Category Archives: rant

The Only Article to Read About Taylor Swift and Spotify

When I heard Taylor Swift pulled her music from Spotify, I thought, “That was smart.” Because of her popularity, millions of people will (have?) paid $10 or so to own the album (especially if they can’t have it on-demand, which is the thrill of a streaming music subscription).

This article by Steve Cooper of Spirit Animal is right – the Spotify exodus was a business decision and carried no opinions on the platform itself. Of course, that isn’t a sexy news narrative that can spurn countless think pieces and cable news panels. I haven’t really read any other pieces on Swift’s move because from the headlines and abstracts, I could figure out that they were following the “Swift vs. Spotify” narrative. However, the title “Spotify Is Not the Enemy” grabbed me because I hold the same opinion. Spotify is a fantastic resource for a band like Libel. Cooper’s article is the only one on this topic worth reading: a very smart dissection of the contemporary music industry.

The game (business?) has changed radically, and those of us without corporate marketing armies (or just “battalions” for the indies) are trying to figure out how to play. I don’t care if you download LIBEL albums; I mainly use Spotify to listen to music because I’ve long thought cloud-based services would be the future of media. Yes, I prefer access to ownership when it comes to media. (My DVD collection is not impressive – you won’t find anything produced in the last 10 years. Also, I don’t know if I have a DVD player anymore…)

Save your hard drive space, listen to us on Spotify! We don’t really sell our music anyway – we’d probably make more money if you stream the shit out of our albums. As we continue to languish in obscurity, exposure is far more valuable than friends tossing out $10. Also, many of you are kind enough to see us play live – I think we can offer our recordings in exchange.

Cooper is right – Spotify’s crappy payouts are a symptom of a larger illness. The cure? Not sure. As I’ve said in other blog posts and interviews, the album title “Music For Car Commercials” is a lament that the best option for music creators to make money, potentially have a career with original tunes, is licensing. I hope that doesn’t stay the case forever, not just because my favorite review of the album suggested none of those songs would ever be in a car commercial – and that was a (huge) compliment. (At the same time, do you think Hum in 1995 would have ever dreamed that “Stars” would be used to sell… Cadillacs? Still blows my mind, though it’s not as funny as “Lust for Life” advertising cruises.)

The (Further) Decline of MySpace, Homogeneity of Music Sites and Return of Record Labels as Curators

A friend casually brought up that forgotten relic MySpace and I found my curiosity piqued. What was going on with that dusty social network that once was the bastion for my band The Alphabetical Order? I’d covered MySpace’s dark decline and eventual selling from News Corp (a bit to Justin Timberlake… yawn) on digital media blog Adotas, but since switching over to digital-publisher focused AdMonsters, I lost interest. I did tune in for the big relaunch and updated the Libel page a bit just in case, but then never again…

So I headed over to see what the beast had become and… It was sad. The homepage was a combination of clickbait featuring “celebrity” musicians (“What would Drake and Rhianna’s Tindr profiles look like?”), sponsored posts for TV shows and movies, and PR-esque posts inviting me to check out this or that “up and coming” artist. I almost missed the days of wall-to-wall punch the monkey ads.

But then I realized that MySpace looks like every other popular media I see these days. They all have a similar format: some kind of click-bait piece about a corporate-built superstar, a bunch of sponsored content (as I write on AdMonsters, it’s a better form of driving revenue than the loathsome banner ad) and articles on some bands you’ve never heard of that had a PR connection and can be easily roped into some manufactured trend. It’s boring and predictable – similar to the rise of the BuzzFeed clones, the glut of digital media publishers grasping for eyeballs to drive advertiser revenue (after the intermediary ad technology firms take their cut) has encouraged the most depressing homogeneity.

I’ve mentioned this before – the great age of music blogs is over. I don’t mean that sarcastically – I found out about many of my favorite bands in the aughts via blogs… And MySpace. The digital media is no longer a source for new and notable sounds (at least not in the dying genre known as rock – I have no understanding of hiphop and electronic music) – they can no longer be trusted as curators.

