MBV Music
October 19th, 2010 2:18pm

Living in the Age of Art vs Content


So, Converse is opening a recording studio in Williamsburg, and nobody seems entirely sure what to make of it. Is this a well-earned payday for struggling musicians? A shameless corporate buyout of the last remaining scraps of “indie integrity?” Steve Albini smacking down Sonic Youth’s major label connections throws into relief just how weird it is that your next favorite indie rock song might be sponsored by a soda or sneaker company. Even weirder is the fact that none of this feels jarring or incongruous; the fact that we are not particularly troubled is, itself, a little bit troubling. But, as Zach Baron points out in his excellent Voice article, the traditional notion of “selling out” no longer seems applicable here. The conflict we are grappling with is not between art and commerce — it is between art and content.

Steve Albini’s disdain towards major labels is not simply a matter of calcified indie purism: for many bands that survived the “alternative” gold rush of the 90s (and many who didn’t), the threat posed by major label interventionism was very real. This is an exemplary case of the conflict between art and commerce: a major label, interested only in turning a profit, swoops in and forces a band to compromise the very nature of their music. The A&R guy who signed you gets fired, some suit you’ve never met shows up at your recording session and insists that you need a “groove activator” to really make your songs “pop,” and before you know it you’ve made an album you barely recognize — an album that still falls tens of thousands of dollars short of recouping. You alienate your fans to appease your label, and your label summarily drops you. Game over.

Faceless label execs are not the only bad guys in this scenario; the decision to “sell out” ultimately has to be made by the musicians themselves. The risks associated with signing to a major are well-known — and even when those risks are deemed acceptable, nobody can force an artist to pursue a more “commercial” sound. Elliott Smith, Jawbox and Shudder to Think utilized major label recording budgets to craft their most uncompromising albums — but not before drawing the ire of their fans. When you love an artist and hold his work to be personally meaningful, even the unrealized threat of commercial intervention is outrageous.

In 2010, this outrage has all but disappeared. Yes, major labels no longer wield the power they once did. But, more tellingly, I don’t think we see music as something that is corruptible — we no longer relate to it as art. “Art” and “content” are both interpretive frameworks, and music is not “art” unless we choose to engage with it as such. “Art” and “content” are both interpretive frameworks, and music is not “art” unless we choose to engage with it as such.This is not always an easy choice, since experiencing music as art means making ourselves vulnerable to it. We grant art access to memories and emotions that might be upsetting, inconvenient or disruptive. When we consume music as content, however, we retain complete control. We can skip, delete, share, and comment if and when we please. We can be distracted, we can multitask. We look to art for escape from our everyday routines, but we turn to content because it fits so seamlessly into our everyday routines.

Commercial concerns are both implicit and invisible in the consumption of content. We all know that traffic is being monitored and ads are being sold — but this process is easy to ignore, and doesn’t seem manifest in the music itself. Besides, when music arrives as a mere blip in a constantly-updating stream of text, audio and video, we simply don’t have as much attention to invest in it. Whether a musician’s work should be classified as “art” or “entertainment” is entirely irrelevant, as both categories are now consumed in the same manner, through the same streams of content. The bar for great art is high, as is the bar for worthwhile entertainment — but successful content need only be “interesting” enough to warrant a Tweet, Like, Tumbl or Digg.The bar for great art is high, as is the bar for worthwhile entertainment — but successful content need only be “interesting” enough to warrant a Tweet, Like, Tumbl or Digg. “Good” content is easy to understand, transmit and discuss, and thus generates more content.

All of this is GREAT news for those who filter, aggregate, reproduce and recommend content. No wonder bloggers are so concerned with being credited for their “discoveries,” even when the act of discovery involves posting an MP3 that was sent by a publicist. If a blog can successfully get its name attached to a widely circulated MP3, it has not only proven its weight as a cultural curator, but it has also branded a piece of content that is guaranteed to generate more branded content as it circulates. The fact that a single numerical score can reduce a musician’s body of work to the phrase “Pitchfork band” speaks to an uncomfortable truth: branding and curating content is ultimately more impactful than creating new content.

