10,000 Channels and there’s Nothing on
For every question, a hundred thinkpieces.
1. “Where once fans routinely accused greedy musicians of selling out (or each other of enjoying “sell-out” music), now musicians counter-accuse consumers of abandoning the market economy, forcing them into the arms of corporate benefactors.”
2. “It is related, on the one hand, directly to the financial bottoming out of the music industry . . . but it is also part of a deeper philosophical shift which recognises that our surroundings are fundamentally branded and marketed . . . and so that resistance seems not only futile but hopelessly naïve.”
3. “No lifestyle can consistently embody a political ideal at odds with capitalism . . . It’s not that everyone is too lazy to do good, or that people don’t recognize the problems of the free market. The real issue is that there are simply too many machines to rage against all of them at the same time.”
If it’s true — and for once not just totally condescending – that our generation has a fixation with irony, you’ll love that the website that crystallised the above sentiments most succinctly, and yet in the most mercenary, click-hungry way, was BuzzFeed. ‘How Selling Out Saved Indie Rock’ by Jessica Hopper encapsulates the defiant new incarnation of the partnership between ‘music’ and ‘industry’: the once-reviled Corporate Rock has now been reclaimed as a self-defining statement, an identity, and in the economic dystopia that is the internet age, a solution. And with each and every click, BuzzFeed’s advertisers get the All Ighty Ollar.
So, ‘indie rock’, eh? Once the domain of the ‘underground’ — a playground at odds with the consumer-driven capitalist economy, an international scene usually described by the words “sprawling” and “network.” A world usually, but not always, containing punk as its central philosophy. Today, we know blogs like Pitchfork and festivals like Laneway as continuations of the independent lineage — no longer a pocketed, communitarian ‘indie’, but an entanglement of international distributive networks, contracts, managers and press companies that resemble more the major labels of old than the ‘underground’ system that opposed them in the 1970s and 80s; now independent in name and Smiths t-shirts only. (Last July, the combined market share of this group outsold the majors.) ‘Indie’ is a global brand: Behemoths like Beggars Group distribute enormous catalogues in New Zealand; our own prized Flying Nun releases are reissued and distributed in the United States by overseas labels like Captured Tracks.
On page one of Our Band Could Be Your Life, a romantic recollection of a time when independent meant independent from something else, a book that serves as a kind of 101 for modern-day DIY sentimentalists, Michael Azerrad describes what got us here.
On September 24, 1991, an album called Nevermind by a band called Nirvana came out, went gold in a matter of weeks, bumped Michael Jackson off the number one spot on the Billboard album charts soon afterward, and prompted music journalist Gina Arnold to proclaim, “We won.” But who was “we”? And why were “we” so different from “them”?
It’s never asked what was won.
A 1993 essay called ‘The Trouble with Music‘ tries to answer this question by tackling how the ‘selling out’ that is now supposedly saving indie rock once endangered it; for once aligning underground dogma with actual numbers to spell out the financial exploitation of artists by major labels. Even in the post-Nevermind setting of 1993, ‘indie’ was considered a rebellious antithesis — antidote, even — to the major label. That never stopped ‘em from trying: there was a chasm over which which major labels would fling college-rock graduates “with some obvious underground rock credibility flag they can wave” to batter up the young for willing acceptance of a commercial fate - a process of normalisation. In a time like 1993, they were major-label A&R people. In the modern times Jessica Hopper contemplates, the same types of individuals, with similar indie-chic credentials, either work for advertisers or are courted by them. These are “musicians who’ve come from bands in the independent music scene” whose credibility is in their affiliations: those “cool scenes, producers, and artists they have a connection to.”
In New Zealand, Arch Hill’s Ben Howe is the cultural curator on behalf of Beck’s Beer.
Director of Laneway Festival New Zealand, General Manager of Flying Nun, director of Mystery Girl Presents, Chair of Independent Music New Zealand Board, and Director at Arch Hill Recordings and Publishing.
The post-1999 world provides the record label as distributive platform little certainty, many necessities, and one sure reality: That a label has a responsibility to keep itself and its artists afloat; that if it takes all you can get, it is therefore doing all it can, and nobody should ask any questions. Though his 15-year tenure and many titles affords him the cultural clout that makes him an obvious target, Ben Howe is not the caped villain that might’ve once been seen in major labels of the past – he’s an independent. In practical terms, just a guy doing his Just His Job.
Beck’s, too, are punching the clock. When Beck’s debuted their engineering feat of bottle-as-playable-record, the Edison Bottle, at Semi-Permanent, it had little practical advantage for anyone other than a symbolic show of strength; proof of capabilities in a way that is unnerving to any Marxist: the alcohol industry now owns the means of production.
