Monday, June 10, 2013

Unjamming the next generation

In the Simpsons episode "The Old Man and the Lisa" which first aired in 1997, Lisa helps Mr. Burns regain his lost fortunes by inadvertently giving him the idea to "recycle" sea creatures into slurry. After Burns sells the business, he offers her a check for $12 million as her share of the profits. Lisa has a crisis of conscience about where the money came from, however, and tears up the check instead.

I always thought Lisa should have taken the money and spent it on the things she believed in, and I'm sure others did as well. But none of us condemned her decision to refuse the money as being flat-out wrong; after all, it was perfectly in keeping with how we all thought back then. For my generation, Generation X, virtue was about identity. And guarding your identity meant staying independent, in order to retain personal freedom and control over who you are. Once Lisa took that money, it would have owned her, in all its corruptness.

So we of Generation X set about to rebuild the world in our image, and nowhere were our efforts more successful than in the world of music. Pearl Jam, one of the most socially conscious bands of the 90s, could have been the next U2; instead, they sabotaged that chance. Resenting the loss of freedom that comes with fame, Eddie Vedder sang in "Corduroy" to the millions who adored him, "I don't want to take what you can give, I would rather starve than eat your bread." Which makes sense; when virtue lies in who you are, then being obnoxiously big means you've sold your soul on some level.[1]

As a result of cautionary tales like this, some of us sought shelter in indie rock, which was explicitly designed to help bands avoid Pearl Jam's fate—or worse, the fate of those who tried for that level of fame and failed. When you stay small, you get to stay in control. You get to keep your soul.

Because ultimately, those who choose independence recognise that they're human. They're not good enough to scale, and so they don't try. Sure, every now and again, one of the countless indie bands out there does manage to win over a large audience, but they typically fade out as quickly as they came, making their short-lived success most likely the result of chance or favoritism. Of course, we'll attribute it to hard work or some innate quality instead, validating our belief in the virtue of independence. Unfortunately, this also warps our understanding of what it truly takes to compete, and then we wonder why their success isn't so easily repeated.

But there's really no mystery here. Independence means giving up scale and leverage in exchange for retaining individual freedom and control. And this applies to indie labels as well. Unlike Geffen, who signed both Guns n' Roses and their future archrivals Nirvana with no other concern than profit and prestige, an indie label carefully screens each new addition to its roster, ensuring first and foremost that they're the right fit. When preserving one's identity is paramount, scale and leverage simply can't factor into the decision-making process. So while indie rock should have produced the next two or three Radioheads by now, statistically speaking, it has instead produced none. This is a feature, not a bug.

As one of indie rock's rejects, I was awoken to the absurdities of the world built by Generation X pretty early on. Lately, though, I've been sensing a similar dissatisfaction amongst the younger crowd. Perhaps it was there all along; we'd just never crossed paths. But I do believe we'll reach a critical mass soon, at which point the next generation will openly question the notion that independence should be the highest virtue. In a world where people are literally starving, why would you resent being given free bread? Especially when you're perfectly free to spend it on the things you believe in?

For the Millennials, then, virtue won't be about identity, but about impact. And making an impact means seeking out interdependence, in order to maximise leverage and the chance to scale.

Because ultimately, those who choose interdependence also recognise that they're human. They're not good enough to scale either—on their own, that is. But when they team up with other individuals, each of whom has something remarkable and unique to offer, they can accomplish superhuman feats, at will, again and again.[2] When we come together with others to create something greater than the sum of its parts, we become, quite literally, superhuman.

Maybe I'm just seeing what I want to see, but these days, signs of an upcoming change really do seem to be cropping up everywhere. Here's one example: twentysomethings pursuing lucrative careers, thus having more money to give away. At the very least, this isn't something you would have read about twenty years ago. As the article explains:

In another generation, giving something back might have more commonly led to a missionary stint digging wells in Kenya. This generation, perhaps more comfortable with data than labor, is leveraging its wealth for a better end. Instead of digging wells, it's paying so that more wells are dug.

