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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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