Monday, April 22, 2013

Modernism and Pop Music: The Wrap-Up

This is my fourth and final post on modernism and pop music. Check out the other posts in the series herehere, and here.

Pop music is a probabilistic phenomenon.  For many media corporations, selling music comes down to a careful management of resources: gather up the most promising "talent", maximize their marketing, and then hammer the target audience.  But there's a final element that needs to be considered before these corporations restart the process: see what sticks.

Marketing dollars fail, scandals arise, and tastes change.  Corporations are forced to take a diversified approach because even with advanced metrics you can't always control taste.  So while what makes it to us from our friends at Universal and Sony has been selected and filtered, it still retains a modicum of differentiation.

The three acts that I've discussed in this series have each had different experiences with major labels.  The Weeknd is currently on the way up with a Universal contract.  Death Grips were thrown out of their deal with Sony for conduct not befitting of employees.  DEP has remained ardently independent.  All three remain nebulous figures to the people making decisions because while they are producing something that doesn't appeal to large swathes of a popular audience, each also has a direct relationship to an ardent fanbase. This fanbase has been established largely because of the internet.  This fanbase doesn't care what label they're on or how the music is being made.  This fanbase only cares how they can get their hands on it.

This situation of pop music is emblematic of the crisis of the newest breed of modernism that pervades our lives.  As anyone on the street can tell you, the first world is replete with choices, especially when it comes to media.  And this is especially true of music.  As recording technology becomes continuously cheaper and more mobile, the barrier for entry into the aural marketplace becomes nearly negligible.  Your "distributor" is Bandcamp and your "marketing" is Twitter.  The music industry has been forced into a conservative position; in order to hold on to the market, Viacom and friends have to resist or channel this decentralization.  Holding "competitions" and insisting that their artists have made it to the big leagues are familiar tactics from this playbook.  This strategy works, for the most part.  Ms. Minaj and Mr. Bieber have safe careers.  The industry may be dwindling, but it isn't going away.  Nobody is holding their breath for musical anarchy.

But the issue that I am highlighting here isn't really about the success of the music industry in this conflict.  It's about what this conflict represents.  Distributive technologies, the latest being 3D printers, lead to decentralization, for better or for worse. And industries that depend on the control of ideas are forced to adapt.

One way of thinking about epochs is as ways of defining limits.  Each era has a set of limitations that present it with a set of questions that it can answer. One aspect of Modernism is that it is an experimental epoch; instead of setting a limitation that allows us to ask a question, Modernism makes its limitation into a question. Just how much decentralization can we stand before we hit the hard limit of nonsense?

It's easy to dismiss this as blandly theoretical, but consider the full context.  Each of the artists that I've written about here are themselves decentralized.  The Weeknd tries to express the Jungian shadow of modern R&B.  Death Grips gets their energy from the nihilist void at the center of mainstream hip-hop.  DEP pushes the virtuosity of metal and then find themselves in jazz.  They all reproduce the larger movement of the industry within their own expressions.  And the industry has to confront the question of decentralization every day.

And so the industry at times acts uncomfortable because it recognizes that as an aggregate entity it's having to stretch into something it doesn't recognize.  It's having to embrace things that it can't deal with in order to keep up. When Death Grips gets corporate money in order to waste it in self-sabotage, they have found a real limit, for better or worse. After all, one of the problems of modern markets (and modern institutions) in today's context is that they have problems protecting themselves from things (and people) that are willing to destroy themselves.

We're fated to live in interesting times, and the music industry is an expression of that.  If you keep your eye on them, you'll probably have a pretty good idea of where the rest of us are going, and how we're going to get there.

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