New albums out this week that are available in full on lala.com for streaming…
You’d think that a single 49-minute track where the songs bleed into each other, layered over one another, with some of them nothing more than snippets (as if some invisible hand is spinning a radio dial) would be the most annoying thing ever. Turns out, though, that it might be one of the best releases of Paul Westerberg’s solo career. 49:00 hit the Amazon MP3 store on July 19 (or June 49th, as Westerberg puts it) for the low, low price of 49 cents. Even if there were only one good song in the whole digital mess, it would be a bargain. But some of these songs (who knows what any of them are called, you give up after a while and just accept the sound collage flow) represent some of Westerberg’s best work since the Replacements folded (the one with the “devil raised a good boy” chorus is certainly one of his fiercest).
Thankfully free of Folker-esque bleating, 49:00 is of the same comfortable, cozy basement cloth as Stereo/Mono—heck, it might even be more ragged than even that wonderfully scruffy release. Ramshackle Faces-inspired rockers blend with sensitive ballads, jangly workouts, snippets of cover songs, Westerberg’s patented put-downs of new men in ex-flames’ lives, jokes about his cleaner lifestyle (“please don’t ask me about my liver”), and what might even be his son yelling over a vintage Westerberg rock riff.
Listening to 49:00 is just a lot of fun (heck, it might even be Year’s Best material if its staying power holds up). It feels like being on a road trip where you’re flipping between two or three great radio stations—always missing the names of whatever you’ve just heard—that play solid song after solid song. For much of Westerberg’s solo career, it sounded like he needed a foil in the studio to kick him in the pants when his ideas weren’t up to snuff. Maybe all he really needed to do was relax. That said, it would be great if some of these songs got an “official” release as songs. Some of them are just too good to remain buried in this tasty blend of music.
“I think it’s an exciting time,” Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh recently told the LA Weekly. “I’m glad I got to be here to watch the record companies disappear.” I admit there’s a certain idealistic thrill at watching those quixotic majors slash and tumble on their way down after creating so many years of misery for their talent and their consumers. I don’t have to explain what they’ve done to deserve such bittersweet schadenfreude at this point. We’ve all read the Albini essay. The heads of music are like all those Bush appointees who spent their entire lives preaching against the superfluousness of the department they’ve now been selected to run. They don’t like music, musicians, or music fans. Just taking a huge margin off the top.
Of course it’s shameful, looking at the industry as a whole like a crumbling morass of cynical greed and perpetual ineptitude. It’s more like the toppling of the Saddam statue, being that those who will really suffer for these sins will be the low cats on the totem poll. All the executives sleeping in their beds full of dirty money will be just fine. They’ll make their mortgage payments and keep their swimming pools. For the rest of them, it’s back to Tower Records… er, Sam Goody… er, Wal-Mart?
Still, even for an industry that took so many consistent wrong turns, the mainstream music empire has to be the most deeply out-of-touch monolith to ever sustain itself since the fall of Rome. Way back when people were still buying CDs, the record companies dealt with their wealth by raising wholesale and list prices, as documented by Bill Wyman here. The gratuitous litigation complex alone could probably snip a dollar or two off the list price of every disc. But as Wyman shows in a more recent post, we’re still having the conversation about pricing years later as physical music gets trampled by digital media in the pricing wars.
Nevermind that there are boatloads of music fans who don’t even get their music this way. If the record industry is going to throw all its efforts behind the traditionalist market like it’s still 1994, they might as well do it right. Half of all music sales are made at Wal-Mart not because they understand or even give a shit about music. It’s because they offer music at market values that may actually be worth the product they’re getting. Speaking strictly in terms of material value, a consumer “gets” far more out of a DVD or a video game than a CD, yet they’re paying essentially the same price for each medium’s back stock.
Even after displaying utter contempt for their consumers by suing and taxing their enthusiasm for the product, you’d think the record companies, radio, and/or print media might actually take time to find out who their buying audience is. With most big media divesting massive energy into public relations and individualized target marketing, the music industry has consistently tried to treat the lot of its consumer base as if they were a herd of sheep, limiting their options, doling out ubiquitous product, disengaging with technology or innovation, spewing disposable waste, and recycling faded heroes. Mainstream music hasn’t even been able to manufacture a lasting movement with a significant cultural impact since Alternative and Gangsta Rap, with the possible exception of American Idol. This has to be due in part to the fact that the industry buying and selling all this music doesn’t have a fucking clue who’s listening to it.
Theirs is a culture pre-branded with rebellion and individualism, one that thrives on, right or wrong, the listener being the center of the universe. It’d be common courtesy to try to find out what their wants and needs are. Yet the music industry consistently tries to manufacture these desires, not realizing how fragmented and polarized its audience really is. Not only do different listeners have highly specialized aesthetic tastes, but their preferences for how they experience, consume, interpret, and utilize music are as disparate as all those different listening subcultures.