I don't know if these kids have hit upon the best solution, but it's definitely another step in the direction of equating virtue not with who you are, but with what you get done.[3]

Let's get back to Lisa Simpson and her decision to refuse $12 million. Now, there's no doubt that her counterpart in real life would have taken the money. My point is that, within the safe confines of a fictional universe, the episode's writers could count on its viewers to feel that Lisa did the right thing by following her heart. At the very least, certainly no one would judge her decision to be immoral.

And yet, symbolic gestures don't feed people or save lives, do they? So at its core, what really happened was that she took $12 million that could have gone to charity, and instead gave it all to Mr. Burns and his evildoing ways. How is that not flat-out immoral, fictional universe or otherwise? What if, in the future, we all spent less time worrying about our identity, and more time maximising our impact? That's what Mr. Burns's counterparts in real life already do. So why wouldn't the world be better off if everyone thought this way?


[1] Kurt Cobain presents a more obvious case study for exploring what Generation X's values did to its heroes, but I'd rather not wade into those waters.

[2] It's encouraging to hear Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes sing in "Helplessness Blues," "I was raised up believing I was somehow unique... [but] now after some thinking, I'd say I'd rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me." The problem is, cogs are essential, but also easily replaced. So it's not clear to me whether he longs to be subsumed into some grand and noble purpose, or rather to play a unique and indispensable role within it. And that's a crucial distinction to make, because only the latter situation represents true interdependence. Being unique is a good thing; you just have to earn it, and of course that's the scary part.

[3] Turns out this whole consequentialism thing mentioned in the article has been going on for some time now. I'll definitely be looking into it.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Tossing Bo Diddley a bone

(My last post left one question unanswered: Why exactly is diversity in music important? It's not crude or closed-minded to ask. After all, we don't really care about the overall makeup of sports teams, symphony orchestras, or Hollywood movie casts; we just want the most qualified to make it. So this blog post seeks to answer that question. Too long, didn't read: Pioneering invention depends on it.)

Until we get the next Bo Diddley, we won't be seeing the next Beatles. I think we all understand this intellectually.

Much like DJ Kool Herc had to come before Tupac Shakur, Jelly Roll Morton before Miles Davis, the Notre Dame school before Palestrina, and so on. In each case, the former helped invent the craft that the latter perfected. But while they all deserve to be respected as pioneers, we don't place them on equal footing, and it's not hard to see why. Music needs context to be widely appreciated, and context is understood not at the onset of a new craft's invention, but through its perfection. It's the ones perfecting the craft who write the soundtracks to our lives, while having us gaze romantically upon theirs. There's little glory that comes with inventing a new craft, in comparison.[1]

So everyone hopes to be the next Beatles; few dream of becoming the next Bo Diddley. But without new craft being invented for others to perfect, the cycle of progress gets broken. That's easy to overlook while there are plenty of interesting concepts left to explore. Unlike craft, though, concept doesn't provide much fertile ground; it's mostly a one-time deal that benefits one generation, or even just one artist.

And then what? Once every last concept has been fully exhausted, the future simply becomes a steady rotation, rather than accumulation, of music that resonates with each generation. The newer stuff might sound raw, but the underlying vision will have been endlessly polished. Its artists might look farsighted and bold, but the context for seeing them as such will be as old as the hills. Many would argue that we've reached this point already. Which is not to say that our generation's music can't be genuinely beautiful and wonderful, of course. But if that's all it is, then the next generation won't be keeping it around for themselves. Why would they? They'll have their own.

In other words, there are no shortcuts. The future of pioneering music lies in the invention of new craft, just as always. However unglamorous the role, someone has to take the plunge and be the next Bo Diddley.

The problem is, for the past decade we've been telling ourselves that the music we celebrate can be exactly what we want, all the time, each and every time. And what we want is music and artists that immediately resonate with us precisely because there's nothing left to puzzle over and figure out in their underlying context. In other words, not new inventions; not the next Bo Diddley. Which makes sense, after all—being the least wanted in his own time is how Bo Diddley himself came to be Bo Diddley. Had he had a better option, he would have taken it. The bands making what we want, though—what do they want? Chances are, if they hope to be the next Beatles, they probably want to see the next Bo Diddley get tossed a bone.