I don’t think anybody is afraid that the Senior VP of Marketing at Mountain Dew is going to tell Neon Indian that his new Green Mountain single isn’t “DEWMocratic” enough to be played on the radio. Mountain Dew, frankly, doesn’t need to give a shit WHAT Neon Indian’s new Green Mountain single sounds like. It is the proximity of the signifiers “Neon Indian” and “Mountain Dew” — and the knowledge content labeled “Neon Indian” will circulate through influential channels — that makes this investment worthwhile.The music Neon Indian produces for Green Mountain will not be derided as art that has been debased by commerce — it will simply be consumed as branded content.

Similarly, Converse is brilliant to open up their own recording studio/branded content factory. Consider their options: buy expensive banner ad space on Pitchfork and Stereogum and hope for some paltry clickthroughs, or commission content from some of Pitchfork and Stereogum’s favorite artists, thus guaranteeing editorial coverage of Converse-branded music. It’s a way out of the banner ad ghetto, and a reliable way to create “viral” content. Music that has a good back story, music that is controversial, music that plays on a specific set of influences in an easy-to-understand way… [is the] most desirable to brand.And, hey, everybody wins — the artist gets paid, the brand gets an amazing return on their investment, and the blogs get a new song to post.

Still, anxiety about this model seems to be bubbling up — and understandably so. Yes, it’s great that we are no longer holding musicians to untenable and economically disastrous standards of artistic purity. But we’re also stacking the deck in favor of music that succeeds as content, not as art. Music that has a good back story, music that is controversial, music that plays on a specific set of influences in an easy-to-understand way — and, most important of all, brand new music — is most likely to spread widely and spawn more content, and thus most desirable to brand. And while newness is an asset for content, it can be a liability for art. Creative vision takes time to develop, and is often outpaced by the churn of new content.

I’m certainly not suggesting that we chuck our Chucks and empty our Google Readers, but it’s worth considering how systems of distribution and reception change our relationship with music. There’s a good argument to be made that we’re just as invested in music as we ever were, only our affection is more dispersed — that we discover, assimilate and discard a rapidly advancing torrent of songs with the same zealousness we once reserved for a small handful of our favorite artists. But, with a seemingly infinite quantity of music available on tap, we have little incentive to interrogate our own tastes. If the latest song by your favorite artist doesn’t sound like your kind of thing, another song is just a click away. Artists grow and challenge us, but content just gets old….

Subscribe to comments for this post42 Responses.
  1. JR says:

    Good article, Matt.

  2. Bob says:

    Eeewww… yickkk… Let’s open a recording studio opposite Dew’s called Khalav Kalash Recording:

  3. Bob says:

    (Well, I failed reading comprehension. Converse has the studio, not Mountain Dew…)

    (Talk about bad taste in my mouth)

    (Terrific article, nonetheless. *thumbs up*)

  4. 6h057 says:

    Jesus, this post is good. Although, it’s the exact opposite of Henry Rollins yelling at me to stop questioning the integrity of bands with music in commercials.

    Maybe now I won’t feel bad when Sleigh Bells tries to sell me a Honda because I didn’t buy their album.

  5. Ryan Catbird says:

    I keep thinking of a quote (I think) I read in that Nick Denton New Yorker piece– I think it was Jonah Peretti:

    “You’re not selling out; you’re *blowing up.* Think hip-hop, not indie-rock

    (emphasis mine)

  6. Kevin EG Perry says:

    Fascinating piece, Matt, you’ve elucidated the issues really well.

    I wrote an article for Drowned in Sound earlier this year that touched on a lot of the same points – I’d just spent some time at the ‘Red Bull Music Academy’ and was really intrigued by how low key their efforts at influencing the bands were. It seemed like a really good deal for the musicians, but as you say, the corporates are just happy if they’re getting their ‘branded content’ and I think they know that most people quickly switch off from heavy-handed advertising.


