, they would first have to ask, "And... which did Beck do?"

In other words, no work speaks for itself independent of the artist who created it. So it's technically impossible for a complete nobody to create a work of merit, because if that person doesn't exist, then the work doesn't exist, and existence is an essential precondition of merit.

But that goes against everything we believe, or at least wish to believe, about how success is won in the indie rock scene, doesn't it? I know I clung on for as long as I could. Surely the only path to becoming a somebody is through creating works of merit. And besides, if that weren't the case, how else could a nobody ever become a somebody? After all, every somebody starts out as some nobody.

My answer is that there are other factors involved, which I've narrowed down to these three: privilege, luck, and grinding.

Privilege

Privilege is any unearned advantage. Everyone enjoys some form of it, but of course some have less and some have more. In the case of indie rock, some people are just pleasing to behold. Others are admired precisely because they're not. Some long ago won the lottery for race and gender. Others have the right friends and connections.

Identifying privilege isn't a witch hunt; it's a necessary measure to prevent a downward slide into oligarchy, or rule by a permanent elite. Since we only ever hear from the successful, and theirs are the only opinions that matter, it's very easy to settle into an attitude that equates success directly with merit while neglecting every other possible cause. Given that most indie rock fans are social progressives, hopefully this point doesn't need to be explained further.

Luck

Duncan Watts once conducted an experiment in which thousands of participants, divided amongst parallel social networks, were asked to rate the same set of songs by unknown bands. However, each person could only see the votes made by peers in his or her own network, not those of any other. The results? Each network came up with a completely different order of ranking.

As Watts explains in a guest post on the Freakonomics blog:
Enormous differences in success may indeed be due to small, random fluctuations early on in an artist's career, which then get amplified by a process of cumulative advantage--a 'rich-get-richer' phenomenon that is thought to arise in many social systems.
So luck matters. A lot. Sure, we might minimise how much it helped bring us the bands we love, but it also goes a long, long way towards explaining those we don't. It's not a difficult conclusion to accept overall, is what I'm saying.

Before I move on to the third and last factor, let me make it clear that I'm not denying the merits of any band that's found success. What I am saying is that when success means success over others, and the sheer number of talented bands out there is taken into account, then pure merit is a completely dishonest explanation for why a few somebodies get to be elevated above the countless nobodies. It's like insisting that anyone you date should have no prior conviction for armed robbery. A few other criteria might need to be involved.

So a problem arises when we discuss any successful band's merits. If I choose A over B, then compliment A for a certain trait and leave it at that, I'm not lying even if B also possesses that trait. But I'm clearly doing B a disservice. Similarly, when we marvel at the innovative genius of a somebody, we should also note that some nobodies out there might be just as deserving of the same applause, if we were to actually pay attention to them.

Grinding

Grinding in World of Warcraft means doing something mindlessly repetitive like killing boars, purely for the sake of acquiring items or leveling up. It's also an apt term to describe the one surefire way for any band to grab the reins of its career and gain massive respect in indie rock. I'm talking, of course, about paying one's dues.

So what does it mean to pay one's dues? Does it mean to work hard? Not quite. After all, the hard work that goes into something like a comic book album is pretty evident on the surface. No, paying one's dues specifically means working hard according to predefined and observable metrics. You know, self-promotion and distribution, endless touring, and so forth.

But if such metrics already exist, and the means by which to fulfill them long understood by everyone, doesn't that mean we're merely retreading the same path over and over, instead of forging new ones? Yes, that is indeed correct. And truth be told, I don't think anyone really gets all that excited when hearing about the latest band to finally get noticed after having paid its dues. It's just that the option has to be kept open if there's to be any semblance of meritocracy in this scene.

So while it's called paying one's dues in indie rock, and busywork in the academic and corporate worlds, the concept is the same: earning respect by working hard contributing nothing of genuine value. But I'm just going to call it grinding. To me, killing virtual boar after boar after boar... is exactly what it feels like.

Juche

The interesting thing about grinding is that it's the only one of these three factors for success that's specific to an ideology. Privilege and luck are unavoidable facts of life, and much effort has to be invested to counter their effects. But the same isn't true for grinding. We either choose to value it or we don't. It's as simple as that.

