Friday, May 24, 2013

Music must be marketable to matter

In preparation for my new startup, I've been reading books on various subjects related to business, such as negotiation, accounting, and so forth. One subject that keeps popping up again and again is marketing. Now, in pretty much every music scene out there, marketing is just a synonym for promotion. When you look at the word itself, though, there's much more to it than that. A market is where sellers compete to offer goods and services to buyers. So being marketable means staying competitive in the marketplace, and marketing is really about asserting a constant presence within it.

In every other industry, all of this just goes without saying. Ask a pizzeria owner how he stays in business, and he'll speak in terms acknowledging that his customers might just as easily go to his competitors. But he maintains their loyalty by using only the freshest ingredients, offering fast and friendly service, sponsoring community events, and so on. How a pizzeria gets paid is directly related to how it competes in the marketplace. It would never occur to the owner to think any other way.

Ask the loudest people in today's music industry how an artist is to get paid these days, however, and they'll chatter on about new distribution channels, online tools for booking shows, and so on. Almost none will speak in terms acknowledging that each listener's time and spending money are limited, and that a gazillion other bands out there are hoping to claim their share of it.

The worst offenders are those established artists who gained exposure under a previous model, yet are now trumpeting some new model as the road to salvation for each one of the gazillion unknown bands out there. These artists get invited to give TED Talks on "The Future of Music." Any first-year business major, however, can easily out them as snake oil peddlers. Until you've acknowledged the competitive reality of the marketplace, your proposed solution belongs in the fantasy fiction section, alongside hobbits and vampires.

I do get it, though. Rock music has finally reached the point that classical music was at half a century ago, where the most pioneering artists are now the least likely to achieve mainstream popularity in their own time. Given this reality, competition naturally loses any meaning as an arbiter of artistic worth and thus gets left by the wayside. I get that.

But when aspiring pioneers stop competing for financial success, they lose a valuable tool for self-appraisal used by everyone else, including artists from the past, to improve what they have to offer. This makes it easier to neglect their marketability in areas that definitely should matter, such as social relevance and intellectual interest. And then they're left woefully unprepared to compete in the only market that can possibly redeem all their efforts: the marketplace of history.

Consider two frontrunners in today's indie rock and contemporary classical scenes, respectively. Bon Iver might beat Jack Johnson hands down, sure, but he still has to compete against the Beatles. Thomas Adès might have the edge over Eric Whitacre, but there's still Beethoven to contend with. (On a side note, it just occurred to me that Adès and Bon Iver's Justin Vernon share a resemblance, although maybe it's just the beards.)

While both are highly accomplished, neither Adès nor Vernon has invented a new musical language or idiom, which doesn't bode well for their chances at posterity. Sure, it's easy to think of history as an awards show, where one only has to beat the other nominees in one's respective category for any given year. But even if this were a fitting analogy, let's not forget that when we pore over lists of winners past, plenty will fail to stick out as names we recognise, much less care about. Their years are now placeholder years to us; there's no rule saying we must treat them otherwise.

And there's no rule saying that music history can't have its own placeholder years, or even decades. So how does one stay competitive in the marketplace of historical relevance, when the passage of time is forever compounding the artistic worth of those who came first? Where do new musical languages and idioms come from? Looking at past composers and bands who've managed to hold their own against Beethoven and the Beatles, I'd say they come from some weird combination of blissful naivety, relentless ambition, and heightened awareness of history's crushing weight. That's just my guess, though.

But finding a definitive answer isn't my concern here. I'm just pointing out that any artist who remains blithely unconcerned about competing in a marketplace will probably get trampled by history, because history itself is a marketplace. And until this reality is acknowledged, music won't be following us into the 21st century. We need to shout this from the rooftops again, and again, and again.

Music must be marketable to matter. Every other solution being peddled out there is just so much snake oil.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The problem with indie rock tenure

I've written two blog posts on Andrew W.K. already, and this will be my third. Truth be told, I don't dislike his music; I'd even choose it over half the stuff that's out there. And by all accounts, he's like the nicest guy on the planet. So why do I find the cultural elite's embrace of him so problematic?

I think the answer lies in the following two hypothetical questions: Given any beloved album, could an unknown band speak to similar values and hold their own, or even beat it with an album that's superior? Would such an attempt even be welcome? Every band has its devoted fans who would answer "no!" to both, of course. They're not my concern here.