Corresponding with music business’s mighty fall comes an era when its product is at its most omnipresent. You literally can not escape it. Popular music has seeped into every crevice of social and particularly consumer life. It’s coming out of speakers in cars, at work, in stores, in waiting rooms, on airplane headsets, in restaurants, and on alarm clocks easing us back into consciousness. It’s inundated behind television programming, advertisements, films, and video games. It shouts at you as you click on a website or a MySpace profile. It harasses you when you’re trying to ignore it. It intimidates you when you’re parked next to it. It finds you when you’re trying to ignore it. The government even uses it as a torture device, a kind of mass culture bomb to deafen, disarm, and dehumanize ascetic Islamists suspected of terrorism. It provides the soundtrack to the mundane for millions of headphoned wanderers on buses, trains, jogs, workouts, or long car rides. In universities, file sharing is a communal rite, allocated with the same philanthropic spirit of passing a joint. Peer-to-peer network have also increased the average middle-of-nowhere suburban kid’s musical acumen exponentially. I myself owe a great deal of my own musical knowledge to the access gained through my early college years and the ubiquity of Napster, Gnutella, Audiogalaxy, and the Massachusetts-specific Flatlan software.
There are hit TV shows about performing songs, dancing to songs, knowing the lyrics to songs, and reminiscing about songs (“I Love The [Insert Decade]‘s”). This is not to mention the ease in which any one and their kid sister can make their own profession-quality songs on a standard grade laptop, post them on the internet, and win an instant fan base. Overall, despite the music industry’s failure and segregating its attentions, there are more people exposed to, interested in, involved with or knowledgeable about music than ever before. The quality of their relationships to the music is largely irrelevant in a market context. The fact is, regardless of what the broadsheets say, people have not given up on music.
In upcoming posts, I will attempt to profile the different types of listeners and how their habits and attitudes fit into the cultural marketplace, from the professional thieves to the perpetually loyal benefactors, in the hopes to convey the multivalence of a broad and increasingly unclassifiable strata of music fans.
I’m a pretty begrudging late adopter of the music blogosphere; someone deeply skeptical about its grandiose claims of revolutionary potential. At this point, it appears little more than an en masse, passive, bitchy decimation of one particular group’s intellectual property rights. The technological ease of the theft has made the debate all the more quaint, because technology often demands moral imperatives where there clearly is none. The disembodiment of the internet makes the debate all that much more surreal. If I could find the technical means to steal a bunch of Cindy Sherman’s original photographs, few people would hail me as somehow changing the paradigm of a consumerist society, robbing all those evil corporate, um, artists. Just as the internet gives all fat people “swimmer’s builds” (i.e. floats in water), it also provides a home to philosophical fantasy and ugly displays of id. No insult is too impolitic, no opinion to stupid to utter, no thoughtlessness too thoughtless. The MP3 is not an actual CD in your hand and the person you’re calling an asshole is not sitting in front of you bearing your brunt.
Which is why I find the morphology of Perez Hilton to be a fetching snapshot of the music stealing revolution. On the one hand, I can totally appreciate a good scam. I love televangelists and Ryan Phillippe. And, if I’d thought of Hilton’s signature photoshopped jizz on celebrity photographs first, I would have done him one better and used the real deal and scored an NEA grant with heralded works like “Money Shot Hasselback”. But if all these prominent bloggers really want is better paying jobs in the industries they’re economically undermining, what revolutionary content is left in the act of releasing an album early or parlaying your cum stain photography into a Hot Topic line of John Hughes casual wear? Worse still, is Hilton’s idea for his own record label. Don’t we remember how evil those people are? They never gave artists enough money anyway, which is why it’s so much better to give them absolutely nothing by stealing. Hilton’s project is itself designed on the most regressive corporatist model. His unpaid minions send him music, he does the hard work of clicking through the stuff he didn’t find and then gets to brand himself a tastemaker. That makes sharecropping look like Whole Foods.
And what of his discoveries? Mika? He forgets that the excesses of the blogosphere have created an environment where the consumption cycle is accelerated to the point of instant incineration. How exactly will he be able to shepherd these dubious “discoveries” through the old label system and make them profitable before they are irrelevant? Perhaps I’m picking low hanging fruit in knocking Perez. He has never seemed more than a nakedly honest opportunist trying his hand at the celebrity alchemy of making something from nothing. But his example makes me doubt much of the talk about the unprecedented and new world created by online file sharing and its curiously concurrent revival of vinyl sales. As Tricky once said, “Brand new, you’re retro.” And all of this talk of revolution makes me think that there are a lot of dislocated liberal arts majors like myself looking for an angle in a movement with no collective, a revolution in resume padding.