We Live in Public
Kids in a room, adults at a party, family by the dining table – sure, they used to be some of the ways that we used to share music, but we all know that the internet has changed our modes of listening. I open my browser and stumble upon a friend’s link to a new track by Shlohmo, so I click and listen. He’s in London and I’m in York, but that means nothing because we are connected by the internet. By this stage in the game, such a phenomenon is out to surprise no one. Music enthusiasts emigrated from the living room to the PC desk a long time ago as the blog killed Top of the Pops and HMV fell to .rar files. We’re at a point now where Michael Jackson’s 1982 ‘Thriller’ can be safely consecrated as the eternally bestselling album. However, it’s now an observation rendered irksome as it has become an outmoded trope; we all know it and they’ve all said it. But the internet has given rise to forms of appropriation far more nuanced than the illegal download of a compressed zip file. As a new year begins, it’s worth looking at what happens to the music scene when it goes online. Will 2013 be the year that the sofa is replaced by the Mac in the audio-nerd’s trash can?
Over the past couple of years there has been a definite cultivation of a ground-level internet scene. Forget Bandcamps, Soundclouds and Lastfm, because you’ve got boys befriending R. Stevie Moore on Facebook and girls emailing Nathan Williams’s brother. Song-a-day artists and prolific writers like R. Stevie Moore, Ariel Pink and James Ferraro wouldn’t exist without the internet and neither would the throng of mixtapes that are thrown out into cyber-ether by rappers like Don Trip & Starlito. This is rough and ready, awkward web communication which moves in circles, miles away from the slick PRs, who collaborate this signing with that signing in anticipation of accumulating higher buzz rates for their labels.
Such collaborations are the fodder that blogs run on, and they serve as the flip side of the sonic-web coin. With the stress on daily news, website hits and links shared, the blogosphere is naturally fitted with a weak filter. “I don’t want to rain on this parade,” Jessie Ware sings on her Benzel ft. Jessie Ware cover-of-a-nineties-RnB-track, but the saturation of blogs with these forms of collaborations saps the creativity out of the music scene. You can bet your life that any next big thing will be thrown into the remix jungle of the French Fries and Joe Goddards. Cyril Hahn’s reshape of Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” is a full on hit, but his heavy-handed go at Haim’s “Don’t Save Me” reeks of a clever young thing pulling strings at Polydor. After an initial wave of excitement on seeing artist name X alongside artist name Y, blog reader Z hears the music and judges it to be mediocre. It’s becoming a formula which is easy to identify and ignore. Such sites were initially interlocutors between musicians and music fans – as is defined by XLR8R’s name – but the music it features has become shaped by the journalists’ demands. Perhaps the blogosphere is getting too big for its boots. Are we about to witness the death of the blog?
The power reversal between musician and journalism is something that Mark Richardson points out in his article ‘Follow People If You Like Their Music’. In it he says that in some new music “discussion of what the music is, how it works, and what it might mean to someone listening to it is far less important than the act of passing it along to others. For music like this, context, whether broad or narrow, takes a backseat”. Context is what gives meaning to music; it is not what you’re listening to, but why you’re listening to it which is worthy of attention. This context is exactly what is missing in online music discoveries. Blogs ride on the thrills of boxfresh tracks but they can’t provide the emotional or physical connections that should come with it. The synesthetic mode of music and its canny ability to summon a past emotion or memory no matter where you are, is what privileges the art form above any other. You don’t stand there and look, and you don’t sit there and read, but you can move into a space of your own which can be shared with others. This is what makes music mean anything to anybody at any given moment. It is only when those tracks on blogs are taken away from the computer and into the kids room, adult’s party or any other tangible situation that they come to mean anything as a piece of art. Sites which aggregate music work under the pretence that their readers will appreciate everything that they post. Yet they catch the music before it can even begin to signify anything to listener at all. If we’d all heard Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ through an exclusive stream on Abeano then it wouldn’t be classifiable as dad-rock, and it probably wouldn’t mean a thing.
Blogs give you the free stuff, the off cuts, the previews. This new crop of musicians is the first generation to have any decade of music at their fingertips, and it shows. In her feature with Interview magazine, Grimes brands her music as post-internet: “people my age had the internet when they were kids. So I think I just had a really diverse musical background, but from a really young age. People who are 30 and older don’t have that”. Claire Boucher inadvertently echoes the generation of Josh Harris, who believe that “the most important friend to me when I was growing up was, in fact, the television”. The Twin Shadow sort whose references are geared to a certain era (listen to Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” when revisiting ‘Forget’), is being usurped by the Bouchers and the Miguels who acknowledge four or more decades of music history in one song. It might not be your Dad playing soft rock on vinyl but so what, maybe that doesn’t matter. Perhaps you can make meaning for yourself.
The tool which can homogenise our listening patterns can also lead to a multitude of musical re-appropriations. But if ‘We Live in Public’ says anything applicable to the state the online music scene, it is that the internet’s diversity can get boring. Josh Harris – the 90s dotcom yuppie who raked in and then lost his dollars by the terabyte – opens Ondi Timoner’s 2009 film ‘We Live in Public’ with his reflection on the internet: “the internet is like this new human experience. At first everybody’s going to like it, but there will be a fundamental change in the human condition. Time goes by [and] you’re really becoming more constrained in these virtual boxes. Our every action will be counted”. Harris delivers the argument straight from the horse’s mouth. The tide that draws on the allure of the internet inevitably changes in direction. You can link up your Lastfm, Soundcloud, Spotify, Mixcloud and Grooveshark accounts so that every track you listen to is accounted for. Blogs aggregating music like XLR8R and MTHRFNKR will get taken over by the Hype Machines and Portals which blog by aggregating blogs. Now it is not only what we listen to, but also what blogs we follow that is measured on a daily basis. The meanings that we create for ourselves resonate and provide meaning for others about who we are. It is a form of narcissism which shouts about what we like but not necessarily why we like it. Music and the listener are taken out of context so that they can be shared. Nitsuh Abebe states the obvious that listeners “are vastly, unknowably different from one another in many, many ways– but you would not know it from the way we usually talk about such things”. Blogs work off the premise that we are all interested in the same thing, and in doing so it becomes a self-perpetuating myth. We may feel a pressure to like poor online releases just because it could have had the makings of a great internet hit. Such music depends on the hype around a musician’s name, for, as Richardson follows, “to allow for such smooth passage through the social media sphere…there needs to be something inside of [the music] that is clearly recognizable, so the music itself becomes a kind of language based on common aesthetics and collective understanding. So when two people have the exact same ideas about song or artist, “sharing” can happen without friction”. Listening and sharing Lana Del Ray and Azealia Banks’s collab was one of my deepest and darkest hours. If we get our heads out of the blogosphere, we’ll go back to using the internet the way that Grimes does; that is, to search for music in our own way.