Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Commoditization of Crazy: The Music Industry's Half-Century of Confronting Underground, Experimental, and Outlier Music

(I wrote this essay on underground music for a pop-music curriculum at Kellogg College in Michigan; a few folks said they wanted to see it. Copyright and all rights reserved, bee-yotches. All opinions are clearly my own, and in this great country of ours, you have the right to disagree and thereby be utterly wrong!)

The most memorable moment in Ken Burns’ otherwise pedestrian PBS series, “Jazz,” came in its description of U.S. sailors coming home from World War II in the fall of 1945, hearing Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker play “Salt Peanuts” for the first time. One sailor told jazz writer Stanley Crouch, “I knew my life would never be the same again.” A few astute observers might claim that America’s occasional and unpredictable love affair with underground music was born that day.

The Internet era has given us the “Long Tail” marketing strategy made popular by Wired magazine’s Chris Anderson, which assumes there is an addressable market for any kind of art, even if only a dozen people worldwide like it. The going assumption in the years between Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph and the post-WW2 rise of be-bop and rock and roll was that only a mass audience could pay for artist development. In fact, many record-label executives who have not adjusted their outlook to the death of Top 40 radio and the rise of social-network-driven music, continue in the 21st century to mistakenly believe that only a platinum-selling artist can underwrite an infrastructure that includes the unknown or niche-oriented musician.

In reality, the 65 years between Gillespie’s be-bop breakout and the victory of iTunes over the physical recorded format have witnessed a strange, repetitive, and occasionally retrograde dance between labels and fringe artists in how the interests of art and commerce are reconciled. While popular music still seems to settle around a lowest common denominator, the bottom-line business suits in the music industry have learned humility after discovering an unusual trait, displaying itself again and again in both U.S.-specific and global listening audiences: what is rejected in one decade as “too weird” is sold back to music aficionados ten or 20 years later as something that seems much more mainstream than was admitted at the time. In fact, a selective memory is at work among many fans, where the number of people who claim to have been fans of Captain Beefheart (1960s), The Damned (1970s), or The Pixies (1980s-90s) grows by a factor of ten a decade after the artist is first on the touring circuit. This has helped drive the market for reunion tours for artists who may have made their first recordings any time in the last 60 years.

From Delta Blues to Psychedelia

Choosing postwar be-bop as our reference point should not blind us to the fact that much of the recorded music of the first half of the 20th century could be considered as predecessors to the underground. Before television and Top 40 radio helped drive a mass culture, however, eclectic music tended to be either much less heard outside of certain aware audiences, or much more self-conscious and self-referential. The latter category could cover artists ranging from the over-the-top Spike Jones to the carefully crafted rebel hobo image-making of Woody Guthrie.

While the Delta blues originals like Robert Johnston and Blind Lemon Jefferson no doubt made their 1920s and 1930s blues recordings with little eye to marketing in the dominant culture, specialty musicians were thinking quite explicitly about bringing their music to broad audiences by the time that music curator Harry Smith was searching for old 78-rpm recordings of blues masters in the late 1940s. To be blunt, the replacement of Chicago and New Orleans jazz styles by the bland middle-of-the-road machinations of big-band swing, had left many music producers ready for the breakout of odd styles like the be-bop boom of the late 1940s. What began in the jazz realm was replicated in the area where folk met country music, helping to propel song stylists like Guthrie and Pete Seeger, before the McCarthyist witch hunts of the early 1950s silenced many radical folk singers.

Some musicians crafted a deliberate aura of nuttiness and unconventional behavior, with Spike Jones in particular trying to create a musical analog of the popular Marx Brothers movies. Others were more serious in songwriting, but nevertheless were image manipulators. Woody Guthrie may have had legitimate rural roots in Oklahoma, for example, but was well aware of urban culture and radical campus politics when he elected to burnish his hillbilly and plain-folk image in the 1930s. This aspect of playing to the crowds helped drive the popularity of the Almanac Singers (where Guthrie performed with Seeger), and played a role in turning ‘This Land is Your Land’ into a minor hit.

