“Give them bread and games”
Juvenal, Satire 10.77-81, Circa 100 A.D.
We have all sorts of popular tv shows looking for “the voice”, but where is the message? Have artists gone silent?
The Gagas, Beyonces and Biebers of this world undoubtedly have an audience and an (extremely) profitable business model. But what is their message for their fans, other than some commercially compatible version of ‘personal development’ and/or the immediate concerns of a consumerist lifestyle?
When factories in Bangladesh collapse for lack of investment to secure the production facilities, killing 1127 underpaid people who were working on making the clothes, Beyonce made a fuss because H&M wanted to airbrush her curves. Not a word about the ghastly Bangladeshi situation.
When Lady Gaga is considered the voice of a generation with her own Little Monsters social network, the media and music industry solely focus on her business model, and how the network is just another derivative product.
When Justin Bieber is asked a question outside the realm of his career, about what he thinks of rape, he answers “everything happens for a reason”. Why did anyone think a 16 year old would come up with an enlightened and balanced answer in the first place?
These three examples sum up a big part of the problem: paradoxically, the (mass) media still turn to artists to ask them their opinion on topics outside of their craft, while looking at what their financial worth is. But from the moment the media decide that financially viable artists are the only ones the world is interested in, doesn’t it come down to asking a brand to express a personal opinion that may alienate a big chunk of its customers?
It’s a tough one: mainstream artists have fully integrated the importance and vastness of social media, but are devoid of any social awareness. They generate a lot of talk but do not speak up. Are they afraid to do so, or are they just selfish and unconcerned?
Despite the metrics, I do not believe they are the voice of their generation anymore. They are not appealing to a collective consciousness. What they say is unimportant. Words are overheard, sung at times but messages go unheeded because they are empty. A generation looks up to these artists more often for superficial reasons totally unrelated to their music. In the long run, what will they be remembered for?
Parallel to this, as a manager I hear too many young artists starting out today tell me “oh but don’t worry, I don’t want to come across as a political artist or anything”. There is indeed nothing wrong with not wanting to be a political artist. Beautiful songs have been written and sung about heartbreak, happiness and personal recollections that people have identified with. But why on earth should any artist apologise for being political when they spending days writing songs about different facets of a particular state of affairs that mean so much to them that they felt the urge to share it with the world? What was wrong with being political after all? And what does ‘political’ actually mean nowadays?
How have we, collectively, come to this?
Artists who are doing well are teaching those who are scraping by that it is easier to appeal to people if there is no message in their songs. Am I the only to find that sad?
Does the music industry realise that its obsession for the compensation of lost revenue has driven itself on a narrowing path of requesting artists to increasingly make this obsession their own and progressively stamp out any of their creative freedom?
Has it even started to dawn on us that the only thing aspiring artists hear all day, every day, when they start out is: “it’s going to be hard”, but “make great music” and “connect with your fans” and all will be well that ends well?
It’s time we became aware of the fact that, behind this apparently innocent advice lies a series of contradictory commands that point to the root of the matter:
– “It’s going to be hard”: before artists even set out to make music and express themselves, the underlying injunction is to give their dreams a reality check. They start out with the idea that no one is expecting them, so if they ever want to make a living out of music, they should appeal to their audience (whatever that actually means). It’s insidious reverse-marketing applied to art: absurd.
– “Make great music”: this is a recurring statement I read absolutely everywhere but I’d be hard put to actually define this. Who could, anyway? Music is personal and subjective. How does that objectively help an artist? People listen to music because it makes them feel good. Does that mean that “great music” is popular music? Therefore, if an artist doesn’t have millions of fans, should we deduct their music isn’t “great”? This just adds unwanted pressure on an artist starting out and induces artistic self-censorship so as to conform to popular codes.
– “Connect with your fans”: as much as the internet and social networks have helped bring artists and fans closer and even cut out the middleman in some cases, the act of artists connecting with their fans on an increasingly frequent basis has morphed into a command to be permanently available, leaving the artist less time, less life experience to make music. Counter-productive, to say the least.
It’s a vicious circle. And it’s only the tip of a big fat iceberg. This self-inducing trend to make so much noise about futilities sets up any artist with a cause as way too serious. And no one wants to bother anyone. Our society is a permanent celebration of the vacuum of our consumerist lives. The music industry has no time, money or desire to back anyone with a message. Too subversive, too risky, in other words: not good for business. Exit any mainstream groups of artists or musical scenes anymore (unless artificially created). No possibility to weigh as a community anymore. Each artist is considered a stand-alone product.
