Music. Labels. Curation. Kickstarter.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Back in the day record labels were one of the more significant units-of-importance in my musical world. I dealt mostly in relatively obscure electronic music, and in many cases I picked up music based on the name of the label as much as anything. Warp. Merck. Morr Music. Ghostly International. Sonig. Rephlex. Etc. And friends’ local labels like Notenuf Records and Artificial Music Machine. And when I booked musicians for my own events (my “Oscillate Nights”) it often happened through the labels. Meaning, if I knew the particular artist planning a tour, I’d often coordinate with their label and then sometimes also get an opener or two I hadn’t heard of who shared the same label. In the particular electronic music universe I lived in between 1998-ish and 2005-ish, labels weren’t just business entities — the good ones were also curators who promoted a certain style, sound, or similar sort of estoteric creative approach, for lack of a better term. I guess more traditional art galleries work this way, although that’s never really been a scene I’ve had much to do with directly.

These days my musical exposure is a little more catch-as-catch-can. I buy stuff off of Bleep and iTunes and recently started using Spotify — all of which have been great, but all of which kind of suffer from a similar sort of overwhelming wave of options. Having access to all music from forever is kind of a mess if you don’t know what you want to listen to. Bleep’s recommended lists are somewhat useful, but iTunes’ and Spotify’s are absolutely not. (The iTunes front page currently most prominently advertises music by Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus, for example — music literally no one wants to listen to. Spotify’s main page advertises John Meyer and then goes on to suggest I might enjoy some artist no one’s ever heard of named “Beck” — then recommends that maybe I’d like to revisit Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up,” since it was released at some point during my youth and because I have never once in my life wanted to listen to Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up.”) Social recommendations are somewhat helpful. iTunes’ now defunct Ping proved a useful simply for the fact that the three or four people I knew whose musical opinions mean the most to me happened to use it. And at least on Spotfiy I can go find friends with fairly good taste and see what they’re listening to. But it’s still all kind of decontextualized and just kind of feels random. When looking for new stuff I sometimes also hit up sites like Pitchfork that I’ve respected in the past, but again: I don’t read these regularly and the whole experience still feels kind of arbitrary. (For new music, that is. If I just want to reminisce about high school with some Smashing Pumpkins or Toad the Wet Sprocket, well, Spotify’s great.)

Anyway, one exception to this is Soma FM. They’ve been around since around 2000 — at least, that’s when I remember first discovering their site. (They still feature that hazy photo of a solitary DJ spinning in front of a wall of night-lit windows, and it still kind of takes me back to the House of Commons days when I first listened to it regularly. It’s a great picture.) I still listen regularly today because it’s well-curated by someone with good taste. And because they’re reliable about finding good music that I’m not familiar with. And not in some “an algorithm did this” sort of way: A real person’s on the other side of that site, picking music and putting it together in a certain order. It’s great.

See, there’s an art to curation. And I feel like this is being ignored in the aggregated and auto-recommended world in which we live. Obviously Pandora and Spotify Radio and whatever this new iTunes Radio thing is — those are all examples. But even “recommendation engines” that try to figure out what you’ll like based on what you’ve already listened to or what your friends like. And (to pick on Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus some more) I have to believe that pop music as it exist today is an example of some kind of exploit of this system. In a world in which there are no curators, all you have to do is build up the illusion of popularity and suddenly all the other algorithms (software-based and human-based) kick in. You’re on Clear Channel’s radio stations all over the nation every fifteen minutes, so of course MTV has to have you their awards show and American Idol has to have you as a guest and iTunes has to put you on their front page and people will think they have to listen to you because 1) they don’t know any better about how to find music and 2) most people really don’t seem to care about it, anyway, so who gives a shit — they’ll like Katy Perry as much as they’ll like anything else. Yes, this is my extremely snooty-about-music side.

And this aggregation actually creates another set of problems, in addition to just turning music curation into something mechanized and impersonal rather than something human and expressive. It appears to hurt the economics of music (unless you’re a Katy Perry or Miley Cyrus sort). The power of those who would champion good music has dwindled. And if there’s no point in championing good music, no one will (except a few die-hards or the rare handful who can make a living at it). Why waste the time? And so we fall into the hands of the algorithm. It’s weird: We live in a time when the tools of music creation and distribution have been put into the hands of pretty much any middle class person on planet Earth who wants them. Garageband comes for free with every Mac. And yet, I suspect that more great music than ever before gets created and literally never heard by anyone beyond the creator and a few of his or her (or their) friends. Strange, right? That there’s an unprecendented amount of creativity happening and the fact that we’re locked into algorithms that promote Beck and “I Wanna Sex You Up” (to me, at least) force it to remain unheard.