The anti-communist witch hunts of the early 1950s, combined with the conformity-driven “Organization Man” group-think of that era, pushed most eclectic musical styles into deep background early in that decade, with the exception of the jazz spinoff styles derived from be-bop by Charlie Parker and his session friends, which would eventually lead to the modern jazz of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. But it’s important to remember that periods of cultural oppression often lead to sudden outbursts of creativity, one of many factors that may have led to the sudden explosion of Beat culture and rock-n-roll in mid-decade. The Beats had carried on their cultural rebellion throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, and the stultifying atmosphere of the anti-communist years actually helped germinate the anti-culture and give it a voice.

We can point to an obvious difference between the two anti-culture movements of the 1950s, Beats and rock-n-roll. The Beats had an explicitly nihilist cultural/political message to throw in the face of mainstream America, as exemplified by Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ poem. Beats defined modern literature for almost a decade, yet they had only tenuous connections to jazz and folk music communities. Rock and roll, on the other hand, grew out of a bored teenage and young-adult community of musicians, familiar with country and rockabilly, who only wanted to party and have fun. Except for the few with media savvy, like Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, most weren’t structuring their music to the interests of national or global audiences. Promoters took advantage of teen dollars by promoting national tours that resembled glorified sock hops, but rock and roll grew without a conscious effort by national music industry leaders to turn it into a global phenomenon.

Consequently, rock culture could be co-opted for Ed Sullivan consumption far easier than beat culture. Rock critics of the late 20th century liked to claim after the fact that so-called rebels like Buddy Holly, Duane Eddy, Chuck Berry, and The Big Bopper represented a threat to 1950s suburban culture, but first-generation rockers were mainstreamed easily enough, to the point where Elvis and beach movies were dominating the drive-in theaters by 1960. In contrast, Beat writers like Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs were looked askance upon in mainstream culture, and the beatnik didn’t find its place in TV land until Bob Denver played Maynard G. Krebs in the Dobie Gillis Show, at which point beats had all but been replaced by the British invasion.

The urban folk-music revival of the early 1960s was the first to reject any type of restrictions on content, but artists like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Phil Ochs still had to deal with a music industry controlling recordings in a style more appropriate to mid-1930s Tin Pan Alley. By this time, most of the 1950s rock and roll movement had the blood sucked out of it by the promoters of artists like Frankie Avalon, Fabian, and Annette Funicello, leaving only a smattering of girl groups like the Ronettes to carry the fire. Had it not been for the continuing groundswell from below to open the artist’s availability, the careers of folkies like Dylan might have been shot down after an album or two.

By this measure, the real radical nature of The Beatles’ arrival in the U.S. in 1964, and the subsequent British Invasion of soundalike bands, resided not just in the music of the Fab Four and their multiple clones, but in the sudden explosion of the A&R (artist and repertoire) business to go out and find talent wherever it resided. In some senses, this was not new. The success of the Sun and Chess record labels in the 1950s had spawned dozens of clones, labels that were trying to sign regional doo-wop and rockabilly acts in the late 1950s. But the maniacal degree to which labels, big and small, were willing to sign early talent in the 1965-67 period, had not been seen, nor duplicated since, in the music industry.

It might be appropriate at this point to inject a word of caution as to how music of different decades and pop-culture eras is judged. Many classic-rock fans will insist that the music of the 1964-73 “golden era” was of a unique quality, never replicated again. Top talents like the Beatles, Stones, Dylan certainly were unique musicians, but it is problematic to disentangle the musicians from the cultural referents of the decades in which they were popular. In the mid-1960s, youth culture was paramount, and everything regarding youth and rock music was amplified and fed back through mass media and its advertising culture, to be reinforced for both the youth targets and the parents and older citizens who were often left feeling rejected. If dominant cultural arbiters had paid as much attention to emerging talent in the mid-1990s or mid-2000s as was paid to music of the 1960s, those decades could just as easily have been termed “golden eras.” One must be able to discern artistic merit separate from the milieu of time and circumstance in which the art was embedded.