  7. Like says:

    I’d like to press like for this article. Good content

  8. Broon says:


  9. brooks says:

    I guess I don’t see why music can’t be content and art at the same time? And the sheer quantity of music seems to be more of a result of availability via the internet rather than sponsoring. It’s kind of like songs recorded for soundtracks. It’s a one-off kind of thing, the difference being that getting those soundtrack songs were harder to get in the past, I guess…

  10. Sparks says:

    You make some valid points about white boy indie rock, but you do not make any points about actual music that is art. Which does very much exist and people do hold with a holiness devoid of irony or hipness. Just because you are not listening to it/not aware of it does not mean it doesn’t exist.

    Also I really liked the part where you told me how I consumed or absorbed art and music.

    Annnd not a surprise to read you overstating the influence of the “Fox News of Indie Rock.”

    Unfortunately, independent music is becoming a joke, in part thanks to the “curating” and aggregating of sites like Pitchfork and in part thanks to the lazy, insipid youth of today.


  11. Matt LeMay says:

    @Kevin: Thanks for the link — I remember reading your article and enjoying it, but I look forward to reading it again.

    @brooks: You’re right, sponsorship and volume of content are different issues.

    @Sparks: Can we please retire the “white boy indie rock” straw man? His skinny, tattooed arms are getting tired. “Irony” and “hipness” aren’t the issues here at all. On the one hand, you’re defending the sanctity of music, but on the other hand you’re offhandedly dismissing “independent music” and “white boy indie rock.” You tell me that I’m overstating the influence of Pitchfork, then credit Pitchfork with ruining independent music. The music you choose to engage with as art may be entirely different from the music I choose to engage with as art — the distinction I was making is between two different modes of relating to music, not two essential categories of music. Obviously, I’m not telling you that *you* absorb art and music in any one way, just speaking to a trend I’ve noticed.

  12. mdg says:

    @sparks Your snowcloning of, “What Would Jesus Do,” into, “What Would Ian Mackaye Do,” is a contradictory sort of bumper sticker sloganeering. The circumstances that created Minor Threat, Fugazi, and Discord Records no longer exist. Holding the proverbial kids to the grindstone on twenty year old DIY ethics serves neither you, nor their aims. Remember DIY stands for Do It Yourself.

  13. Asthmatic Kitty Records says:

    Matt, excellent observations.

    We could never have articulated them as concretely as you have of course, but like Converse we too saw the dawn of a new day in music creation. That’s why we started the Library Catalog Music Series. We didn’t half-ass it (if you’ll excuse us) and just build a studio and invite bands in, we went all the way and cut out the middle-man. We contracted out established, recognized musicians to record music that will fit perfectly into the listener’s life situation, and we’ve released this music to the general public so as to fit into their own personal stream. As you state: content, not art, is the future.

    We felt that so-called stock music wasn’t just for corporations and television stations anymore. Each person is now his own brand, and justifiably needs a life soundtrack to personally identify and reinforce that brand. And there’s no need to clutter one’s life with subpar content/music.

    So, The Library Catalog Music Series. You can stream and purchase here:

    Thanks again for the great write-up Matt.

  14. 2goldfish says:

    All very interesting, thanks a lot. What i kept thinking though while reading was… what about “Art” as “content” ?

    We surely do consume most music as “content”, but maybe the values of “art” can also be consumed as such ?

    Isn’t being considered “arty” the exact kind of positive value a brand would love to be associated with ?

  15. mw says:

    Have to say I largely agree with Sparks. While the author may take issue with specifics of his points, they all act (and have for years — this otherwise thoughtful essay is quite a bit late) to degrade the entire experience described here. Music as it’s generally discussed has not been “art” for a really long time. It ain’t coming back; capitalism just doesn’t work that way. Well-intended as this piece seems, it’s just too mushy (and again, years overdue) to accomplish anything other than making readers feel a bit more okay about concerns they cannot articulate while they continue to buy, or, more salient, consume. You’re all wrong, but it’s okay, okay enough at least. Keep calm and carry on.

    Ian MacKaye, I reckon, would and will just continue to make music and talk to the people who come to his/their shows.

  16. Matt LeMay says:

    @2goldfish: Yes, there is also the whole question of “art flavored content”!

