If you haven’t been following Steven Hyden’s seven-part series over at Grantland about the “Winners’ History of Rock and Roll”, you’re missing out. He’s one of the most insightful music writers going, and an unabashed rockist. In the final installment Hyden takes on the Black Keys, contrasting their populist garage rock with more self-consciously obscure fare:
I also like lots of bands that never had a chance to find a big audience — the ones that were too strange or too ugly or too far ahead of their time to connect with most people. We need the fringe-y stuff, or rock music will get stale and boring.
But the problem right now is that we have a surplus of rock records like Shields and a deficit of records like El Camino. And I mean that in an ecological sense — even if you hate El Camino or mainstream rock in general, the dearth of this sort of music has made the entire system worse for all involved. In order for a band like Grizzly Bear to have any hope of getting on the radio, there needs to be a band like the Black Keys to convince the powers that be that listeners actually still care about rock bands. If a major label — particularly a label that can get you on the radio — is going to take a chance on a Grizzly Bear, there needs to be a Black Keys to make that investment seem feasible.
What rock music needs right now is more gateway bands. … Indie bands haven’t done enough to compete. The status quo in indie rock these days is to make records aimed directly at upper-middle-class college graduates living in big cities. Only a small handful of indie bands attempt to reach listeners who aren’t already on the team; even the really good records reside firmly in a familiar wheelhouse of tastefully arty and historically proven “college rock” aesthetics and attitudes that mean nothing to the outside world.
In all our conversations about copyright here I’ve avoided talking about piracy as such, because there’s much that can be done to make today’s copyright regime fairer and more consonant with the habits of modern consumers apart from that. But it’s also one of the big missing links in Hyden’s piece, so it bears discussing in relation to some of the points he raises.
A new book called Freeloading, by Chris Ruen, focuses on the fallout of the free content economy for artists who might loosely be grouped in Hyden’s not-Black Keys category–more avant-garde, less well-known, and less prosperous. It’s an agonizing, difficult book for anyone who both loves music and has illegally downloaded it. Its impetus came from working in the Greenpoint Coffeehouse in Brooklyn and meeting musicians that he’d heard of, high-profile enough that one assumed they were doing alright financially, and finding out they were next to destitute.
Thus far proposed legislative remedies for piracy would have done more harm than good, and Julian Sanchez has some strong evidence that the content industry is doing OK. The world doesn’t owe musicians a living, and none of this is necessarily a problem for policymakers and politicians to solve. But it is a problem for music fans. That’s why Ruen approaches the problem more from an ecological standpoint than a moral one: as a music lover what sort of industry would you like to see? To some libertarians the very question bears the illusion of rational control, but that isn’t really the point. The question should lead to another; namely what have you done to either help it get there, or to hold it back?
That’s an idealistic perspective, no doubt, and it grates against the way most people treat music in their daily lives–a Pandora station to flick on like a faucet, or a playlist to make you forget you’re on a treadmill. But people deserve more credit than that. As an old music theory teacher of mine often quipped, the ear likes to be surprised, though it doesn’t like to be fooled. It’s science.
Which brings us back to Hyden’s piece on the Black Keys. The notion of a “gateway band” should be familiar to anyone who listened to Nirvana before they heard Sonic Youth or Dinosaur Jr. Too much could be made of the distinction, but it sure seems like the balance has shifted between “gateway” musicians and experimental ones in recent years, towards a surplus of the latter. One could take the cynical view that this means fewer people are interested in being challenged or discomfited by the things they listen to. Hyden makes the positive claim that there’s an ideal balance between them and less approachable music, and that more of the latter need to be like the former in order to preserve a certain narrative about how listeners’ tastes evolve.
Though many people’s listening habits do change in that way, it’s overly simplistic. For one thing, even at the very top the major label model is breaking down, so the notion that in the interest of the long-term health of the music industry they have to be convinced to take on more out-of-the-box musicians is dubious. There’s a great Frank Zappa quote, mentioned in Ruen’s book, about how the old white besuited record label executives were actually far more supportive of new ideas than the open-minded overlords of today’s music industry, simply because they were willing to try anything and then stick with whatever was profitable, as opposed to actively shaping trends and only releasing what’s been adequately focus-grouped. As their situation gets more perilous, they’re likely to be even more risk-averse.
Moreover, you can’t really discuss the divide he’s talking about without also mentioning the role of criticism and piracy in driving it, though it’s somewhat outside the scope of Hyden’s piece. Beyond the sclerotic mainstream rock press there exists an entire economy of blogs and webzines which derive their cachet from unearthing new things. To some degree, their readers do too. At the top of that pile there’s Pitchfork, whose best new album designation is enough to ensure a modicum of success. It’s an incredibly capricious system, biased in some ways and with little apparent logic, but the incentives for the more “fringe-y” musicians run in the opposite direction Hyden seems to want them to go.
This ethic of constantly digging, sifting, and evaluating is also the ethic of a file-sharer, though the hoarding tendency sets them apart. Piracy exacerbates the divide between fringe and mainstream because it encourages the mainstream to be more risk-averse, and puts a premium on obscurantism for its own sake–it “starves creativity,” as the subtitle of Ruen’s book puts it. A record collection is as different from a hard-drive full of torrented music as a stamp collection is from the overrun pantries in Extreme Couponing.