The explosion of A&R in the mid-1960s had an effect similar to a Maoist “Hundred Flowers” campaign – every high-school musician was ready to start a band, every city tried to sustain its own regional record label, and Top 40 radio helped drive the quantity (if not quality at all times) of new music by giving most new artists a trial spin. The breaking down of racial and class barriers on most Top 40 stations helped insure that Motown, Tex-Mex, guitar-driven pop, and surf music were placed on equal pedestals. The limited circulation and relative obscurity of some of these hits helped drive a later ‘60s garage-band revival movement, where anthology efforts like Nuggets and Pebbles helped insure that obscure pseudo-hits of the ‘60s remained in print. What is evident to anyone who has waded through multiple Nuggets volumes is that a lot of crap got preserved alongside the buried treasure, though for many music historians, the crap was as intriguing as the good stuff for what it had to say about culture.

When Bob Dylan went electric at Newport Folk Festival in 1965, it spurred some soundalike political rock movements that actually gained more ground in popularity than some early psychedelia. Barry McGuire’s ‘Eve of Destruction’ was a prime example of this. Despite the concern over growing protests against the Vietnam War, protest music was quelled far more by a lack of imagination among musicians, than by any industry attempt to censor political expression. What happened in musical styles proved more interesting than topical political content.

The Beatles’ dabbling in sitar, non-Western music timing, and multi-track orchestrated psychedelia, helped open the doors for a lot of experimentation, both of the Grateful Dead jam-band variety, and the saccharine-symphonic style favored by early Moody Blues. It’s a little bit too simplistic to say that drugs helped fuel unconventional music styles from 1966 on, but when hallucinogenic culture was combined with the pioneers like Frank Zappa who were listening to modern classical composers like Cage and Varese, it’s pretty obvious why the harmonic convergence of the psychedelic underground happened.

Hours-long “happenings” were driving the next generation of music culture on both coasts, giving pop music the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Hendrix, and Joplin on the West Coast, while offering up the darker Velvet Underground and Warhol hangers-on in New York. The rise of psychedelic jams came just as radio was opening up to favor “album-oriented rock” (AOR) on college stations, giving many listeners their first exposure to long, complex and convoluted rock songs that might be five, ten, even 20 minutes in length, with a variety of experimenting in texture and sound. A few lucky producers emulated Frank Zappa’s success at Warner/Reprise records, in which executives allowed him his own Straight label to publish new musicians even more outside the mainstream than The Mothers of Invention. Zappa introduced the world to such characters as Captain Beefheart, Girls Together Outrageously, and Wild Man Fischer.

It’s no accident that the musical extremists favored by Zappa are often those most fondly remembered in the 21st century, and it’s also no accident that those who could take the cues from rock musicians most effectively often were the sophisticated jazz musicians, such as Miles Davis with Bitches’ Brew, and Carla Bley with Escalator Over the Hill. Mainstream rock music of this era was running into a period of overkill and excess, and required the jump-start of punk rock to pull out of mid-70s doldrums.

Prog to Punk – How to Manage and Profit from Rebellion

If so many rock musicians had good intentions to move art forward in the early 1970s, how did rock become so bloated and uninteresting, requiring punk rock to give it a good swift kick in the ass? The answer lies partially in the fact that if people with only mediocre talents or vision are given studio money and fed delusions of grandeur, mediocre results can be expected. In fact, some of the worst violators of the prog-rock overkill issue were creators of some very good music – but were spoiled by too much money and too much attention.

To cite a couple examples, the symphonic group Yes went from two worthwhile early albums to the excess of Tales from Topographic Oceans, because the band lacked a good editor. Todd Rundgren made good use of studio tricks and dizzying changes in time signatures in works like A Wizard/A True Star, but once he was fed more money and bigger ideas with his fusion-jazz band Utopia, his music went to hell in a hurry. King Crimson provides an interesting case history, in that band leader Robert Fripp kept his band critical and interesting by constantly reinventing the band’s musical style and intention, while former band members like Greg Lake and John Wetton went on to form such commercially-oriented excessive pop groups as Emerson Lake & Palmer, and Asia.

