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DREW: Kukstis, it’s the end of the year, and I know we’ve only been at this a few times, but I can’t help but get the impression that you’re an end-product oriented fellow when it comes to music. You like the finished effect above all else, and have little concern for what happens to get there. Specifically, I gather, you’re not that keen on sympathizing with those in the music realm who have to jump through the less artistic and satisfying hoops in order to get where they are. Industrial teeth-cutting isn’t among your interests, but since you’re not a musician by trade or hobby, this seems fair; you’re a consumer of music-as-art, not a producer.
So, my friend, I use this space to implore you to have some sympathy for those on the middle-rungs of the ladder—those who have talent, those who have artistic sensibility, those who know that they’re not doing the “high-brow” thing, but those who have no other recourse. Where are these people in the music trade? Well, they’re everywhere, and most visibly in recent years, they’re standing behind Ashlee Simpson and Hilary Duff when they’re on SNL or touring the ClearChannel-owned venues of America. They’re often male (instrument-players still disproportionately are), they’re inevitably clad in the most up-to-date wear from Urban Outfitters, and they’ve all been taught—by the label or by the unofficial requisites of the session-musician circuit—the same strange punky-jumpy-dance stage presence.
What do the elite music-arati call them? Well, if they notice them at all, they call them sell-outs, because “these guys aren’t artists, they’re just musicians.” Those are difficult terms to define, of course, and most who use them in such a context don’t bother to, but I think they’re unfair. The music industry is nothing like it was forty years ago (this is beyond common knowledge), and the mass-manufacture model which came into effect in the 1960s when it became clear that shipping 1,000,000 albums from one printing across the world was no longer science fiction—that model was never limited to albums. Leo Fender realized in the mid-fifties that, hey, he could take a block of wood and screw some hardware to it and kids in their garages in Peoria, Illinois could learn to play the guitar. And the effect? Today, so many people play the guitar, the bass, the keyboards, and so many people rightly call their instrument(s) their passion, it is a gross under-representation to say that there are too many talented people out there. It’s too easy to tell these poor souls to “get a real band.” I’m imploring you, and those like you who cringe at the sight of the labels’ on-stage shills, give them a break.
CHRIS: Well, for starters, you’re right—I’m convinced that there’s stuff lost in the commercial process; the trappings of the music establishment, of those who own studios and invest money in your up-and-coming punky-jumpy-dance stage presences, do nothing to promote the kind of liminal experimentation that continually advances, and in fact limit it: it’s been proven time and again that what’s familiar sells almost as well as sex. That’s the flaw of your Jack Johnsons and John Meyers: companies are willing to invest in this brand of songwriter because they do little to rock the boat. How much risk do you think there is in a good looking musician who plays uptempo, heart-on-sleeve acoustic-guitar rock? But do we need more of this. Major labels, alongside television tie-ins and corporate-owned radio, is more than happy to graze the masses on this mundane feed. Another year, another decision as to on what mindless America shall suck: do we feel that it’s time for Sex Pistols redux? How about a new Madonna? There’s no sense of pushing things forward, to cop a phrase from Mike Skinner, an artist whose independent work is exciting because it does just that: the Streets expose audiences to the laddish rap of Britain, a new artist, a new voice. An informed and active interest in music demands that we constantly push our boundaries, exposing ourselves to these diverse voices, which challenge our convention and beyond entertaining us, force us to think.
Now you’ll strike back with the argument that music, as entertainment, doesn’t necessitate the exploration and growth that I speak of. Pop music can simply exist in the forms it’s already discovered; if the Beatles are a good band, which none would deny, why should a band that writes songs a great deal like the Beatles be discounted? In the prologue to his “Aetia,” the Hellenistic poet Callimachus recounted how the god Apollo came to him when he started off as a poet, and warned him against the paths that carts had engraved in the earth. Nothing’s changed in the two thousand plus years since Callimachus wrote this: the artist that refuses to test boundaries is the artist whose relevance and influence quickly fades. Perhaps this is good enough for the United States of American Idol, but I can’t so easily divorce myself from my critical sense: I think it’s important to cling to a higher standard.
