ast fall, the lads of Oasis said a funny thing about the music business. Noel Gallagher to the New Musical Express: “All the fantasy's gone out of music, 'cos everything is too fucking real. Every album comes with a DVD with some cunt going, 'Yeah well, we tried the drums over there, but...' Give a shit, man! It makes people seem too human, whereas I was brought up on Marc Bolan and David Bowie, and it was like, 'Do they actually come from fucking Mars?'"
Gallagher has nailed the whole problem. In today’s tell-all, “behind the music” industry, he’d rather not know every thought that scraped its way through the drummer’s head, or hear every guitar solo they threw out, or listen to them talk for even a minute. He doesn’t want to think about the artists as people in any way. And this runs counter to everything the industry’s been trying, at both the major label level and the indies.
Artists, struggling with a collapsing CD market and a helpless record industry, are grasping for fans by opening up to them. They record commentaries and write blogs. They confess everything to VH1. They turn themselves into plastic toys, or let their fans play with their multitracks, or do anything they can think of to hold the crowd’s attention. Some people use this exposure to propagate an image, but others—who are less skilled at media manipulation and persona creation and, in fact, don’t know much more than how to write a song—just dump themselves on your lawn in their underwear.
Artists are getting smaller. New musicians claw at a dream that the record biz has less and less power to give them. Witness Rick Rubin, mumbling in his prayer beads and running a major label without ever going to the office; would you even trust this guy with your merch? Anyone who wants to make it big is fighting a losing battle. We all see the writing on the wall—so why don’t we take the next step?
Why don’t we finally kill the rock star?
Noel Gallagher was right to complain that musicians have no mystery. But he’s right because we—the fans, the writers, the people who buy CDs at Starbucks—aren’t looking for anything mysterious. The rock star pantheon hasn’t changed in years. The last artist to squeak in was Kurt Cobain, and then only because he blew his brains out. The myths don’t work because we haven’t updated them.
With all the mp3 blogs clogging the ��net, music fandom is still a top-down, hype-driven business. Sure, indie bands have had a renaissance, but only the biggest ones: Arcade Fire, Spoon, and the Shins are rewarded, but who else? In fact, nobody has lost more this decade than the indie rockers. The lower tier support structures have splintered as the kids who used to save their cash for college rock become ragingly omnivorous: your average hard-working indie band now competes with Justin Timberlake, Thai pop, and some Nonesuch Explorer disc that David Byrne namechecked on his blog. They also have to compete with 100 years’ worth of records that are better than anything they’ll ever make.
We have endless choices, and almost none of them see the spotlight. But the real problem is that artists chase the spotlight in the first place. And anything short of superstardom looks like a consolation prize.
Consider a different model: cooking.
Cooks aren’t rock stars. A few turn into international celebrities, but they’re the exception. Most chefs run a kitchen and feed people ten feet away. In big cities or backwater towns, nobody looks down on you if you’re feeding them well. And there’s plenty of room for amateurs. Have someone over for dinner, and you’re a civilized host; break out a guitar, and you’re an asshole.
Before the last century and the invention of vinyl, music was a social activity. Think of your great-great-grandparents huddled around the living room piano, crooning through another hymn. It’s hard to understand why amateurs today take so much heat for the same impulse—why the people who are supposedly clogging the Internet with GarageBand demos and YouTube clips of themselves playing the Beatles on ukelele have to justify themselves in any way. We assume they’re forcing themselves on us, or taking work from “real” musicians. But as with cooking, sports, sex, talking, driving, and everything else we do to survive, music works in more than one mode.
In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, every year we hold the RPM Challenge, where everyone who signs up has to write and record a new album in 28 days. It doesn’t have to be a perfect album, or your best album. You could learn a new instrument, or start a new band. You could tape some new demos, or try the far-out space opera song cycle you’ve always wanted to write, but you never thought was worth your time. The first year, it brought together 220 acts from the local scene; 75% finished. The next year, the RPM Challenge went international, tapping all seven continents. Many artists worked with people in other countries. Jose Duque worked long-distance with his cousin in Spain. Chinapainting was a duo between guys in Brooklyn and Oaxaca, Mexico, recording online via NinJam. They’d never met in person.
Usually, us music journos only pay attention to new trends if we think they’ll launch a star. But RPM’s a great idea even if it never spawns a “hit album.” In the same way, the Portsmouth community includes a few international talents, and several more who should be, but it never set out to be the next Seattle. Fame—and hey, excellence—are only part of the point: first and foremost, it’s a microcosm of the network that’s making music nowadays—in other words, a frantic, manic, total free-for-all.
Look past the copycats, and the new archetypes are out there. Maybe they sound like the Books, finding new ways to tamper with real instruments through digital manipulation. Maybe, like M.I.A., they run around the world looking for new sounds and partners, and cribbing from the west without paying it much respect. Maybe collectives of people will work online, like a music wiki or a broadband Gamelan orchestra, making new sounds through a new kind of authorship. Maybe the bands that take back the past will make albums like the Dirty Projectors’ Rise Above, playing covers from memory and ephemera instead of painting inside the lines like the Strokes.
The energy and the opportunity out there dwarf the punk years, maybe even the ��60s. It’s untrained and undercooked. People dump their work out too easily. But the possibilities are endless. Following new trends and microscenes naturally leads to new bright talents and new next big things. But it’ll also get us back to the real mystery—of how music works on us, and why we keep making it together.
My biggest regret as a writer is every time I wrote about an artist for any reason other than that they were a human being with a full life that was worth setting to paper. Every time I meet someone with a new perspective on music, it makes my life better; every time I talk to an artist who’s gritting his teeth because he hasn’t made it bigger, it kills me. This isn’t how most people use music now. Music is more important than fame.
By: Chris Dahlen
Published on: 2007-10-08