Alcohol, in 2014, is New Zealand Music. And it is the music business. Because music, y’see, is a business.
This idea was the central point of last year’s NZ Music Month Summit at which Ben Howe participated: Your Music as a Business, a series of conferences for “providing insight into what can help your music succeed in today’s environment.” The mercenary rhetoric is unambiguous: ‘Your Band as a Brand’ — and that’s all – goes the name of one talk. One of the selected panel speakers? Pete Dick of Beck’s Beer.
That a music industry conference hosted an alcohol representative speaks for itself in a way that reveals some serious commitment to the industry’s own desperate careerism. (We’re talking about a conference that harboured, uh, a “one on one speed networking” session.) Yet, New Zealand’s past achievements in music are still so readily visible: it was through an attitude, not resources, that enabled a label like Flying Nun to achieve critical and commercial success in spite of little commercial radio support and expensive modes of communication and production. ‘Big Cheap Motel’, a 1983 live album by the Axemen decried the sort of exploitation that corporate sponsors tow behind them, and the creative freedom that is disallowed by embracing them. I struggle to imagine an album that protests alcohol sponsorship being released on Arch Hill; but then again, if this is where the industry’s at, I struggle to imagine anyone protesting anything these days.
In the 1980s, it wasn’t uncommon to find bands that wore their political sympathies on their sleeves. Hamish Kilgour from the Clean, for instance, still has Marxist principles - knowing this, and upon discovering that his band had been graciously slapped on a Beck’s beer bottle “inspired by songs and song lyrics” from Arch Hill’s catalogue, I asked him what he thought of his music helping to sell alcohol.
He had no idea it had been done.
With so much dialogue surrounding the ownership of art, it’s surprising when this conversation doesn’t even include the artist. We might find the exclusion only grows as commercialism in music expands. Jessica Hopper’s glorification of this rapid acquisition admits its downside: “With desperate bands flooding the market, the money at stake has dropped precipitously”. As more and more readily accept co-option, their price is driven lower and lower. The divide between the underground and the above-ground is narrower than ever before; both sides scramble just as desperately for the nearest pile of cash and find themselves driven into the earth in the process. There’s a wealth of rhetoric concerning the internet as a revolutionary tool for musical distribution, yet we find that no matter how long this ‘threat’ to economic security is evaded, the music and the money will be eroded in tandem.
The four definitions of ‘independent’, as an adjective, via the Oxford Dictionary of English:
1. Free from outside control; not subject to another’s authority,
2. Not depending on another for livelihood or subsistence,
3. Capable of thinking or acting for oneself,
4. Not connected with another or with each other; separate.
By way of its cultural and geographic dislocation, New Zealand is, in a sense, in a state of independence consistent with definition four. If there was ever a place where an industry figurehead like Ben Howe could preside over so many things at once — operating two large independent labels, helping manage the New Zealand leg of an international festival, and presiding over Independent Music New Zealand – it’s New Zealand. The effect of his influence is that his alcohol-partnered business strategy, while allowing Arch Hill and Flying Nun to release and reissue their music, may mark a precedent for all others that march down the independent trail. Soon, independent and mainstream similarities may not just be in terms of business strategy – the norms of big-money mainstream culture (acceptance of drinking culture, consumerism, passivity) might trickle down too.
But here’s the truth: New Zealand is so small that major-independent shoulder-rubbing is basically inevitable, and as we’re all taught, we’re New Zealand, so we’re all the little guy, and for that, we ought to strive for exceptionalism. Together. God, my wryness by this point makes me sound just like The Corner’s own comments section. I mean to say that although it’s great n’ all that there’s pride in our collectivism, we must be self-aware in addressing the faults, flaws, contradictions and fruitlessness that misdirects our passion for music.
Here’s one: While the industry (and, note: the government) boasts exceptionalist values as essential to our onwardness, it paradoxically hankers for acceptance from the international community. Our industry is a force that sends bands to foreign countries as abundantly and as needlessly as the United States sends troops, part of an expansionist display that would make perfect business sense if it worked in the first place. But what are the results? Blog mentions, CMJ plays, live-to-airs: those places that accept the industry’s advances are only those that are friendly to our PR. We hear exactly what we want to hear (Ooh, New Zealand’s doing well! Some anonymous blog wrote about an anonymous New Zealand band!) while these outlets only regurgitate from similarly deaf throats (Hey guys, remember Flying Nun? Guys?). At the end of the day, it represents nothing of real people experiencing real enjoyment of music; it’s just more stuff to put on a press release. And yet, the one New Zealander who’s really showing off her home country is not only one who didn’t require the industry or government support supposed to prop up these young enterprises, she’s one that’s on a god damned major label, isn’t she?
