2011: The Year Punk Broke

A few weeks ago, I went to an Active Child show. Active Child is a musician who plays, as his primary instrument, a harp, which is supplemented by percussion, keyboards, and various electronic noises (including, usually, some pretty heavy bass– which is one of the things I like best about it. The bass grounds what might otherwise be a bit of a wispy, overly pretty sound). Active Child himself, as is often noted, was a choirboy, and his voice tends to sound like it; he generally runs it through effects that give it a little more presence, and also less naturalistic.
One of the opening performers, with whom I was unfamiliar, was a artist named Ant’lrd. His setup consisted of what looked like a pretty typical rock drum kit, along with a sampler, loop pedals, a MacBook, and any number of other effects and gadgets. The sound was centered around the percussion and low drones, with occasional spoken-word samples and assorted other sounds.
It occurred to me as I watched these performances how difficult it would be to describe the sound of either of them to somebody from, say, 20 years ago (not an especially long time). Even with people from the present, when asked “what kind of music” something is I often have a difficult time classifying bands and performers in any of the ways that this question seems to expect. What this reflects, I think, is the multiple and various ways in which technology has altered “popular” music, both how it is sold and how it is made.
On the most obvious level, technology has made it easier to make music by oneself. That’s a shift that started probably back in the late 1970s, but really took off in the 1990s with small, affordable samplers, sequencers, synthesizers, etc. New, simple, recording technologies, and the fall in the price of studio software, has accelerated this. So, there are more people making and recording music. This is not what I am primarily interested in here. 
Of course, one thing that has happened to the music industry in recent years is that it sells far fewer records than it used to. Even the most popular artists, with very few exceptions, sell a fraction of what stars of comparable fame used to do. This is partly due to piracy and easy duplication– to the fact that people don’t really have to pay for music any more, provided they don’t feel too bad about violating copyright law or screwing the artists out of their earnings (and I’m not at all interested in getting into the ethics of copyright here, or the extent to which piracy hurts artists versus record labels, or any of that). But another aspect of this is that the traditional channels of distribution are no longer as important. People can make music and make it available to, essentially, any number of people at basically no cost. Getting people to actually FIND it and listen to it is another thing all together, but distribution itself is no longer a hurdle. Record labels and distribution companies used to have a lock on this. If you didn’t have a label, you basically went to local indie record stores and asked them to sell your album on consignment, or you sold them at shows.– strategies that guaranteed sales in the dozens, at best. Moreover, if the label you signed to was too small, or didn’t itself have good distribution, you still weren’t going to reach very many people. This gave record labels, and the major labels in particular, a lot of power over the process; you could be a mainstream figure, with a marketing budget and national (or international) distribution, or you could be obscure. Even artists who managed to get signed to major labels but recorded music that the labels didn’t think was commercial enough could find themselves remaining unheard, as labels declined to seriously promote their work.
One occasionally still hears stories about this kind of thing– Freddie Gibbs, for instance, was signed and then dropped by a major label before anything got released– but in general artists are no longer as dependent on labels, or anybody else, in this way. If you have a record that you want people to hear, get on bandcamp, and send links to some blogs, and cross your fingers. Again, this isn’t to say that actually getting heard is easy, much less actually making any money, but when these things don’t happen it is not because of the actions– or inaction– of a record label. And, since major label artists aren’t selling like they used to either, the gap between success within a niche and “mainstream” success doesn’t seem nearly as wide as it used to. So why not? The number of releases on a year-end list like Pitchfork’s top 50 albums that were available for free download speaks to this change.
