Thursday, 2 December 2010
Music & The Internet Part 1. More is Less?
There are two fundamental ways in which the internet has changed music. The first is that, by being freed from the limitations of physicality and old media, the vast majority of all recorded music is available to everyone instantly. The second is that the explosion of choice has created fragmentation; the decreasing relevance of the album, the splintering of music into sub-genres and the rise of the narrow cast, personalized, niche musical experience. The platitudes of the web-evangelists tell us this is overwhelmingly a good thing; the more choice people have and the freer they are to chose, the more everyone benefits. People will become more cultured and the culture will in turn become more sophisticated thus evolving more rapidly. Its a virtuous cycle, an exponential cycle of progress. Of course, nobody would argue that in order to have a healthy music culture (or any culture for that matter), diversity and freedom of choice is important. However, what happens when choice starts to feel limitless?
Simon Reynolds wrote a piece in late 2009 stating that one of the defining characteristics of music in the noughties was its fragmentation. He points to an odd feature of the Pitchfork top ten albums of the 2000's list. Seven of the albums where from 2000 and 2001, one was from 2002 and another from 2004. The only album from after the mid-decade point was Panda Bear's Person Pitch. One conclusion you could draw from this was that music deteriorated as the noughties wore on. The second, more likely argument, is that it grew harder and harder for people to reach consensus. The reason this came about he argues, is that music became so ubiquitous, with everything past and present available like never before. Not only that, but the present started to yield so much more new music because of the wealth of inspiration that artists could draw from and, more importantly, because of the relative cheapness with which it could be made and distributed. Because of this he argues, a surfeit of quality also emerged so it became a problem of quantity compounded by quality. The result of both this overproduction and access to old music was “that “we” were spread thin across a vast terrain of sound”. Reynolds concludes “if even a relatively non-diffuse community like Pitchfork could only find its centre around records that came out in the early years of the noughties, it suggests that the culture-wide slide into entropy is speeding up”.
The point Reynolds makes is that musical importance is seldom a purely intrinsic aspect of the music itself. Importance is a two way street; its impact and reception being determined by the audience. This idea is expressed in Pitchfork's end-of-decade piece on Arcade Fire's 2004 album Funeral, their No 2 album of the noughties. Ian Cohen writes: "Whether it's due to increasingly fractious listening habits or the increased ability for dissenters to be heard, Funeral keeps on feeling like the last of its kind, an indie record that sounded capable of conquering the universe and then going on to do just that”. Of the unifying force that Cohen finds in Arcade Fire's Funeral, Reynolds says “it is not inherent, completely, to the record; it must pre-exist it to some extent, seek and find itself in the mirror of the music”. The problem was that, with increasingly idiosyncratic tastes, atomised listening habits and the ever-increasing, and often divisive, influence of the music blogosphere, consensus was becoming rarer. Cohen feels that an album threatening to reach that level now would probably be met with severe scrutiny or disdain. In a related point he says that part of the reason the Beatles rose to greatness is that is they knew the world was waiting; it made them rise to the occasion. The current situation is not conducive to this however. “The bigger the spread, the more "we" are spread. And the less impact any given record can have. Worse, as artists internalise reduced expectations, the cycle of diminution spirals ever inward.” Reynolds is quite upbeat about music in the noughties, overall he feels it was a decade of plentiful quality music. His ambivalence about the impact on the bigger picture and the future direction of music however is clear.
A counterpoint to Reynold's take is Kyle Bylin’s argument that this enourmous access to music may be leading to conservativeness on the part of mainstream consumers. Referring to Barry Schwartz writer of “The Paradox of Choice”, Bylin says that when overloaded with cultural alternatives, fans will often opt for the same old thing to avoid facing unlimited options. This seems to contradict Reynolds but, a person who follows a serious music critic, is not the average music fan. The Pitchfork reader and dedicated blog trawler will have a fairly serious interest in music with enough references points to be able to navigate the labyrinth. They will have the desire to explore deeply and the will to dedicate the time required to dig for music. I count myself in this category and its true that, for someone whose life revolves around music and knows what to look for, the internet offers endless possibilities for exploration. As Kyle Bylin argues, virtually limitless choice works when you know what you want but, for the average consumer this is practically impossible. When faced with everything all at once are you going to dig deep or are you going to freeze and retreat into the unknown? The truth is that most fans are passive and interested in new music only if its propped up by things like commercial radio (which is still a suprisingly big force) or the clubs they go to. Now, if fans were relying on these kinds of commercial filters pre-internet then, how likely are they to start going off piste in an age of limitless and fragmenting choice? A counter-argument to this might run something along the lines of “this is what what crowd-based algorithms and recommendation filters like Last FM, Pandora, Amazon Recommends or iTunes Genius are there for, they are the new mediators”. The problem, as Bylin points out however, is that the results are entirely dependent on the quality of the filter, the type of the filter and what you feed in. Rather than helping you explore music it might lead you deeper into your own narrow tastes. Furthermore, you risk becoming even less of a “chooser” than you were in the old world of record shops and commercial radio and more of a picker, taking things off a conveyor belt shaped by an algorithm which may just be confirming your narrow tastes.