Some musicians tried to spur creativity by choosing to identify with edge cultures like emerging gay/glam cultures, while taking the Fripp route of constant reinventions. David Bowie was able to pull this off successively through several generations of identities, while others only half survived, succumbing to crash and burn like the New York Dolls, or moving into excessive romanticism like Roxy Music.

The proto-punk movement, in fact, had a lot to do with existing artists trying new images and personae. Iggy Pop, for example, worked with Bowie in redefining The Stooges for the glam era, with the resulting Raw Power becoming a punk antecedent. Patti Smith expanded her poetry-slam work with Lenny Kaye to produce the 1975 punk classic Horses. It bears repeating that these early CBGB-club artists, like the later Sex Pistols and all that followed, were popular with far fewer people in the mid-1970s than some would insist 20 and 30 years later. It is a testament to the creativity of punk that so many boomers would re-invent their own histories at the end of the century to insist that they loved punk. At the time, the vast majority of music lovers were going to the disco or defending Journey as a follow on to prog-rock, and were often adamantly refusing to listen to punk.

The real breakthrough achieved by punk was the secondary explosion of small, local labels breaking free of the consolidating international mega-corporations, and promoting limited-release 45 rpm records as an alternative to the LP. The sleeves of these 7-inch records became objets d’art in their own right, like the early Devo singles on Booji Boy. The way these singles were treated in hushed respect by collectors helped spur a secondary punk industry in smaller cities.

What most people witnessed as the 1970s ended was the conversion of punk to New Wave by the major labels. But the most interesting evolution was the subterranean move from punk to art-punk and improvisational noise, realized by bands such as The Pop Group, Pere Ubu, Mars, DNA, Alternative Television, and Pink Section. Brian Eno, formerly of Roxy Music, tried to bring this punk offshoot to the masses in his No New York project, but few fans at the time realized how much art-punk spurred collaborations with modern jazz artists (a trend revived 30 years later as noise-jazz masters like Anthony Braxton collaborated with Sonic Youth and Wolf Eyes). Pere Ubu and its founder, David Thomas, made special efforts to involve dissimilar artists in genre-bending projects, recruiting everyone from Anton Fier to Richard Thompson in experimental music.

This effort spread to many regions and subcultures. Early old-school rap artists, establishing labels in the 1977-78 period, rediscovered the small-run single, including a 12-inch single, that replaced the cassette boom-box basis of mid-70s rap, and later spurred the use of turntable as musical instrument.

Lesbian and feminist small labels used locally-derived distribution models favored by punk artists. Even behind the crumbling Iron Curtain, the efforts by the Czech band Plastic People of the Universe to emulate Zappa, helped drive a noise-punk movement in Eastern Europe which later was cited by Czech prime minister and playwright Vaclav Havel as an important predecessor to the Velvet Revolution.

While major labels fed consumers a safer New Wave option as the decade turned, art-punk took a darker turn with the advent of the Joy Division/Siouxsie & the Banshees/Bauhaus wave. A slice of the punk movement opted for greater purity in the hardcore and straightedge movements of the early 1980s, but outlier movements in general got pushed aside in the decade of the ‘80s as larger corporations attempted to re-take the lion’s share of the industry.

Co-Optation and Control in the 1980s

What were the factors that caused a closing of the allowable space for experimentation in the 1980s? The new technology of CDs favored the existing labels, as small labels had a difficult time lining up CD sources, while major labels encouraged consumers to replace their LP back-catalogs with CDs. The emerging musicians who opted for artistic integrity in movements like hardcore and straightedge were only a small percentage of those who explicitly wanted to get rich with a major-label contract. And the disco-driven trend of perceiving music as choreographed fashion had its impacts in the punk and new wave worlds. As artists morphed from the Billy Idol and Cindy Lauper era to the Madonna/Duran Duran/OMD epoch of mid-decade Reaganism, music became successively more a paean to the material girl as the decade progressed.