And so, Kickstarter.

It’s got all sorts of problems. I never felt particularly comfortable giving money to projects from people I don’t know, but I have used it to support friends. I also have never given money to help people on musical projects. My friends are more of the “I’m making a game” or “I’ve got a wacky idea” variety, so I just don’t have much opportunity. But, Kickstarter’s warts aside, I do understand and respect what they’re trying to do. (Or, at least, what they were trying to do before they seemed to become a semi-corrupt start-up launcher.) By putting the money ahead of the creative process, they force you as a consumer to face a choice: If this band or musician (or whatever — but I’m sticking to the musical theme, here), if they don’t get the money they need to make their album, then no album. So if you respect them and want to hear more from them, chip in! It turns the issue of piracy and the near-total devaluation of recorded music on its head and makes you feel like you’re working with the artist and pitching in, being a part of making this thing happen. And then once you’ve put money into the project, you’re invested. Literally. But also figuratively: You’ll listen. You’ll experience. You’ll think about it. “Man, I gave $10 and that album was awesome.” Or “I can’t believe they took my fucking $10 and released this garbage.” Emotional response. The Laptop Battles I used to take part in did something similar: They’d force the audience to judge and therefore emotionally invest. And once you’ve done that, you’ll listen. You’ll pay attention. You’ll care. And, of course, Kickstarter helps fix the economics by making music feel like something that needs financial support to exist, rather than something that just floats around out there and, y’know, doesn’t hurt anyone if I just pluck it out of the air for free.

I’ve signed up for another site called that I think aims to solve the musical curation problem in a different way. (Maybe other services do this, but it’s the first I’ve seen.) It works like so: They work with labels and make a subscription service where you pay a certain amount every month to a given label and you get, say, an album a week, every week. I subscribed to Morr Music’s channel, for example. It’s $9.99 per month. Each week I get an e-mail with an album for me to download. Now, I can’t go download stuff they’ve released in the past. Just whatever they release as long as I’m paying. And it’s not all new stuff. It’s a mix of older albums, compilations, and newer releases. But it feels curated in a good way. I like Morr Music — they’re a Berlin-based label that releases a lot of mellower electronica and electronic pop. And though I don’t know all of their artists (although I do know a bunch), I do trust them to find good stuff. And so far it’s worked: I’m a couple of months in and have found maybe four albums (out of seven or eight) that I really enjoy and hadn’t been exposed to before. (“Don’t Want to Sleep” by FM Belfast has been the soundtrack to several of my recent runs. And I’m listening to “Mister Pop” by The Clean right now — it’s good writing music.) And it doesn’t feel random or arbitrary — the music fits together in a sort of thematically oblique way and subscribing kind of makes you feel like you’re supporting the label and a part of a cool little album-of-the-week club. And, like Kickstarter, I think it has the potential to change the economics a bit. It’s almost like a rolling Kickstarter: Instead of supporting one project, I’m kind of giving ongoing support to something that’s already churning out good work.

Potential. Kickstarter works, I guess. Although it has opened up a whole new universe of exploitation channels. and whatever competitors it has — I don’t know if these will survive. seems very new. And simple. They offer a few dozen labels and the service is very simply designed. Which is fine. But it feels like they’ve got just a few people working on it and I can easily see the business model falling apart for them. (The last music service that I thought made a really interesting stab at a new way of listening to music — theSixtyOne — seemed to die soon after I decided I liked it.) They’re in that rough space where it’s probably unclear whether the experiment will work or not.

But I hope it does. I think more people should be aware of the importance of curators, and promoting well-run labels is a great way to do this. Algorithms can be great for some things, but I have found them frustrating when it comes to music. Maybe it just makes me sound like one of those cranky farts bemoaning the loss of the album in the age of iTunes, but I have to believe that people would enjoy music more and understand it more if it came to them through curators — advocates with opinions about good music and the resources to express themselves through musical selection. Any service that seems to promote this I will support. Honestly, I’d pay way more than $9.99 per month. Maybe other people would, to. I hope.