Should we move to the algorithms of Pandora, Spotify and such? Well, stop me if you’ve had this happen to you, but whenever I use algorithmically-powered music suggestion services, I tend to get music from a bunch of bands I already listen to. That’s fine in some case, but not very useful when searching for something different. And I’ll mention that Pandora actually rejected Libel’s “Music For Car Commercials” with no reason given. Did it not sound professional enough? I can’t imagine what else didn’t make the cut then.

No, record labels have found a 10th life as the new curators. If someone besides the artist is willing to put some funding behind a release, it’s a mark of quality. (However, many little record players are pay to play – basically they stamp their name on and take a cut.) There’s a real chance for a revival of 80s-style “indie” record labels: fans trusted the content coming out from Dischord and SST back in the day. We saw a brief resurgence in the aughts, but many major labels hid behind their indie imprints to push out “marketable products.” And I’ll argue that when a few real indies got too big, they became shadows of their former selves. (Dischord keeps releasing side projects of previously signed bands.)

Because distribution is no longer a factor in the digital age (unless you’re printing vinyl for collectors), record labels really are just curated groups of artists. For a great example of this, check out our friend Johnny Leather’s label, Mecca Lecca. Record labels could once again become an alternative music fan’s greatest resource.

Critic Bait

Those last two words rolled through my mind when I first read about Perfect Pussy. Well, no, when I first heard the name – I could feel the nervous titillations pulsing through the Internet music community (no one remembers Nashville Pussy?). In fact, “pussy” seems to be the new “bear,” which is the new “wolf,” which is the new “crystal” when it comes to Brooklyn buzz band names. We’re thinking about renaming ourselves “Crystal Bear Wolf Pussy” – it’s like search engine optimization for music critics.

Do I have anything against Perfect Pussy? Well, after ravings about them overtook the sites various music cognoscenti vomit all over, I was thoroughly underwhelmed when I listened to their EP. It’s a good thing they didn’t give the songs real titles (just roman numerals), because I couldn’t tell any of them apart. Basically, it’s driving post-hardcore with a female screamer, awash in ultra lo-fi. Streaming the “full-length” (which is 23 minutes… That’s ridiculous, this isn’t 1963), there’s more differentiation in the songs and the production on the guitars and drums is better, but the singer is still incomprehensible and monotone. Apparently her lyrics are very revelatory, but I can’t understand them because they’re slathered in distortion. I imagined their live shows were energetic, but I’ve read some tepid reviews.

When I read the vinyl would have drops of the singer’s blood, I nearly laughed aloud. In the digital age of click-hunting, these guys are critic bait to the T. But at the same time, I find the antics dull, the same way I found Lady GaGa’s schtick to be an echo of Marilyn Manson. To his credit, I thought he took the theatrics of Alice Cooper and David Bowie to a darker place with biting social commentary. (The critics’ harsh turn on GaGa stems from a possible subconscious realization that they were hoodwinked – average songwriter with good voice and high-budget production values passed herself off as something more. They bought into it, but somehow ARTPOP lifted the veil that I could always see through…) With PP and some other “riotous” hip bands of late, I feel The Butthole Surfers in the 80s, except the current round of shockers don’t have anything on the insanity Gibby Haynes and crew brought to the table 30 years prior.

Granted I’m old and boring; I don’t feel the need for chaos and havoc that fueled 80s punk and art rock. During a milquetoast social period, that was a perfect escape from a world where even the outlandish seems commoditized (i.e., commercial new wave). That may sound like a decent analog for the state of American culture 2014 (on commoditization: replace new wave with “hipster” or or even the over-the-top persona of Kanye West – I do believe he has a fashion line or two), but what’s different in the Great Recession is the lack of stability. In the 80s, the middle class was strong and upward mobility seemed achievable, even ordinary. Punk anger at Reagan and society stemmed a great deal from the conformity and blind acceptance of the masses – if they were doing well, why ask too many questions?