It is a vast over-simplification to blame the commercialism of the 1980s on the rise of Reagan, and it is foolish to claim the decade was devoid of great music – this was the era of Replacements, REM, Smiths, and late-period Talking Heads, after all. But even the scrappy and uncompromising fanzine Maximum Rock & Roll complained that punk with integrity was being heard by fewer and fewer people. The end of the baby boom era meant that there were fewer young people around to launch new bands, and many were dissuaded from garage-band culture by a dance-centric pop music world in which the major labels controlled everything.

Even the purity-promoting rap movement felt the impact of commercialism, as groups and artists tried to define an outer edge in the years that old-school rap evolved to gangsta and hip-hop styles. Some degree of experimentation was preserved through the rise of sampling and turntable art, but by and large, whatever outrageous excess a rapper could concoct in the 1980s, the major labels would commercialize and feed back to mass audiences in larger-than-life formats.

Artists on the edge had to aim for new distribution methods and new concepts in music creation. Laurie Anderson went uptown with her United States symphony and subsequent pop-music efforts, aligning with art-patron networks and collaborating with stars like Peter Gabriel in order to get exposure for her edgier work. Improvisational trouble-makers like Sun City Girls and Rova focused on live performances, offering only a smattering of cassette tapes as physical representation of their work. At least two brave bands, The Residents and Negativland, insisted on offering artwork and old-fashioned LPs through the networks that had worked in the 1970s, and their work was unique enough to break through the ennui of the dominant culture of the mid-1980s. But most music fans put up with Berlin and Concrete Blonde and the newest Madonna audacity.

This is not to say that small sub-genres could not escape the stranglehold of large-label distribution networks. British and European labels associated with the mid-decade Paisley Underground offered independent releases; death-metal and speed-metal labels made first efforts to create autonomous fan networks; and early noise specialists like Current 93 and Nurse With Wound created the improv-music fan networks that set the state for Caroliner Rainbow, Merzbow, and others in the decade to come.

Because a few labels like SST, Homestead, and Lookout continued to produce vinyl records through the decade, they kept an alternative culture alive that was breaking into public awareness by the end of the 1980s. While some think the grunge movement exploded with the sudden arrival of Nirvana in 1991, the new independent distribution world never would have arrived without the groundwork established in the 1980s by bands like Mudhoney, Soundgarden, and Camper von Beethoven.

Building an Internet Music Culture from the Ground Up

It was no more than a lucky juxtaposition that Nirvana’s Nevermind CD arrived almost simultaneously with Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web in 1991. Because practical use of the web for music distribution did not arrive until the late 1990s, bands that took advantage of Nirvana breaking existing perceptual and bureaucratic dams had to rely on many traditional music methodologies through the first half of the 1990s. What was critical was not the popular-media attention to “grunge” that had everyone calling flannel shirts the new black, and Seattle the new Mecca, but the burst of independent creativity from relative unknowns that alleviated the stranglehold the major labels held on the music industry for most of the decade previous.

In part, the “boom echo” surge in sheer numbers of younger people coming of age in the 1990s helped insure a greater number of potential younger artists hoping for stardom. The expansion of CD manufacturing to Canada and Asia, meanwhile, made it easier for smaller labels to gain access to production, and profitably produce runs in the low thousands. The experience gained allowed the limited-release CD market to come of age in the 1990s, offering special runs of a few hundred to appeal to collector markets.

To be sure, many of the new indie bands of the 1990s were mildly interesting but showed little creative advances beyond what others had tried in the 1970s and 1980s. What was surprising, however, was the number of new bands that really were worth listening to, providing a first-, second-, and third-tier roster of exciting bands. Many such bands deliberately cultivated a sense of fun in their production and music distribution efforts. Pavement released singles and side-project EPs on a variety of small labels. Ohio lo-fi masters Guided by Voices released a string of singles and bootleg LPs at a rate taxing the attention and wallets of even the biggest GbV fans. Trumans Water released three improvisational jazz-noise albums in mid-decade that were “plausibly deniable,” seeded randomly around the country to demand that fans engage in a scavenger hunt to find the band’s works.