One effect of this is that it is much less important that your music fit into a particular marketable category, and so music has become increasingly fragmented. Microgenres appear, rise, and vanish within months; artists that only a few thousand people ever hear of spawn imitators that reach even fewer ears, and the blog congnocsenti are sick to death of things of which almost everybody else is blissfully unaware. (Any thoughts on the ascendence of “cloud rap” in 2011? The transition from dubstep to UK funky? Maybe, but the odds are against it). This means that an artist like Active Child or Ant’lrd can assemble idiosyncratic, difficult-to-classify musical ideas and develop, in the former case anyway, a fairly significant following without any real marketing– certainly nothing like the push that accompanies a major label release. Imagine pitching a harp-and-bass group to, say, Universal in 1995. Good luck with that. I don’t mean to suggest that the only thing preventing such a combination form emerging at that time was a lack of label interest; lots of weird, niche sounds existed then, too, and obviously Active Child’s style reflects the influence of the fifteen years of music in between. I just mean that today, his music is far, far more accessible to a much wider and more diverse audience than would have been the case a decade or two in the past.
All of this put me in mind of the emergence of punk in the late 1970s. A lot has been written about punk, and various kinds and levels of significance attributed to it, and certainly it was, at least in some of its forms, driven by political imperatives as much as musical ones. But one thing punk certainly represented was a desire to take charge of making music, to make it one one’s own terms. Punk was musically simple because the people involved in making it were trying to show that music was accessible to anybody. That meant a simple, stripped-down sound– guitar, bass, drums– as well as simple structures and technique. Punk had certain limits, but by operating within them it sought to democratize popular music.
This is actually only one iteration in a cycle. An earlier instance, perhaps, is the emergence of skiffle about 20 years before, which emphasized not only making one’s own music, but one’s own instruments. Hip Hop, only a few years after punk, used existing records (and, later, samples) because turntables were relatively cheap and could be manipulated without a lot of formal training. The emergence of electronic dance music in the 1980s reflected the ability of drum machines, synthesizers, etc., that were relatively simple to use and fairly cheap. Even grunge, while on one level just a variation on the palette and impulses of punk, was a stripping back of what was perceived as mainstream excess in order to make music-making accessible to more people. All of these moments, it’s worth noting, involved not only the emergence of new artists, but also the proliferation of small, independent labels to to record and distribute the music.
Artists like Active Child and Ant’lrd represent, I think, a similar kind of inflection point, but with a key difference. The presence and (relative) success of artists like this reflect a dramatic increase in the accessibility not of music making, but of music distribution. Active Child’s music is not especially simple, either to perform or to record. There is a level of technical ability and complexity there that is not at all “punk.” But the fact that he does not have to be concerned with convincing somebody else to try and sell it is as important and the simplicity of production was in the 1970s. And this, I think, it what is happening now. Not that getting heard and selling records is any easier– it might even be harder, because the people who follow this sort of thing tend to expect that at least some of the music will be made available for free. But the fact that they are difficult to classify, that they promiscuously combines genres and influences, is not a problem for these artists, in the way it would have been only a few years ago, because in trying to put out a record they are not also asking a third party to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to sell that record. Major labels, infamously, liked to play it safe, making bets on new sounds rarely and flogging them to death when they struck a nerve, because in their business model the cost of doing so was prohibitively high. Now, the cost of trying to sell your oboe-and-taiko rap ensemble’s new album is neither more nor less than the cost of marketing a mainstream rock act.
In a way, what I’m making here is a version of the “long tail” argument, which suggests that the internet makes it worthwhile to sell things that appeal only to a small audience because it makes it far easier for that audience to find the product– so Amazon can stock French Oulipo novels as well as Dan Brown. But I’m also suggesting that the power of the long tail has actually changed the way music sounds. There are clearly other factors at work here as well– the technology to make the kinds of sounds these artists make HAS gotten less expensive and easier to use, and at the same time we all have access to a much wider variety of music and sounds than we used to. But, in a sense, the partial collapse of the market for music has relieved artists from market pressures, allowing them to pursue sounds and styles that would either have vanished or been relegated to the “avant garde” bin not so long ago. In 1995, it was pretty easy to sum up the indie music scene– as evidenced by the fact that “indie” is now used as the name of a genre, which sounds more or less like what college radio stations were playing in 1995. Today, such an encapsulation would be impossible. In truth, there is always a lot more variety in the world of music than any simple summary would imply; there were lots of things going on in 1995 that did not sound like the Sub Pop/Merge/Matador stables. Perhaps the difference now is simply that we can easily hear all of that variety.

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