Enter 2014, where anxiety and uncertainty run rampant, the middle class is being squeezed out of existence, drowning in debt is an overwhelming threat and the social safety net seems chock full of holes. Our government is basically being held hostage by a small faction of radicals, and when it does do something good, incompetence mucks up the works. One response would be anger and yelling, but it doesn’t seem right here. Punk was a reaction to willful ignorant bliss in the 80s, but we’re definitely not blissful now. Instead, we’re trying to rid our minds of the fear, helplessness and insecurity that haunts us with every step. Of the fact the future looks grim, and it’s not clear what any of us can do about it when we’re scrambling year to year.

Music of an era becomes poignant when imbued with the underlying societal emotion of the time and place – this made sense with the anger of punk and hardcore in the 80s, with the disillusionment of grunge in the 90s. You could argue the 00s celebrated the democratization of media via the Internet, which is why a great deal of indie was positive and carried a theme of unity. But now is the time of anxiety. Not pithy, self-anxiety, but enormous, overwhelming anxiety.

But I don’t think our current batch of self-anointed critics care, because they too are caught up in the anxiety and unable to see past it. No, the critics and their publications are struggling to bring in funding via advertising, desperate for clicks and audience. Where does that leave Perfect Pussy? Well, they have a “shocking” name and a sound that calls back to another age. It’s a watered down version of something that was powerful and even scary in the past (some of the Butthole Surfers antics still freak me out). The simplest way to garner clicks? Equal parts shock value and nostalgia – I do believe that’s the Buzzfeed mantra.

Earlier this year there was a contentious Daily Beast article claiming that music writing has turned into lifestyle reporting; I agreed with a lot of it. Especially in the mainstream, music is advertised and sold as an accessory because artists are products with extensive lines in different areas. But the “indie” world (whatever that means now) is not immune to this. To pick on the most notable punching bag (even though I believe its influence has waned), I see Pitchfork reviews as the equivalent of J. Peterman catalog descriptions. There’s little music, but lifestyle accessories – it goes along well with these other items already in your wardrobe.

What’s frustrating is Perfect Pussy is sold to us as an alternative band, but they feel like focus-group-tested, press-approved, cookie-cutter alternative – retro post-hardcore with added “shock” value. Already labeled, easy to file. It feels as manufactured as pop music – it’s a lifestyle accessory for the early-20-something “rebel.”

I’m actually sorry to pick on one band in particular. Perfect Pussy seems like it has talent, but it’s been caught up in the lame machinery of the contemporary music industry – the critics are basically PR flacks now. Was the band consciously trying to be critic bait? To some extent, aren’t we all trying to lure in critics with our marketing? Perhaps I’m just jealous because they did a better job baiting the hook. At the same time, their buzz has quickly calmed down following the release of their album (though I bet it will jump up later this year when music writers throw it on their “100 best albums of 2014” lists). I’d like to take that as a sign of the growing irrelevance of critics.

Unfortunately, that irrelevance has kind of made record labels the curators of music – more on that some other time. I guess we celebrated the democratization of media a little early…

Scientific Evidence of the Descent of Pop Music!

I enjoyed this Smithsonian blog with scientific evidence that popular music has gotten worse, but actually I think the report it quotes says something different: pop music has become louder and dumber.

A report from the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute of the Spanish National Research Council in Barcelona dissected popular music between 1955 to the present via three categories: timbral (tone quality), pitch and loudness. It found timbral variety and pitch content have both decreased while loudness has jumped. Basically, for a long time pop music has become more homogenous in sound (possibly because a few dudes are copying themselves over and over to produce the hits) and simpler on a melodic level, while pumping up the volume – probably in an attempt to cover the deficiencies in the above two departments.

This corroborates my theory that music means less to contemporary listeners on an aesthetic level. Since audio technology has basically enabled all of us to have soundtracks, we treat it like background music and don’t mind getting served more of the same. Of course, I just posited that the music criticism/promotion machine encourages a strict genre narrative regimen, so the lack of engagement with samey-samey music may not be the listener’s fault. In addition, I suggested elsewhere that popular music has become dumber because the people trying to sell it to us don’t have high opinions of our intelligence.

Music Made With Your Blog in Mind

“I get the sense that a lot of bands today are designing themselves to get a good review in the hip blogs, and that is probably the safest and most cowardly thing you can do as an artist.” – Trent Reznor in The Daily Record

I posted this on my Facebook page and got a lot of interesting comments, some ragging on Trent Reznor, but many equally frustrated with the current decline of rock.