Unfortunately, the continuance of pro-NZ rhetoric gives the industry — independent or not — its motivation to shoot bands and managers like human cannonballs toward a yearly succession of international events. WOMEX, AWME, MIDEM, SXSW, Canadian Music Week, CMJ, Big Sound, The Great Escape, Reeperbaan, Muse Expo: Shit, meet wall.
(And please, do stick).
I’m no industry tourguide, but overseas festivals that only cost you money, with little meaningful exposure, sure sound like a ride and a half. Case study: In 2013, Six60, a New Zealand triple platinum act, a number one high-aimer, and a band that obviously won the hell out of the New Zealand Music Awards, had been well-thrust into international festivals like those above – their bio states three – by their well-stocked team at CRS Management. The kind of adoring overseas audience that awaited them?
Well, Ian Jorgensen sees it differently. His last book, DIY Touring the World, explains precisely how to do this all on your own and achieve goals that might not lead to a truckload of money, but at least you won’t be kidding yourself at the same time. My second international tour is nearly all booked, 27 dates for Auckland’s Civil Union in the United States next month. If this sort of thing was really the big career break that is mythologised by the music industry, I’d here apologise for blowing my own raspy horn.
“Referring to rebellion without being rebellious” is as much as an official line for the modern music industry as it is a principle for advertisers, so it’s no wonder they’re becoming more and more integrated. Spirited optimism for both only comes in the way of an emulation; a PR vision with financial conquest in mind. For Six60, having a song featured in an ESPN sports segment is an achievement that goes right on the CV. “Baby it’s a revolution,” they remind you, having forgotten that even Nike has said the same thing to sell shoes. That’s just the nature of capitalism as a many-tentacled force, prying into the spirit of active world engagement and diluting its meaning in a shower of cash. And never have things been so diluted as 2014, when culture itself is so searchable that such a practice is a form of journalism in its own right; never has everything been more accessible.
A seventeen year-old, a Cramps fan, a feminist, and yes, a ‘sellout’ — but for critics, an icon to be dissected. For fans, another idol. For many ambitious New Zealanders, even a role model.
To advertisers: just a learning curve. Pop’s consumerist over-saturation that Lorde decries in ‘Royals’ — Maybach, Cadillac, all that stuff — caused a bit of perplexity in the marketing world last month in what what AdWeek so clinically wheezes: “a cautionary tale about how pop culture happenstances can wreak havoc on digital ad buys.” In Layman’s terms, through our generation’s curious Google searches of brands mentioned in ‘Royals’, we drove up ad prices for companies that have no interest in us as a demographic. (Because our generation, well, has no money.) It wasn’t accounted for that even while such search terms were on the overall decline, it was young people that were driving the price up. This is one of the reasons marketers find our generation so “hard to reach”, and online ad prices for us as a demographic usually command a premium.
It’s just funny that this sort of thing — not being able to afford, let alone want the brands we as a generation cannot afford — is exactly what the song is supposed to be about. While it doesn’t take a Silver Scroll award to recognise that this sentiment has some potency for a generation of folks like me who are mired in debt and poverty, to these savvy capitalists, us Millenials are no more than “tricky consumers.” (That’s a quote.) As Dan Taipua wrote for The Corner last December, these industries “couldn’t get more creative product from Lorde, but they could create an endless supply of pageviews by turning her life into a product.”
In articles like Jessica Hopper’s, Lorde’s own ad sync is seen in the industry as a “coup”. Samsung’s ad that won the rights to ‘Royals’ displays a collection of Dickensian rapscallions (all of them boys, bar one girl who shyly peeks out from a balcony to appease the feminists) scampering about as their lower-class neighbourhood turns to dust for the construction of a fancy football stadium, all under the watch of some corporate suit who actually turns out to be, hey, sort of a nice guy! (Lionel Messi, “one of the most highly paid soccer players in the world.”) Never mind that they’re the sorta kids that couldn’t afford a Samsung GALAXY in the first place.
It’s a new spin on an old tale, and it’s exactly what makes an idea like Lorde so culturally appealing: the system can be won from within. After all, you might be able to ignore her music, but you can’t ignore that for the first time in her life, and possibly in ours, the world is listening to a seventeen year-old girl. But what message ends up being heard?
Samsung describes ‘Royals’ as a “song about overcoming her own humble beginnings” (WRONG), and in the most belittling and misrepresentative fashion, the ad completely perverts and estranges ‘Royals’ of its intended meaning. The director wasn’t sure “if Lorde ever saw and approved her song’s use in the ad, but a licensing team did clear it” – we’re way past the question of what creative control is; the issue is who’s in charge.
