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The New Music Conundrum

The Infinitely Audible Void

The New Music Conundrum

The New Music Conundrum. This one has been sitting in my “drafts” box for what feels like millennia despite the reality of the topic existing in my head within that fantastically unreachable dream that is living free rent. Though there will be some “arguments” here and an inexorable conclusion placed at the end for good format in tying these observational questions together, that is very much what this is. A set of irrevocably interlinked questions and observations with a three-fold origin.

The first being my experience in the DIY press whatever-it-is these past however many years. The second is that of the contrast between my initial entry into music fandom, now, best described as minutiae when directly placed next to the overclocked juxtaposition of what it is now to be a music devotee. The third and final inspiration being a time when I was addressing an email from a band I had initially missed. I apologised, denoting this spare time venture and offered coverage only to be greeted with a retort in the manner of the following. – ‘Yeah, I suppose it’s still fairly recent, so you can if you want’. 

The New Music Conundrum, then.


The Questions

Music is and continues to be since the invention of the internet and the continued proliferation of the information and digital age, the definition omnipresent. Like almost everything in this time of cognitive overload and brain-rendering, almost miasmic din of EVERYTHING (but capitalised), music and its vast variety of veritable voraciousness is quite vehemently occupying an increasing amount of this expanse. From bands and artists forty years in the game onward to those four minutes into their demo, it truly is more prevalent than ever. This, I would argue, begs a few pertinent questions pertaining to this audible availability.

Who do you support? Whether it’s streaming, gig tickets, physicals or merch, you’re guaranteed to be spending your coins in some manner. Now, there are those artists that play one show a year and cuddle their hoards of invisible mullah and there are others in it for the love of it on either side of fuel money and in all objectivity, it is entirely up to you how and who you invest in so to speak. But, of course, this goes a lot further.

Speaking generally and not too focussed on the method just yet, consider the respective “size” of the noise makers in your ear. Chances are, many of our favourite bands, generally or within respective scenes and spheres of sonics, are “Big”. Now, this is fine. For example, at the time of writing this, I am playing through my record collection and thus far, it is very much those bands whose music is considerably more populous in the scene I find myself in. Yesterday, it was the complete opposite side of my wax collection and entirely focussed on DIY and current bands slogging it out. Are both of these fine? Yes. However, again motioning back to an example where there is a generality and no specific method. Do either of these echelons deserve more invested support than their opposite number?


The Questions Extended: Scenario and Perspective 

In this scenario, the notoriety and prevalence of “Band A” in the scene is an uncontestable given and warranted by many but bands “C to I” don’t quite have the same “reach”. This then begs the question of who to support? By all means, pay to watch “Band A”. Stream their records and the like because it makes you happy and own it, but, you find yourself really enjoying bands “C to I” more and more. “Band A” tours regularly, their availability defines ease and their following is gargantuan. The others however have markedly less support and for their continued existence, having ears invested in them is paramount. More ears are likely to tune into “Band A”, so if you were to spend an hour streaming, sharing or bookmarking physicals and merch, you’ve indulged in your adoration for them but in reality, so have countless others. Now you’ve spent one hour on what you know, you can, could and likely should, though again, your volition is your own, spend three whole hours investing in bands “C to I”.

Your support for both is crucial, objectively speaking of course, but what is the efficacy of your contribution after you’ve chosen its trajectory? Every band starts somewhere and those who now influence an innumerable many themselves once depended on enough funds to keep the van running. Said bands and their comparatively more “DIY” or “Underground” compadres will experience different levels of “success” due to this support and yet both in this example, arguably, deserve to be able to make this endeavour.

These are the questions that present themselves as we delve deeper into music fandom, that very obsession beholden and dependent on the art of others and the escapism and happiness it provides. In a nutshell, do what YOU want, do what you can (break all the fucking rules, if you will) but when you’re THIS far into music fandom, the questions of “who, when and why” are immortalised and beckon consideration.


The Playing Field

The attention economy is something touched upon in another piece I wrote entitled, ‘An Argument For Online Zines’ a while ago which I will leave at the end along with some other longer, “column-style” pieces. This term, one unequivocally tied in the most intrinsic fashion to how our daily lives are governed by this unending, unyielding and unadulterated tirade of competition for our cranial focus, is a core ingredient to this (now) evergreen conundrum. I say “now” as depending on our respective ages, our perspective of the music scene is wildly varied. I myself, sitting here at thirty-one have had a wildly varied experience to that of people I know in their early twenties or younger and equally I’m sure those older than myself will have had a relationship with the music scene that I would quite reasonably, struggle to understand. The playing field, though bountiful, is in equal measure in a state of amorphous being that to some, I would wager feels like an unending void, an overpopulated stage and a cornucopia of opportunity and limitless artistic flair all at once. Regardless of what level you are involved in this, the scope is daunting.