    @mw: Re: the “quite a bit late” thing: yes, I absolutely agree that this has been going on for a while and I’m certainly not the first person to discuss this — but I don’t think that means we should stop thinking about it or talking about it. When we fall back on “well, that’s just the way it is,” we stop interrogating *why* things are that way. As critics, I think this is especially important, as the manner in which we experience music has affected the criteria by which we judge music. This is *always* the case — music “criticism” is *never* objective. It’s just as complacent and lazy to say, “well, all this blog hype Pitchfork young person asshole hipster music sucks” as it is to say “the music that rises to the top of the Blogosphere MUST be the best music because I’ve read about it the most!” I’m not saying that this article is going to accomplish anything at all, but I’m generally in favor of us (those of us who write about music, in particular) thinking and talking about the systems and standards that we are engaging with.

    Side note re: Ian MacKaye: the fact that two excellent Evens records have been largely ignored could be cited in support of my argument!

  17. jz says:

    This distinction sells this article for me:

    “We grant art access to memories and emotions that might be upsetting, inconvenient or disruptive. When we consume music as content, however, we retain complete control. We can skip, delete, share, and comment if and when we please. We can be distracted, we can multitask. We look to art for escape from our everyday routines, but we turn to content because it fits so seamlessly into our everyday routines.”

    That’s as lucid a statement about modern music culture as I’ve read. Brilliant observation.

    These days, musical art is made and distributed entirely offline via cassette-tape labels and collector’s vinyl. It’s performed at house parties and basement shows, intentionally un-YouTube-able. It’s performative or handmade and/or purchased at a concert or other socially-oriented retail space. These things are anti-content.

    And it’s not a question of which is better. Art and content serve different functions. If you hope to be a well-informed enjoyer (consumer? blech) of culture, they must coexist in your life.

    Which brings up the question, in the same art vs. content context, of writing. A story like this doesn’t work in a magazine or newspaper; the links throughout point to other stories that expand and reinforce the writer’s central theme. So here we maybe have a gray area between art and content–a powerful and singular statement that also exploits the content orientation of the web.

  18. Sparks says:

    When I blamed Pitchfork for ruining independent music I was placing blame partially on the site, but also on the lazy kids who don’t bother to check out other outlets or don’t have a strong enough personal identity to check out the things that Pitchfork doesn’t tag Best New Music or the things they knock on.

    As for the whole “We grant art…” quote JZ c/p above, I completely disagree. We do not retain complete control of music any more than we retain control over any other art form. Yes, you can skip a track, and yes you can look away from a painting. But once you hear it or see it and it affects you– you do not have control over that. And of course, there is all of the music and noise that your ears take in unwillingly (during a commercial) that you have no control over. These affect you emotionally on some level. And when they are tied to some product it cheapens that emotion and likely gets over played to the point of wanting to jab something sharp in your ears.

    There is a difference between the artist that values the things they create, that considers them to be holy, and the artist that creates things and does not give a fuck if you use it to sell shoes or cars or whatever as long as they get some money out of it. The former still exists. I’m not going to listen to your band while you try to sell me crap and I’m not going to buy your crap because you co-opted some scene/trend/style/music that I might have liked at some point.

  19. Matt LeMay says:

    @jz: Thanks so much for this: “And it’s not a question of which is better. Art and content serve different functions. If you hope to be a well-informed enjoyer (consumer? blech) of culture, they must coexist in your life.” You’re right-on, this is probably something I should have made clearer in the article itself!

    @Sparks: I totally agree with you that people are given to taking the opinions of online “tastemakers” (including but by no means limited to Pitchfork) way too seriously — that’s the point I was trying to make re: “Pitchfork bands.” And re: control — that control may very well be illusory, absolutely… but at the very least, I do think that consuming and curating a stream of content creates a *sense* of control.

    In terms of the artists considering the things they make “holy,” it cuts both ways. Even “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” was enabled by a publishing contract with a huge company. (As was Elliott Smith’s pre-Dreamworks “Either/Or”). It seems like the bands who best navigate corporate/major label affiliation (Jawbox, for example) are the ones who understand that art and commerce are often at odds, and that they might have to explicitly fight to retain control of their music. When allocated properly, money can be a huge help in the creation of great art!