But this should have been obvious. To be radical within an exploitative system first requires participation; you can only be confronting once you’ve accepted that it never asked you for permission in the first place. Remember that imaginary time when you were like “hmm, yep, this all looks about right to me – go ahead and build that giant fuckin’ sign right next to my house, please, sir or ma’am“? Advertising infiltrates our lives to the point that there are just some unfortunate certainties. One is that I’m a sort-of alcoholic, coke-drinker and jeans-wearer that’ll doubtlessly inspire vigorous ad hominems after this series; another is that it means our art is as commodity-ready as a tacky limited-edition bottle of beer. (“A pale copy of something much better,” quips one Axeman.) Advertising relies on its norm-enforcement to allow the system to operate in its absence: within the ‘independent’ scene, you see aesthetically pleasing, meaningless band names that market an image just as obviously as empty slogans and trademarks. Vague, incoherent grumbles that resemble song lyrics, but nothing that reveals the individual behind them. Haircuts and fashions as much a part of the music as an individual’s identity. As soon as some kind of ground is broken, capitalism waits with algorithms in hand to swoop in and chew it all up, “leaving behind only the vague shape of dissent.” It’s a confusing cycle, but it works a treat, and it wears everyone involved right down. Yes, it’s just music. And it’s only music until it’s a business, until it’s advertising music, until it’s nothing more than background noise.
We as musicians allow this process to be perpetuated by creating product that is consumption-friendly. A stammering, abrasive guitar band might possess the sound of confrontation, but so did the fucking Who, and Lou Reed, and everyone else that allowed their music to annoy the entire world on repeat in car advertisements. By now, it’s just choreography for success-driven bands for whom New Zealand is cabin fever; isolation drives a fixation on success that grows alongside a sense of suffocation. This attitude of “referring to rebellion without being rebellious” enables the advertising industry to have its work done for it already.
It’s all part of the reason why we experience shallow ideals like a culture of hero worship (that inspires commercial opportunism (that gives way to career ambition (that pines for artistic recognition (that rests upon an insecure desire for ordinary ol’ popularity)))) that helps perpetuate resulting festishism – a sort that leaves little room for the soul to breathe. Realising that I myself have been breathing heavy these past few paragraphs, I’ll try put it simple: At the end of the day, for some people, being in a band is just a fucking job.
The New Zealand Music Awards and SmokeFree RockQuest would term it differently: it’s a competition – and one that requires systemic approval. Even the Making Tracks funding scheme lists Facebook likes as an official requirement. Musicians don’t read lyric sheets in New Zealand, they read spreadsheets.
My favourite irony is that we hear of the free market’s anarchic promise and yet we simultaneously witness the chaos of the internet threatening the commercial ladder. (Well, we’d like to think so, anyway — advertisers on sites like BuzzFeed wouldn’t.) The signals come hard and fast from all directions, and now we’re at a point where nobody can tell what to think; we know that this is the reason why the music industry is grasping at so many straws and not even anticipating a negative reaction. An opinion seems kinda pointless when everyone, as they say, has one. In a Stylus Magazine article entitled Soulseeking, Nick Southall crystallises the problem with so much freely available information: “Capitalism and the free market may give us the right to choose, but it waters down and obfuscates our options with reams of self-perpetuating, low-quality product.” And he’s right.
If the industry had a face, I’d love to have seen its expression when it discovered the internet. It’s the reason the music industry in New Zealand gives an eternally perplexed pat-on-the-back to Ruban Nielson from Unknown Mortal Orchestra, whose entire international music career sprang entirely out of chance after an anonymous email to a few huge indie blogs proved lucky.
“How Selling Out Saved Indie Rock” as a title implies an imaginary little “(…and that was the end of that.)”. Buuuuut it’s not. We’re just auctioning off the value we attach to music to the highest-bidding sponsor, ignoring the consequences, and maybe tearing into those that stand between us and feeding our kids, dammit! I don’t disagree – it’s my firm belief that all human beings, including musicians, should eat things and I think fulfilling our digestive functions is very important. But as soon as we stop asking questions, we might find that all New Zealand Music becomes drinking music. Do I have the answer? Fuck no.
But I can think of some questions. What is the industry trying to achieve? Why isn’t it achieving it? What’s causing the problem? Is there simply too much goddamn music? Or not enough? Who does it belong to? Does ‘creative freedom’ even exist? Again, who does it belong to? Where’s the money going, and how long will it last? Once more: Who does it belong to? And how can anyone place monetary value on a thing so digitally abundant and so subjective in the first place?
Do we really have a choice?