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The Tyranny Of Novelty

This guest post comes from Jeremy Schlosberg, the founder and curator of Fingertips, which has been seeking out the web's best free and legal music since 2003.

image from www.tv-calling.com A press release received yesterday afternoon informs me that Ben Folds, Amanda Palmer, Damian Kulash of the band OK Go, and writer Neil Gaiman (Palmer’s husband) will be writing and recording eight songs in eight hours on Monday April 25 at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, and will release them 10 hours later. This exercise, or game, or what-have-you, is part of the Rethink Music conference being held in Boston next week.


The album will be released via Bandcamp and, says the press release, the money generated from the first week of downloads will benefit a Boston non-profit called Berklee City Music, which provides free music education to teens who would otherwise not have any.

It’s a feel-good story. So why don’t I feel so good?

Look, I love Ben Folds, I like Amanda Palmer too, and I know we’re in a cultural moment in which innovation turns heads largely because no one knows what’s going on any more. I get it. And we’re supposed to see this kind of thing and say, “Wow! That’s so cool! Get a load of how record companies are becoming superfluous to building buzz and distributing music!”

(I know I’m supposed to say that last part because the press release told me to: “Like Radiohead did recently, this group will show how record companies are becoming superfluous to building buzz and distributing music.” See?)

But I’m not going to do it because there’s a part of this story that makes me sad. We have succumbed to the tyranny of novelty, and music will take a beating until we wake up from this collective trance in which we’re all only chasing the newest, “nowest” thing, in which the only values we can agree upon are buzz generation and viral success. In this environment, a unique real-time experience is worth paying for simply because it is a unique real-time experience.

We hear it over and over again (even though it is not yet precisely true): people don’t want to pay for recorded music. And what is recorded music? Music that has been thoughtfully written and crafted into a purposefully created finished form over the course of weeks or months.

What will people pay for? They will apparently pay for the output of celebrity musicians thrown together to complete the reality-show-like task of writing a song an hour over the course of one afternoon and evening.

I have nothing against the idea of unique real-time experiences, except, maybe, when they have shoved the possibility of thoughtful, purposeful creation off the stage entirely.

If the music industry is struggling and shrinking, maybe it’s not because of piracy after all, and maybe it’s not because of dinosaur business models that don’t know how to change. Maybe it’s because we’re busy finding every possible way we can to foster the novel over the good. Maybe it’s because, led by the harsh visions of this generation’s digital ideologists, we have come to believe in a world of innovation without end.

It’s actually a logical enough place for the music industry to end up. This is one industry that has shamelessly relied on novelty from the day that the wax cylinders first arrived in cardboard boxes in music stores. Fads have been fostered over and over again towards the crass end of selling crap to people who for one reason or another have been eager to buy it.

But as long as there was also the potential for quality recorded music being produced and marketed, the novelty crap was just something that came with the territory. In the future some insist we are moving toward, in which no one pays for recorded music at all, the side effect has suddenly become very clear, thanks to this otherwise harmless trade show promotion.

We are left with music as novelty, music as short-attention-span fodder, music as a means to the perpetual end of pay-attention-to-me.

And yes, of course, musicians in general have always been an attention-seeking contingent. In the past, the music was offered as proof that someone was worthy of the attention they were seeking. And we the audience stopped paying attention if the music didn’t ultimately warrant it.

Now the veil has been lifted. (A certain teenager with a song about a day of the week has helped too.) Without even a little pretense left that we are interested in quality or have any intention of paying for it, musicians are free to seek attention for the sake of seeking attention, and prop the mechanism up with all the perpetual novelty they or their publicists can conjure.

If this sounds like fun for you then you are potentially in for a golden age. Anyone who loves to crow about how the traditional recording industry’s so-called cash cow (namely, recorded music) has been tossed on the scrap heap of bygone products, welcome to your future.

The rest of us, however, may sincerely want to avoid this future. I have no interest in propping up dinosaur business models or perpetuating an industry that has thrived on unfair practices.

But I would also much rather pay for the output of an artist who has thought long and hard about his or her art and can offer an end product enlivened by quality and care, heart and soul, than for the titillation of one passing moment in time, however unique, however novel.

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25 Comments

  1. Best commentary on this site in a long time. Get back to writing great songs–maybe an undeniable chorus sung by someone with an interesting or even great voice. Maybe don’t make it entirely about being uber indie or stunting.
    Artist may not need a traditional label but they do need a team to help them get their music heard after they’ve built their base.
    100 million people laughing at you on Youtube should not be confused with success…or a career.

  2. Excellent post, Bruce. I believe that you can create well under a deadline sometimes, but this situation seems more of a novelty than a true creative experience.
    Good to see that you’re posting more these days.

  3. Just another example of a bunch of people who are well-known because they were marketed by the music industry, telling us we don’t need the music industry. I have stuff on Bandcamp, so do lots of people, but unless the media fawns over it, no one is going to care. The people who would care despite the media’s opinion of it won’t know about it because the media is busy doing stories on this on industry artists who do a parlor trick every once in awhile to convince us we don’t need the industry. We need to stop telling people, in every shape and form, that the internet is the great equalizer. The *media* is the great equalizer, which is why, despite Mr. Schlosberg’s take on this, this project will be successful and get a ton of downloads.

