Thursday 21 April 2011

Everything popular is wrong: Making it in digital music, despite democratization

Everyone keeps doing the same thing out of the fear that the slightest deviation from the norm will scare away the small remaining, yet patient audience who goes along because of a lack of alternatives (we dance either because we paid or because the drugs kicked in).

Nasdaq studio

Did that depress you? Now, here comes the good news: exactly because everyone seemingly performs to the lowest still acceptable standards, all you have to do as an artist is to unleash disproportional waves of creativity. Since nothing promises secure success anymore, all considerations to what ???works in the marketplace??? can be freely dumped and forgotten. The more out there you get, the better. It???s the only way to stand out in a totally dull environment. The advantage is, put cynically, that the old channels are jammed. Whoever tries to break through them following ???proven??? old ways (which usually means emulating other people???s career paths) is wasting time and energy.

A very thoughtful article by Stefan Goldman, well worth the read; he has a point and he sets out some decent advice: 'step outside the box' appears to work here and there, at least momentarily, perhaps enough to get to that next gig and, as one commenter puts it, "killing expenses, whatever it takes to immerse in the task full time, and maybe I am misunderstanding his gist, but ... what if that's not all there is?

What if it is not the chops that need perfecting, but the one who wields the axe? This is my own approach, although admittedly I really suck at it, but I figure, as Gene Krupa put it, if you're going to die, you might as well die doing your own thing.

To be a workable theory of art, one must rest on one's priors, so let us consider what Pablo Picasso said:

???Art is just another way of keeping a diary???

If this is so, then our way to garner audience attention is not simply to out-do the oddity of our last LOLCats post, but to be an interesting diarist, to be someone who has something to say, and interesting to a degree that we really want to know what that person is going to say next. So we the audience hang on the feed awaiting the next releases, and through that person, we discover others who are also following these ideas and in there we have a community, a network.

Whether you are a minstrel or a symphony orchestra, given a tuned-in network of like minds, all sorts of commerce-like things can happen; given a large enough network, it starts to feedback and self-inspire itself, and given a still larger network, sales people will get interested in piggy-backing on it (which is not always, if ever, a Good Thing)

This, it seems to me, is a fair description of the successes we see in the wild, of, for example, phenomena we today call Darcy James Argue and The Bad Plus: artists with a message and a mission, the mission itself transcendent of the particular temporal recordings so much so that someone else in a pub playing Transit is still interesting, but clearly not as much so. The work is only a step in the evolution, a transition point on a journey and we are invited along for the ride.

The key here is in being an interesting art diarist, in becoming, in having something to say in the next work that expands on what was said in the work before; it says nothing about the low barriers to entry or the ease of posting any doodle to iTunes. In an art, there needs be a direction, a vector out of the past and through the present into some place in tomorrow.

Beethoven didn???t just dream up nifty sounds that were ???neater??? than the last, he had a system, he was on a quest, he had a theory of where his music had to go; each and every composition (outside of commissions for money) was a targeted probe, a further exploration into that space, each new symphony was the logical successor to the prior, building from the learning experience, going forward with a purpose.

Mahler then picked up from Beethoven, and kept running, another interesting musical ???diarist???; Schoenberg then did the same, and Cage ditto. Each was moving in a direction, applying themselves to exploring where this thing we call music had to go, inevitably, carrying things to their logical conclusion. This is the passion that propelled them. It wasn't about penthouse suites. It wasn???t about spandex and wigs and arriving in a cocoon.

So it behooves the artist to become interesting first, and then make their art out from that foundation, tangible proof of their point. To be 'experimental' is more than just being weird and 'unique', it is about gathering experience and confirming or challenging the working hypothesis.

To some extent the ear-candy people are doing this too, only the theory they are applying towards is finding maxima in sales and bums in seats, which, to be fair, is nonetheless a quest and a scientific endeavour that has lead them to all sorts of clever inventions in the pursuit of cash register and ticket receipts.

I would just, myself, however, hope to find me some diarists with something a tad more interesting to say, and more over hope as well to be one :)