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….