Yet the same industry is spending its last millions on finding and shaping ‘entertaining products’. Except you don’t listen to a product. You buy it, use it and enjoy it while it’s fun. And then you move on to the next one.
Is it possible for the music industry to see politically and socially transgressive artists make it to the top nowadays? There are no artists I can think of today that will make it through time while having ‘made it’ by the current music industry standards in their time. This brings us back to a question formulated earlier here: what will these artists be remembered for? Asking any artist to be politically correct (and also technically speaking, politically neutral) has impacted the expectations of industry partners (labels and co, i.e. “gatekeepers” as Steve Renman would say), mainstream media and even fans, as a consequence.
But the problem is larger than this. It’s about a whole system malfunction responsible for the industry’s own irrelevance today, and probably to the point it actually threatens its very survival.
Of course there are still artists with a message. But more often than not, they work outside of the mainstream system.
Take Emilie Chick for example (full disclosure: I manage her). She has the most beautiful voice; but it’s only one of her many talents. All her songs are vividly colourful and highly imaged, to the point they are ‘movie-like’. But her songs are also insightful, profound and wise. Emilie writes because she thinks. A lot. She shares her wisdom through her songs and always takes life lessons to another level. Which is why, when she was invited to sing at Pas Sage En Seine, a Hacker Festival held last month in Paris, she opened her set with 21st Century, a song that had been written in 2006, but which is still acutely relevant with the recent revelations about PRISM and the NSA’s actions.
“Oh well I got internet and that saves the day
I surf innocently while some get their way
to secrets I heard were well kept,
is there anything you did that you might regret?”
that I’m so lost in
An Era of Terra-fying Technology.”
Emilie Chick, “21st Century” (song embed)
It’s not every day an artist gets to play in front of an audience of French hackers, or that those hackers see an artist come play especially for them in a foreign language, but they sure got it. Wonderfully spot on, right? Sadly, not quite for today’s mainstream media though.
Another great example is Kellee Maize, whose Midem 2013 panel I was fortunate enough to moderate.
Have you ever heard about her in mainstream media and radio charts? Of course you haven’t. Because she has decided to do all this at the margin of the mainstream music industry by releasing all her music for free via Frostwire and Jamendo. Direct to fan. Kellee does everything herself.
The reason she does it? She’d like to change hip hop by “rapping and singing about things that aren’t found in mainstream Hip Hop like yoga, environmentalism, oneness, spirituality, beings from other dimensions, and indigenous wisdom”. No more, no less. If we look at the metrics, she is hugely popular on Youtube and Amazon and her albums and singles have been downloaded over 400,000 times. So why is she not making it to the mainstream?
You may ask if the problem isn’t really down to what the teens and fans value in life and expect of their favourite artists. I actually don’t believe the younger generations are really only interested in themselves, to the point their apparently narcissistic tendencies are blinding them to the reality of the world today and making them totally indifferent to any injustice and has given up on any action. That is what every older generation reproaches the younger.
But every generation has its role-models and idols. And those people are put on a pedestal because they voice the concerns of their generation, impersonate a dream for a better world and actively try to transform it for the better. Every social movement and generation found an echo of its concerns and priorities in music. Rockstars used to do write lyrics that struck a chord with people’s consciences, their songs could trigger nations to rise. They didn’t compromise. But today?
Which artists are writing songs about the Occupy movements, or about what Anonymous and hackers are warning us about today? None in the mainstream. The mainstream artists are now brands with viable business models. Harsh as this may seem, they have sold out. They haven’t gone hoarse, they’ve decided to do what too many politicians do: put their own (business) interests before any ideals, leave the tough decisions to their successors, take the money and run. And go silent in the bargain.
Beware: collective silence leads to collective irrelevance. As an industry, we need to take the measure of how far we have drifted from people’s hearts and yearnings and traded our ideals for the obsession for profit over anything else. We should be actively redefining ‘success’ and changing the nature of our analytics and metrics for it. Or we will collectively drift yet further away with the image of selfish hardened cynics. How do we bridge that gap? Or is it too late altogether?
“Who will lead us against the wicked witches of the West
Who will terrorize the official authorities of terrorism
Who will finally have the courage and strength to fight back
However you can, fight back!
Caus’ our children will blame us for being shameless
Will blame us for promoting ignorance
Will blame us for blaming other people and never taking a stand
And what will we stand for then?”
Emilie Chick, “Wakarimaska”(song embed)
Emily Gonneau is the manager artists like Emilie Chick, and a consultant for OK Go. Read all of her midemblog posts – including our most-shared ever post! – here. You can follow Gonneau’s company, Unicum Music, on Twitter & check out its website here.