Money. The root of all evil but also a tool that exerts more control over us than we would prefer. Advertising through social media, posters, flyers, videos, all of these are the tools that now require this greater tool more so than ever. The fact of the matter is, in order to be seen, it often requires clever manipulation of the algorithmic overlords but beyond that, which itself isn’t guaranteed to work these days, money and the ability to throw invisible cash at it all yields a huge contrast in results.

Social Media is now for better AND for worse, the indomitable underpin of how music is marketed. “Paid” posts are undoubtedly more likely to be seen and those with the money to facilitate them, are more likely to reap the benefits. This is not entirely universal and again, objectively speaking, volition is relative and regardless of size, any band or artist is within their right to use such a function but I shouldn’t need to emphasise how this can negate the reach of others. Social media is a great yet exertive experience for most and is similarly an exercise in void-screaming for others, which is something I understand well. That said, regardless of the validity of these observations, such is now symbiotic to the greater promotional whole but by no means in a manner that is evenly distributed when it’s time for the harvest and its duration. For our attention has quite commonly already been piqued elsewhere.

The “who” question of the previous sections is forever tied to his playing field. Local scenes are fantastically fundamental grassroots institutions and long may they live! However, their earnest and ubiquitous tenacity can be lost in this din. For every small-time promotor or band battling to be heard, so much will be missed due to the frequency at which all this information is fired from white-hot cylinders. The matter of paid advertising rears its head across all levels of presence and notoriety. Though chances are you will see the local promotor poking their head around a corner, it is just as probable that they will be obscured by a crowd of other heads trying to process it all. All the while, odds are that those with fiscal prowess or those who simply have more reach are doing the same, sequentially, simultaneously or both.

There is then the constant stream of releases being thrown at you across social media, blogs, zines and within streaming services, from bandcamp to Spotify and Apple Music. In one perusal of a single screen, before we’ve even scrolled in whatever directional journey, we are inundated with prospective audible consumption. It is of no surprise that this will see many retreating to the ramparts of comfort for simple ease. On the contrary, for others, it can catalyse a deep dive into the depths of this unending serenade and that’s no negative. That said, with this salvo firing so many dopamine-comprised broadsides, to be succinct, it’s hard to remember what you heard last week let alone in one given session.

This then only compounds how we are spoon-fed to a level where to taketh the spoon away, leaves a husk unable to satiate itself. Existentially, we live fast lives, that much is evident. There are indeed innumerable benefits to the wealth of capability modern music distribution offers and the like discussed so far can yield much to our budding ears. I’d be a hypocrite to denounce that entirely but on some level, through this, we all become integral to the negative aspects of this instantaneous ability to “feed”. That being the scraps and leftovers that were unable to fit under the heat lamp.

Peaks and troughs, in tune and out of tune. The attention economy finances the playing field, from cutting grass to growing seeds.


Attitudes and More Questions 

In the introduction, I heavily implied that much of this is observation and this section is perhaps so in the rawest, perhaps most personal form. So, bear with me.

As eluded in the previous literary tirades, new music is in a quantity better articulated as a shit-ton (which is apparently “Imperial” again. GREAT). Now, obviously, this is objectively great on either side of the “problems” written above. However, what of the “attitude” towards this infinite abundance? Well! Though this is a symptom of being bipedal Magpies, allured by shiny things, there is an overwhelming rise in CONSTANTLY needing “new” things. Though it is true that such is a fundamental part of it all, naturally, I would argue that it is very much quite often detrimental. This nature within ourselves is compounded and then charged by the advent of streaming and the like, constantly pushing everything new, forcing bands and people into a model where the limelight is finite and relevancy is both fleeting and a ubiquitous battle. Again, I should give the disclaimer that there are many positives to these processes as stated but that’s not where we are at the moment.