DREW: I’m actually not going to argue the “entertainment” angle. That’s not my issue here. My issue is this: “But the question is whether we need more of this,” you say, and you use the word “need” with absolutely no irony or self-parodic intent. I don’t want to get into a political-economic argument here, but under the free-market capitalistic system, there is no question as to whether or not we “need” more art: the answer is resolutely NO.
With VERY few historical exceptions, the goal of record labels—especially major labels, or labels with the ability to significantly affect anything in the music world—is to make money. This isn’t exclusive to the music industry, and it isn’t something that I want to debate here (I think we both agree it’s not ideal, to say the least). But it is the way the system works right now, and it is inescapable.
If you make an album that has no commercial value, no matter how artful, it is exceedingly unlikely that it will be picked up. Look at Fiona Apple’s recent (non)release, Extraordinary Machine. Say what you will about Ms. Apple’s merits, the fact of the matter is she’s got a talent that does not mesh with what her label (Sony) wants in a saleable product, and so the album has been shelved for years.
Sure, escape routes occasionally come up in the form of powerful indie labels that can challenge the tide. But they are overwhelmingly the minority, and make up such a small percentage of the commercial music scene that they’re more like the boiler pressure vents than real changes—the majors allow them to exist because they can satisfy the artistic elite, and so the majors don’t need to change their own operating strategies to appeal to the outspoken Pitchfork crowd (nothing against Pitchfork, mind you).
Anyway, this is all getting away from my major point, which is that with all this high-level discourse it’s very easy to overlook the fact that people who are talented—technically and artistically—have really, really hard odds to beat. I’m not defending John Mayer here (I think you’ll remember that I hate him as you do), but I’m trying to point out that it’s not always possible to be a revolutionary in the music world. To those that are: more power to you. Rock the boat, screw the labels, and change the industry.
But you, Rockers-of-the-Boat, are the exceptions, and there are many who can’t afford to say “fuck you” to the label hiring director who says, “Here’s $5,000 to back Lindsay Lohan on her new album.” Ultimately, the ones who become the Stooges or the Clash are the aberrations. There are so many who try not to sell-out—and try at all costs—and fall flat on their faces. All I’m saying is that you should cut the ones who see no other job alternative than session musician some slack. Luck factors far too prominently in the game of making it in the music industry to do otherwise.
CHRIS: The music industry isn’t what it used to be, but your ideal, the studio musician transitioning into the limelight, might be similar to that which occurs in the rap game: on equal footing with the rappers are the producers, who are arguably as important to a track’s success. Good production makes an epic difference, as can be seen in the prominent diversity on Jay-Z’s “Black Album,” where a slate of different studio gurus give each song a distinct match-up to the H.O.V.A.’s rhymes. Studio musicians in rock and pop don’t enjoy the same opportunity for fame that rap producers do, and it’s a shame: the musicians behind a huge percentage of certain radio stations go completely unnoticed for their efforts.
I don’t deny, either, that this music can be good; you show me a man who doesn’t enjoy Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and I’ll show you someone whose asexuality might rival Morrissey’s without his sense of melody: as you would be quick to agree, the song’s electronic flourishes and dynamic vocal performance are nonpareil today, even if to some extent the music is a product of some sort of attempt to create the aforementioned Madonna for the ’00s. The song, however commercial, however studio-staff heavy, evades the curse of boredom.
I do deny that I have to care about it.
The philosophy of music, the summary of aesthetic: the artists who get remembered, those who leave the greatest mark upon their craft are, at least in Aristotelian terms, those who further the mission of pop and rock music to its ultimate state. Some maintain that this “telos” was “Revolver,” others will swear to you that it was “Dark Side of the Moon.” We know better. Our critical scopes are so broad as to encompass more music than we could listen to if we were to devote every minute of the day to such an exercise, and every year we find more that challenges our expectations, turns on its forebears, innovates on the past or at least embraces it ironically; the classics have their place, but rock and pop music continues to push forward in the quarters kept from the masses by forces that are strikingly close to Mill’s tyranny of the majority. Let them have their opium of the people, I say, but let’s not forget that this isn’t the business of the critic: active contemplation of rock has long since been the cliché of the junkie, the obsessed, not the commuter struggling through traffic.
—Staff writer Christopher A. Kukstis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Columnist Drew C. Ashwood can be reached at email@example.com.
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