  4. Good post! It’s reassuring to know that fans of thoughtfully crafted music are still extant. I distinctly remember reading some “indie” review of a major music festival several years ago and being nonplussed that the review was all about the visual spectacle put on by the acts performing, and nary a single word about the music, thinking to myself, “WTF?? I thought this piece was about a music festival. It sounds more like they’re covering a circus!” I wonder if the novelty fascination will eventually have it’s own “Emperor’s New Clothes” moment and die of its own ridiculousness….

  5. Great post.
    The music industry hasn’t been fractured at all, the only difference is the undergoing shift in media distribution.
    Not so long ago, producing content was a costly business. Since then, the way have been paved for it to pay as well as it costs for doing it.
    However, as producing became cheaper, the spoils of war dwindled as well.
    The market is being flooded with content as artists reac out for attention as a sea of souls reach their hands out trying to grab passing boats.
    In such times, attention and visibility are key for success. Not that it wasn’t like that back then, but nowadays it is the only way for people to even judge your product.
    That’s where mass media comes in, the most powerful moguls of the entertainment business, the ones with the cash or the means to put any video on Youtube’s first page for instance.
    These products do not go viral unwarranted, it’s all planned of course.
    There are numerous ways to make videos explode in popularity if you have the dollar for it.
    This only puts more stones in the path of independent artists, who have to rely on social skills, CRM with their fans/friends, trying to engage as much feedback as they can and other strategies that most artists don’t even know exist.
    It’s not hard to get yourself known if you have a marketing team working alongside the artists, but most of them cannot afford that.
    There is a huge amount of content exploding in the internet right now and with such high quality it’s hard to keep track of it all.
    However, we are the ones who try to keep track. Most of the customers don’t have time or don’t care for keeping track.
    There is a very high number of people that deal with computers as they do with a TV Set, people who rarely use a search button.
    These people fall prey to the mass media’s efforts to publicize their newest work and in turn end up giving a bigger audience than the highest quality content you will find.
    It’s a simple thing actually.
    I am from Brazil so I’m not sure if this mistake is repeated in the US version of Youtube, but in the brazilian version, if you select the “Music” category, you will find a wide variety of genres, but no “Rock”.
    In fact, the space dedicated to Rock on this selection of genres is called “Pop/Rock” where Rock songs of all kinds are forced to compete for attention with Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and lots of other artists that do not cater to the majority of the Rock audience.
    One solution for a successful approach to the music market is garnering as much attention as the artist can, constantly improving CRM with the fans and making the artist’s presentation a memorable experience.
    There are a lot of things that need to be done in between all of that and it’s never a guaranteed solution, but it’s been working okay so far.
    Now for personal marketing:
    My name is Hans Erik, I’m the manager of Fleeting Circus, an unusually talented band from Rio de Janeiro and I’m trying hard to use these marketing strategies to achieve our goals.
    If you want to see our work check out our youtube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/fleetingcircus
    Cheers

  6. Great article, hope I live to see the day when good songwriting, substance, and credibility will return to mainstream rock. Indie rock was a good solution in the early aughts, but now so much of the indie scene is just limp-wristed effete twee pop posing, & style over substance. The rock part has gone out of it, for the most part.
    Jim
    Brooklyn, NY
    @SirYim

  7. Jeremy really has hit an important point there: Novelty gets old really quickly whereas great albums often take time to compose, record and release, regardless of commercial expectations on behalf of the label. Just look at John Fogerty’s albums “Blue Moon Swamp” and “Centerfield”. They are from the days before Do It Yourself recording with ProTools and similar software, but they were expertly written and recorded.

  8. Fantastic article – it’s rare to find a well argued, articulated minority opinion.
    One thing worth considering, though, is that for the most part, popular music is still heavily inhabited (if not outright dominated) by serious musicians, putting months – and sometimes years – of relentless hard work into the music they make.
    Kanye created a draconic, Hawaiian version of boot camp when he produced “My Dark Twisted Fantasy”. Dr. Luke, Max Martin, Claude Kelly and co. are notorious studio beasts, spending the majority of their working hours at the workplace.
    While contemporary pop may sometimes seem pointlessly novel, effortless and thoughtless, Rebecca Black is still the exception rather than the rule in this ambitious, workaholic industry.

  9. Palmer and Gaiman are two of the most cynical people on the planet. Interesting that they have sent out press releases to tout this horrendously conceived attempt to garner more publicity – after Palmer claimed that they were not seeking mainstream coverage for the event.
    Palmer was dropped from her record label because she has no talent. NONE. Brian Viglione was the limited talent in the Dresden Dolls. Since being dropped by Roadrunner, Palmer has been hunting for an excuse to justify the action.
    We need to see some hard numbers from Palmer. Exactly how much money has her self-released albums and tour made? How does it compare with prior record label releases? She keeps saying she made thousands on Twitter in 2 hours? She’s been able to piggyback on her
    record company fanbase. Now that she is spending so much time on promotion and media, she obviously has no time to attempt to craft music – or in her case an attempt at music.

