Simon Reynolds, Retromania (New York: Faber and Faber, 2011), 122
Excusing the present-biased historicism of the “we are living through/in an age/era/world” lead (which we’ve all got to stop using, I’ve done it too) Simon and I (and many others) agree that music has become, in his words, ‘liquid’ (in mine, ‘ether’; in Matt LeMay’s, ‘content’). Simon and I agree on almost everything, but he is Simon Reynolds, so he gets the book deal. Haw.
In Retromania, Simon broadens the implications of pop music’s liquefaction, setting the digital epoch against previous periods of context-driven pop music and culture. It’s a very, very chewy book—his Merzbox, in a way—but Simon is apparently not a big fan of the debate on commerce that David Lowery and almost everyone talking about this “Emily White moment” is going long about. I think it’s because Simon realizes something sad and shitty, but true, and important to moving this stuck dialog forward.
No one forces anyone to traffic in the arts. It’s a compulsion, and if popular reception of and interaction with particular modes of expression have changed in ways that upset or disappoint an artist, they have options. They can complain; they can chastise and berate their peers and students; they can bark at the moon. What they can’t do, and what Lowery is so misguided in believing he can, is assign objective value to art. Art is priceless. Which is a nice way of saying it’s worthless.
I don’t believe David Lowery is wrong about anything he wrote. I just think he’s making an impassioned case for water conservation on Mars.
Digital conversion has not stripped money from the process of listening to or acquiring music, it has simply—and brutally—shown that the only commodity value music ever had was variable audience interest in it. That interest is at once more quantifiable today, and more easily extruded from the process of listening. It is then sold, as units of attention, to advertisers. Many of us have pointed out that the primary beneficiaries of this process are the largest distributors of digital music—Apple, Google, and of late, Spotify—and any for-profit publications that sell ads around their promotion and discussion of said music.
Anyone bothered by these circumstances has to look at the alternative scenarios. For artists, you can refuse to contribute to Internet distribution channels. You can give your music away for free, perhaps even in the understanding that emotions, memories, and arguments—all reactions to art—are ultimately beyond the reach of capitalism. Still, whatever attention swells around your work can and will be slant-drilled by the media, and that is out of your control. It’s nothing new in practice, but both digitized music and digital listening leave precise, obvious footprints. The ancillary metadata attached to both the actual files, and the process of listening to and especially streaming them, map your behavior to advertisers. “Call Me Maybe”, in this analogy, would be a Supercell. Last.fm would be the Weather Channel.
Artists have forever struggled with secular exposure, mistranslation and co-option, because art is inalienable to its creator, and conversely alien to the outside world. Every song you’ve ever heard, every painting you’ve ever seen: they did not exist at one point, and then did. This changes the world, or doesn’t. Torturous metaphors abound—”a seamstress sewing the past into the present”—but as the embodiment of a void, without whom particular works of art could not exist, any artist is a medium, working in a medium. Whatever moral or ethical values inform their work, that work is down to a compulsion to express what is otherwise inexpressible. Even pop art, with its temporal and political baggage, works in ways that editorial treatises cannot. And we should be, and usually are, grateful to the artist and compensate them in whatever manner we can afford (applause, for example, counts). But the artist cannot expect to be unidirectionally compensated if their chosen medium has suddenly become a two-way street.
There is no refund for a shitty digital album. The number of times Spotify and iTunes have noted my listening to Sun Kil Moon’s version of “Neverending Math Equation” over the last week will not be amended if I get sick of the song. They will not remove my attention from the historical record. Mark Kozelek can point to those statistics in aid of getting better bookings, or charging a higher fee for his material being used in a film, or commercial. In this way, the current situation helps Mark to better value himself as a musician, if he chooses to monetize public interest in his work. At base, the recognition is instant, and accurate, and many artists are happy to have a reliable mirror there. Maybe not Mark.
Lefsetz gets it, but his “buck up, little camper” (see what I did there) response to Lowery is macho, self-serving, and obnoxious. Finger-wagging, from either side—”Make better music!”/”Downloading is unethical!”—is not a way out of this. Neither is apathy, but the outcome is certain: home taping didn’t kill music, and neither will the Internet. People will continue to record and listen to music, to make it a component in their social or anti-social lives, and companies will continue to encourage and attempt to profit from their interest.
No one is innocent, but neither is anyone explicitly guilty. So much of the dialog going around and around and around here is about choosing perceived sides (pro-artist, anti-commerce) and assigning blame. I use this quote perhaps more often than I should, but, “When you make yourself out to be the victim, it is easy to feel righteous,” and that goes both ways, because you’re simultaneously vilifying someone else. If we’re going to prolong this ceaseless future-of-music debate, we must ensure it sticks to music, and music culture, and rejects the culture of victimization.
One of these days
When you figure, figure it all out
Well be sure to let me know