Thom Yorke’s ‘New’ MusicModel Ticks Few of Tomorrow’s Boxes (for The Conversation)

Late last week, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke released his new solo album – Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes – via BitTorrent, Inc’s “bundle” platform. Visitors to the service pay a US$6 fee, receiving the usual torrent descriptor file (much as one would on a torrent index site such as Pirate Bay) and proceed through to a downloadable bundle of eight MP3s, a music video, cover art and purchase links to the vinyl edition. To date, more than 300,000 users have either purchased the album or legally downloaded a free portion of it.

It is the paid component of the bundle that proves a potent detail here. So far, this fee-generating torrent file has been the central media hook found in reportage on the album, spreading news of Yorke’s work beyond music and entertainment journalism into the broader technology press.

In much the same way Radiohead’s 2007 album In Rainbows created a broad-reaching splash with its pay-what-you-want delivery download model – a model the band subsequently abandoned – Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is an experiment only to the degree that all effective album promotion at this level is an experiment in unknowns.

Read the rest here.

Advertisements

Artist Versus Entrepreneur: Who Gets What?

AKA SOME ARTISTS CAN’T PROMOTE THEIR WORK

Last year, I was struck by two wildly different links I came across on the same day.

Link 1:

oxbow

Via US noise-rock band Oxbow’s Facebook profile I was directed to an opinion piece by writer (and former musician) Alina Simone. Titled ‘The End of Quiet Music’ this was a nicely rendered argument for re-considering contemporary music as Art. Simone illustrates this with anecdotal evidence from her own music career: whilst making music, Simone always felt uncomfortable promoting it. After some dalliances with the new ‘realities of forced entrepreneurship in the music business’ she packed music in and became a writer of essays and novels.

As Simone sums it up, we need to consider people like her:

“We’ve placed the entire onus of changing-with-the-times on musicians, but why can’t the educational, cultural and governmental institutions that support the arts adapt as well, extending the same opportunities to those whose music provides the soundtrack to our lives? If they don’t, Darwinism will probably ensure that only the musical entrepreneurs survive.”

It’s a good argument.

There are a tonne of reasons why contemporary music should be thought of as part of the arts:

(1) Not everyone is an entrepreneur. Some people are terrible entrepreneurs and the world would be better off if they did something else. A significant number of musicians fit this profile. Wouldn’t you rather hear less from some desperate band?

(2) There are concrete barriers and market failures that confront some musicians. It can cost an Australian band $10,000 to $20,000 more than an American band to tour America, due to geography and visa restrictions.

(3) And the big one: It’s already happening in places like Australia. It’s here. Contemporary music is treated like part of the arts here. To a much lesser degree, yes, but it does gets funded by the same people who fund poetry and painting.

Here is a list of bands who have received Australia Council for the Arts funding in the last year or so:

Ball Park Music  $20,000

Dead Letter Circus $15,000

The Smith Street Band $13,240 / $13,000

Adalita $15,400

San Cisco $20,000

Sarah Blasko $20,000

Art Vs Science $20,000

Augie March $20,000

More than half of these acts are affiliated with major labels.

The music ‘industry’ is already partially under umbrella of the arts in Australia.

(Look for yourself)

In Australia, contemporary music is art. All we’re really arguing about (if we’re arguing at all) is about capitalising that ‘a’ in ‘Art’ like it always is in opera and experimental music.

——————————————

Link 2:

the-weeknd-4ee6928ad3a11

The second piece I saw last year (I wrote some of this ages ago) reached me through Buzzsonic. It was this flashy piece by Billboard Magazine on The Weeknd: How The Weeknd Went From Internet Mystery to Billboard 200 No. 2 by Reggie Ugwu.

On the surface, this piece tells a VERY different story to Simone’s. This article is about how a musician made it ‘big’ by doing virtually nothing:

 What does it mean for an artist to succeed on his/her own terms in 2013? The Weeknd — the 23-year-old, famously elusive R&B singer born Abel Tesfaye — sold 95,000 copies of his major label debut album “Kiss Land” last week, according to Nielsen SoundScan — enough for a debut at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 in a neck-and-neck race with country music star Keith Urban. “Kiss Land” trailed Urban’s “Fuse” for the number one spot by less than 3,000 albums. But unlike Urban, Tesfaye had no charting singles, or penetration at radio, and conceded to only one press interview — with Complex magazine in July — in support of the project.

In short, Tesfaye made music and let the internet and buzz do the heavy lifting. When he’d cemented in what he was doing (via free mixtapes) he went with Republic and they promoted ‘Kissland’ via ‘word of mouth, online and street-level marketing and a string of cinematic music videos.’ They didn’t throw endless amounts of cash at it. The artist didn’t take to social media every waking moment. Every individual step looks pretty savvy to me.