  10. So how long is long enough? A week? A month? I suppose if an artist plots and plans for years, the music that comes out will be amazing! What exactly is the gestation period for creativity?

  11. “The Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer I know are the opposite to being cynical.”
    You don’t “know” either of them. You see a construct they present through social media and their work. Consuming that calculated public persona = knowing a person.
    Then again, Den doesn’t actually know them either, so the sword cuts both ways.

  12. “We have succumbed to the tyranny of novelty, and music will take a beating until we wake up from this collective trance in which we’re all only chasing the newest, “nowest” thing, in which the only values we can agree upon are buzz generation and viral success.”
    Please get right over yourself.
    I don’t know what “we” you’re talking about, but it doesn’t include me or anyone I know. We–the other ‘we’, I guess–buy more music now than we ever did in the brick-and-mortar days. And it’s largely the work of new artists. Music that’s been “thoughtfully written and crafted into a purposefully created finished form”, no matter how long it happened to take (as if time investment’s even a fair measure of quality).
    And if it weren’t for the current dynamics–the very ones you claim are stripping depth and meaning from musical endeavor–we wouldn’t have ever known these artists even existed.
    So, really, if it’s a choice between this “age of novelty” and the former age of stale, regurgitated, formula-driven junk from the usual suspects, I’ll take the novelty any day of the week, thanks.
    “The Tyranny of Novelty” and many of the comments that it generated collectively read to me like a bunch of sadsacks who’ve never actually engaged in a creative process. Especially not one that resulted in music. Really, many of you don’t seem to have a clue.
    So perhaps you should all pay close attention to the Rethink Music’ efforts mentioned above. You might learn something.

  13. What about fun? If I were going to set up a challenge for myself with the description they’ve given, I would do it because it’s going to be difficult and challenging and very scary, and most of all probably a lot of fun to try. I would do it because I thought there was a chance I maybe couldn’t do it and because it would be a lot of fun to find out if I could.
    Besides, every great song has a different creative process. Some do need weeks if not years of careful tending before the final pieces fall in place. Other songs arrive in a minute, are recorded in their final arrangement within the next four, and weeks of multiple takes result in nothing half as good as what was recorded in that first raw moment. Both types of songs have existed in some form since the dawn of humanity (technology just shifted its form a little), and as long as there are humans writings songs at all, both types of songs will survive to our sunset. It isn’t an either/or scenario.
    One low-key experiment for experiment’s sake will not change the future of music. But it might remind us of one of the thousands of ways music for its own sake can be a lot of fun.

  14. Disagree. Time and method does not equal quality. That’s bs from an elitist standpoint.
    I notice as well that Ben Folds and Damina Kulash are not being singled out for criticism here, but Amanda Palmer. She really seems to piss men off. Must have something to do with her independence. She does what she wants. Unpardonable id the male world.

  15. It’s painfully obvious that you are not a musician.
    Recorded music is what happens when you push the big red button, then play music. Sometimes it’s a mystical experience, other times it’s like sticking your head into a boiling chip vat.
    Always has been

  16. Sounds like there’s a bunch of musicians posting here who are pissed off they didn’t think of it first.

  17. This is so sadly cynical! People will continue to make beautiful music in this world and others will make not-so-beautiful music. It’s all subjective. Great art can take a moment or years, it all depends on inspiration.
    Rainer Maria Rilke once said, “Art is of an infinite loneliness and with nothing so little to be reached as with criticism.” Few poets, I think, have ever risen to the beauty and genius achieved in his writings. His stature alone will hopefully convince some of you to take heed of his words.
    Just because something is novel doesn’t mean it can’t be art. Instead of complaining about how all these artists are ruining your limited conception of art, go out and make some. And I’m sure it will be beautiful 🙂

  18. You said, “If the music industry is struggling and shrinking”. This is blatantly not true. The RECORDING industry is shrinking, not the MUSIC industry. The music industry, that is all the money being made from music world-wide, is growing. You have fallen victim to the propaganda of the RIAA and old media companies trying to protect their old business models.
    Never before in history have more musicians been able to make a living using their art. The only music I buy is directly from the hands of the artist at the concert/performance venue.
    So the novelty you complain of is really a result of so many more artists that can get out from under the thumbs of the “establishment” outlets of the past; the top 40 only radio conglomerates, the record labels, the chain record stores.
    The internet goes a long way to level the playing field. Now artists can connect with fans directly and then give them a reason to buy. (CWF+GRB)
    Speaking of novel, the same thing is happening with book publishing, and many of the established publishers are fighting the change. But look at Cory Doctorow. Every book he publishes he also provides on his web site, craphound.com, as a free CC download. The free downloads have improved his sales of the published versions.
    So thanks for publishing your article and giving us a place to discuss the ideas you presented. That was very creative … perhaps even novel.
    Peace,
    Rob:-]

  19. Dear Bruce,
    If you watched the live stream yesterday or listen to the result of #8in8 then you know you were so absolutelly fucking wrong about it.

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