  20. andre b says:

    Great article. I agree that music has become one of many distractions that populate our daily feed. Maybe that’s why music isn’t the cultural force it once was. Like you said, if it doesn’t engage us on a deeper level, it is merely (another form of) content.

    Russian author Solzhenitsyn wrote that while an ordinary man was obliged “not to participate in lies,” artists had greater responsibilities. “It is within the power of writers and artists to do much more: to defeat the lie!”

    When I think about the quote above, the entire discussion about selling out/not selling out seems somewhat disingenuous. When we talk about a band compromising itself, are we only talking about that band making songs that are musically accessible, at the expense of their true vision for that song? I agree that if a band compromises its vision of its sound to make something more palatable for a larger audience, they sold out to a certain extent. What doesn’t seem be discussed is whether an endorsement deal -while harmless in terms of letting a group pursue their *sound*- will undermine an artist’s willingness to discuss controversial topics. Which brings us to the state of popular music, indie rock especially: Why is the American landscape so unrealistically placid in indie rock’s lyrics? Where are the songs taking on our misguided wars? Where are the songs taking on political corruption? Did ANY indie rock band write something healthily subversive about the BP oil spill? I suppose the songs that dare to be politically controversial are worthy of being placed in the “Art” category because, if they’re written well, listeners can identify with their cause. But I never see those kind of songs on Pitchfork, which seems to render this entire discussion moot.

    And for the record, I’m not arguing that all songs must be socio/political — I just think it’s strange that, given our economy, the vitriol that passes for political debate, all of those things, it’s strange that there is so little comment on these things in music. It seems fair to say that that’s one of the main reasons that music is merely content. Sad, really.

  21. Alec Bemis says:

    I’ll admit to making compromises that speak to the very issues you’re digging into Matt. But I’m happy to see someone digging into them.

    Nice job, good show Matt. Keep fighting the good write. (Only a Dew will do you.)

    Not sponsored,

  22. Sparks says:

    I really think “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” would have happened no matter what. I am unaware of the details of the publishing deal you are referencing– I don’t think that anything I’ve read about that album has mentioned that– but it’s my understanding that they were primarily recording at home for that album and that Mangum had been kinda drifting/virtually homeless for a few years before and after.

    I guess what I’ve been getting at is that despite how well written this article is, this is not the full reality and this does not have to be the fate of independent musicians. We do not have to accept this. People need to support the musicians they like and stop downloading shit for free.


  23. the irony says:

    of the above neil young youtube link is that it’s prefaced by a mandatory advert.

  24. Sparks says:

    @Matt – I’m sorry I realize I’m probably well past the point of annoying.

    @the irony– not for me. Maybe because I’m logged in? I’ve reloaded it several times. I see that there is a comment on the vid complaining about it, but none of the Neil videos I watch have commercials with them. Either way, it’s not the point. The point is the song itself.

    If you want to be a sellout, by all means be a sellout. But there are gonna be some people out there who will think less of you and people who would rather not listen to your crap because you are a tool and a gimmick. That is something that still exists. “This outrage..” has not disappeared. And being a sellout is not the default, it is not what everybody does, and it should not be the end goal of recording your music. That is not okay. We do not have to accept it, despite that it seems like this article wants us to.

    But really it’s not like there is this huge dilemma– if a band does this kinda crap, they probably suck anyway.

  25. Jeremy says:

    Overlooked in the “art” versus “content” discussion is the provocative statement you’ve made (and highlighted) regarding the “uncomfortable truth” that “branding and curating content is ultimately more impactful than creating new content.”

    That’s a sharp and important observation. I would go further to say that this attitude seems to apply to everything presented online, not just to that which you might want to label “content.” And I am discouraged by a cultural scene that values dissemination at the expense of actual creation. Small wonder this same cultural scene has not merely condoned but has positively encouraged the idea of sharing all music for free. If there is little perceived value in the actual creative product (call it content or art), if people register an impact only via its context and curation, then it’s understandable that people feel released from any sense that the music itself is something for which they might have to pay.

