Authentic Listening: Are We Selling Out Our Tastes?

A few days ago I confirmed for myself how out of touch I am with indie music when I took a look at Pitchfork’s albums of the decade list. Of the 200 albums listed, I’d probably heard maybe half of them, and of that half I probably actually liked about 10. I tried again to listen to the albums they are really big on (e.g., Kid A, Supreme Clientele) and was left convinced I should probably regard a high Pitchfork rating as a personal negative indicator. If Pitchfork is associated with a band when I first hear about them, I’m probably best off not bothering.

I bring this up only because I am also reading Greg Kot’s Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music, a journalistic look at the music business over the past decade (it reads like a series of Fortune stories — not an insult, just an impression) in which Pitchfork features prominently. Even though I am writing at this moment for what some might consider a “music webzine,” I was pretty surprised at how influential Pitchfork is reputed to be. Some of the industry people Kot interviews makes Pitchfork sound like the financial rating agencies: “I feel the next step for Pitchfork is literally dictating to bands what to do next,” a guy in an indie band tells him. ” ‘Okay, can you just paint a little more green on that album before you release it?’ ” That would mirror the way ratings agencies told banks what to adjust in securities in order to secure AAA ratings to keep the bubble going. These were oftentimes the securities destined to become “toxic,” becoming the assets no one could value properly and no one wanted on their books.

Of course, music has always been impossible to value properly with a rating. Associating an album with a number may drive its sales — Kot has several anecdotes of Pitchfork’s rating pushing units to distributors and on — but it pushes casual consumers into consuming the rating rather than engaging with the music. The number promises the idea that a bunch of others are out there listening and approving, so it is okay for you to get into it as well. That’s not a terrible thing, but it contradicts the prized notion that we have unique and personality-defining tastes.

What is striking about Ripped is the longing most of the people Kot talks to have to see the music industry destroyed. They have a fantasy, it seems, that pop music will at last cease to be a commodity and become authentic art again. That’s a nice dream, but it may set people up for unnecessary disappointment. Music seems more a matter of hype now then ever before, and the fact that amateur hypers are the driving force is even more depressing than when it was professional PR people. If I make a mix CD and give it to a friend, that’s a way of building a bond, enhancing the friendship. If I put a bunch of tracks on an MP3 blog, that’s something entirely different. Now I’ve crossed the line into being a freelance marketer, a wannabe A&R person. I want strangers to applaud my taste under the auspices of “sharing.”

It’s no better if I talk about my musical tastes on a social network — the context changes the relevance of what I am saying and my opinions can be aggregated and sold as demographic data, or could lead to my friends being hit with certain sorts of targeted ads. By the terms of service, my opinions become part of a commercial public record.

So while the intentions of musicians probably haven’t changed much over the past decade and may have a chance of becoming purer in the absence of a consolidated music industry, the intentions of listeners are much more likely to be altered for the worse, with music becoming, more than it ever has been, a counter in an endless game of self-promotion and self-definition. Our intentions in listening will be harder and harder to keep pure; the temptations to sell our tastes out by blogging/tweeting/social network posting about them will continue to increase. It may be too late for me (see first graf above) but the rest of you may be able to save yourselves. Tell no one online what you’ve heard.