Quick hits: Motown, Barack and media theory

  • The women of Motown had fabulous style.  Too bad when 2009-era white women try to pull it off the result looks like this.  (Please note, I love Amy, but you have to admit the look could use some tweaking.)  At some point, I want to write a post exploring the impact of eyeliner on pop music.  I bet there is something to be analyzed there.
  • I haven’t heard either album in full yet, but both the jazz-hip hop fusions discussed here look amazing.  Here’s one of the tracks:
  • Finally, for a touch of meta, here are two recent NYT articles on the blogosphere (doesn’t that word sound like a relic of some now-discredited ancient Greek astronomical system?) and how researchers are trying to track the internet zeitgeist and who contributes to its formation.  Pretty cool.

Like MySpace, but not tacky

My partner Matt (who runs a great transit blog that you should check out) and I were having a discussion just last night about Napster, iTunes, file sharing and the fact that old-school major labels are generally dinosaurs.  We came to the conclusion that artists would start using the internet almost exclusively to distribute their product directly to consumers and that the failure of the big labels to understand this–as evidenced by their quixotic crusade against file sharing–is going to kill them sooner rather than later.

Imagine my surprise when I was clicking through the NYT this morning and found this article (admittedly a couple days old, whoops) about how Radiohead’s manager is setting up ways to do just that.  If this works, I think it’ll be fantastic–a way for artists to retain artistic AND financial control over their own work.

I think it will also eventually weed out a lot of the terrible artists we see that are created and promoted by the major players in the entertainment business (cough, Disney child stars) as they won’t have the drive and hustle to make it work without a significant amount of talent and artistic merit backing them up.

From the article, it seems like EMI is the only major label with the foresight to diversify their business plan enough (by creating a music services division) to adapt to what artists want, so perhaps they’ll survive.  With the high quality of home-studio-type technology and a website, most artists won’t need a label or outside company to do much more than promotion and merchandising (or pressing things like vinyl limited editions), so I think EMI’s move is really smart.

The best thing about all this is that it places the control back in the artists’ hands and will give consumers a lot of access to innovative good music at reasonable prices.  One small step for the music business, one giant leap for listening-kind.

Quick and dirty guide to cultural snobbery in the digital age

James Wolcott explored the ramifications of digital media on our ability to be cultural snobs in next month’s Vanity Fair (it’s so weird that I can use the past tense to refer to next month’s issue, but you know how magazine print schedules work)–essentially saying that, as our collections of music, film, books, etc. are digitized, we will have fewer and fewer tangible objects to show off to our friends (and potential, uh, romantic partners, as his anecdote about the early Playboy empire shows).  However are we to show our exquisite good taste if we don’t have a collection for our friends to inspect at house parties?

Wolcott suggests that “we’ll just stock up on other possessions, which will be arrayed and arranged to show off not our personal aesthetics or expensive whims but our ethics–our progressive virtues.”  Maybe we’ll do that too, but I think people will always find a way to express their superior aesthetic sensibilities.

Here’s how, at least for music (not in any particular order):

1) Curating the perfect playlist for group listening. What better way to show off your collection than by having your friends listen to it when they come over?  Instead of throwing on the typical party-type songs (if you’re the frat across the street from me, this means an endless rotation of Journey, crunk and Lady Gaga…knock it off already) certain kinds of people will be obsessive about creating mixes that not only set the right mood but also show their superiorly obscure, cutting-edge, and eclectic tastes.  This could be good (maybe the jerks across the street would play something different?) or bad (do you really want to listen to that one friend–we all have at least one of these–blathering for hours about his/her efforts?).

2) Merch. Expect an increase in the number of band t-shirts, posters and other stuff bought and ostentatiously worn/used/displayed by culture snobs.  This tendency may very well extend to strange obsessions such as not washing a concert t-shirt worn in the (tangential) presence of the artist or keeping posters in their original packaging and other weird collector-type behaviors.

3) Increased concert attendance. What better way to show you like an artist than to shell out a lot of money to listen to them live more frequently?  This is clearly not a bad thing in itself, in fact concerts are usually a lot of fun and are much more economically beneficial to the artist than buying their album, so it’s a win-win situation.  Expect the culture snob to talk a lot about each show though and frame or display tickets and/or set lists.

4) A rise in music-subculture-influenced fashion. This is clearly not a new idea, but I think absent other tangible indicators of taste in music people will want to wear it on their bodies if they want to show off what scene they belong to (or, you know, have lined up in their iTunes if nothing else–what’s up, suburban teenagers).  Perhaps styles characteristic of a particular artist or group will be more widely copied or individuals will more strictly adhere to music-genre-based dress codes.

5) Making one’s opinions publicly known via other forms of media. This will certainly include blogging (I won’t snark on this, because I’m uh, writing this on a music-oriented blog) and for the pluckier sorts could even include a column in a newspaper or magazine, or hosting a radio or TV show, including (video) podcasting.

6) Talking about one’s good/diverse/obscure/etc. taste all the time. Yikes.

7) Going old-school and buying tangible media products. Note that vinyl is the fastest-growing category of music sales.  People will do the bulk of their listening on digital, but true culture snobs will have a secondary collection of archaic but better-sounding music technology in order to impress others and hopefully heighten their personal enjoyment.

8 ) Playing music oneself. There’s no better way to appear to know things about music than to be a decently skilled musician.  Even better if you are better than decent.  Get practicing!  This is my favorite option, no sarcasm.  I think it is the best way to inculcate actual knowledge with a minimum of cultural snobbery.

Books are a whole other story.  I wouldn’t be surprised if things like reference books stopped being published in hard copy, but I’m inclined to think there will always be a market for certain types of books (fiction, interesting non-fiction), because people enjoy relaxing with something that looks good, feels nice and has something interesting between the covers, or because certain situations just call for paper books (i.e. cookbooks).

In all though, I think the digitization of media is generally a good thing.  It’s cheaper and easier to produce, faster and more efficient to transport, relatively easy on the environment, and doesn’t take up too much space.  There are clearly drawbacks, as anyone who’s ever lost all their music after a hard drive crash can attest–and more sinisterly, the fact that Amazon remotely deleted books from Kindles this past week after it realized it had mistakenly sold books it didn’t have the proper licensing for.  The technology can be good–but people have to use it the right way.

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