Many online experimental-music mail order sites were launched or expanded in the 1990s, including Fusetron Sounds, Eclipse Records, Forced Exposure, and (dearly departed) Vinyl Ink. Some began with mail catalogs and only tenuous use of web services, but as graphic web design became more standardized, the sites quickly caught up. Some analysts worried that the success of online sites might lead to the early demise of independent brick and mortar stores. While such stores were threatened later in the ‘90s decade by the demise of CDs in favor of digital files, their health in general stayed good, driven by the revival of interest in vinyl and the new public interest in experimental bands.

Once again, the delayed-reaction trend for outsider musicians was on display in the 20 years from 1990 to 2010. Difficult-music bands on labels such as Siltbreeze, including Harry Pussy and Charalambides, had very small audiences when their work first appeared in the mid-1990s. But by the latter half of the decade of the ‘00s, much of the earlier work had been reissued, due to a growing fan base of people who were willing to give challenging music a try.

When the behavior of the major labels at the turn of the millennium is examined, most analysts will offer the labels criticism for such self-defeating behavior as seeking litigation of users of file-sharing sites like Napster. In general, the major labels seemed confused about how to respond to new music sources, unwilling to depart from the business models that depended on big platinum-selling stars, and too anxious to use questionable means to shut down alternative distribution networks.

Still, there were times when the larger corporations seemed willing to offer partial helping hands to labels such as Matador and Merge. The companies would spring for combined concert tours featuring indy bands, and would help fund popular magazines of the era like Option and Shredding Paper. This hardly makes the major labels friends to independent music, but occasionally, often as if by mistake, the majors would inadvertently help these alternative distribution networks.

To some extent, the coalitions of musicians became standardized by the new millennium, with the scruffy collective efforts like the Elephant 6 Collective giving way to more sophisticated business models at labels like Merge. Nevertheless, the new surge of creativity that began in the early 1990s did not burn itself out by decade’s end, which distinguished this effort from the music expansion waves of the early 1960s and late 1970s. In part, this longevity could be attributed to the constantly regenerating capabilities of the Internet. Fan sites, listservs, web sites, even microsites at MySpace and Facebook helped to spread awareness of new bands to people that might not otherwise hear them (radio by the late 1990s had become a largely useless medium for disseminating band awareness, a factor many bands like GbV failed to realize).

The ubiquity of broadband connectivity by 2000 allowed new services like YouTube to emerge, making each fan of a band a potential creator of content. It is true that the demise of printed journalism advertising models doomed many print magazines like Option and Harp, but strictly online sources like Pitchfork took their place.

The maturation of the Internet led many improvisational musicians to begin their own web catalogs and blog/review efforts – Keith Fullerton Whitman with Miramoglu, Tom Carter of Charalambides with Wholly Other, Heather Leigh Murrray of Charalambides with Volcanic Tongue. In many ways, the expansion of these sites formed a virtuous circle in expanding the visibility of similar artists – Carter and Murray, for example, were critical in raising global awareness of the bands centered on musician Marcia Bassett, including GHQ, Double Leopards, and Hototogisu. Neil Campbell’s efforts to promote his own improv bands, Vibracathedral Orchestra and Astral Social Club, have significantly improved the visibility of emerging bands like Starving Weirdos, almost by default.

This trend has accelerated as social-network sites such as Facebook and Twitter have exploded in popularity. The problem as we enter the second decade of the new millennium is not an absence of great music, but the difficulty of separating wheat from chaff, as hundreds of interesting and genre-bending bands compete for user attention. With radio giving up most of its role as taste arbiter, new venues have opened to raise consumer awareness. Producers of popular TV shows, like Grey’s Anatomy and Gossip Girl, have attempted to make the soundtracks to their shows the AOR radio of the 21st century, giving many viewers first exposure to bands they never knew existed. Pandora, Last.fm, and other sites have helped broaden awareness of lesser-known bands in similar genres. Free podcasts from DJ’s and music fans on iTunes augment streaming and download efforts from NYCTaper, NPR’s All Songs Considered, and similar nonprofit attempts to make outlier music popular.