  26. Nick says:

    A very interesting article with some very salient points. The “music as content, not art” line of thought is a very nice encapsulation of something I’ve felt at the back of my head for quite a while now. I have seen plenty of kids on messageboards talking about listening to music via, and while sat at, a computer, which to me, both philosophically, physiologically, and psychologically does not seem to be a process of consuming art. Not consuming. Experiencing. That method of consumption can cheapen all music though, from Led Zep to Neon Indian. Maybe not Eno.

    I t

  27. Nick says:

    Sorry, tiny iPhone interface cut me off. I think that selling out is an ideological strawman though, and always has been. There is nothing wring with selling records. However, if we’re now in a place and time where people don’t buy records, artists need to make a living. I stopped working an undemanding low paid job that gave me time to be an unpaid music writer and took a more demanding, pretty well paid job producing content so that my wife and I can have a better life. I can’t begrudge anyone else the same instinct. But I can point at methods of consumption that cheapen music and say “these are not for me”.

  28. Ryan Catbird says:

  29. Don says:

    I feel like it’s important to note here that Nike owns Converse. Converse was failing most rapidly until Nike picked them up. Around the time this happened we were visiting the ad agency, VSA Partners in Chicago, who was doing the marketing for the new Converse. Without Nike I doubt Converse would have the money (or even still be around?) to open a recording studio.

    The content vs. art concept is brilliant. It perfectly describes our music situation. It seems to me, and is already happening a bit, that we’ll start to see polar extremes return to music. A return to traditional emo, punk, hardcore and maybe super artsy post-punk/indie. People want to connect on that ‘art’ level and as long as the music that keeps coming out is easily consumed as content then it’ll never happen.

    I think it’s why I’ve held on to hardcore so much. Though it’s a bit of a dying scene there’s still so much vulnerability and involvement. I can only hope and speculate that this sort of attitude returns to more of our music. I already see it with bands like Castevet, Tigers Jaw, Balance and Composure and Title Fight. Maybe I’m being absolutely naive but it’s something I hope for.

  30. Joe says:

    Great article. The game is the same, only the players have changed. Musicians have traded one bad business model for another here. Now the top purveyors of music are a computer company and an online book seller. What have we lost here? This what we need to ask ourselves. Music has been reduced to widgets and content, not quality and artistic integrity. We’re hoping to help swing the pendulum in the other direction at http://www.knickknackrecords.com. Technology has been a double edged sword for the music business.

  31. Sean Cannon says:

    I think that andre b made a good point (Don also hits on it) re: “engaging music as art vs. content” when he addressed the lack of indie rock music dealing with controversial subjects in a genuine manner.

    Granted, music doesn’t have to deal with political strife, classicism and the like to be engaged as art — but those kind of subjects are much tougher to swallow whole hog without some sort of reckoning. Sometimes music doesn’t affect you because you let it. Sometimes it hits you without warning, and you are powerless against it.

    And it does seem that the majority of indie rock today lacks that bite, lyrically or musically. Indeed, much of it seems to play on sentimentality — if on anything at all — which is much easier to re-purpose as a commodity to be consumed. A great example is the new Arcade Fire record. Whatever “issues” it tackled, its main lyrical conceit was sentimentalism.

    So I guess my point is that the dichotomy between consuming music and engaging it involves a delicate dance between the musician and the listener, with the musician inherently taking the lead — unless he/she chooses to abdicate that position, which seems to be happening more and more.

    I also understand that many musicians have no desire to do this, and that’s fine, too. But we must still keep in mind that musicians who seek to engage the listener on an artistic level create the kind of music that is harder to ignore on that level. Music is also a thing that had been commodified centuries before record labels existed, but the music itself transcended that. It wasn’t the system (just as it isn’t today) that truly dictated how music was received (although it did/does dictate how and where it was heard). It was, and remains, the artist who decides.

  32. Matt LeMay says:

    @Sparks: You’re obviously free to think whatever you want about “selling out,” but I do think that, as per Zach’s article, “selling out” in the conventional sense isn’t really the issue anymore. No need to apologize, thanks for your comments!

    @Jeremy: that’s true too — ironically, you could say that commerce is more on the side of “art” than it is on the side of “content,” at least insofar as paying for something indicates a (literal) investment in it beyond how we usually engage with limitless, free content.

