Rhett Miller’s important “meet the new boss, worse than the old boss” critique.
In the days of the old business model, there were successful predators at the top of the food chain, but the kids who made the music were hiding down in the bushes with our friends. The local model of music delivery, unlike the giant streaming info-combines that lord over today’s music world, had a strikingly flat hierarchy of striving characters: the club owners, record store clerks, college radio DJs, and rock critics who owed a thousand words to the local weekly. At closing time on any given night in the ’90s you could find any or all of these satellite scenesters mixed in among the proper musicians at the Art Bar in Dallas, behind Club Clearview. We all knew that there was a cutthroat cabal of music industry execs waiting on the top floor of a tower in Rockefeller Center to offer us a lopsided contract, but we also knew that we were the good guys, the proletariat to their bourgeoisie, the Rebel Alliance to their Empire. We had each other’s back. The worst thing we could be expected to do was steal a girlfriend from one of the Buck Pets or envy the Toadies their unexpected national radio play. Those were, as they say, the days.
The Talent Scouts are Bots
It’s all different now. My own observation of the current music industry is colored by my history with the extinct model. I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to come up in this world of SoundCloud rappers and Swedish hit factories churning out auto-tuned EDM or whatever. Believe me, I’m keenly aware that even these two meager examples must make me sound impossibly old. My point is that if I was a fourteen-year-old depressive nowadays, I’m not sure what would even draw me into the world of music to begin with. The ability to record oneself in a bedroom represents an impressive flash-forward advance in technology, but it also is profoundly isolating. For starters, it negates the very human necessity of convincing small-time investors to fund a session, or the simultaneously joyful and agonizing experience of collaborating with the requisite technicians to make such a recording happen. In short, it eliminates people from the equation. And more to the point, it eliminates all the good people from the equation.
You’ve still got the execs in the tower in Rockefeller Center—only now all the lower floors that used to house the junior execs and the young A&R kids are crammed with barbed wire and land mines. The Artists & Repertoire department has been replaced by a bot that alerts the label chief when an artist reaches a predetermined number of Twitter followers or Facebook likes. This sort of micro-market calculation was once anathema to creativity—it’s the origin of the old punk-rock contempt for “the suits” who moved product on the AM airwaves. Today, however, an obsessive attention to online clicks and listens is all that an independent artist can rely on to outfox the system. Writing a song might now be less important to your success than paying for a hundred thousand imaginary account holders to follow you on social media.