One of the things that has defined pop culture and especially music in the 21st Century is the atomization of the music industry. Aside from the major labels and their vanity plate sublabels, the music industry is dominated by perhaps millions of independent artists online and tens of thousands of micro labels based online or in local scenes. The ability to make music and record music and release music is largely open to anybody who has a computer or tablet and an internet connection. This combined with the declining importance of radio means that major labels can really only guarantee wide physical release as promotion and other forms of influence just aren’t the guarantors of success they way they used to be. The trade-off of sacrificing some artistic liberty for a huge pile of cash and a road paved to eventual stardom isn’t as lucrative as it once was, as labels become increasingly unable to secure sure-fire success for their artists. Commercially or critically. The end result is that pretty much anybody can make music and pretty much anybody can release music. There’s just tons of music out there! There’s too much music out there! Nobody will ever hear all of it, and most will hear lots that they don’t ever remember.
Where this really starts to matter is when you factor in the fact that the vast majority of people don’t even buy music anymore. Most music heard today is streamed or downloaded from blogs, file hosts, torrents, peer-to-peer, you name it. The ability of a band to make money off of record sales isn’t as important as it once was, bands make money off of merchandise and live shows. This is important to remember moving on. Bands and music are part of an ongoing trend after the age of information towards an age of curating. With all the worlds music at your fingertips whenever you want it, what becomes important is showing others your ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. What becomes important is showing others what you’re into, because what you have access to is practically limitless and no longer limited to what you find in HMV or what you hear on the radio. Chris Ott covers this to an extent in Shallow Rewards #17: The Hiding when he discusses how teenagers in particular “stake a lot of their identity in the things that they enjoy.” He also covers the nature of limited editions and obscurity in an internet connected world.
In an age when people aren’t performing a transaction for the things they consume and they can freely consume almost anything they want of a certain thing, in this case music, personal taste becomes the religion. Individualist as it may be, the idea of you defining yourself through likes and dislikes of movies, music, games, books, cultural capital in general, takes on an important role in forming communities. With all of this it becomes pressing to ask: “So what of the critics? And what of critcism?” Why bother discussing something as “good” or “bad” when i’m not paying any money for it and at the end of the day the only thing that really matters is whether I enjoy my experience with it? As a critic and as critics we need to have an answer for this question: Why?
In the film 24 Hour Party People, Steve Coogan, as Manchester music deity Tony Wilson, remarks that with the advent of rave and house music people were applauding DJs. He comments on the fact that with this new dance music, people were cheering for the medium the music was being played on. People were cheering and enjoying the record player and mixer playing music that had already been recorded and mixed elsewhere. The act of playing music had become entertainment. Criticism these days is largely the same, a reflection on the original entertainment and creation that becomes entertainment in itself. Still; Why?
As I mentioned before with curating and personal taste becoming increasingly important, sorting through the impossibly large amount of information and material available to you whenever you should want it is part of the act of creating a taste and finding things you enjoy. Finding things you enjoy is the ultimate goal. Finding things you can be passionate about is the ultimate goal. If you’re a critic or you talk or write about music you should talk about things that make you want to write about them. This is the why: to show something that has compelled you in some way to feel about it. Whether it’s good or bad, it’s something to take time out of your day and at least experience. The important thing as someone who talks about music in any way becomes to let people know about things you’ve found that maybe they’d like to find. It’s to expose stuff that people may have overlooked, like post-punk from Russia or shoegaze from Pakistan. To critics and journalists, exposing acts that are overlooked by people and giving them an audience that they’ve been trying to reach is really what, ideally, happens.
Criticism and the idea of “good” and “bad” music is less important than it used to be and that’s not a bad thing. People having the ability and means to find things they like regardless of what the media-sanctioned “big thing” is is, in my opinion, a positive thing. Someone liking it and ordering a physical copy from the band or going out to a store and picking up the album if it’s in stock is better, and maybe they’ll buy a shirt too. If bands can get the exposure they want and get some money circulated back their way and play to bigger crowds because someone somewhere wrote about them and got people to give their music a chance, that’s a good thing. If people can get connected to things that they enjoy, that’s what we’re here for. If people can find something they don’t like that at least presents interesting ideas or concepts or themes, that’s another plus. You don’t hit them all out of the park. I got that new Watter album after hearing that it was a Slint/Rachel’s/King Crimson/The For Carnation collaboration. I ended up not enjoying it, but at least I’m aware it exists and I gave it a try. Who knows how many others did the same.
Take the word of journalists and critics and writers with a grain of salt. The important thing is that you discover new stuff and support artists you like so they can survive and make more good stuff. Some write because they love music. Some write to pay the rent. A bunch of shameless plagiarizers with a scattershot discography correctly pointed out that it’s “only rock and roll, but I like it.” There isn’t much else to take away.