Sunday, January 16, 2011

The future of music?

Ann Powers has a new piece about music's "whole new way of doing business" but it's one of those think pieces newspapers generate that extrapolate wildly from a small sample. After all whether the writer is fer it or agin it they have to make it big to attract readers (the arts section version of if-it-bleeds). Doesn't necessarily mean it's wrong - for all I know fluid remixes and unstable musical configurations are where we're heading. But as usual with these pieces Powers is overestimating both the changes and the potential audience for what's happening. After all up until recordings achieved dominance over radio and sheet music (and to some extent live performance) after WW2 music was always in a state of "remix" and process. Classical is constantly an arena of interpretation, folk music a mirror maze of variations and pop itself dealt in multiple versions for decades. (That's one reason the older pop covers of rock, such as Pat Boone's Little Richard, are usually misinterpreted - they were dealing with rock as with any other trend only to have the ground rules changed so much that future listeners incorrectly thought this was bandwagon-jumping.) Some of the changes listed in the piece seem a bit odd. After all whether music was made on an iPad or a laptop or a desktop makes pretty much no difference unlike her example of an electric solid-body guitar which doesn't sound the same. But there are numerous other instances - artist-run labels from the 1950s onward (Mingus is the earliest I've been able to find), fan-only releases (even the Beatles did this), Throbbing Gristle releasing recordings of every live show they did, countless limited-editions, white-label and anonymous techno/electronica, punk one-offs, disco 12-inches, and so forth. I even got Chumbawamba's early albums years ago by sending a blank cassette and a stamped, self-addressed envelope to a guy in NYC who'd duplicate and send it back - a completely authorized alternative distribution system (which is why I was sure I'd misunderstood the name when a radio announcer on a commercial station played what turned out to be their only hit).

Still, the piece is right that it's great to see experiments but as Milton Babbitt might have remarked who's listening? I'm not aware of anybody I know tracking any of this stuff down not even the Gaiman fans or the college students where I work. (And Powers' labelling Gaiman "process art"? He's not Alvin Lucier.) That's where I think the grand claims in the piece fall apart but we'll have to wait another decade or so to know for sure. Really, most people are going to hear something on the radio or that a friend sent then go to iTunes to get it. Most of these experiments aren't even intended for the mass audience (well possibly Radiohead's pay-as-you-please album might have been) but are for the fans, obsessives and, well, critics.

The bigger question that the piece wisely only hints at is how all this distribution flux will actually affect the music. I can imagine somebody downloading that new MIA mixtape because they've heard good things about her (and maybe an earlier song or two) and then deciding she's way overrated (because the release is clearly a throwaway). And those early Kanye mixes didn't seem to have any effect on the final release which I can't imagine would have been any different whether they were put out or not. But who knows maybe this will create the listeners for rougher or less "finished" pieces or a taste for more inventive music. But I doubt it.