Crashing the Gates
Last year, political bloggers Markos Moulitsas Zuniga (Daily Kos) and Jerome Armstrong (MyDD.com) released a political manifesto entitled Crashing the Gates. They envisioned a people-powered takeover of the Democratic Party by the grassroots, a new generation of activists that the party leadership had increasingly lost touch with. Paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson, they wrote: “the tree of a political party must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of reformers and insiders.”
I’ve always seen the music industry in a similar light. Every decade or so, the mainstream becomes so distant from its roots, so utterly lacking vitality and point that it screams out for a violent struggle from below (although unlike with politics, often the “below” is a minority in music; something of a grassroots elite, if such a thing is possible). This challenge and collision happened with punk music in the 1970s, grunge and alternative in the 1990s, and it’s happening again today.
2007 was the year that indie rock crashed the gates. Let’s ignore nomenclature concerns – yes, many of the bands granted “indie” status are on major labels – and focus on the cultural movement that’s occurring. With the Internet’s tools at their fingers, today’s twenty- and thirty-somethings are taking their favourite formerly-obscure bands and promoting them across the blogosphere and their social networks. This enthusiasm is pushing these artists not only into the edges of mainstream music publications, but up into the Billboard sales charts. Evidence? (album title / Billboard peak / US first week sales):
Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga / 10 / 46,000
Cassadaga / 4 / 58,000
Our Love to Admire / 4 / 73,000
Neon Bible / 2 / 92,000
Wincing the Night Away / 2 / 118,000
We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank / 1 / 129,000
For every one of these bands, these first-week-sales are a boost from their previous efforts and represent the clearest evidence that there is a shift taking place. But these sales rankings only tell a small part of the story; if anything, they neglect its most important part.
Yes, indie rock is crashing the gates. The problem is that the castle has already been laid to waste, and the spoils of war are nowhere to be found.
A Tale of Two Cities
The year began with Sam the Record Man on Barrington Street in Halifax – the last Sam’s remaining outside of Ontario – closing its doors. It ended with the news that Music World was going bankrupt, leaving HMV as Canada’s last national “music” store chain (with 3/4 of their real estate devoted to DVDs and video games).
In between, dozens of fantastic records were released.
This, my friends, is the great paradox of the music of 2007. Artistically, few years in recent memory can compare. For the first time I can recall, naming my favourite album for the previous 12 months was a genuine challenge, with no less than four truly worthy contenders and a slew of no-less-qualified runners-up. Every minute it seemed like another new band, worthy of your ears – if not your soul’s devotion – was making the rounds through the buzz reels. There are countless records that I never got around to listening too, and yet there’s nothing musically about 2007 that feels incomplete to me. There were old friends, new discoveries, crushing disappointments, welcome surprises and more. In any other time, I’d be making the argument that this is the arrival of a new creative renaissance.
I’m not. I’m not because all this is taking place against a much darker backdrop. A cultural shift has taken place in how people are listening to music, and I’d be lying if I said that I was optimistic about what it means for how our society interacts with the art form. The only reason that so many indie bands were able to break through the charts this year is because it seems like us music geeks are the only people left who buy music anymore; certainly, a shrinking minority in the younger age bracket, at least. We’re approaching 10 years now in the post-Napster era, and still, nobody has figured out how to get people to pay for music now that the digital cat is out of the bag. (Steve Jobs is arguably the only small exception to this, and hell, the record labels do nothing but begrudge his success).
You might wonder why I feel such loss for the bloated, capitalist behemoth that
is was the record industry. After all, many of my favourite artists were successful in spite of the industry, not necessarily because of it. And like countless greedy kingdoms before it, the record industry deserves a great deal of the blame for its collapse. It spent much of the past 25 years relying on image over substance, yearning for the quick fix over the long tail, and sticking their heads in the sand when the 21st century knocked on their castle door.
But even at its worst, there were elements of the music industry that at least tried to build long-term relationships between artists and their audience. They produced bands who were larger than life, living out the world tours that teenagers only dream of. They drafted and crafted myth and legend in equal measure, turning career stories into storied careers. And they made music for the masses – sometimes by pandering, sure, but often by providing the kind of pop bliss that people demand to soundtrack their lives, flowing from one album track into another.
Given that, yes, there were songs on the radio in 2007, the year was hardly lacking in soundtracks. But when 2008 turns into 2009 and 2010, will anyone really still be pulling out their copy of Soulja Boy Tellem and giving it a spin?
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
I don’t mean to necessarily pick on Soulja Boy in particular. After all, it’s not like “Crank That” is the first novelty single the record industry has ever churned out, and the year certainly had a few pop gems scattered throughout the charts.
But where were the quality pop records? Where were the popular sensations that will have any staying power? I sat down earlier this week to try and hypothesize who might show up on the list for tomorrow’s Grammy award nominations and I was stunned by how quickly I was drawing blanks. In my years of following popular music, I’m not sure I’ve seen such a substance vacancy in the mainstream.
This is why I don’t buy into the utopian views put forth by those who cheer the record industry’s doom. The music industry hasn’t cut down on its lightweight, disposable pop music; if anything, it’s only gotten lighter. The music industry has, instead, cut down on the more opaque side of their bottom line: building of long-term relationships between artists and their audience, between bands and their base.
Wasn’t it this sort of thinking that got the record businesses in trouble in the first place? Sure, I’m with you on that. But they also know that it may be the only island of opportunity they have left. There will always be a market for music that provides instant gratification and easy results, because there will always be people who engage with music on that superficial level.
And no matter how unlikely we are to admit it, few of us music geeks started our musical lives in the trenches – we started by listening to what everyone else was. It was only when we came across a mainstream artist with a bit of meat on their bones – in my case, Matthew Good, quite ironically – that we became inspired to find light outside of the industry-mandated tunnel; to discover new sounds, dig a little bit deeper, and form long-lasting bonds with the art form.
What concerns me is the possibility that today’s new music listeners will lack the ability to transition to the kind of substantial fare that fills my year-end lists. When only the devoted music fans buy albums anymore, and the record companies only promote single-driven disposable fare, where will this next generation find their gateway drugs, those records that demand more than just causal attention? On the radio? Nope. On music television? What music television? The Internet? Maybe, although the continued ignorance of our body politic proves that access to unparalleled information does not necessarily translate into action.
For those of us who have discovered the lifelong joy of music; who cherish both the single and the album as vital, viable art forms; who support the bands and artists who send our spirits soaring and our souls aflame; it is a damn good time to be a music fan. For those waiting for a spark that will ignite their own personal discovery, the tunnel ahead looms dark and menacing, the walls reverberating with empty echoes and a cold wind.
2007 – It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
* * * * *
Oh who am I kidding, enough with the pretentious philosophizing – 2007 kicked all sorts of ass. And I’m going to spend most of the rest of the month reminding you of exactly why.
This week, in addition to coverage of tomorrow’s Grammy nominations – which, as always, should make for a good laugh – I’m going to look at some of my favourite concerts from the past year along with my one “downer” piece: my top five disappointing records of 2007.
Then next week the big lists hit. December 10-14 will be my top 15 singles of 2007, counting down three per day. And the following week it’s the big show: the year’s 15 best albums, counting down all week long.