Rock music is extremely stale, especially considering that the bland, commercial-ready, bluesy 60s retread of The Black Keys seems to be the most widely respected contemporary rock (Go listen to Cream instead – better songwriting.) In fact, The Black Keys were a chief inspiration for calling Libel’s last LP “Music For Car Commercials” – a significant portion of their blowup seems to have to do with their appearance in a slew of advertisements.

But bands designing themselves to get good reviews on hip blogs?!? Sounds like mainstream acts perfecting their sound to appeal to the A&R man. Except “blog” here is code for “smaller music publication,” the ones that are supposed to champion the independent underdogs but increasingly seem to write about the latest Beyonce hoopla (better clicks and pageviews, because those are what drive ad revenue in digital media). No, the “blogs” seek out raw talent keeping it real, pushing their own sounds and styles… Don’t they?

Indie/alternative critics (by which I mean those not focused on mainstream, major label-produced pap) are more concerned with categorization these days instead of criticism. How does this group fit into the narrative of this genre? It’s similar to how news and political reporters try to manipulate the most recent events into their overarching view of the world – the narrative. That has happened because real-time technology has killed the idea of “breaking news,” or really news itself. Most newswriting now is news analysis.

The massive ocean of music being released now – thank you, digital democratization – is daunting for all of us, not just critics. In order to work their way through it and supposedly separate the wheat from the chaff, the critics employ narratives for segmenting artists – shoegaze, grindcore, witchhouse, etc. These genres also have built-in audiences, listeners who actively associate themselves with these labels. In turn, the critics are feeding their audiences, and preferably making the music sites money by smacking their eyeballs all over their pages.

So the artists who correspond best with these genres/narratives (preferably with some kind of marketing schtick to differentiate) get attention while the ones that don’t (perhaps because they blend genres in unexpected ways) are ignored. Take CHVRCHES – MOR 80s-style synth pop that seems to have stood out because of its singer’s Scottish lilt (I once read it described as adorable – not condescending at all).

It’s not surprising then that you see smaller groups who are desperate for attention designing themselves to fit into these critical narratives. “Indie” musicians (I mean this as musicians more concerned with their art than making money) used to (and many like myself still do) seek out music outlets that show preference to a similar sound, but Trent is complaining about bands that do the exact opposite.

More than cowardly, I find it lame – of course we expect major-label, cash-hungry artists to modify their sounds to sell more, but acts searching for the tiniest amount of recognition doing the same to appease “bloggers” (who are themselves trying to drive pennies from digital advertising) are downright disheartening. Even more so when they actually get attention or build buzz – theoretically they’re squeezing out artists pushing boundaries by doing their own thing.

I personally know artists who admit they’re doing this, some who are witnessing success. In a time where the music industry is facing serious economic constraints, wagging the dog is certainly a way to go. But this is a vicious circle that discourages creativity and risk-taking – commercial success becomes about rehashing what came before, not building on it to break new ground. Thus, the music is dull and unmemorable because it’s mere retread. Rock becomes increasingly marginalized and serves as background music, because listeners can’t wade through the sonic morass and lose faith in their guides – the critics.

I could say small record labels have the opportunity to pick up the slack, but I think they too are stuck in a low-risk mindset (keep a defensive posture during a downturn), and worse – they’re following the lead of the critics.

Chill Wave Is the New New Age

I don’t normally buy into generational arguments, but I have a theory that chillwave is a result of millennial anxiety around unstable social circumstances. Rough economy, hard to get jobs, and the ones you get are low-paying with seemingly little room for upward mobility. With all this anxiety plus the general noise of a society awash in media, music provides solace, explaining chillwave’s general inoffensiveness: straightforward major-key melodies, soothing vocals, layers upon layers of synth pads, beats that are the epitome of fluid. It’s relaxing – honestly not that far away from new age. Turn on Washed Out, smoke a bowl, leave this grating world for a while.

Basically, it’s the new new age music.