It’s all been built to scale up fairly organically, based on whether it should.

(That last word seems important)

——————————————

THE MIDDLE GROUND…IF THERE IS ANY?

5756196362_8266c50ac8_b

So where’s the middle ground between these two pieces?

It looks pretty clear to me:

The consumer market.

 You can’t mess with this formula: Sell people what they want to buy.

This is often a difficult proposition for musicians because – in short – their product line is somewhat fixed. Most musicians can only sing, play, perform, write and entertain in a few specific ways. Most musicians can only make a fixed number and type of product. If you play guitar, you can’t release an album of violin jams, for example.

(Same goes for many other creative people, including writers. I couldn’t write romance fiction if my life depended on it. My idea of romance is this: my girlfriend and I eat pizza together, fully clothed, in a well lit room.)

This is not a problem Tresfaye has because people want music he makes. He doesn’t need to change anything up at the moment. He’s riding over ground opened up by EDM’s rise and rise, helped along by Drake. He has, despite this, maintained a cache of mystery. So he’s got everything on his side at the right time.

When has this ever not worked?

So here’s my problem: If I had to choose which one of these two artists (Alina Simone or Abel Tresfaye) is making ‘Art’, I’m going with The Weeknd.

I just am. Simone’s work is not art because she couldn’t promote it.

I don’t think the relationship between art and entrepreneurship is linear at all.

‘Entreprenurship’ is not about being a pest on social media. That’s a mistake proponents for and against make repeatedly. Tesfaye has been far more entrepreneurial than most, while keeping a fairly low profile.

‘Art’ is not about being an extrovert either. There are probably more photos of Alina online than Tresfaye.

Entreprenurship, innovation, creativity, all those buzzwords are all about the same thing when it comes to music or any other creative endeavour: it’s the art of telling your audience a new story about why they might like your stuff…

And then getting lucky with the rest of it aka having the right product-fit for the right moment.

It’s a brutal fucking business. Really crushing. But if you can tell the right story at the right time, the game is yours no matter how you choose to play it.

—————————-

Subscribe-Graphic

The Rest Is Banal Instruction

AKA THERE IS ONLY SO MUCH ADVICE

Forget good songs. Forget savvy business strategy. Forget the internet and all other media. Forget your training and your practise. Forget anthems and hard wrung passion. Forget your heart. Forget your enemies, lovers and memories. But remember this: what the best music does is deliver us from the mundanity of everyday life. That’s what music is. It’s boundary work. It’s the testing of our limits, always pushing at something. Music that doesn’t push at something doesn’t deliver us from the boring repetition of our lives. Music that doesn’t deliver us from that  pit is just sound. It’s not even noise. It’s no different from the chime of an elevator, only infinitely less useful. It’s garbage.

This avenue to escape ourselves is the sustenance that music can give us. We all need this sustenance and some of us can only find it in music. Everything beyond and around that sustenance is a condiment, that’s all. You can forget all the rest of it and still save a person with music. You can forget all the rest of it and still save yourself.

And that’s it.

The rest is banal instruction.

‘Just do it for the love of it, maaaan.’

‘Just do it because it’s your calling, maaaan.’

‘Never give up, maaaan.’

Fuck all of it.

You don’t need instruction. None of us do. Not if we all keep in mind how and why music works. Not if we always steer ourselves to those unknown places that music opens up. Not if we strive – always, to the point of exhaustion – to find the edges of our lives. And when we’re there we get the one golden reward there is in music: company. And we learn the most comforting lesson there is: you are not alone.

So my advice is to honour this over all of music’s condiments and distractions. As such you don’t need to be a professional or a celebrity to change the world around you. You only need to do as Kurt Vonnegut once suggested, to ‘create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.’ Who would want anything more beautiful out of life than that?

—————————-

Originally published in ‘The 360 Deal’ edited by Andrew Dubber. 

—————————-

Subscribe-Graphic

Hybrid Moments in Jared Leto’s ‘Artifact’

AKA THIS FILM IS STRANGELY AWESOME

There are two distinct scenes in Artifact – a new documentary about US pop band 30 Seconds To Mars – where it feels as though the film could truly become an exposé. This desire to expose is a claim the film makes often. Director and star Jared Leto is repeatedly depicted on camera in a state of intense frustration about the injustices of commercial music. For minutes on end, he argues and cusses into the phone. If one were to edit out these scenes of him on the phone (and, perhaps, the scenes of the band high-fiving), there would not be much left of Artifact to watch.