But now here we are. The next Bo Diddleys will necessarily come from those we least want, the very ones our present system is set up to reject. Sure, we could learn to want them, and that might help in the short term, but it won't fix the underlying problem.[2] Since we can't ever want everyone equally, someone will always be the system's least wanted. The only long-term solution, then, lies not in being wiser about whom we want, but rather in changing how we respond to whomever we don't.

So here's a proposition. Whenever an artist who might be the next Bo Diddley happens to show up, why not toss them a bone? In other words, let's ask ourselves: What's the bare minimum they need to not starve and die, at least long enough for them to sink or swim on their own merits?[3] And then give them at least that much.

It doesn't matter what they're trying to accomplish, or whether we get it or not. And if the present system doesn't allow us to do this, then let's change the system so it does.[4] After all, there are plenty of bones lying around that we're already happily giving away willy-nilly, and who knows when the next Bo Diddley will come along if we punt on this turn. Taking the unfamiliar path is more hazardous than most realize, and it's a sure bet that for every one that made it far enough to land on our radar, countless others sputtered out long before. So let's just toss that bone and get on with the rest of our day. Besides, when there's so little to lose and the future of music stands to gain so much, what's the worst that can happen?


[1] This isn't true of all musical inventors, of course. While Johann Sebastian Bach's music was derided as old-fashioned in his own time, its inspiration to later composers led them to revive his works. Bach now outshines all his successors, with only the possible exception of Beethoven.

[2] By the way, I want to ensure that none of you are picturing the actual Bo Diddley, whose place within rock and roll's pantheon no doubt conjures only the warmest feelings today. Instead, try to imagine who can't possibly be music's next pioneering inventor. Seriously, do it right now. If you find this difficult, start by asking yourself: Who out there is doing everything wrong? Suddenly, the next Bo Diddleys don't seem so appealing, do they?

[3] Where we stand right now with mashups might be a good example. It's a craft that has the potential to be taken much further, but for now, many of us don't credit it with conveying any real artistic meaning or emotional depth. So those who care to hear more have the means to do so, while everyone else is free to ignore it completely. That's pretty much what I mean by tossing a bone.

[4] This is, in fact, what my startup hopes to do.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Why indie rock lacks diversity

(While most resources that seek to empower artists do so by helping them achieve independence, my new startup will do so by allowing them to seek interdependence. Now, interdependence in music and the arts has always been the historical norm. And yet, because the culture of independence these past few decades has been so successful and complete, any progress towards reinstating interdependence will likely be mistaken for a relapse into dependence, and thus meet fierce resistance. These next few blog posts will reflect my attempts in real time to perfect my arguments addressing these concerns, so bear with me because some of my thinking is still kind of raw. Feedback and criticism are always welcome in the comments, of course.)

Many have not failed to notice that as socially progressive as indie rock is known to be, there is a surprising lack of female and minority artists in this scene.[1] The following is my explanation for why indie rock lacks diversity and probably always will, despite the best intentions of most everyone involved.

First, we need to understand what indie rock is. "Indie" stands for "independent," and as anyone who's ever tried to get anything done knows, you choose independence when you want to retain personal control. You choose interdependence when you want to make the largest possible impact. Neither is superior to the other; it's just a question of what you want.

So obviously, indie rock is about forgoing the chance to make a large impact in favour of retaining personal control. But this also eliminates the most crucial incentive for trying to stand among the best.[2] Let's face it, why would an unknown band put in countless time and energy working to be the best when they've already deliberately limited the size of their audience?

In other words, indie rock is a genre that explicitly chooses not to provide unknown artists with incentives to try to be the best, and in doing so, actively undermines any such efforts. Because now, trying to be the best doesn't just offer little advantage; it becomes an actual disadvantage. After all, to do so would mean diverting time and energy away from efforts for which indie rock awards the most points, towards those that award the least.

Okay, so now we've established that an unknown band probably won't get far working to be the best in indie rock. But even if it isn't a competition, it's still a contest. Too many want recognition, yet too few can have it. There's just no way around that. So the designation of being "the best" must still necessarily exist; it just isn't something anyone can actively try for.

