dinsdag 19 juni 2012

The modern music consumer: stuck in the cash cube?

I just finished watching this fantastic Pitchfork-classic film about Modest Mouse's incredible album The Lonesome Crowded West and once again, it struck a chord that's been resonating within me for awhile now. It was about nine years ago when I first heard Modest Mouse, all thanks to an active poster at one of the message boards I visited frequently. This young kid - even younger than I was at the time - who went by the handle NachoChez.  Previously, he managed to get me hooked on bands like Shellac, Mission Of Burma, Slint, Brian Jonestown Massacre, Refused and The Minutemen. Whatever it was NachoChez recommended, it was usually a pretty safe bet. He even introduced me to the band that would eventually change my entire life: The Flaming Lips. Before I digress: I was immediately drawn to Modest Mouse's unique combination of raw primal energy and poignant beauty, which seem to be at perpetual odds with one another. Apart from Isaac Brocks peerless lyrical aptitude and delivery, there was always this ambiguous aesthetic within the music which provided Modest Mouse their mystique. It's exactly what has made The Lonesome Crowded West and the equally magnificent follow-up The Moon And Antarctica so compelling.

Not to say there isn't a plethora of fantastic new bands emerging. As a matter of fact, amazing new artists seem to emerge almost simultaneously - and in much larger amounts - than ever before. Of course, this has everything to do with the digital revolution. The immediacy and magnitude of when and where music is available makes it almost impossible to catch up. It wasn't until year and a half ago - when I started writing articles and reviews for music e-zine File Under - that I've been watching the music industry manifest so candidly. On Twitter I've been following various prominent dutch music journalists and enthusiasts, such as Gijsbert Kamer, Atze de Vrieze, Theo Ploeg, Peter Bruyn, Erik Zwennes, Tjeerd van Erve and Joris Rietbroek, to name a few. I always marvel at how adeptly they seem to keep wraps on this continuous influx of releases and concerts, not to mention the developments around the industry's transition into the digital age.

I, for one, often struggle to catch up. A part of me - stubbornly perhaps - longs for those days before MySpace, before Soundcloud, Last FM, Spotify and Bandcamp reshaped the way we consume, listen to and interact with music. In some ways, the internet has tainted some of the things I used to value about music growing up. A sentiment emphasized by this excerpt from Pitchforks review of Neutral Milk Hotels Box Set:

"An overlooked element of Neutral Milk Hotel's enduring appeal is that Mangum stopped making new music at the precise moment that music was about to become "an internet thing." A year after Aeroplane came Napster, and pretty soon the way we hear and experience music would never be the same. But Neutral Milk Hotel remain, as if preserved in amber, in that moment when independent music was bought in stores and spread by word of mouth that came from actual mouths." 

I was discussing this with Richard James Foster (Incendiary Magazine) a few weeks ago: we talked about the beauty of Message Boards back in the late 90's and early 00's, where you could discuss artists and albums in a more profound manner: it was a more personal, a more elaborate way of interacting (frankly, it can be quite tricky to persuade and enthrall someone to listen to new music with a mere 140 characters). You could not only share music and experiences, but there was also a strong sense of community: almost like a virtual book club. I remember having endless, tiresome discussions -with posts much more extensive than this particular blog entry - with this poster called Coypu, who had this persisting conviction that death metal was the superior genre, the übergenre. Cynic and Allan Holdsworth were 'better' simply because of the mastery they have harnessed over their respective instruments. 

Never mind that I couldn't convince him to listen to Björks "Vespertine" without provoking a few derogative comments. Even though we were fierce adversaries - tête-a-tête, with neither of us willing to concede - Coypu has indeed compelled me explore the realms of thrash, progressive and death metal: I discovered bands like Carcass, Amon Amarth, Strapping Young Lad and Gordian Knot. I probably wouldn't have immersed myself within these genres on my own - in fact I'm pretty damn sure of it. It is partly what made these message boards such an enriching way to broaden your musical interests beyond the comfort zone.  And this was just a small sample size: I have explored the realms of hip-hop, alternative rock, progressive rock, jazz, soul and punk in similar fashion. If it weren't for these seemingly pointless discussions, I wouldn't have had half the knowledge. It's something I proudly flaunt with, and for a good cause. How many people would take my articles seriously - no less read them in the first place - if they don't believe I have the slightest clue what I'm talking about?

My days of geeking about music on the forums have been fruitful indeed, and not just because it has broadened my musical horizon. But more importantly, back then, music was still somewhat elusive. Even after the emergence of Napster, you could still only preview an album with only a handful of songs. The compact disc was still very much a hot commodity. Studying in Utrecht at the time, I kept making these lists of albums I HAD to buy the next time I visited the local Plato-store. Being the socially awkward reject that I was (and still am), spending my college funds on fraternizing and booze wasn't much of an option. Instead, I spent more than half of it on cd's: dEUS, Super Furry Animals,  Slowdive, Ani DiFranco, The Unicorns, Guided By Voices, Elliott Smith, Death Cab For Cutie, Pixies, Stereolab, Trail of Dead, Built To Spill, Sparklehorse. You name it. Needless to say, this addiction was getting out of hand. But back then, your curiosity and attention span wasn't instantaneously subverted with the simple click of a mouse.

Earlier this year I interviewed Shearwater-frontman Jonathan Meiburg in Amsterdam. Afterwards, he gave this thoughtful analogy about todays music consumption. He described open source interfaces such as Spotify as 'water from the tap', whereas before, music was like some remote water source in Africa. You had to cherish that particular source, simply because it wasn't immediately accessible to everyone. It suddenly hit me then and there: is this why I tend to cling tightly to old favorites such as The Flaming Lips or Modest Mouse amidst all them promoters woo'ing these fancy buzz bands from left to right? 

Deep down, we all seem to yearn for a more intrinsic level of satisfaction, solace or reprieve: not just cheap thrills, like smoking cigarettes or riding rollercoasters. Could the modern music consumer be nothing more than a person stuck in a cash cube - reaching frenetically and obliviously for a couple of paper bills? With most social media, it simply starts with a multitude of flashy names scattered across the length of your browser. Before you can read any synopsis, even more appealing names are funneled your way: Alt-J, Chromatics, Howler, Django Django, Tennis. No matter compelled you are to listen to all of them, this process of discovering music initially comes across as superfluous. 

When a particular person starts plugging a band more conspicuously on numerous occasions, I'll feel more compelled to check it out. For example, Tjeerd van Erve (Nu.nl, De Jaap Gonzo Circus, File Under) evoked a genuine sense of euphoria and ballyhoo over Japandroids' Celebration Rock album. He expressed this sense of joy by not only writing about it on his blog and in reviews, but also by posting pictures on Twitter of him dancing exuberantly with his kids to this particular album. By expressing his infatuation with this album on a more personal level, I felt enticed to check this album out for myself. And whaddaya know: Celebration Rock is indeed a fantastic record that could've easily derived from the days when I was still discovering bands like Hüsker Dü and Hot Snakes. Heck, Theo Ploeg (OOR) even compared this record to Fugazi. Whether authenticity becomes some sort of beacon of light amidst this vast and ever expanding musical landscape is up for debate. There are plenty of good articles exploring this subject in further detail.

Hence, that's all for now! 

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