Tuesday, May 30, 2017

A Follow-Up Post About Music

'Mercury' by Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, James McAlister. Taken from the album 'Planetarium', released 9th June on 4AD: http://smarturl.it/planetariumalbum

Re-reading yesterday's post about music, I realize that I may have given the impression that I blame the recent decline in music, if not on the musicians, at least on the music industry.  Nothing could be further from the truth. I blame ourselves, the listeners.

With the rise of the internet and the mp3 file format, a huge abundance of music was suddenly available for free.  Napster and other file-sharing services thrived for a while, and even after they were driven out of business by iTunes and other services, the cost, in terms of both dollar value and convenience, went way down (and by "way down" in terms of cost of convenience, I mean it became less inconvenient - you don't even have to leave the house to download the LP or song of your choice).  

I remember one day back in 1996 driving to at least six different record stores stubbornly determined to find a copy of the debut Los Straightjackets album, modestly titled The Utterly Fantastic and Totally Unbelievable Sound of Los Straitjackets, before finally driving home empty handed.  I had heard the band on Album 88, the former student-run WRAS, but no one had it in stock, and most of the clerks never even heard of it and looked at the disappointed 40-something customer as if he were making it up ("Los Straightjackets? Really?") or was just terribly confused.  Now, I can instantly download the album, or any of the 13 subsequent Los Straightjackets records, from the comfort of my home right here at the computer, or stream it on YouTube, Spotify, or any of a variety of other streaming services. At the push of a button, I can have someone deliver it to my house.  

I'm not saying that low cost and convenience are bad things, but they do come at a price.  At the same time as the cost dropped, we listeners decided that rock music had to sound a certain way - guitar driven, usually male vocals, song lengths between 3:00 and 5:00 minutes.  Sure, there were plenty of exceptions, but those exceptions merely served to highlight the boundaries of the rock sound ("it sounds like rock, but only with keyboards instead of guitars," or "it's a rock song, but 15:00 minutes long").  Our patience for anything out of the orthodoxy became increasingly short and we became increasingly intolerant.

Add that impatience and intolerance to the instantaneous availability of nearly the entire pantheon of all of recorded music, and today's listeners quickly box themselves into a corner of limited aesthetics. I mean, since there's no cost to us, most of us stream a song for something like 15 seconds, and if it doesn't sound exactly like what we were expecting, or is a little different or challenging or, god forbid, weird, we instantly decide "that's shit" and move on to the next file.  We never give it a chance.

Another memory (the memories of a man in his old age are the deeds of a man in his prime):  Back in 1966 or '67, I had heard of Bob Dylan and seen a lot of articles praising him in the newspapers, but he wasn't being played on the Top 40 radio I was listening to as a teenager, so I had never actually heard him.  One day at a local record store, I bought a copy of Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits to hear for myself what all the buzz was all about.  It was a $3.00 investment, which was a lot of money for a 13- or 14-year-old back then, so imagine my disappointment when I got home and put the record on and heard that nasally voice for the first time.  No one had warned me about the sound of his voice.     

Today, if I had downloaded it or streamed it for free, I would have immediately went "Ugh," and deleted it on the spot.  But damn it, I had just invested $3.00, had made a deliberate choice of that album over, say, the new Monkees album, and was going to hear the whole thing out.  By the end, I sort of got used to his voice, and on the second, and then the third listen, I actually got to appreciate his sound.  But I wouldn't have made the effort if I hadn't already invested myself in the effort to come to terms with Dylan's sound.  Now, some 50-odd years later, the Bob Dylan of the 60s is still one of my favorite singer/songwriters, and I can probably recite all the lyrics (and there were a lot of them) of Greatest Hits.  

So I guess what I'm trying to say is this: the price of all that low cost and instant access is that we have no incentive to be patient with something new, to hear someone out, or give a band a chance.  If it doesn't sound like what we're used to hearing, we move on and don't give the creative or the innovative or the, god forbid, weird, a chance.  As a result, the creative, the innovative and the weird doesn't sell tickets and can't afford to tour as much and doesn't get booked at festivals. The music web sites, ever conscious of the traffic to their pages, what articles got looked at and which ones don't, and the search terms people use to arrive at their sites. don't give front page treatment to the creative, the innovative, and the weird and their music doesn't get heard.

Music today is the poorer because of our shortcomings. 

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