My concern is only the cultural elite, who have to answer "yes!" to both, because their musical tastes are grounded in some communicable, defensible rationale for being good. And good music requires an open market where different ideas and sounds are free to compete.

Competition in an open market is great for two reasons. First, it assures us the best quality, and second, it gives us the freedom to decide. Commercial goods and services easily come to mind as examples, but politics works this way as well. If we don't like who we voted for, we can vote them out next time.

And this is precisely the problem with Andrew W.K.: He's undefeatable. I don't mean like Rocky Marciano, who never lost a boxing match; I mean like a monopoly or an autocrat. He literally can't be beaten, because once he's voted in, he can't be voted out.

You don't have to dislike his music to find this problematic, just like you don't have to dislike Facebook or some benevolent monarch to protest their hold on power. Once the market is closed, we no longer have the assurance of quality or the freedom to decide. Those who were opposed from the beginning lose the most, of course. But we all lose in the long run.

In other words, when we grant exposure to Andrew W.K., not only is that slot no longer competitive from now until forever, but a precedent has been established for the same thing to keep happening, over and over, until zero slots are left.

I'm not exaggerating Andrew W.K.'s tenure in the public eye here. Think about it. An artist known solely for making a "so bad it's good" album ten years ago was almost appointed cultural ambassador to Bahrain as recently as last year? How is that even possible? You don't hear anyone talking about Beulah or the Wrens these days. But it all makes sense once you consider that Andrew W.K. is undefeatable. What can't be beaten, will never go away.

Or here's even simpler proof. Just how would another band compete against I Get Wet, anyway? In other words, what could a "so much worse it's actually better" album possibly sound like, especially when Andrew W.K. himself hasn't managed to pull it off in the last ten years? So the answer to our first hypothetical question is no, and the same probably goes for the second one as well. Which means that Andrew W.K. is perhaps the only artist beloved by the cultural elite for whom their reluctance to entertain any new challengers exactly matches that of Justin Bieber's fans.

Of course, one could argue that this is all symptomatic of a larger problem. Bands these days no longer compete for our awe and admiration the way the Beach Boys and the Beatles once did with Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper's, respectively, but instead huddle together to bask in our unconditional support like children putting on a Christmas pageant. Of course, we haven't actually succeeded in replacing competition with communal harmony. When so many want exposure and so few can have it, competition must necessarily exist. It's just done out of view now, leading to a preselection process that's more haphazard and brutal than ever before, precisely because we don't see it.

So maybe Andrew W.K. is just a symptom, not a cause. I'm sympathetic to that. I just don't think we should so quickly resign ourselves to blithe acceptance once we believe it's the former rather than the latter. What if the two are intertwined and mutually reinforcing? Maybe there's no harm in celebrating Andrew W.K. while there are no new Radioheads to speak of. Or maybe the new Radioheads aren't getting exposure precisely because we're all too busy celebrating Andrew W.K., who knows?

I don't know. Just a thought, that's all. In any case, this is the last I'll be writing about Andrew W.K. for sure now.

Postscript, May 23, 2013: Yes, I know, he's also known for his motivational speeches. But this side career isn't really noteworthy by itself, since the power of his message stems precisely from what little he's accomplished relative to how far he's come. It wouldn't mean anything coming from Beulah or the Wrens, for example.

Addendum, May 23, 2013: Good Lord, I'd completely forgotten about Har Mar Superstar. This might throw a wrench in my whole argument here, since I definitely haven't heard from him in a while. I'll have to think about it some more. On a side note, I shared a bill with him in 1999, back when he was Sean Na Na. He ended his set with an ironic R&B cover, but other than that, he gave no indication at the time of being anything other than a bookish scenester.

Addendum, May 24, 2013: No, I don't think the example of Har Mar Superstar contradicts my point, since he was always much more transparent as a joke.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Undoing stupid damage

In a blog post several months ago, I referred to Andrew W.K. as a troll. Even then, though, I wasn't perfectly comfortable with the term. After all, what is a troll, exactly? If it's someone who upends the system, disrupting lives and careers in the process... well, isn't that just what every pioneer throughout history has ever done?

But I think I've settled the issue now, and it's all because I was reminded recently of something that happened many moons ago, back when I was a dishwasher at a dorm cafeteria. I worked there for six years of my early adulthood, and that dishroom still serves as the backdrop for about one in every ten dreams I have to this day. In fact, it was probably such a dream that triggered this recent memory.