So, I was sitting here trying to think of any other culture or institution besides indie rock that places such a high value on grinding. NASA? Jazz music? Professional hockey? No, all of these care deeply about results. If a process that leads to superior results doesn't match an original assumption, then they discard that assumption, not the process. So no, in these fields, there's probably zero patience for hard work undertaken purely as a symbolic gesture and signaling device.

Then I remembered Pyongyang, a comic book novel by Guy Delisle that tells about his time there. We don't think of North Korea as producing anything of value, and yet the North Koreans work incredibly hard. Their workweek lasts for six days, and on the seventh, they "volunteer" for hastily planned civic projects. In one instance, Delisle describes seeing schoolchildren watering a park lawn by running back and forth carrying buckets.

If you weren't born to privilege, you can still get ahead in North Korea by grinding: keeping your head down, doing exactly what you're told, and not making waves. Most of all, you don't innovate, because innovation means disrupting the system. And there are just too many people whose lives and livelihoods are at stake. "Hey, I didn't spend weekends in my youth watering park lawns with a bucket, just to watch you invent something called a sprinkler! I paid my dues! You die now!"

So there you have it: indie rock and North Korea, two institutions where grinding is celebrated and rewarded. Incidentally, indie rock stands for independence, holding as its ideal a world in which no artist and no label must rely on any other, while the official state ideology of North Korea is Juche, which can be roughly translated to "self-reliance."

I don't think that's a coincidence.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Pseudepigrapha

When I was a religious studies major many, many, many moons back, I learned about pseudepigrapha, the practise of attributing authorship of one's works to another of greater renown and authority. The Gospel of Thomas is one famous example. At the time, I accepted this ancient custom on an intellectual level--but it just made no sense to me on a personal level, young and idealistic as I was, and holding the individualist values that I did. If your message is profound enough to resonate with the world, I reasoned, why would you deny history the truth of whom it came from?

Well... I'm starting to really, really get pseudepigrapha now. Because, man, when you're a nobody, nothing you say or do matters! Nothing counts, because you don't count. All the thought and energy that goes into each individual project of yours, at the end of the day, still has to be multiplied by the zeroness of your actual being. What's ten times zero? Zero. A hundred times zero? Zero. A thousand times zero?... and so forth.

Based on initial reactions from the labels and press, it looks like my prediction is coming true: the Rosalind Franklin comic book album isn't impressing any of the powers that be. I can argue all I want about the promise it holds for combining unrelated media to create new storytelling possibilities, or that as a female scientist she was robbed of her place in history, and this album hopes to correct that injustice, or even simply that the songs are really, really good. But none of these arguments matter, because I don't matter.

In fact, the whole "female scientist" angle is a pretty good analogy for my position, I think. When you read about educated women and blacks in the 19th century, it's always the same story about how their accomplishments were ignored. But really, it's not like everyone around them was trying to be a jerk. People back then simply weren't capable of accepting scientific insights coming from blacks and women, any more than I'm willing to accept relationship advice coming from a talking banana. You can't take it personally. When you're a zero, you're not being ignored because they hate you. You're being ignored simply because people and things that don't count... well, don't count.

By now, everyone knows about Beck's plan to release an album solely as lead sheets. Given that there are plenty of genres such as gospel music where sales in this format have always been strong, this by itself isn't noteworthy, of course. We find it new and exciting because it's Beck. Meanwhile, what would happen if Beck were to release a comic book album? I'm guessing there'd be a bit of talk about the promise of combining unrelated media to create new storytelling possibilities. Beck is a somebody, so anything he does, multiplied by his nonzero self, will actually be, like, multiplied. That utterly blows my mind.

And suddenly, the idea of giving authorship of my work to a somebody like Beck starts to sound really, really nice. I just have to cross out "Bobtail Yearlings" and scribble in "Beck" on this comic book album. That's all it would take to have my work appreciated by millions! Seriously, how awesome would that be?

Footnote: Actually, truth be told, I would happily take relationship advice from a talking banana. Lord knows, I need all the help I can get.