    @Nick: One of Eno’s many brilliant ideas has been writing music with a particular mode of engagement in mind. “Music For Airports,” etc.

    @Sean: Interesting point about “sentimentalism.” I love me some sentiment, but then you run into the question of whether “sentimentalism” is being used as a mode of address from which to express specific ideas and emotions, or whether it just signifies “HEY THERE IS SOME SENTIMENT HERE OR SOMETHING.”

    This is great, keep ‘em coming!

  33. andre b says:


    I agree sentimentality is enjoyable when it is put forward as a genuine emotion. But what if it’s the result of an indie-rock artist who is incapable of seeing (and commenting on) the world beyond his own insular scene and his own relationships? Isn’t that a little self-indulgent?

    It seems to me that, contrary to Zach’s article, selling-out remains a serious issue as long as there is an unhealthy absence of artists taking on controversial issues. Again, I’m not suggesting every indie-rock artist should offer doom’n'gloom political lyrics. But isn’t it a little strange that during a time of deep economic uncertainty where many people are suffering, that there is so little being said about this? It seems to me that if selling out is no longer an issue, the following corollary needs to be taking place: Artists have no incentive to compromise the way want to express themselves, lyrically or otherwise.

    If selling out truly isn’t an issue, wouldn’t we see more bands with controversial, topical subjects getting reviewed on Pitchfork and enjoying free studio time courtesy of Converse? Matt, do you think there is truth in the words in that Russian author I quoted above? Looking forward to your thoughts.

  34. Matt LeMay says:

    @Andre thanks for the follow-up! I tend to be pretty subject-neutral when it comes to lyrics; ie, I’m as inclined to like smart, insightful and well-executed lyrics about relationships as I am to like smart, insightful and well-executed lyrics about politics. Ostensibly “political” lyrics can be more contrived and self-serving than “apolitical” lyrics.

    For music to succeed as a politically or socially galvanizing force, I think there needs to be an audience that is interested in receiving it that way. Can “content” ever really be subversive? Or would it just be consumed as “subversive”-flavored content? The aesthetic signifiers of the 60s counterculture were immediately coopted by advertisers, and there’s debate over whether “countercultural” music really affects social change at all…. I tend to be more of the opinion that art reflects the political culture of a given moment (or, at least, the political culture of the particular socioeconomic cross-section[s] involved in creating that art).

    I also think that the best “topical” art uses timely material as a jumping off point for something that will outlast that particular cultural moment… which is one of many reasons why I’m more likely to reach for a Bob Dylan record than, say, a Country Joe & The Fish record.

    The relationship between art and politics is not a static thing…. to me, “uncompromising” art is more a question of aesthetics than it is a question of message / subject matter. Not every artist *wants* to be subversive — subtle and pleasurable art can absolutely be uncompromising and fully-realized.

  35. Dr Huge says:

    What Brooks said. Interesting article.

    I’ve always view musical “art” as a niche of musical content. Some musicians go out of their way to make music that is challenging, controversial, thought-provoking … whatever … and some just give the punters what they want so they can all party in an entirely shallow way. The music is forgotten with the hangover but the events are remembered. I have no problem with that.

    Some of that musical art (think Bowie/Floyd/Roxy Music) resonates with a wider audience and some resonates only with the creator’s mum. MANY musicians try to give the punters what they want and create crap that resonates only with their mum.

    There’s nothing new about that. It’s just become more obvious.

  36. Chris Ott says:

    Between you and Richardson my ears are really burning this week, Matt.

  37. andre b says:

    @ Matt

    Good point: a group can be genuinely non-political and create non-compromising, sincere music. That said, I think that there IS an audience for music that works as a politically or socially galvanizing force. Art is arguably at its most powerful when it makes us confront an uncomfortable, unspoken truth; it’s distressing to think there’s no audience for this. I don’t believe Generation Pitchfork is (completely) neutered. (btw: I still wonder whether you think it’s healthy that political lyrics seem wholly absent from the music that gets covered on Pitchfork.)

