To my friends, those unlucky, patient bastards who get to hear me rant about my most recent introspection, it may be no secret that I’ve entered something of an anti-digital phase fairly recently. It’s not that I don’t love technology – clearly. I’m coming off a technology-will-save-us-all phase. As an example of my hopeless nerdidity, I’ve logged more time as an adult playing super nintendo emulators than I did as a child playing real super nintendo. (As my 5-year-old niece said over Christmas, “isn’t that game supposed to be for kids??”) I’ve grown up surfing the net. My brain is forever attached to Google. In every general sense I’m living on the grid and loving it.
BUT. It’s the odd cultural death that perturbs me. I’m more and more repulsed by the nature of our social media culture, and the conversations AROUND technology. I often find the conversations to be biased, self-righteous and lacking in humanism, lacking in depth. Many ideas about digital technology in this era have certain undertones… almost superstitious, with hints that social connectivity dwarfs any previous technological jump, that it’s somehow more important. That we’ve bridged the gap. That we’ve saved ourselves, and our art, and probably solved the dark problems of sickness and death and war. It’s this voice, this Singularitarian voice, which I find intellectually offensive. My reasons are subtle and difficult to express without annoying people, but I’ve thought about this lots and lots.
But putting aside the bigger philosophical problems I see with America’s relationship with technology, I was thinking about a simpler challenge for the musically-inclinded human artists of today – the fact that the internet, by it’s mere nature, has an overwhelming bias towards visual forms of media. A challenge for today’s genuine musical artist is the progressive skewing of pop and sub-pop towards the visual. Yes, it skews towards the fast, the shallow, the over-produced/underwritten, and the inoffensive and safe, but more practically, the visual. I bring it up because it seems like a clear shortcoming in our computer experience, yet we never really talk about it.
The internet is primarily visual. The visual content of the web and streaming video takes precedence. That’s nothing strange – communicating on the electromagnetic spectrum, in two dimensions (mostly), is easily the most efficient way to exchange huge amounts of information. It’s discreet, not linear, enabling the viewer to jump around and find what he wants. This is a contrast to musical expression. The rock record, for example. Music is an art form that exists primarily in the dimension of time (plus a other linear dimensions like frequency and amplitude), is mostly continuous, and in my opinion, is still having an awkward time finding it’s place on the grid.
Music is projected through the medium of thin air (incredibly). Disturbed air pressure waves radiate out and are received in a binary fashion through the fourth dimension of time. The visual part of the experience is implied by the music and the soundscape, and constructed in the mind of the listener. That’s important I think! A profound and divine musical experience, in my opinion, is listening to a long-form musical creation (like a record) without visual distraction, or at least with unrelated visual distraction. I’m discounting some other great musical art forms here, of course, but I’m merely sticking up for if not the most pure, certainly a valid way to experience music. The emphasis is on the songs, the world, the forms within that say what can’t otherwise be articulated.
So music, as I see it, exists ideally as a non-visual (besides in the mind of the listener) exchange that happens in a comfortable chunk of time, ideally in a bubble of non-distraction and presented loudly.
Something like a film has a much easier time marketing itself to the internet. A film preview makes sense to present online. Does an album preview work? Hardly at all. Literature and writing lend themselves to online marketing. Comics. Paintings. Photography. Design. Making anything that CAN be photographed. These mediums lend themselves to successful online marketing, social media jibber jabber, reviews, whatever. People invest heavily in state-of-the art visual displays, but mostly use cheap, tiny, complimentary speakers or headphones. A blogger can throw up a cute picture. Do people pass around music in the same way? Do people post many non-visual links to songs on social media (compared to visual-centric things, even modern music videos, which are usually just short films now)? Does anyone listen? I mean, compared to a video called Top 10 Animals That Reminded Humanity How To Love I think a deep, intelligent new 4:00 rock track would be practically ignored. The most-used option for sharing music is through visual streaming services like YouTube, and it isn’t a great one. Music, in my humblest of opinions, is a time-expensive and physical investment. Point blank.
So music has become the sidekick of the visual. It tends to accompany. It’s part of a film, a video game. The production norms of music, in turn, have been skewed towards what I call “ear candy”. It sounds buzzy and glitzy and pumping, but just not deep. In fact, often the music has to be extremely simple and sort of get cheap emotions when it’s coupled with video or other media. It’s just pragmatic.
It’s potentially awkward, is what I’m saying, to use the internet as a grass-roots music marketing platform. We’re trying to force feed the visual onto the musical – not on purpose – but because that’s what we’ve made viable through our culture. It’s gotta catch the eyes to have any life. And now the musical artist, with fewer resources than ever, spends his time worrying about everything BUT the damn record. And that’s really my biggest problem with all the “music biz” talk going around. Most of it ignores the fact that the final goal, in a culturally aware society, should be to give the human (important to remember…. humans…those fragile, emotional beings who need money and get sick) artist room to create. To create different. To create weird. To be clever and dark if she wants. To spend time on like, you know, the song. To bring us into her world, not always the other way around.
I find that posting a song on Facebook without visual accompaniment feels strange and awkward. People don’t know what to do with it. They’re impatient. A four-minute song, which might take a few listens to appreciate, just doesn’t stand a chance next to a cheap, sexy meme.
These are just some of my observations as a musician in the internet age. I point this out only to encourage a balanced criticism of our current culture, not to say the internet sucks, or that technology sucks, or music sucks now because I don’t like it. Point blank, it’s awkward to present deeply crafted musical creations online. Despite my many other issues with social media’s ideas on digital music, this is an issue which I haven’t seen discussed very often, but that I find very real. Thoughts?