Tuesday, April 21, 2009

This (Hype) Machine Kills

For much of the history of rock music, one of the genuine differences between the American and British music scenes has been the journalism covering musicians and reviewing records. While U.S. music journalism has always been centered in monthly music magazines and scattered newspaper columnists, the U.K. has had, in addition to excellent monthly magazines like Mojo, at least one weekly newspaper exclusively devoted to covering music (currently only the NME is still running, having merged with Melody Maker in 2000). The different market needs of the British and American forms of music media created dramatically different attitudes and types of coverage, with the U.K. press rapidly developing a need for constant news, whether real or manufactured, and a reputation for repeated and rapid idol-creation and destruction. While the U.S. has, up until now, avoided the worst excesses of the U.K. media model, the shifting of the primary focus of music journalism from traditional magazines and columns to rapidly updating websites and blogs seems to be taking us down that exact path. [Please note, I am well aware that almost every contention I make here comes with numerous caveats and exceptions. I’m dealing in very broad generalities at best, I admit.]

For those who are unaware of why this is worrisome, it is worth discussing just what the British music press does, and how that effects both the music and the fans. In journalism, the amount of content that must be filled by a certain deadlines inexorably effects the quality of the material presented. An equally skilled feature writer with a month-long deadline is going to be more accurate and more insightful on a subject than a beat reporter covering and reporting on events daily. Similarly, CNN providing breaking coverage of an international incident is not going to provide the detailed analysis of a Foreign Affairs article released three months later discussing the same event. One of the major criticisms of the 24-hour news cycle of cable is that the rush to fill the entire time with fresh and timely content, faulty, under-investigated, and oftentimes blatantly false information is put forward as news. There is no time for reflection or review on a prior story, because the media’s gaze so quickly shifts to newer, less traveled paths as soon as they are discovered. You have to cover the hot new exciting story for ratings sakes, but at what cost to what came before?

In the music press context, the NME model inevitably promotes the coverage of music as spectacle and the ebb and flow of idolization and dismissal of new acts while the longer monthly Rolling Stone model allows for and rewards deeper review and more careful analysis (which is not to say that Rolling Stone has consistently exercised its benefits in this regard). The British press is notorious for crowning new bands “The Best Band since [insert one of the following: The Beatles, The Smiths, The Stone Roses, The Clash, The Last Band We Did This To] after they release their first piece of music, be it demo, single, EP, or album. Inevitably, this band will be all over the paper for a couple of weeks. However, by the time that band is able to release a follow-up, even if its just the debut album following that first single, the slightest perceived drop-off in quality gets the group immediately declared has-beens. The problem here is three-fold: 1) most of the music receiving the initial hyperbolic praise don’t deserve the hype, 2) most of the bands receiving this hype aren’t developed enough to capitalize on it, and 3) many of the cursory dismissals cut short promising careers of talented young bands that could be great with some breathing room.

For example, take The Stone Roses. They release a string of amazing singles and an absolutely superb album. They look cool, they act cool, they are good interviews, and they fit in with the constant craving for the new scene. The NME and Melody Maker fall all over themselves to declare them the saviors of music as we know it. As a huge Stone Roses fan, I can say this without any hesitation – The Stone Roses were not going to “save” rock music. Except for a few scattered tracks that had some funk/dance rhythms, their entire initial catalog could have comfortably fit on Nuggets – great, great songs, but not earth-shatteringly different than what had come before. However, all of sudden, this band making great pop music is thrust into a role their music didn’t support, and they spend years and years trying to make a follow-up that lives up to that role (and, truthfully, taking lots of drugs), eventually releasing the crushingly disappointing Second Coming (it’s better than it gets credit for, but it’s pretty bad, and it’s especially hampered by atrocious sequencing). It’s all speculation, but who knows what the second Stone Roses album could have been had it not been for the artificially inflated hype and resultant expectations of the too-eager press?

There is a really odd record store near me that mostly specializes in hip-hop and over-priced used CDs, but has an astonishing cut-out bin where I’ve actually been finding many of the cast-aways from the British press for a quarter. Some of them are amazing – Witness deserved far better, for instance. Many are good-but-not-great (The Enemy, Gay Dad, The Coral). Some are atrocious (Starsailor, Gomez). What they share in common is that they were trotted out as something special and new, when none of them really were able to support that contention. I plan to talk about distinguishing potential from flash-in-the-pans in an imminent post, but I’ll just leave it that all of the aforementioned groups were mostly unrealized potential at best (even where I liked the records). Not every band is going to be The Smiths and spring forth fully formed. Many need time to grow, and an over-hyping music press makes that process difficult.

Perhaps the event that makes me most upset about the British music press, and concerns me most going forward in the new blog-driven media environment, is the forced death of British shoegazer brought about by the NME and its ilk. Has their ever been another genre that was cut down by a backlash not just prematurely, but at the very height of its creative zenith?

