Tuesday, February 10, 2009

What if...you don't really, really like it?

This week on “Are You Really Experienced?” we talk about what was right and wrong (and what Michael Sean Wright thought was wrong) with the Grammys, the ongoing Ticketmaster/Live Nation effort for a virtual ticketing monopoly, a mini-RIAA invasion of the DoJ, what the average person knows/cares about the PROs, and hey, we actually talk about some music! Listen as MSW, Dr. Tony Shore, Joe Kirk and I blather on for an hour about the music ‘n’ tech issues o’ the day…

Let me try to crystallize some thoughts that have been racing around in my head for a long time.

If T Bone Burnett decided he wanted to lead a coup d'état on the nation of Music, sign me up as a foot soldier. I trust his leadership on matters musical implicitly.

However, his comments backstage at the Grammys seem to echo a growing notion of abandonment of music as a method of mass communication, one that I don’t think bodes well for our society as a whole.

“What I think is that there is a limited number of people who like music. But those people really, really like music,” Burnett said. “The record industry got into the business of trying to sell music to everybody. If you make music for people who really care about music, you can do well.”

But if music – the “universal language” – starts to become a mode of communication solely intended for those who “really, really like” it, don’t we all lose in the long run?

The pure idea of mass media products – books, music, film, good writing, solid and credible information – becoming democratized so that those higher ideas are available for all who want them has been watered down over time, and that process of erosion has certainly sped up with the advent of easily available technology.

So much so that pretty much the only thing we’re left with is the lowest common denominator. We, the root level consumer, get the dregs because they’re easy and cheap to produce, and we’re told to like it.

And when you combine that with the flip side of a great and growing number of “consumers” who think, illogically, that all this content should be “free” because they’re unaware (or unwilling to become aware) of the economic structures involve with producing said content, it reinforces the content producers idea that the only thing they should produce is the product they absolutely know will sell. Not “think” will sell…know.

So what happens to the mass of potential music fans – those people who might “really, really like” great music if given the opportunity of exposure to it – don’t get that opportunity if the people who make the music don’t reach out past those who already love it, the people who distribute the music don’t bring it to the much-vaunted “marketplace of ideas,” and audience members don’t think they should have to part with anything other than some hard drive space?

Simple: they don’t become music fans.

Do I think everybody who even ever-so-slightly loves music should listen to and learn to love "Raising Sand"? Absolutely. Do I wish everybody I know who has even a passing interest in music would rush out and buy Burnett's classic "The True False Identity"? Absolutely.

But do I think Burnett and his oh-so-talented co-horts should only make music for those who "really, really like" it? Absolutely not.


1050 lb. said...

Spot on, sir. As much as I like T Bone--the first thing I bought of his was his 1982 EP Trap Door--I think he's being more than a little bit self-serving. Raising Sand is a great album, but do not think for a minute that the principals involved--the record company, Burnett, Krauss and Plant--did not consider the commercial aspect of this album. Plant's solo career has been stalled for roughly 10 years, Krauss had come to a dead end of sorts with Union Station, and Burnett, skillful as he is as a producer, certainly saw the no-risk commercial upside to the project.

Mary Brace said...

I think T-Bone's spot on.

Let's say you have a band called, I dunno ... My Morning Jacket, and they make this little album called "Z." Further, let's say "Z" contains two-three songs that have people who really, really like music singing, shouting, or playing air guitar along with their car stereo, but radio programmers fear losing the listeners who constitute "everybody" (even though they're already niched themselves to near oblivion and it wouldn't matter anyway), so they don't bother going beyond a mild crowd pleaser like "Gideon," that's not going to polarize anyone.

The labels could take chances up the ying-yang, but if players in the supporting industries won't, or put the wrong decision-makers in place, it won't matter.

Meanwhile, you take something like Raising Sand, and Rounder and radio are still working it 18 months later to make sure "everybody" gets to hear the best songs, while people who really, really, really like music had their love affair with "Fortune Teller" over a year ago and are over it already.

Lucas Hendrickson said...

You make a good point there, MB...it's like you have some experience with those sort of issues...hmmm.

I agree, there needs to be some risk taking all around...more than just financial, especially.

But if everything in the traditional mass media forms just continues to get simultaneously piled on top of each other *and* sliced and diced in pursuit of smaller and smaller pieces of the overall pie, we're going to have music (and/or movies and/or TV and/or news) that appeals to an audience of exactly one. And that doesn't serve anybody well.

Mary Brace said...

Oh, I'm with you on the slicing and dicing, but that's not what I'm suggesting. There's a difference between people who really, really, like music and people who really, really like a specific genre that fits their lifestyle/subcultural identity. It's the latter group that gets catered to in all the niche formats. I blame the worst of it on the Disco Demolition Derby / Disco Sucks movement of the late 1970s.

Lucas Hendrickson said...

I agree with you on that as well.

What I'm getting at is my worry that the really, really good musicmakers are going to stop (or at least slow down dramatically) making music for the casual fan (ie. the people who might eventually really, really like music, but don't now because they're not exposed to enough good music.)

The outlets through which casual music fans learn to become active, engaged music fans have either become so niche or disappeared altogether, not giving people a change to build up their musical vocabularies and learn to seek out the good music on their own.

You're assumed to either be a musicologist or completely uninformed and uninterested.

There's a great, unwashed mass of potential music audience in there that needs/wants things like a vibrant, music-based MTV or good, varied Top 40 radio.

From there, those fans can learn about the niche areas that might interest them. Without those things, they just roll around and don't really become music fans at all.