More than ever, the buzz in the blogosphere about new music seems to keep shifting in an uncomfortable direction. Whether it’s windowing, free streaming previews, or the fact that nobody even knew it was coming, the talk seems to center more and more around how music is released than anything else about it, including what it sounds like.
No one has caught a stranger and more toxic end of this lately than U2 and the free release of their new album Songs Of Innocence to 500 million iTunes users. When I first heard about it, I immediately thought: Why does U2, one of the biggest bands in history, need a release gimmick? A strategy, yes, but not a gimmick.
Though I’ve scanned a few reviews on my own, not a single review of Songs Of Innocence has come up in any of my many news feeds since it was released. I haven’t heard one person tell me they love it, hate it, or are indifferent to it. No one has mentioned a single song title to me in conversation. But I’ve seen an almost constant stream of press about the release strategy, and it’s all bad, especially when the opinions are coming from artists.
Patrick Carney of the Black Keys slammed the release, stating in Rolling Stone that the strategy “devalued their music completely,” and that the Apple deal “sends a huge mixed message to bands . . . that are just struggling to get by. I think that [U2] were thinking it’s super generous of them to do something like that.”
Ben Patashnik of NME criticised the release strategy, writing that “the fact it’s free makes it seem cheap.” (You can read his full “4 out of 10 stars” review here.) He went on to say that “they’ve devalued their own brand because, quite frankly, this is a serious mis-step that might win a week’s worth of good publicity, but could foreshadow a year’s worth of bad.”
Unfortunately, I think he’s right about that. And not just about U2 and Songs Of Innocence, but about the conversations that our culture now has about music. Maybe it’s because the listening devices that people use can’t play the music the way it was meant to be heard. Maybe the constant streaming experience is turning music from art into wallpaper. Maybe “free” really does just feel cheap. Whatever the cause, the focus is shifting from the art to the marketing.
Whether it was a “successful” marketing strategy or not for the album’s release, U2 or iTunes, there’s one overwhelming and undeniable thing that I can’t help but focus on after the debate fades out into background noise. I’ve had a brand-new album on my phone for more than two months, absolutely free of charge, made by one of my all-time favorite bands—and I still haven’t listened to it once.
As nature would have it, the effort a butterfly makes to break out of its cocoon forces fluid into their wings, a process necessary for flight. If you slice the cocoon open to help, it falls out and dies. In a similar fashion, my relationship to music is always predicated on a simple cycle of effort. I want something, I seek it out, and I get it. I’ve never found that effort to be too much. Perhaps all of this “free”-dom is causing our artistic hearts to atrophy.
Marketing’s measurable results and easily defended opinions are certainly easier to talk about. But these matters do not speak to my soul, help me express my emotions, set my imagination on fire, send me reeling into the abyss of nothingness in search of meaning. This current conversational landscape is as cold and uninhabitable for me as the surface of the moon. So I ask the simplest question I can muster, with the hopes that I can generate even the tiniest spark of heat…
What about the music?
I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot lately:
Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.
One of the most difficult things about being a musician (as opposed to being a visual artist) is that no matter what I do, no matter how I approach my art, I find it impossible to separate myself from my art at any time. Music, like other performing arts, requires a unique relationship between myself and the creative act. No matter what I do, I can’t escape the fact that I am the sculptor AND the sculpture.
I can suspend disbelief during the recording process, reacting to something that exists outside of myself. But even after a session is in the can, the song is still a living and breathing thing. The performer in me needs to be able to perform it to the best of my abilities RIGHT NOW, or I experience an enormous feeling of loss. This feeling has only become more poignant as time passes and my catalog grows.
It’s a constant balancing act on a high wire, every single day. It’s brutal, it’s terribly honest, it’s merciless. And it’s exciting.
As my personal life has grown—my wife and I now have two beautiful children—it stands to reason that things would naturally get more complicated, more difficult. The addition of responsibility would necessarily subtract some measure of freedom from my everyday life. That’s what reasonability seems to shout at me from the mountaintops . . . that the logical progression of life is a battle from simplicity to complexity.
But that really hasn’t been true for me at all. Not as a human, a man, a husband, a father, OR as an artist.
Yes, I have to subtract certain things from my life in order to make room for other things. But as it turns out, the things that I’ve lost really aren’t a part of who I am, and they certainly weren’t a part of my art. Put another way, the things that I’ve added to my life were already there, and were probably there the entire time. I may have never found them if I hadn’t lost some detritus along the way. It makes me wonder what else I can dig out as I continue to balance the equation.
Michelangelo was right after all. I must be inside here somewhere.