Think about the music you hear in the charts, see in the iTunes top ten or come across on TV shows. Is there anything interesting or progressive happening or is commercial music more conservative than ever? From the profoundly ordinary Lady Gaga, to the soulless muzak of X Factor and the slew of highly derivative retro acts it all looks pretty uninspiring. The mainstream has always had plenty of rubbish in it but this feels different now, the ratio of good to bad is rapidly shifting towards the latter. Clearly there are many reasons for this apart from the one i'm putting forward but the point is this; if the platitudes are right and the internet, as it exists at the moment, is such a cultural catalyst, then what's going on? Of course, assuming that all the good stuff is going on in the underground then maybe things are ok and its just commercial music that has gone up a blind alley. Reynolds thinks the kind of music you find on Pitchfork isn't suffering and whilst truly great music might be undermined to an extent, at least this point means its not all bad news. I agree with him, I think its an amazing time to be a music fan on one level, I'm constantly finding new music I like and clearly the ability to be exposed to so much stuff means that artists can access the past and appopropriate like never before. The apparent decline in era-defining music bothers me but there's something that's nagging away far more. Speaking from my own subjective impressions, little new music I’ve heard in recent years sounds fundamentally different to what has gone before. I wish I wasn't saying this and its tempting to think this is because I’m simply jaded or over-indulged by the hyper choice of the internet. However, the fact that several other people agree with this makes me think I might be onto something.
In a recent interview DJ Shadow states his view that, in the last decade, the evolution of popular music has stagnated. He argues that, if you take a record from 1970 and 1980 (for example), you'll often hear that they were made in different decades. However, compare a record from 2010 with a record from 2000 and it often sounds like it could be made today. Internet visionary and accomplished musician Jaron Lanier express the same idea in his book "You Are Not A Gadget". He says that, in every decade of the twentieth century you could point to music that could not conceivably have been composed a decade before. He says “a decade gets you from Robert Johnson's primordial blues recordings to Charlie Parker's modernist jazz recoding. A decade gets you from the reign of big bands to the reign of rock and roll. Approximately a decade separated the last Beatles record from the first big-time hip-hop records”. During the first century of recorded music there isn't a decade that didn't involve extreme stylistic evolution that went way beyond surface details. Every decade, music seemed to be mutating and rewiring its aesthetic boundaries, what it could mean and how it could fit into people's lives. A common counter to this might be to point to dance music, a future-orientated area of music obsessed with new sounds, new beats, new combinations of sounds. Its true that, if you understand the elaborate nomenclature of dance music you can often place a track in an era. However, as Lanier points out, this is a “nerd exercise” and lost on most people. Its different often on the basis of technicalities not because of large aesthetic or theoretical shifts. How much that is supposedly new and revolutionary, even in the supposedly hyper-modern world of dance music is more than a clever re-assembling of the past or tinkering with sounds so subtle that the non-aficionado won't even notice.
Shadow suspects that at least part of the problem is once again, the hyper-choice of the internet and the new ways we consume music. His argument is that the limitless free for all of the internet means that its harder than ever to make an impact unless you're about “flash and image”. Even if you follow the contemporary wisdom of giving most of your music away for free and spamming people to death on Twitter, Shadow reckons it’s more likely than ever that no one’s going to care or notice. He says it's like operating in a void with the result that true artists are likely to become despondent. Innovation is likely to be drowned out by all the other noise so the artist has less imperative to innovate and focuses instead on playing it safe and grabbing people’s attention. Lanier’s take is different, like Shadow he feels that music hasn’t moved forward much in the last decade but he doesn’t put it down to artist despondency. Instead he feels it’s part of a deeper cultural obsession with re-appropriating the past. As he puts it “this is the first time since electrification that mainstream youth culture in the industrialized world has cloaked itself primarily in nostalgic styles” . His take is that, not only is popular music progressing more slowly than it has done for a century but that, this is due to a pervasive culture of nostalgia and re-appropriation. Rather than being liberated by the new technologies, so far the abundance of culture at our fingertips has turned us into scavengers picking over the past as never before...
Continued in Music & the Internet part 2. “Running Out Of The Past”