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Music Minus Everyone

Music escapes from musicians.—Jacques Attali, Noise, 1977

Does John Coltrane have any records out?—Ed Sullivan (on-air, 1970)

You find the funniest things online. Last spring, a music reviewer for an online new-music site mercilessly skewered a bunch of DIY-improv artists who release many, many CDs, between which it’s often difficult to distinguish, dubbing said artists “the unavoidables”. Reviewers, opined our anonymous one, roll their eyes on receiving yet another release from this gang of usual suspects; yet through a reasonably intuitive yet ultimately specious equation, this sheer output volume creates a necessity for critical attention. In short, this guy was cranky at being forced to take these artists seriously simply because so many of their releases had stacked up on his desk.

It’s all about commodity value; further, it’s about locating that value outside the properties of the artwork itself. Tildy’s friend Ben says: Contemporary music seems to be about anything and everything but the actual music being played. Ya gotta getta gimmick: cf. Vienna Vegetable Orchestra, Music After 9/11, Toychestra—the list goes on. But in order to put these ideas/texts out, actual music is still needed, some sounds/notes/content from which to hang that pet idea, a frame to display it to advantage, or perhaps a comfortably non-threatening background to soothe and reassure audiences challenged by the explicit topic. This is not limited to contemporary music, however. If we look hard at the music world, the venerable history of this last proposition should be clearly visible: Extra-content aspects such as school, scene, and reputation were always important components of a work’s value. This definition of “value” is a social/financial one with its own gravity and momentum, quite distinct from what we might refer to, for contrast’s sake, as “interest value”—in other words, that value constituted in whatever hooks us, intrigues us, draws us into a piece of music as individuals, one listener at a time.

Value is a shifting terrain, and music has occupied a fractured landscape of functional valuations over the course of cultural evolution. Without going deeply into a discussion of the originary myth of originality in Western Art, let us for the purposes of this argument create a starting-point for valuation—an imaginary “ground zero” in cultural evolution where the work of art was a unique object which carried within it a certain amount of content. Here, the more (or deeper-layered) the content, the “better” the art. The artists who generated more of these things have been deemed, by the canon-makers of the last 150 years, the Masters, and their works, “masterpieces”.

Thus, our originating equation: More significant unique objects signifies “better artist”.

Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction traces the migration of culturally assigned value away from the unique object (the “masterpiece”) and towards that which celebrates and extends the power of mass production itself. Once mass-market manufacturing and distribution models became economic norms and generators of unheard-of wealth and power (in his landmark essay, Noise, Jacques Attali situates this tipping point at the beginning of the post-WW2 era), a re-mapping took place, wherein value was situated in the sheer number of reproductions pressed. In music no more fitting example could be given than the Gold Record phenomenon. In 1942, the first Gold Record was minted in recognition of the Glenn Miller band’s recording of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” (which was only the second million-selling record). Ironically, that particular Gold Record wasn’t very valuable; what it represented had far greater currency. Who knows where that Gold Record ended up? What is remembered is “Glenn Miller, million-selling bandleader, Gold Record-winner”. Today, a $0.001 “Gold Record” sticker on one of millions of identical CDs by a top-selling artist confers this value upon it. The original pressing of the CD is filed away somewhere and never seen; indeed, it’s not even valuable to the manufacturing process as an “original mold” because it, too, can be “losslessly” replaced. Gold Records have given way to Platinum and Double, hold the presses, Triple Platinum—the industry seems to have reached a ceiling on superlative-signifying metaphors. (But that may be simply another sign of an industry undergoing a life-crisis.)

Thus, the marketplace equation: More reproductions signifies “better artist”.

Not only was the artist better in the eyes of the record biz suits, they used the idea of the Gold Record to convince the buying public that the Gold-Record artist was better. As Attali points out, the industry became more about production of demand than production of supply; the Gold Record was but one pioneering tool for creating a “demand-side” economy. Your Hit Parade,American Bandstand, and, later on, Soul Train, were others. During that bygone era, the hype was based on the proposition “You’ll want to get it because all your friends have it.” Today market-speak is poured, unmediated, right into the advertising: “You want it because it’s the biggest seller this week.” Raw number-worship is all that’s needed to get the buying masses excited; cf. bestseller lists, Amazon.com rankings, ticket sale reports, etc. It’s as if the marketers want us, the consumers, to become our own hype-spinning machines.

The advent of digital reproduction hasn’t taken us beyond the scope of Benjamin’s thesis. True, mechanical means have been micro-sized; tools have gotten smaller, more precise and more nimble. Storage has become commoditized and, via the internet, instantly accessible and broadcast-ready. And a hoped-for “democratization” of the means of production via easier access to these tools has generated an ocean of mediocrity. What we see today in the age of DIY is a perversion of the marketplace equation. Go back to our opening scenario and examine the situation of the bootstrapping artist-entrepreneur who founds a small label and racks up release after release, knowing fully that a significant percentage of his/her inventory will never sell. A big chunk will always be given away or traded: These are not marketplace currency, but possess exchange value in a (hoped-for) expanding peer group. CDs become circular business cards, multimedia résumés—notches on your gun. Growing sales is not the point here. The point is to show your peer group that you are a serious artist who has made a significant investment in your career.

The DIY equation: More releases signifies “better artist”.