Yet it is one phone conversation in particular that I found captivating. Leto cruises through LA in an SUV, speaking to his manager Irving Azoff. Not much comes of this brief chat: the band’s label is still suing them (for 30 million dollars, no less), negotiations are still slow and unfruitful, chaos still reigns supreme in the American music business. At the end of this conversation, just as Leto is about to speak, Azoff signs off abruptly. Leto then turns to the camera and says:

‘I was just about to ask him how much that call cost me.’

It is was at this exact point I first started to pay real attention. Here Leto is depicted at rock bottom. He is questioning everything around him, allies and enemies alike. If this moment were channeled through the remainder of the film and allowed to guide its narrative, Artifact would have been an astute and invaluable music documentary, irrelevant of one’s opinion of the band. Unfortunately, this is not to be.

Continue reading

Always On This Line by Sarah Blasko

AKA THIS SONG AND WHAT’S IT ABOUT

Oh, it might be unkind of me to make you feel bad,
It might be a shame of me to treat you like that,
When there’s everything you’ve worked for in your life,
On this line…

You think?

The middle-eight of ‘Always On This Line’ by Sarah Blasko is one of the most bittersweet moments in Australian music. It’s pretentious, manipulative, awful but also knowing, sly and gut-wrenching. After a whole song of ‘Maybe you could have made something of yourself’ (never myself), Blazzy cops to this brief moment of doubt. But…it’s never felt very generous to me. It feels like fine print. Compounded by the cute filmclip, the only difference between this and – as John Gardner would say – ‘staring into a volcano filled with baby skulls,’ is her awkward dancing and the impeccable chorus hook. There’s a lot of life in that dancing and chorus. I don’t know how she does it.

Continue reading

Prestige and Professionalisation at the Margins of the Journalistic Field: The Case of Music Writers

AKA SOME MORE INTERESTING RESEARCH WRITING FROM MY DESK JOB

Amateur_MediaA recent publication by Routledge caught my eye the other day as I scanned the shelves in the library. Inside, I was surprised to find a chapter on music writing in Australia. Put together by two other Melbourne academics: one of the book’s co-editors Ramon Lobato and occasional Mess & Noise contributor (and PhD candidate) Lawson Fletcher. Much like my entry on Clinton Walker’s piece in the Quarterly Essay, and for much the same reasons, I thought I might ‘pick the eyes’ out of this piece and post them up here.

The chapter mainly concerns itself with the state of music writing (i.e. criticism, reportage and opinion) in Australia. Drawing on interviews conducted with Australian music writers about their work. The chapter asks, ‘Why does music writing operate and read as it does in places like Australia?‘ and, ‘What do these people get out of this?’ Good questions that really benefit here by way of academia’s cautious, level-headed approach to reporting research findings.

So, a bit light on razzle-dazzle but pitch-perfect in places, I liked it and will no doubt be suggesting it to my students.

Here’s my notes:

Continue reading

On How To Build An Audience

AKA IT IS NOT ROCKET SCIENCE

Part of why we go to shows is to see other people listen to music. Strange, but true. The anecdotes I use in class to explain this:

Imagine you could go and see your favourite band perform and you’re the only person there. You could stand where-ever you liked, you could be the sole beneficiary of the band’s attention and there would be no line for the bar or washroom. Close your eyes and imagine it for a second. Would it actually be fun? 

OR:

Have you ever seen one of your favourite bands sound-check? I have, it’s horrible. In 2006 I watched Sleater-Kinney soundcheck and it was an experience akin to watching kitchen hands in my favourite restaurant. It was the exact same thing: people standing on-stage, playing a song I loved. But outside of the performance – away from an audience – it was mechanical, dry, weird, melancholy almost. 

Why?

Because the audience is a huge part of what makes a live show unique and that’s a huge part of what we look for at shows. We want to step outside of what we’re used to, that’s why we’re there. Without the audience, all we see are people doing their jobs – jobs that can probably be almost as boring and as annoying as our own.

Smaller, local shows are different. Ten people are an audience at a local shows. Thirty people are a crowd. Fifty people are a raging success. A hundred means something’s happening. It doesn’t take a lot of people, not in the whole scheme of things. There are probably more people on a train in your city right now.

So from day one, if you want to build and audience, go where your audience wants to be.

And you know where they want to be.

It’s where you yourself go, when you look for music and community and escape.

And if you’re not looking for those things, if you can’t answer these questions, then you’re not a live musician and you shouldn’t be performing in front of other people.

You need to be personally invested.

You need to be personally invested.

You need to be personally invested.

If you’re not, you’re just doing the most poorly paid work available.

So, in short: the first step to building an audience is being part of one.