But this is a problem because for some out there, trying to stand among the best is the only recourse they have for overcoming their natural disadvantage and leveling the playing field. The world isn't their playground, which means they can't cop the same nonchalance towards success that indie rock's most favoured sons do, confident that life will still be pretty darn good if the stars don't align in their favour. Rarely do they even question their lack of options; it's just the only reality they've ever known, which they've long since internalised as the basis for how they go about everything.

I'll refer to all those who belong in this category as "the other half." Obviously this includes women and minorities as a general rule, but I'm really talking about anyone who isn't favoured to win outside a meritocracy: the old, the weird, the unattractive. The Beatles were working-class kids trapped in a rigid class system designed to keep them in their place. They count too.

So what happens when trying to be the best is taken off the table? In his review of Bon Iver's second album, Pitchfork's 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[.]" Was it really necessary to mention the beard, and the part about small-town Wisconsin? Yeah. While Bon Iver's music is beautiful, what we really love is the whole package: the image, the backstory, the persona. This makes perfect sense, because if being "the best" can't be earned through trying, then it must necessarily come from some innate quality. It comes from who you are.

Now, in its defence, indie rock has proven no less willing to embrace the other half for who they are as well, once they do happen to land on the radar.[3] But this uncertainty of landing on the radar is precisely the problem, because when you're the other half, the prospect of having your story deemed irresistible just can't be a part of your contingency plan. Bob Dylan didn't go around telling people he was a middle-class Jew named Zimmerman. That just wouldn't have flown and he knew it, which is why he focused solely on writing amazing lyrics instead. Bob Dylan is now a legend, precisely because his work was allowed to stand on its own, separate from who he was.

And situations where your work can stand on its own, separate from who you are, are what the other half naturally seeks out, because that's the most they can hope for. Of course, your work won't mean anything by itself unless you stand among the best. But at least you get to try to do exactly that. And if this must be your reality, then your reality is pretty darn awesome, because the other half throughout much of the world doesn't even get to have this much.

Well, unfortunately, indie rock... belongs to that part of the world where the other half doesn't even get this much. For as we've just seen, it's not about trying to be the best; you're better off simply being yourself. This is just what indie rock is, and always will be. Obviously, many find this empowering and uplifting. But the other half needs merit-based competition to thrive. By shaming them for their personal ambitions, indie rock shuts off the one recourse they have for leveling the playing field and winning any recognition at all.[4] And so they rarely do, as plenty now haven't failed to notice.

I don't doubt that pretty much everyone in this scene has only the best intentions. Few would dispute that indie rock is one of the most socially progressive genres out there. But this is, in fact, precisely the problem. Indie rock protectionism, like almost every other form of protectionism out there, is ultimately motivated by an altruistic duty to stand up for the common man. Unfortunately, this ends up screwing over plenty who aren't men. Or common.


[1] There's been plenty of criticism directed against Jody Rosen's article in Slate, none of which seems to understand the real point. (Rosen doesn't make it either.) Competition doesn't begin the moment a band needs to pass muster with the critics and the public. It takes place much earlier, when the labels decide which bands to sign, when the venues decide which bands to book, and even back to when these bands first decide to form. So if there's a homogenising tendency at work here—which many of Rosen's critics do concede, but just consider too slight to be of concern—then it's actually getting amplified and reinforced at every single one of these stages.

[2] I'm not making any specific claims about what being "the best" necessarily entails, or how exclusive it has to be as a percentage of the whole. It can mean seminal, inventive, masterful; it can be the top 1%, 5%, 10%. Let's just recognise it as a quality that can be voted upon, by those who acknowledge and respect that the struggle for recognition is a competition very few get to win.

[3] I don't rule out the possibility that Bon Iver might also be an example of the other half getting his rightful due. I'd need to see it spelled out, though, since Richardson's description above doesn't exactly strike me as one of disadvantage. Unless there's something truly brutalising about small-town Wisconsin that I'm unaware of.

[4] Ambition from unknown artists certainly does get celebrated in indie rock; but it's strictly the kind related to furthering one's career, not making groundbreaking music. Again—and this is not a trivial point—the "indie" part of its name really does define the fundamental character of indie rock, wholly and absolutely.