December 11, 2004

Criticism and Legitimacy - Net vs. The Real

Reading some of the discussions at other blogs on this issue, I came upon a comment about a fellow electronic musician who had just gotten signed onto an IDM label. He'd been forced to announce that all his tracks were coming down and that he'd no longer be giving them away for free.

So, what did he accomplish? Why was he willing to risk losing his entire net audience? People now would have to buy his album to hear his music. Would they follow him into being an artist they would pay to hear? That was the risk. And it is a huge risk because labels that don't cater to popular tastes typically do CD pressings of less than a thousand copies. So, there's a hope this musician will sell that many CD's. An unknown electronic musician would stand a better chance of getting into the record stores and getting heard by giving away his CD's; sneaking fake-barcoded home-made CDR's into Tower herself! And in a year from now, without his net audience, he'll be a nobody, with perhaps a few hundred bucks in his pocket but many less ears jamming to his work.

Two worlds are colliding. The net music world, with its assumptions of popular validity and sharing, typically beyond fair use standards, and the old music world, with its hierarchies, promotional methodologies and assumptions about fat paybacks. I believe, of course, as an early net music adopter, that the net music world is destined to win; one can't fight free music; the net will encompass everything at some point and become the global library.

So we're fighting for what now? Sales as a symbol of legitimacy? Print reviews or awards as a symbol of quality? That is bordering on pointless now. A write up now, a feature in say, Computer Music Journal or even Rolling Stone haha would produce in my life nothing. I've heard that even Putlitzer prizes now no longer guarantee a string of commissions.

Without the metric of the sale, legitimacy has become the playground of the elites. In the contemporary classical world, its increasingly reverting back to the playground of the idle rich. I don't believe its unconnected to point out that the first composer of my generation to win the incredibly prestigious Grawemeyer prize (first awards went to Ligeti, Lutoslawski and Takemitsu) is coincidentally a multi-millionaire, George Tsontakis. I'm not sure how it helped; he's a good composer IMO, but I am absolutely certain that without his fortune he'd likely be in the same boat as the rest of us poor mugs. Nowhere. The rich have to hide their connectedness or their privilege would be exposed. And the rich, still control, to an astonishing degree the playing field that we play on, when we engage the real world. Another reason the real music world, within the arts, is crumbling. We want a world without favorites. We want a world that rewards attentiveness not mere connectedness. We want a world where what I say to my bud matters, that artist X does in fact rock even though he's a poor shmuck working at Kinko's during the day.

For most musicians, frankly, who are not pandering to the popular tastes, any review, is to the point of being practically futile. I won't get a record deal, I won't get a fat commission from the NYPO, even if Alex Ross calls me the next Beethoven. That is how impotent the print media has become and its partially a consequence of the blogosphere and partly a consequence of the increasingly non-hierarchical way that fame is being distributed.

Again, what are we fighting for? I think we're fighting for listens, and if the audience is receptive, we're fighting for a type of placement in a loosely defined database of musical references. We're fighting to get listed in web wikis, and in directories of personal faves. We're fighting for more listens to the point where a rave review by a big name critic - even a cover feature in a magazine - become a mere anecdote in the well-linked conglomeration of pointers to one's favorite musics.

Another example. Yesterday I received a fund raising mailing from Elliott Carter. The man himself, my very very old ex-teacher and not coincidentally a multi-millionaire himself, begging at my door for the American Music Center. Curious as to what they were up to lately, I read the usual hype and noticed one intriguing new program. They're going to be putting up some type of online radio show. Maybe something like Kyle Gann is doing. Of course, the station will represent, not the desparate futile masses who are the AMC membership, but instead, the selected favorites of both non-members and members alike. How do I know this? Because I know the AMC. (They can prove me wrong, but I'm certain it won't be a random selecting of member MP3's). So if I join, I have a shot at getting featured in their radio show. What would happen, in the best possible situation if I were featured on every radio show they put on?

Nothing. I'm not being bitter or cynical, I am beginning to recognize the futility of combatting the hiearchies of the real musical world AS THEY CRUMBLE. The real music world, won't commission a piece from a nobody. They need the map of the resume, to prove that the artist is in fact on the road to Rome. Without this certified map of on the wayness that artist is a nobody. This dependency on mapped legitimacy, with the implicit recognition all players in this world have - that it is in fact bullshit; a pointless listing of favoritisms, connections through friends, and lucky happenstances - is one reason these hierarchies are crumbling. If there are 20,000 American composers all with vaguely interesting resumes how can we make our decision as to who to promote - or even who to listen to? Organizational recognition is pointless and only feeds the aspirations of the most mediocre careerist today.

So what does web recognition look like? I've noticed over the years, web pages that list my name, right underneath Beethoven and before Haydn. Are these listings incompetent? Are they a rave review of my genius? Neither - I believe. They are indicators of 'check this shit out' by amateurs; they point but do not praise. They nestle together in the Googlesphere like the crowds at a red carpet reception. Given enough of these pointers anything is possible. The real world cracks. The critics gasp at their pointlessness. And billions of friendly ears begin to listen.

Why risk that for a few sales? The real world exists today to be the audience. Not to be the critic. We are bees in a hive singing and listening to each other without concern for symbolic hierarchy. The real critic today is the multitudinous fluidity of the net.

Posted by jeff at December 11, 2004 01:33 PM

ian mckaye of washington, dc scene fame said in an interview that he just wanted his music heard; he doesn't really care how it is acquired, what medium or means, just that it is heard. it is this kind of fluidity of thought that will spell survival for some and doom for othrs.

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