Music and metrics

It’s been obvious for years now that digital media has forced the music industry to restructure. Some, like Toure in this Salon essay, believe this is sad, depriving us of the pleasures of monoculture, such as they were. I naively hoped that a crippled culture industry might diminish the significance of music as an identity signifier. At one point I thought a decentralized music business might lead to local scenes thriving again and perhaps more people making music instead of consuming it. I’m less optimistic about that now. It appears that success in pop music is still structured by the same forces — the labels, the press, radio stations, concert promoters; with the dynamics of power among them always shifting. And social media seem to have made the use of music as an identity token more ubiquitous. In some instances, such appropriation leads to proximate acts of creativity by consumers — ingenious playlists or remixes, homemade videos, etc. The possibility that anyone can commandeer an audience raises the stakes on cultural consumption, at once breeding both innovation and alienation from the act of listening itself.

The existence of social media has also made online self-promotion a more or less fundamental aspect of forming a band, no matter how modest its ambitions may be. This initially played out as bands becoming weirdly continuous with their MySpace pages. The site Hipster Runoff has served as a more or less continuous commentary on how indie bands are obliged to play online media as one of their instruments, suggesting that their music is basically by-product, subordinate to the real performance: the band’s orchestration of online image and hype. The subversive implication of HRO, I think, is that most bands are better enjoyed as Barnumesque image mongers. The multimedia identity spectacle they manage is a newer, more comprehensive kind of art. In fact, this is the sort of art that the logic of social media would inspire us all to enjoy and to make ourselves — the managing of different audiences and leaks of information to project a fluid yet coherent self as a masterwork. Any of us can be just as much of a microcelebrity as a band is. (This Rhizome essay about camgirls is suggestive on that front, how monitoring the flux of online attention can become a medium, an art.)

Anyway, even in the traditional music industry, the need for bands to self-promote and build a “platform” has become institutionalized, which has to a degree crowdsourced the A&R function. This article from last week’s Economist gets at the dialectics of this shift:

A&R men used to be alchemists, discovering base talent and turning it into gold…. These days they are venture capitalists. Particularly at big labels such as Universal, A&R executives increasingly expect acts to have built a self-sustaining, if modest, business before they offer them a recording contract. Large numbers of Facebook friends and Twitter followers help show that a band has traction. But record labels have become wary of social-media indicators. They know that desperate bands may chatter about themselves or hire marketing firms to inflate their online metrics.

Bands are less artists than entrepreneurial startups, manipulating online social networks to gain leverage with potential investors. The product they sell doesn’t need to be good if the market for it can be posited, and the structure of the industry encourages musicians to focus their talents on that sort of market making. As certain social media metrics get corrupted, new ones will be established, because they serve as an essential proxy for the one metric that will never be perfected, the one that quantifies talent in the abstract.