Music’s Mystique Mistake

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.

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