Some musicians have shown innovation in turning to the artist-patron model from the field of visual arts. They see each album or composition as its own work of art, complete with hand-made covers for CDs and LPs. Some artists like Christina Carter have used private web sites to solicit donations for projects for extremely-limited distribution. Matthew Friedberger of Fiery Furnaces has used the subscription model favored by Three-Lobed, Sub-Pop, and other labels, to distribute solo works. Others, including Terra Naomi and Eric Bachmann of Crooked Fingers, have used web-donation sites like Kickstarter.com to raise funds for very special projects. Fans can be enticed to donate ahead of time, by receiving special editions, song sheets, etc. as a consequence of being a special patron.

This hardly means we have reached an era of unprecedented creativity and democracy for underground music. Efforts that only generate buzz from the bottom-up, without a helping hand moving from the top down, cannot always succeed. But major labels are as confused as individual artists over the potential demise of all physical music formats, particularly as the CD recedes into the background as iTunes has grown. Because no one in a big or small music company wants to believe that either vinyl or CD are dead for good, the major labels have been willing to collaborate with independent labels on projects such as Record Store Day in April of each year, and the newer Black Record-Store Friday in November, to put limited-release vinyl in the hands of fans.

What is most likely to characterize the current decade, and perhaps many decades to come, is the model of many different distribution, concert-touring, and musical instantiation models existing simultaneously, and feeding into each other to some extent. Yes, Ticketmaster/LiveNation conspiracies will continue to dominate the ticketing market for large artists, but there will be plenty of opportunities for smaller independent artists to feed the type of venues where consumers can hear great music for $10 or $20. Big artists will send their music straight to iTunes, but a Taylor Swift or Jay-Z may see benefit in having special fan products distributed only through web sites. Meanwhile, the underground will thrive, a living example of the “Long Tail” marketing strategy that will guarantee some market for challenging music.

Perhaps the most intriguing and hopeful trend of the 2009-10 period has been the surprising number of artists who are willfully short-circuiting the iTunes distribution model by returning to the “concept album” of the 1970s, a style that resists being chopped into 99-cent tunes for downloads. Dozens of such albums were released in the last two years, by artists such as Laurie Anderson, Joanna Newsom, Xiu Xiu, Anais Mitchell, Titus Andronicus, and Shearwater. This is not just a retro movement to attempt to bring back prog-rock. This is a bottoms-up effort by artists to insist that their work will be heard, not just as a pop-shuffle mix for an iPod or iPhone, but as a unified work of art worthy of physical instantiation, careful listening, and funding through an artist-patron model.

The current period will only remain a golden era to the extent that musicians use it to produce exceptional and boundary-breaking music. There have been plenty of slumps and corporate crackdowns in the last century, and by chronological standards alone, a lean period is long overdue. But the re-invention and revitalization made possible by Internet tools of democratization means that the ability to create breakthrough music has never been greater, despite the chaotic and often desperate state that many segments of the music industry find themselves in.

Copyright Loring Wirbel December 2010


Ruth said...

Loring, this is an astonishingly broad and deep article! To see all these movements and artists within the historical context, and in relation to one another and the industry, the labels, etc., is absolutely fascinating. It's beautifully written and surprisingly easy to read for a piece with so much information packed in.

I remember as Lesley brandished her punk ways in high school, noticing how pop culture caught up with her 10 years later.

Did you hear the piece on the Lehrer Report about the new Anthology of Rap published by Yale? Here is a brief interview with Kurtis Blow about Rap as poetry. And here is a little about the anthology.

Just brilliant work, Loring. Only you could write this, I think, and I bet it's all in your head! Congratulations on this being in Kellogg College's curriculum!!

Loring Wirbel said...

Well thank you, and thanks for the link to the anthology, had not heard about it. I was listening to NPR's "Sound Opinions" from the Chicago DJ's last night, picking their choices for 2010, and thinking, "Wrong. Wrong. And wrong." I compile my list between Christmas and New Years. You can tell when you've become a true curmudgeon when you stop saying "Hmm, interesting choice" and start saying, "Well that's just silly. You're just wrong."

(I tell everyone that there's no competition for #1 this year, it's New Pornographers with a bullet. The Chicago Boys picked Janelle Monae, which calls all else into question. She's good mind you, but #1?)