The problem wasn’t the music, obviously, the problem was paper sales. The shoegazers were notoriously unexciting as celebrities. The Britpoppers that replaced were the very epitome of “Celebrity” as a concept, even if they were being so ironically (looking at you, Jarvis). If one is in the press, and needs to sell papers, “Liam Gallagher Punches Brother and Spits on Photographer” is a far, far, far sexier front-page than “Kevin Shields Discovers Really Neat Guitar Tone in Studio Last Week.” The shoegazer movement just didn’t fit in with the needs of the U.K. press, and were therefore thrown under the bus to make way for their commercially more appealing but (for the most part) creatively inferior successors. It’s hard not to blame this premature media backlash as the reason that some of the great shoegaze records of that era, Slowdive’s Pygmalion and Swervedriver’s Ejector Seat Reservation chief among them, from getting the type of attention they deserved and allowing them to have a proper U.S. release at the time. It’s one thing to give a band a pre-mature free ride and then throw them under the bus at the first sign of trouble (cough, The Libertines, cough). It’s quite another to dismiss an entire vibrant scene because it doesn’t generate enough scandal.

As I stated before, the U.S. has avoided most of the worst excesses of this behavior, though, as I said before, there are more exceptions than I want to attempt to list. For the most part, however, the U.S. music press has allowed its favorite sons a bit of room to grow and develop, and has just generally been a more welcoming environment for musicians. Say what you want about Rolling Stone or Spin, but fickle is not an especially accurate term for either of them, and if anything, they tend to swing too far the other way, giving too much credit for past successes when an artist’s current output does not live up to those earlier efforts.

Unfortunately, this seems to be shifting as print music magazines fade away with most other forms of print journalism, to be replaced by blogs and on-line news and review sites, there seems to be an adoption of the fickle tendencies of the British model, which concerns me mostly because I do not see a strong counter-balance to this type of rampant hype and discard impetus. The aggregator of this new content is telling by its moniker – The Hype Machine. Even more so than the British weekly press, the need for websites to have constant updates and regular visitors again puts undue emphasis on the new and sensational, leading to an accelerated ebb and flow of interest in artists. Take Tapes n’ Tapes, a band that released one pretty-good album, was hyped to exhaustion, recorded a big-budget follow-up that didn’t quite live up to the first album, and was completely dismissed by all sides. How much interest do you think a third Tapes n’ Tapes record will have if it was announced today? I loved Clap Your Hands, Say Yeah’s first album (what a terrible band name, by the way), which was similarly lauded, was disappointed, like most reviews I read by their Dave Friedman produced follow-up, but I still hold out hope that they will produce worthy music in the future. Are they going to get a fair hearing of their next effort? Their recent disappointing performances on late night talk shows and complete the dismissal by the music press of those performances indicates otherwise. Again, we have to ask the same questions we ask about any of the overhyped British acts of the past – does pre-mature hype stunt the creative growth of bands? For example, while the 2008 debuts by The Vivian Girls and Lykke Li were decent, it indicated to me that they both had the potential to create something much stronger by exploring some of the more atypical elements in their respective sounds. With the amount of attention their debuts received, will they be willing to risk alienating their fans by making such an exploration? If so, will the Hype Machine be willing to go along on the trip with them even if they make some stumbles along the way? Recent history has made me skeptical.

The last thing I want to do is to decry the blog-oriented media, as it does currently represent the best way to find and sample new music. For all the lumps that Pitchfork gets (my personal aggravations mostly center around those people who take it all a little too seriously, not the site itself), it is actually an excellent site that has introduced me to much of the good music I have heard in the last few years, and I thank them for that. Stereogum, Popmatter, Tinymixtapes, and Idolator are other excellent sites well worth exploring.

Instead, the emphasis is going to have to be on finding alternate voices that provide a more reasoned analysis not as contingent on daily page views. Those voices still seem to mostly be in print form, with The Big Takeover, Under the Radar, Magnet and Skyscraper standing out as strong sources (especially the first one). What we really need are voices that laud long-term growth and the development of an actual body of material. Allowing the Hype Machine and its minions to continue to raise up untested new bands to unwarranted heights only to dash them on the rocks below at the first sign of perceived weakness is to do great harm to the artists, the music press, and, ultimately, to listeners wanting to experience great music that can only come from artistic growth and development.

Friday, April 17, 2009

You Can't Change the World Anymore

I have heard rumblings regarding the desire to see a new epoch-making moment in rock music, another "Smells Like Teen Spirit" or the Beatles/Elvis on the Ed Sullivan show, another event that galvanizes music for a new generation and gives it new legs (see my friend Mike's post here for a more through discussion of this: http://centraltarget.blogspot.com/2009/01/whatever-happened-to-my-rock-and-roll.html).