Anyway, what happened was, someone had smeared shit all over the walls of a toilet stall in the men's restroom, and it fell upon me to clean it up. Naturally I was annoyed, but why? It wasn't much more disgusting than some of my usual daily tasks, like cleaning out tampon receptacles in the women's restroom. What bothered me, I think, is that while I didn't enjoy scrubbing it up, it couldn't have been all that fun for the guy who did it either. Shitting into a paper towel and then smearing it on the walls, while trying not to get any on your hands, probably doesn't top many people's bucket lists. In other words, neither one of us gained, and both of us lost--though clearly my loss was much, much greater, and of course that was the whole point.

Now, this shit-smearer was probably a dorm resident, which means he probably ate at the cafeteria twice a day. So here's a thought. What would have happened if, several weeks later, he had to do his business right after a meal? Only to be greeted with the stench of his own putrefying shit, which no one had bothered to clean in the meantime, as soon as he walked into the restroom? I'm sure he wouldn't have been very happy. I'm sure he would prefer to live in a world where walls smeared with shit get cleaned as soon as someone complains about it. Yet a graffiti artist would love nothing more than to have her work left undisturbed.

And this, I think, is the difference between trolls and all the other troublemakers and system-disrupting pioneers out there: A troll doesn't really believe in the stupid damage he causes, and actually wants those undoing his stupid damage to prevail. Because without the assurance that it will be undone, what he does lacks any real meaning on its own.

So while Andrew W.K. might not be a troll himself, his enablers amongst the influential set certainly are. After all, since the dawn of humanity, every functional system has operated according to a basic principle: you enable what you want there to be more of, and you ignore what you want there to be less of. It's like a WWI fighter plane that has to fly where it wants to shoot. You don't get to enable what you want there to be less of, and still think that things can go your way indefinitely. Do all these critics and bloggers, whose careers hinge upon giving the public a steady stream of interesting and innovative music, really want there to be more Andrew W.K.s out there? Or if the next Andrew W.K.s are already here, are they really ready to humour a good portion of them with the same admiration and respect? It's highly doubtful.

In other words, their eagerness to enable Andrew W.K.'s career rests on an underlying faith that someone else, some sourpuss out there, is willing to schlep through the ordeal of protesting--and ultimately prevailing--against them. And of course the sourpusses will prevail, since their protests will be based on reason. But it definitely will be a schlep. Which is weird, isn't it? Because while every system-disrupting pioneer in music history has inspired legions of future artists to follow in their wake, none of us wants to see that happen with Andrew W.K. So you'd think at least a tiny sliver of glory awaits those working hard to ensure that something no one wants to see happen... doesn't happen.

And yet, there's zero glory that comes with undoing stupid damage. It's just extra work you have to do before any real stuff can get done. You don't really even get credit for it, either. After all, the very nature of stupid is that everyone agrees it shouldn't be so, which means there's nothing particularly courageous or visionary about undoing it. It's just a schlep, in every sense of the word.

And so the shit-smearing trolls win every time. At the very least, they'll always be a few steps ahead. Not because we don't value the shit-scrubbing sourpusses at all, but because we don't value them enough to compensate for the fact that it's much, much easier to smear shit than to scrub it. And yet, no one actually wants to see shit-smeared walls just left as they are. Which makes all of this pretty crazy, right?

Wait, it gets even weirder. As I'd mentioned in my other post, though Pitchfork initially gave Andrew W.K.'s I Get Wet a dismal 0.6 in 2002, they offered a mea culpa by giving its 2012 reissue a glowing 8.6. Admittedly, they wouldn't have done so had this past decade been a watershed of musical innovation. But in the absence of true pioneers upending the system and disrupting lives and careers, Andrew W.K. does begin to resemble the closest thing we have to a Jelly Roll Morton, Bo Diddley or DJ Kool Herc these days. He won't be spearheading a new movement, and of course we don't actually want him to. But hey, why can't our generation embrace the troublemakers of our own time, indulging in the same proud subversion that past generations contemporary with the pioneers of jazz, rock, and hip hop were allowed to feel?

Well, here's a crazy thought. What if the next Bo Diddleys and DJ Kool Hercs are already amongst us, but they're just too busy undoing our stupid damage at the moment to be spearheading a new movement anytime soon?