One of the things I’ve been seeing recently are people saying that music has lost its mystique. I couldn’t agree more. There’s a great line in Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle that applies here I think; to paraphrase, the things that separate celebrities from the rest of us are power and vacations. That was true for musicians, once upon a time, but now that the rock star is dead, how can we still be awestruck by musicians and the music they create?
Part of it for me is access. I think that when the music business panicked after Napster they made several mistakes, one of which was going in the tank for any random blogger who reached out with the vaguest interest in an artist. When publicists complain that Hype Machine is littered with major label artists, they’re pointing the gun at the wrong guy. The real culprit was those selfsame labels who couldn’t discern between a Stereogum or a Fluxblog and someone who was just looking for some affirmation that he or she was indeed “in the industry.” I’ll grant that this started the career of many writers I enjoy today, but it also created the culture of entitlement among bloggers that publicists lament.
So I know music bloggers’ heads will explode to read this, but chances are, you’re not influencing the music industry in any meaningful way. Are you capable of letting your friends know about great new artists? Absolutely. Is word of mouth still the number one way for any cultural artifact to get noticed? Totally. But are either of those things changing the fortunes of the music business? The music business is in a race to the bottom and social media has done very little to slow the stampede.
Can anything be done to change the way we view artists and the way we treat music? I think so, but it all comes back to the sort of access bands and labels give to get the exposure they want. Part of the problem is that legacy print outlets like Spin and Rolling Stone still get the lion’s share, even as the print media business approaches its vanishing point. As I see it, the music business is shrinking very quickly in both sales and public perception. The whole experience of music is diminished when publicists cater to music blogs. The uniformity of coverage, often a streaming mp3 and its attendant press release, fade into the background. There has to be a better way.
Music needs to go where the eyeballs are now, and if you think that Google Search helps you reach a mass audience, you’re wrong. Flooding blogs isn’t helping your clients. Expectations need to be different. As Lucas Jensen wrote recently in the Idolator comments, “Clap Your Hand Say Yeah’s success really made it hard on a lot of indie publicists by filling our clients’ heads with all sorts of ideas. ‘So I can just self-release it and sell 20k copies, right?’ Uh…” I said at last year’s Independent’s Day panel at Drexel that if you want to make it in the music business, it helps to be Coldplay.
But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the new reality is one defined by lower expectations. Maybe that’s where the energy should go to change the way we think about what constitutes success in today’s music business. Since I started writing this blurb back in April, Google has changed the way we search for music by introducing links to streaming options, presumably to keep people honest when it comes to piracy. Realistically, if those links aren’t ignored outright because people want to find a MySpace profile, band website, or Wikipedia entry, they’ll bankrupt the companies responsible for making payment on the streaming rights.
This does nothing but tilt the signal-to-noise ratio in the wrong direction. People can hear music all day and not really understand what makes an artist special. Music needs a new religion if it’s going to be something future generations think of as more than just a soundtrack to their favorite new commercial. You know, like in Demolition Man.