However, for as much as I would love a new Nirvana-moment, I don't see it happening, but not because "Rock is Dead" or some other pronouncement about the state of music, but about the sheer scope of the media in current times. What made the Beatles on Ed Sullivan so powerful was that pretty much EVERYONE watched Ed Sullivan. When there are only four stations on most television sets, the best show at a given hour is going to be hugely influential. What other options did families across America have to do at 8p.m. Sunday, Feb. 9, 1964? If you were watching television at the time, you were likely watching the Beatles perform, either out of genuine excitement, curiosity at the attention the group was getting, or simply because it was the most interesting thing on at the time. Even if you missed the performance, odds were that someone in your circle of friends and acquaintances didn't miss it, and made sure you knew about it the next day at work or school. The limited media options available at the time virtually guaranteed that most people were exposed in some way to the event. It's a perfect storm for a media zeitgeist. What is interesting is that every other group that played Sullivan had the same opportunity, but the Beatles and (giving credit where absolutely due) Brian Epstein, by combining Sullivan's ubiquity with significant media interest, to make the performance a capital-E Event.

Similarly, jumping forward years, Nirvana was able to almost back-into a similar role. While MTV did not control the airwaves like Sullivan did, at the time, it certainly controlled the pop culture landscape among the youth of the time. Having a video in heavy rotation on MTV was a massive deal. While many of the indie-rock and alternative forebears of Nirvana remained stuck in "120 Minutes" limbo, the decision of MTV to push "Smells Like Teen Spirit" into heavy rotation opened their sound up a massive audience, an audience that was being courted by 90% of all advertisers. Nirvana's video happened to hit an incredibly lucrative and influential market at a time when that market was salivating for something different than the umpteenth Motley Crue or Poison clone. Just as with the Beatles, there was some luck involved, but there was some obvious planning as well. After a decade of rock stars trying to out-duel each other in the "acting like rock stars" Olympics, a band playing catchy, heavy, melodic tunes that put forth the image of explicitly NOT acting like rock stars was in a perfect position to be the counter-programming for people who desired nothing more than to be the hip counter-culture (the discussion of the counter-culture becoming the culture can be saved for later, or just go watch Hype!). However, Nirvana would have never become much of anything except that MTV was the place that defined what music was cool, and by extension, had a tremendous influence on culture by having such a unique position. This continued up until the early part of this decade. Total Request Live and its ilk had a huge influence on what kids in my high school thought (and more importantly bought) in terms of music.

What Ed Sullivan and MTV had in common was the ability to reach entire market demographics at once. Nirvana and The Beatles were able to latch onto their medium's power to reach incredibly wide audiences who were receptive to what they offered. Looking around now, I do not see any medium whatsoever with even a fragment of that power. MTV doesn't even show videos anymore (even TRL has died an unmourned death). Late night talk shows still showcase bands, but when was the last time you heard any buzz at all about a band that was going to be on Letterman from anyone who wasn't already a fan of the band? Terrestrial radio is a dying, increasingly static media that has gotten so bad that people have been willing to pay to make it go way by installing satellite radio with hundreds of channels. The internet, be it pitchfork, hypemachine, or last.fm, has become the primary source of music news and discovery for many. In short, there isn't a single unifying force that everyone is aware that can serve as the distributor of a rock zeitgeist moment anymore. Outside of the Disney Channel's chokehold on the tween market's musical taste (and wallets), what other music media outlets have anywhere near the cultural footprint that MTV did less than 10 years ago? One can point at American Idol, but the sales of most of the beneficiaries of that program show that most of the people watching that show are not watching it to get a first glimpse of their next music purchase. In fact, the most effective marketing proposition for music in the current market is to attach it to something else that people like, be it a movie, TV show, or even advertisement. The Shins became famous (to the extent they are) by being Natalie Portman's character's favorite band in a movie - the music wasn't the focus, it was what the music was attached to. See also the numerous careers made by (and, in most cases, limited to) iPod commercials, Grey's Anatomy, Scrubs, et al. Movies and TV shows still have a faithful audience, and a popular show still has enormous cultural cache. However, what does it tell us about the cultural power of the music media outlets that the best way to break a new band is to try to get them to play under the cliffhanger ending or the anxiously awaited kiss on a television show? It's marketing music as a means of reliving an experience having little to do with the music itself.

This isn't to downplay the importance of music to actual consumers. I don't think that people in general care less about music now than they did in the past. However, they have so many avenues to find music that speaks uniquely to them that they simply didn't have before that generating a consensus opinion is virtually impossible. Think of it this way, how many of the people that bought Nevermind would really have preferred Superfuzz Bigmuff, had they known about it? As you open up the marketplace and make new music easier to find, it becomes increasingly difficult to build consensus. How many people who bought Revolver were actually more in tune with Forever Changes? How many people who bought all of the MTV approved hair metal of the 80's were just oblivious of the fact that Dinosaur Jr., Husker Du, and the Replacements were actually out there if they looked? Sure, there were ways to find out about these options, they just weren't known by the average consumer. This isn't the case anymore. Anyone with an internet connection has a wealth of information available to them at a click. You cannot buy an album anymore without recieving multiple notices that "if you like this, you might also like this other thing". The ability to find exactly the kind of music one enjoys is increasingly simplified, which inevitably leads to fewer people buying exactly the same thing.

In the end, what this means is the end of the massive cultural phenomenon. There won't be another Nirvana, because technology has made it so much easier to finds one's own unique musical promised land.