Sunday, October 9, 2011

Insta-Hit (or immediate thoughts on the current state of music)

The War On Drugs--"Come To The City" (mp3)
The War On Drugs--"Baby Missles" (mp3)

As a fan of both NFL Football and the Edwin Sharpe and the Magnetic Zero's song, "Home," I was nevertheless crushed when the two combined forces for an advertisement last year. At the time, I was just settling in with the song, enjoying its quirky goofiness as well as the kind of immediate emotional response it evoked with its straightforwardly-romantic lyric, "Home is wherever I'm with you." I have rarely played it since.

And that's my own quirk. When I hear a song too much, when I think I tapped into it before it became a hit, I usually turn away from it when it becomes popular. But here, we're talking about something different. The almost-immediate co-opting of music as soon as it is released, sometimes even before.

I heard Eminem's "Stan," long before I heard the Dido song "Thank You" that he sampled as the transition between his spoken verses. His story of an obsessed fan is evocative in its own right, but nothing compared to the power of the Dido song, and once I heard her fully, I always resented the way Eminem's hit used the power of her voice and emotional aloneness as a shortcut to create depth for his tale.

But she must have allowed it. Edwin Sharpe must have allowed it. The various artists who are getting their first public exposure through GAP commercials or Volkswagen ads or "hip" television shows that need background music for particular scenes must be allowing it. Or else their record companies are and there's nothing they can do to stop it.

Or else, they simply want the exposure, any way that they can get it. Because here's what is the simple reality of modern music: there is too much of it. I know that I can't possibly listen to everything that I want to, not between older artists that I keep up with and the new stuff that comes out in volumes. Heck, I can barely stand to look at our BOTG mail more than once a month or so, not because we aren't being sent quality stuff. We are. A lot of it. But when I open that email and see the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of artists trying to get a listen (some of whom you know, and know quite well), I am simply overwhelmed. I worked through pages of it back in June, writing letters to artists and their managers and their agents, promising to post this or alert people to that or download something later.

They were promises I couldn't keep. I followed through with exactly one of them--a fingerpicking guitarist from Europe--wrote a post on fingerpicking and posted three of his pieces. Don't think that I don't feel some guilt for the strangers I let down. I do. But it overtook me so completely that I couldn't handle the anxiety it was creating, so, like many of us, I have avoided it since.

So, yeah, I understand how cut-throat it is out there and how difficult. But giving away songs so that they can become insta-hits is not the way to go. Unless you and your band are looking for a quick cash-in because you don't think you've got whatever it takes.

What concertgoer wants to go hear Bob Seger sing "Like A Rock" when he or she has heard the chorus of the song 100 times as part of a truck commercial? What credibility can an artist have singing such a song, knowing that whatever he originally intended his song to mean, it now shares an additional, explicit meaning--a celebration of the performance and durability of a truck? How can we enjoy the neo-hippie vibe of Edwin Sharpe's "Home" when we hear it as the backdrop to fans cheering in gigantic football stadiums. Do we really crave the familiar so desperately that we're comfortable with such an easy alliance between art and advertising?

Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe these are the End Times, at least the musical end times. Maybe nothing is intended to be around for long, let alone last for decades, be celebrated for its influence on what followed. Maybe the connection between Madison Avenue and music has been the norm since the Andrews Sisters were selling U.S. War Bonds and the corporate media was creating the Monkees as a safe alternative to 60's music spiralling out of control and I've just chosen not to see it as the norm.

The America I prefer is the one where Ronald Reagan completely misunderstands "Born In The U.S.A." and looks like an ass doing so. It is the America where the most sordid of Michael Jackson's many sordid acts was the purchasing of the Beatles' catalog and subsequent allowing songs like "Revolution" to be used in Nike commercials.

To the young bands wondering whether or not to compromise, I would suggest that in spite of so many changes in the promotion and marketing of popular music, it's still possible, and in fact necessary, for a band to earn its credibility on the road, playing great shows and catching the ear of listeners like me who came to hear the headliner and ended up liking one of the opening acts better. By all means, get your music out there by making full use of the Internet and its many avenues, but if someone tells you that your song would be perfect for a Bank of America spot, then run. Run fast. Run far.

One band that gives me great hope these days is The War On Drugs. Landing somewhere between U2, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, LCD Soundsytem, the hypnotic repetitiveness of a latter-day solo Springsteen show,an overly-assertive reverb engineer and all of the music currently out there, these guys or this guy (I really don't know) has the urgency, the inventiveness, the low-fi attractiveness that keeps me listening forward instead of just backwards. "Baby Missles" is the best song I've heard this year; it captures the sense of urgency I'm feeling--about everything. If you've heard The War On Drugs in a commercial somewhere, please don't let me know. I'd prefer to keep that small bit of bliss.


Billy said...

This must be a generational thing. I grew up on the soundtracks to Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Heavy Metal, and the John Hughes oeuvre. Mixtapes and soundtracks were a primary source of how I found new music. They still are, actually. Music videos were another source, and what are videos but ways to put lipstick on a pig?

Meanwhile, radio has become evermore useless to anyone not named GaGa or Taio.

It's one thing to slam already-successful musicians for selling out. Phil Collins, Bob Seger, Ozzy, even Zeppelin.

But bands trying to find an audience, trying to generate some kind of interest anyway they can? I don't see why they deserve disdain. What's the difference between Dawson's Creek and a John Hughes movie, really? To survive the long haul, they still have to tour and do the ugly detail work you mention. The national vehicles for attention are increasingly difficult to find and to mine; why crap on them for jumping on a very reliable way that you can reach people's ears while earning a little extra cash for starving artists? I love this commercial, and I thought it was a great way for The Heavy to get their name out. It's like a video they didn't have to pay for.

Also, just because "Santa's Super Sleigh" stood the test of time doesn't mean it's a good song. Plenty of long-lasting songs suck.

Bob said...

I don't think it's generational at all. If your music is being used to sell a product, it's compromised. If its first appearance is as part of a commercial, then you have essentially written a jingle.

Movie compilations and tv show placements, I see as something different, though maybe I didn't suggest that in my post. I'd never have heard Death Cab otherwise.

Billy said...

"...through GAP commercials or Volkswagen ads or "hip" television shows that need background music for particular scenes..."

Seems like you lumped all three of these together. Although you don't hammer down on the third like you do the first two.

Observation Two: I just saw this at Starbucks, a compilation CD called "When Folk Meets Rock" that includes songs from Dylan among others. Do you think this is selling out? It's on a STARBUCKS Label, after all.

It might not be as blatant as a VW ad, but it's still a corporation piggy-backing on bands and music to convey an image. And I don't know many artists who haven't shown up on one of Startbucks' hundreds of compilation CDs...

Bob said...

Billy, this seems to have pushed one of your buttons--which one and why, I don't know. I don't see where I've "crapped on" young bands. In fact, I've mostly restrained my typical moralizing in favor of career advice. I just don't see the band that starts out as a commercial being around for very long, and so I advise against it.

We both know that popular music=commerce. We both would agree (I think) that there are different ways to approach that. I appreciate those who seem to take a stab at integrity, who see their music as something more than a product placement. That there are relatively few of those (Neil Young comes to mind) is not a surprise to me.

As to my own issue of why perception matters, well, I guarantee that if Patti Griffin or her agent sold "One Big Love" to a company marketing oversized condoms, you would see the song in a different light, and never again as you once saw it.