“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.