[ed note — This got long. I’m not apologizing; but I will apologize because there’s no obligatory mp3. I’m sure you can find something to amuse you.]
Hello! How are you? Did you have a good Radiohead Day? I’m fine, thanks. I’m very enthusiastic about Radiohead Day, so let’s talk economics. I received the download code in my email this morning — about twenty seconds later, the file was on my desktop (unlike some sad folks, I could not care less about bit rate, so that didn’t factor in). Twenty seconds later, I could listen to the music, which is really the bottom line.
It’s the libertarian way of doing things — let people decide for themselves how much the commodity is worth to them. Some of them pay a lot for a box set; some pay a reasonable amount and buy the download; some pay nothing and feel bad about it and pay later; and some pay nothing at all and feel justified in doing so. It’s all part of the equation. Libertarians have a deep independent streak and a (possibly misplaced) faith in peoples’ abilities to regulate themselves. Only you know how much you paid or didn’t pay for “In Rainbows,” but I would be willing to bet that Yorke & co. made a good pile of money off it; as much as any represented artist would have made. This morning Connor from IGIF noted that when he polled 27 people on his campus green, half of them were listening to it. I would be willing to bet that most of them, college students though they were, paid something, and even $2 is better revenue than pirating.
Of course, Radiohead has the freedom to do such a thing; they paid their dues, so to speak, and their fame is so well established that they can circumvent the system. They used word of mouth so effectively that probably 12 hours after they posted their site, I heard about the album from half of my RSS feeds. While Beck went the opposite route, creating a physical form that everyone wanted, Radiohead has masterfully ridden the wave of immediately available infotainment. Music blogs jumped on it — pounced, even — gleefully counting down the days and basically talking about Radiohead ad nauseum. I’m not even that big of a fan, but even I felt the hype boiling overhead like a thunderstorm.
Which brings me to the series of articles written by the author of Pretty Goes With Pretty; it’s called, “Can’t Talk, Hyping.” Ironically I had never heard of this blog (which doesn’t mean much), but for some reason I still read Catbirdseat, which recommended it. The four-part article criticizes mp3 blogs for forgetting their roots and becoming mini hype machines, churning out recommendations for money and based on promo advances nudged at them by record labels. To join the conversation, intimates this article, one must download an enormous quantity of music at breakneck speed, present it with “an audio clip, myspace link, a list of tour dates, and — not always — a perfunctory they’re grrrreat!” (part II).
Two forces make this article completely correct in every way. One is what I call the Catbirdseat effect; the smugness of the folks that sit with their music you’ve never heard of, and mock you because you are five minutes behind the hype. Catbirdseat today ridiculed people’s love of Radiohead by posting a fake review, complete with disclaimer: “PLEASE NOTE: I have not downloaded or listened to In Rainbows.” See? They’re so far ahead that they don’t even have to hear the music to make fun of people who like it.
The second is the Goodhodgkins phenomenon — the simple overwhelming nature of music that falls under the indie genre. It drowns anyone who tries to keep on top of it; maybe three blogs I know actually make a stab at completism. Those blogs become the type that PGWP despises: perfunctory, swift, and overposted. Many of them make good money doing it, too, because someone out there has to try and keep their finger on the pressure point. I certainly don’t want that job (witness my infrequent postings! I’d be a mess). If you have Goodhodgkins phenomenon weariness, you bemoan how much music is out there. You can’t keep up with it. It hurts you to try. You give up. I admit, I’ve been feeling Goodhogkinsy myself these days. And I agree with PGWP; lately I’ve been tacking up lots of mp3s without much writing attached to it. How many times and how many ways can you say “awesome” or “well put together” or “great instrumentalism”? Not too many, I’ve found.
When those two forces combine, a writer feels like she is not only drowning in music, she’s going under so fast that she will never be ahead of the curve, so she pushes harder and hypes faster (or quits altogether?). So the article is completely right. And yet, and yet. It ends asking why don’t all the music blogs get together and talk about ideas? Why don’t we push an agenda like lit blogs instead of going arm in arm with record companies?
Several reasons, I imagine. One, the age and status of the usual music blogger would tend to be a person who consumes a ton of music quickly, spits it out, and loves to be on top and have high stats. Coolness = stats to those people. I don’t have a problem with that, though it isn’t my thing (in interest of full disclosure, I get between 600 and 800 hits a week, if I post). One thing that bothers me about PGWP’s article is that it sees listeners as rubes, gawking at the hype and not understanding the machine behind it. Of course (some) bloggers make money; they get free promos; they put ads up on their website and some of them get thousands of dollars to do it. Good for them; like I said, they fill a niche. Are the visitors to a site like Brooklynvegan so stupid that they don’t see it’s a lot of business? I surely hope not. And stats must equal coolness; I see many “famous” sites quoted over and over like the nerds quoting the cheerleaders. Someone’s always got to be the cheerleader (and yes, I’ll take the nerd position, thanks).
Two, music is personal; more personal than even a novel, especially since no one reads these days. We music lovers have a secret fetish for hearing the same tunes in different guises. We probably have 4000 songs on our iTunes that are about heartbreak, and 4000 more about falling in love. Some people lovingly caress one or two albums a year; others zip through fifty or sixty and are just as happy. Everyone is looking for that chord in them to be struck, that one chord that no one else can hear, the shiver up the spine. How can you initiate a dialogue about that chord, that thing that is so personal? I venture to say that you can’t have a conversation about it, per se. But you can put it out there and hope that someone will come along who hears the same chord. I don’t get enough comments on this site to fill a pint jar; why then do I write? Why did I bother with these words at all? Am I just hollering uselessly into the void? I don’t know. What I do know is that when I hear music that strikes a chord in me, I vibrate, and sometimes I reflect that musical chord, that personal love, with words. I’m not a musician, and all I can do is write down my love.
Some people take that personal fetish and make it political; they parlay their friendly persona into visitors and money and hype and (you might say) soullessness. But for every soulless hype site, there are five sites that keep the personal personal. Those sites are still out there, plugging away, telling us about their memories, their experiences, talking to unknown readers for no reason whatsoever. They don’t have an agenda, and they don’t want to have one (or their agenda is, like Muruch, to expose a certain genre of music). They get great stats, maybe, or they don’t, and they use record companies to help obtain what they like, not just to boost numbers. Using myself as an example — I sift through what the record companies send me. Sometimes I even slap an mp3 up with a “they’re grrrreat.” Not everything hits my buttons, that’s for sure. I even like to talk about what I don’t like. Sometimes — gasp! — I even like to talk about what everyone else is talking about too. Sometimes I don’t. Is it hype, or love, or something in between?
Hey reader, I’m talking to you! You out there, with your Radiohead on! For what it’s worth, I liked “In Rainbows.” Probably I’m gonna write about it. You should too. Don’t forget what Thom Yorke says: “Don’t get any big ideas / they’re not gonna happen.” Or like Homer says, the lesson is, never try. Right? You might make some money off what you love and earn the eternal scorn of the Catbird set, even though they’ve got ads all the way up the right sidebar. You might fill a need, you might get so popular you can go around the rules. Who knows? It’s a big infotaining world out there — someone might holler back at you from the void.