This kind of thinking is actually being pushed at some levels of academia. We hear of one well-known performer-turned-professor who informed his classes, “You have to have 20 releases at least, to be taken seriously.” This professor, according to one student, half-jokingly confessed to running an informal race with Steve Lacy to propagate his vinyl seed across the Earth. But, added the student, “At least those guys are (were) master musicians.” One might add that those guys were masters before they had 20, 30, 40 notches on their guns.

The greater the number of releases, the more serious the artist—so the thinking goes. To a lesser extent, the scope and variety of projects represented in the catalogue plays a role, too. Here, value is again remapped to a new territory which barely refers to the content or meaning inherent in any tangible object, separated yet another degree from any coherent intellectual/artistic realization.

From a consumer viewpoint (i.e., record-collector geeks in remission), we’re less interested in buying and listening to “alternative music” CDs because now there are so damn many of them. The shopping-as-gold-seeking experience has been infected with a kind of deflation. Instead of having to put in real work and time to excavate the exotic vinyl-era self-issue like Milford Graves’ BABI (which, not incidentally, demanded much work and money for the artist to produce), one can go to Metamkine or Forced Exposure (a revealing name!) any old time and be confronted with a virtual wall of DIY/microlabel releases just from the last month. In our eyes, each individual release loses potential value just because of all the others up there, competing for our attention. How in the world does one choose a representative Steve Lacy recording, anyway? Are they all equally good? What if we don’t want to trace his artistic development, we just want some finger-snapping soprano saxophone? (Enter another fellow-traveler in this caravan of devolving meaning: The discographer, the one who documents prolificity and locates value in the list.) To put it in Cro-Magnon terms, the buying experience has devolved from one of hunt-it-down-and-kill-it, to cast-your-net-take-one-at-random-and-throw-the-rest-away. Radu Malfatti had a neat formula for this conundrum: “Buy or borrow one, then you know about the rest.”

So, o’er these shifting seas, we’ve returned to that empty landscape of value-meaning. With our telescopes pointed bass-ackwards, we see: More choices generates less engagement. More surface = less depth. Choice has an economy all its own, demonstrated in behavioral terms in Barry Schwartz’ The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (Amazon.com ranking #2476). Schwartz cites studies that show, for instance, that shoppers faced with a few choices of similar items will likely buy the one they like best. But when faced with dozens of choices, the numbers show shoppers are more likely to buy nothing. Schwartz goes further to suggest that our psyches are actually damaged by the flood of meaningless choices we face every day. (These alarm bells were first rung by Alvin Toffler, in his classic Future Shock of 1970, Amazon.com ranking #22547) This is surely part of the problem “the unavoidables” and their ilk think they’ve got licked: The bigger my section in the bins, the more likely it’ll be noticed.

To compound the re-location of value in music, there’s boosterism—appealing to that mythical “wider audience” which everyone seems to be convinced exists out there somewhere, although it’s never been glimpsed anywhere improvisers hang out. While energies and attention are focused either on advertising strategies or community building, the music quietly atrophies. It’s easy to see why: Any critical view (especially from within) will be counterproductive—and actively negative—if what you’re after is enticing sheer numbers of warm bodies into your musical orbit; for this, your only hope is the PR blitz and its attendant relentless positivity. In PR terms—“the music”, “this music we make”, “the scene”—reduce a diverse and compellingly motley collection of activities and personalities to a monodimensional landscape, a univocal entity defined by its most vocal members, i.e. those with the highest volume of output. The demand being generated here emanates from a hierarchical economy of ideas with all the subtlety, depth, and “community spirit” of a street gang.

To an extent this may simply reflect the problem that media representations in general are reductive, and with “scenes” being perceived as more coherent and integrated than they ever actually are—but the fact that “insiders” have internalized these ways of seeing/hearing their own music is somewhat disturbing. (We cite last year’s long threads on ba-newmus and Bagatellen concerning definition of and membership in “lowercase” or “eai” or whatever scenes or scenelets are in contention.)

Unfortunately (but perhaps relevantly), the PR doesn’t seem to work. (As we write, three favorite Oakland/Berkeley venues friendly to adventurous music are closing their doors, or seriously rethinking their friendship; in Seattle, the steadfast folks at Polestar have closed up shop.) Meanwhile the clamoring and pleading for audience attention, and the whining and griping and raging about how no one listens, continue as a sop to wounded egos unwilling to take definite steps toward either implied solution: Going pop enough to attract a wide and sustainable listener base; or, being aesthetically committed enough to forge an identity based on a more marginal/critical position.

Wait, wait, the artists protest: How are we supposed to get our music out to listeners if we don’t make CDs? That seems a fair question. As a reaction to the attention-inflation conundrum pointed out before, disengagement seems a sure path to obscurity. (Although “obscurity” could constitute the “more marginal/critical position” mentioned above.) Non-participation as an artistic statement! What a shame more would-be artists don’t practice it. But adding another dim voice to the clamor hardly seems a more robust course of action.

Tildy Bayar thinks and writes about music as a doctoral student in UCSD's Critical Studies and Experimental Practices program.

Tom Djll has one self-produced CD release, Mutootator (1993; no Amazon.com ranking). Since then he has produced a handful of CD-Rs, but otherwise has been happy to let his friends produce their own CDs with him as a guest. He hopes that they do not read this article and show up at his doorstep one dark night.