Monday, June 02, 2008

Judging A Beat By Its Cover

Prologue: scroll past the italics if you're not interested in my life.

Pre High School

I listen to the radio all the time, especially the nightly top-ten, most-requested countdown. When I hear something I like, I try to buy the cassette, or ask for it for Christmas. I dub cassettes from my brother and classmates.

["Dub" was a verb we used to describe the process of tape "dubbing", which, for reasons unknown, was the technical term used for "copying". This process would take as long as the tape's running time, unless you had a boombox (a noun we used in those days) that featured "high speed dubbing". Then the process was nearly 27% faster.]

High School

I listen to the radio when I work or drive, and occassionally when I do homework. When I hear something I like, I buy the CD. When I want to have a friend's music, I record their CD to a blank cassette. (A leap backward, this process took longer than high speed dubbing.) When Phil wants to have a new U2 single, we have to bribe the local rock station with Burger King to let us in the studio, then steal it when the DJ isn't looking.

Early College

The same as high school, except now I'm listening to college radio and reading "Spin" magazine. And yes, I subscribed through one of those intrusive door-to-door magazine subscription salesmen. I fell for that pitch. I was that guy. And yes, a few years later, I did the same thing for "U.S. News and World Report". A thousand times yes.

Late College

Still listening to (and broadcasting from) the college radio station. CD burning software and Napster appear. I move into an apartment with a DSL line. I search Napster for things like "acoustic" and "live" and "one hit wonder from 4 years ago that I wouldn't mind having on a CD".

Graduate School

I own a computer, but can't afford broadband. I keep track of songs that I want to download and email the list to Lance, who then searches Kazaa or Limewire and burns me a CD. Most of these songs were first heard on mainstream radio (because my grad school institution's college station blows).

The Professional Years

I download files from music websites to my desktop, and copy them to my thumb drive. I take the thumb drive to work, where I listen to music on headphones. If I like a downloaded song, I move it from my laptop's desktop to my external drive's mp3 library. If I don't like it, I delete it.

CURRENTLY, it goes like this:

I use Google Reader to monitor RSS feeds from six major music blogs: Stereogum, Fluxblog, I Guess I'm Floating, My Old Kentucky Blog, Said the Gramophone, and You Ain't No Picasso. Each site regularly posts mp3s.


I need to decide whether or not to download the files. I need to decide if a song will be good WITHOUT HEARING THE SONG.

As a result of mainstream radio's Nickelbackization (Daughtryism? Disco Panicking? Linkin Parking?), the music I want to hear is mainly distributed on the internet, and the normal discovery process -- 1.> Hear a song, 2.> Learn a band's name, 3.> Seek out more information on that band -- has been inverted. One is now presented with the band's name and information, then asked to listen to their music.

Sadly, most blog write-ups are much more likely to cause a snap judgment against the band than for it. Like browsing in a bookstore, judging a book by its title and/or cover rather than its content, I'm left to judge a band by its name, the title of the song, and the backstory and press photo(s) posted by the blogger.

Here's a sampling of band photos posted at among the mp3 blogs mentioned above, and my gut reaction to each:

Hmm. This guy calls himself SJ Esau, and appears to be a tortured soul that likes cats... IRONICALLY. No thanks. No download.

This guy's band is "Spiritualized". So maybe his hands are clasped in prayer to symbolize his spirituality? Weird. He's an attractive fellow -- that's a nice shirt, and his hair is messed just so. Really, though -- this is a photo for his press kit. Why does it look like he was taken off guard? "Oh, sorry! I didn't hear you come in. I was breathlessly playing my acoustic guitar over this theremin and that electric harp." Bleh. No download.

These are The Old Believers. The only thing worse than his shirt is her "I've become resigned to this incest" look. No sale.

I just found out a friend of mine likes The Avett Brothers. I'm guessing she didn't form that opinion based on their publicity photo. Thanks for dressing up, guys. IRONICALLY. No download yet.

Bowerbirds took their snapshot in front of a stainless stell trailer, wearing their best baptizin' outfits. Again, I have some concerns for the well-being of the female member of the band. Is that a tattoo on her right wrist, or a brand that defines her as Beardo's property? No download.

Jesus Christ.


The danger in making such snap judgments is obvious, but allow me to demonstrate. Here's a snippet that a music blog could post to introduce a new band:
[Redacted]'s history began when undergraduates [Redacted] and [Redacted] (born Charles Thompson IV)* shared a room at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.*...The pair formed a band in January [Redacted]. Bassist [Redacted] joined... two weeks later after responding to a classified advertisement... seeking a female* bassist who liked both folk music icons Peter, Paul and Mary and the hardcore punk band Hüsker Dü. [Redacted] was the only person to respond, but arrived at the audition without a bass guitar as she had never played the instrument before.* She claimed her twin sister... had a bass back in Dayton and that she had no money to get it. [Thompson] lent her $50 for the airfare and [she] returned with the bass guitar...
I inserted asterisks for each snap judgment gleaned from the paragraph. Strike one was Charles Thompson IV's stage name, strike two was for my perception of a group of liberal arts weirdos, strike three was for deliberately recruiting a FEMALE bassist (it should be about the MUSIC, man!), and strike four, the most obvious point against, was for a bassist that's never played a bass guitar.

It's a terrible backstory. It rivals Vampire Weekend for worst backstory. Are you ready for the Paul Harvey moment? The name of that little band from UMass was: the Pixies, who are generally credited with starting the alternative rock movement.

The same perils exist when we judge artists based on their press kit photos. Check out art-school-black-and-white, below.

Nice accessories, dude! I've always said that a scarf, hat, and sunglasses weren't enough. You need a killer vest to pull it all together. Oh wait, that's Beck, and he's approximately 1000 times more awesome than that stupid picture would indicate.


My point is that names and accompanying pictures are more important now than ever, and musicians would be well-served to cut the artistic bullshit and appeal to a wider audience.


Floyd said...

Get the playlist application on Facebook. It'll allow you to quickly and easily listen to any song you want, and provides a website that you can download that song from if you so choose. While this process most likely won't provide a hilarious blog post, it will solve you inverse sampling problem.

Alison said...

I listen only to artists who pointedly display their ironic tastes. Irony is the modern-day oversize flannel shirt and unwashed hair, Dan.

And I, too, will recommend The Avett Brothers. Enthusiastically so.

dn said...

The problem is that I need to listen at work, where Facebook and streaming radio is blocked. I need to pack in/pack out with my music, hence the mp3s.

Not everyone displays strange irony. Take a look at Spoon. No mustaches, normal clothes, awesome music.

Floyd said...

You know who else is clean-shaven and wears normal clothes, Dan? Christian-rock bands. Wouldn't that be disappointing, expecting a rocking new tune and getting a cheesy church hymn set to acoustic guitars and muffled drums.

dn said...

Whatever. You are the last person I would expect to defend ironically dressed gentlemen.

Anonymous said...

download itunes. its free and even if you don't want to buy the songs you can use it to research bands and listen to a 30 second clip of their songs. you can read their biographies which list their influences and contemporaries. i've come across several bands that i would have never found w/o itunes.


anastasia said...

Avett Brothers. Loved them. Saw them in concert last fall. You'd like them because at first I hated them and wanted to leave. Then I got used to their sound and then really liked it eventually. Try Ellery. Might be too girlie for you, but whatever.

God, you and your music... ugh.

bahbahrah said...

I like spiritualized, and I like that dude's picture too. I feel happy about that.