    So, maybe I agree w Zach after all: if artists are so docile and disinterested in taking a stand on matters of importance, then ‘selling out’ is an archaic concept. But not for any of the reasons stated in this blogosphere-pontification, rather, artists simply don’t stand for anything, so there’s really nothing to sell away. Which is why Nike Inc. is such an eager patron of indie-rock. And perhaps the online, wired, educated audiences of Pitchfork bands are the indirect beneficiaries of the policies that are placing large segments of America on the sidelines. There’s a scary thought: all those checkered-shirt bearded types, quietly championing the status quo. I’m sure it would be quite otherwise if Obama instituted the draft, aren’t you?

  38. michelle says:

    Really? You guys don’t think ‘No Hope Kids’ is a political statement? A bunch of gen x-ers should remember that apathy and slackerdom is as much of a statement as protest is.

    You should all read this:

    “missing the idea that chillwave and its siblings are the product of a collapsing economy and the instinct to escape it, and the effect the economy is having on the first generation of kids to have it worse than their parents, kids who graduate prestigious schools and wind up working at the supermarket, kids who have no hope of making a decent living as a musician for very long if at all, is like thinking that citizen kane is a movie about a sled and animal farm is a book about some talking animals.”

    also, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of equating the idea of hipsterism with indie rock music, when being a hipster has become much more about being a musical dilettante, and so there is a place for politics in the subculture, it just tends to come through in acts like MIA or Das Racist or Wolves in the Throne Room

    by the way, indie was rarely political in the first place. are you trying to argue that beat happening or guided by voices or pavement made deeply political music?

  39. Ryan says:

    @Sparks Can i ask you and all who won’t listen to music on commercials a question?

    Is it selling out if the creation process was not tailored for, or concerned with, the financial benefits of licensing or album sales? It seems to me that a lot of great music, music that in every way can and should be considered good art has appeared in commercials (Yo La Tengo comes to mind) well after, and separate from, the creation of the song.

    Don’t you have to make a distinction between writing for profit and profiting from great art? Or do you not care because knowing the distinction would take too much work/research/interrogation?

    If some licensing company discovers my album, an album i made with my own money and time – and hypothetically my purest creative intentions – why should i turn down the chance to quit my crappy day job when Volkswagon could just send me a check every month or so.

    You seem to stress that people need to again start paying for the music they find artful. Isn’t the licensing company/volkswaggon paying for my artful music in this scenario?

    Or, are you simply saying that when I decide to associate my music with something other than my music, I am compromising/selling out. In this case, am i selling out for wearing a brand name shoe on stage or my favorite sports team tee shirt in front of my audience of 1000 people?

  40. Jay Young says:

    I think the difference between art and content is that art lies in your own story.

    For example, I grew up in a small Nebraska town. Two bars, 10 churches, no music store. In order to get new music, I had to travel several miles away. I found out about new music by watching MTV (remember when that was possible!), and scrimped and saved my money for CD’s and gas. Often, the car broke down; always I dressed from goodwill and garage sales because I spent all my cash on CD’s and books. I could tell dozens of specific stories about the middle class-small town perils and tribulations I undertook just to own Sonic Youth and the like.

    My point is that the art of the albums of my youth lay more in the quest. Now if I want an album I haven’t heard in years, I can type it in and have it in a few minutes. And you know what, they don’t move me as much now. Think what you will of music piracy or online shopping, it certainly doesn’t have much glamour.

    Or to use an example of “actual” art: if I wanted to see the Mona Lisa, I could google it. But it would have more signifigance if I traveled to Paris.

    The art is in the story, how it moves you, what it makes you feel. As far as “selling out”, I still live in central Nebraska and if it weren’t for commercials and websites like Pitchfork I would never hear anything that isn’t sold at the local Wal mart. How art comes to you is immaterial,it’s all what you do with it.

  41. Thomas from New Canaan says:

    Question for you, Matt:

    Whence “content”? Is that a word you hit on by yourself or did it come from somebody else? I only ask because it’s a fairly loaded term in the publishing world; I’m not aware of its application elsewhere (i.e. the music biz).

  42. william says:

    Jay Young is talking about simulacra and DOESN’T EVEN KNOW IT

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