Less Schlock, More Rock
It seems like not too long ago (and in fact, it wasn't: only two years) that Radiohead sent a buzz through the music world by announcing they were releasing their new album In Rainbows as an online "pay what you can" scheme. Now, such an occurrence won't even bat an eyelash for most of us.
The amount of musical material that hits the world-wide web everyday is staggering. In sheer numbers alone, the access that the internet has afforded both artist and fan dwarfs previous eras. Even for signed artists, the net has greatly increased their output. From hip-hop mix tapes to teaser singles to bonus tracks, official albums alone don't even scratch the surface of what a musician can put out there.
Keeping up with 300,000 albums a year (what the record industry would release during an average year a decade ago) was hard enough. Now, with the countless songs that hit the web every year leaving that number in the dust, whipping out the old adage "less is more" seems even more tempting. Before, the massive amount of sub-standard material put out by the big biz appeared to be enough to drown what little quality music that did exist in a cacophony of mediocrity. It was yet another symptom of a sick system that viewed human creativity as just another commodity.
Mat Callahan, in his enlightening 2005 book The Trouble With Music, described the end result of this dynamic:
"There is too much music and there is not enough. More must be continuously made and thrown away, because music has been made disposable... A small number of musical products generate enormous profit, while the vast majority cost more than they earn--all of them more or less quickly become residue, waste. Since there is no place [in the industry] for the 'timeless' moments music is capable of producing, there are only the limited, measured moments of shallow enjoyment that must continuously be replaced by new versions of the same shallow enjoyment-producing units."
We've all experienced it, whether we're aware of it or not. That last year's one-hit-wonder was recently dropped from their contract and discarded like yesterday's newspaper doesn't negate the fact that radio and television are perpetually filled with such artists. It's a the same cartoon logic that tanks the economy by producing "too many houses" while there thousands remain homeless.
So it may indeed be easy to look at the mass of sounds pouring from our computer now with the same suspicion--only multiplied now. Except for one crucial factor: control. By now, the notion of the internet wresting a great amount of power from the industry and placing it in the hands of fans and artists is hardly a revelation. Stories of artists gaining wide followings by going around the record labels are becoming commonplace. Lily Allen was rejected by every label she took her songs to; it was only after her MySpace page gained thousands of fans that the suits sat up and took notice.
One of this year's biggest success stories in the world of hip-hop has been Blitz the Ambassador. The Ghanaian Brooklyn-based emcee was also turned down by most record companies, prompting him to put his stuff out on the web. He went viral, and has now released what is easily one of the best albums of the year completely independently.
The fear that we've somehow gone from too much to way too much assumes something that we've all known to be patently untrue for quite some time: that the record industry puts quality before quantity.
This gets at one of the underlying causes of the present, years-long slump in album sales. While the RIAA love to harp that the peer-to-peer phenomenon it to blame. In a way, they're right--but only because their own output (what Callahan referred to as the "measured moments of shallow enjoyment") has become unsatisfactory, and an alternative has finally become available. Never before have so many people had such unprecedented access to so many varieties of music, and often for free too. And--importantly--never before have artists been able to reach such a wide audience regardless of the decisions made in corporate boardrooms.
That kind of power (the kind that literally can't be bought) can be felt the most in hip-hop. While mix tapes are about as old as the music itself, it's only been since they've gone web-based that they've become this widespread. Miles Raymer, music columnist for the Chicago Reader, wrote in a recent article that "[w]hat's changed in the past few years is that people who don't know the right places on Canal Street in New York or on the south and west sides of Chicago have access to them."
The changes this has prompted within hip-hop itself are also of note. Raymer continues: "Where rappers ten years ago tried to emulate Jay-Z's rapper-as-CEO formula, these days they're looking to Lil Wayne, who despite giving away a majority of his music [online] can move multiplatinum numbers of the records he does charge money for."
In other words, the sheer volume of material hitting the web has started to drag the industry behind it. And major labels and their lawyers love to prattle on about the internet "stealing" from artists, examples like these are proof that the same artists may stand to make more money without the executives' "help."
No doubt, there is plenty of crap released online--just the same as in any big record store. But the millions of songs released online don't fall into the "less is more" category for the very reason that it actually empowers people to find more real gems than the business is willing to produce. It's not a simple matter of quality vs. quantity. It's that the possibility of quality is actually heightened by the quantity because that quantity is in our own collective hands.
How many talented young artists have been ignored because their songs don't jive with the narrow and insulting concept of "marketability?" How many fans have had their love of discovering and enjoying music thwarted--either because there's so little out there or for simple lack of funds? Now the game has changed, and for once, we're the ones making the rules.
Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies, and is a columnist for SleptOn Magazine and the Society of Cinema and Arts. His articles have also appeared in Socialist Worker, ZNet, CounterPunch and PopMatters.com among others.
He can be reached at email@example.com.