The “Friday Release Day” is exciting but it is often overwhelming and generates a hard-to-ignore “only new stuff is cool” attitude that, though often circumvented, is impossible to eradicate. Through this manner of social media and streaming services, there is an omnipresent air of an embedded popularity contest and that, I will emphatically state, is the antithesis of the music scene or should be at least. This also catalyses the pondering on “what is new?” and the “how have you not?” culture.

How long is something considered new, how long should the artist or band push it? How long is it worth a third-party scene devotee publicising something? As eluded in the introduction with an occurrence I experienced personally, this finite nature of whatever metric defines how “musically fresh” something is, is the direct antagonistic contrarian to the ever true flag flying from the fortification atop the hill I will die on, that music is forever worth talking about and sharing as a cultural exchange. The rapid disregard of something because it’s now but a few weeks old is a concerning symptom of this “model”. Apply this to the forgetfulness and sensory overload of the previous section and we have another “rotten apple” amongst the bushel of ripe availability. Relevancy and accolades don’t fade by default because something else has come along. That EP you are spamming repeatedly, even a month on, is still an active and pure way of supporting that DIY band struggling to break through the din of the newfangled.

Moving on to “how have you not?” culture, then. Now, obviously, there is a “way” in which we can be surprised, shocked and still amicable and “not a dick” when we react to a peer not having heard or seen something we would think to be a regular rotation for them. The vast majority of these interactions pass fleetingly and with no offence taken but the shame that some will put on another through direct lambasting or what follows on from the interaction can elicit a feeling of shame for not being able to run parallel to it all or follow the relentless tide. These are yet more symptoms and active parts of The New Music Conundrum. This “shame” aspect akin to much in this piece, unravels further. Though I have already said as much, spending time on something that is a personal favourite, anywhere from thirty hours to thirty years old or simply a band that is a mainstay is absolutely fine but this “WE MUST FOCUS ON NEW THINGS AND NEW THINGS ONLY BECAUSE NEW THINGS” attitude can become quite toxic and in DIY spaces in particular, can become decidedly dissuading to people who suddenly feel that they aren’t “doing enough”.

I don’t have the ability to count how many times this has happened to me or how many instances I have seen it from a third-person perspective. In almost every occurrence that I am summarising to avoid too much profundity and pontification, this has happened deep within a DIY and or underground space to individuals who already support said space and it is, quite humorously, a derivative of the very “gatekeeping” said spaces altruistically rebuff. Just because you are not constantly chasing or have innocently missed the freshest output, does not mean you aren’t supporting the contemporary and absolutely does not mean that you don’t deserve to be there. Again, this is the antithesis of community and something the vast majority of people will expunge from their cranium at a formative stage.

At the end of the often very long day, it is crucial you like what you like, regardless of these social or often systemically algorithmic and societal behavioural patterns. Take your time with it all and again, “don’t be a dick”, for there are enough of those. If you’re spending all your free time over the course of the day or week, indulging in a band that’s been around for certifiable “yonks” that’s fantastic if it makes you happy but it is a sad state of affairs that it being “cool to hate” (for the sake of it) is so prevalent. It’s ok to and not to like something. “FUCK X BIG BAND, THAT’S OLD SHIT” or “UGH! WHY ARE YOU LISTENING TO THAT” may seem like trivial examples, as can the above, but I can tell you that these elitist tropes happen.

Further in, before I juxtapose this with some reaffirmation of positivity, for to be positive about things you must understand areas of improvement or simply those of discontent, there is more. With this earnest, almost forced and heavily implied and suggested alacrity, there is a question. Do we actually like what we are presented with and to what extent are were pressured in a fashion to do so? This, I’m not going to answer, as it is more of an open-ended question I believe should be pondered by all who strive to keep the music scene alive and has been placed here to add gravitas to what this section conveys.

I’ll leave that one with you and move on to the next section shortly, but first. What is new? The answer to that is in the eye of the beholder. The discovery of new music is an uncontestably beautiful thing outside of The New Music Conundrum. A song will always be a discovery for someone, you don’t have to like it and it doesn’t have to have been released yesterday. If music is as ubiquitous and unending as we believe, then all of it is worth something.


Where Do You Place Your Support Again?

Spurred into thought by the closing paragraph of the previous section but also jointly inspired by the globally canonical events of the past few years, namely COVID and Brexit, the question of “who” returns.

Now, though preexisting, the obvious and arduous strain the music industry lives under has been exponentially more obvious in recent years. This again presents the question of – “Big and Established” vs “DIY”. Do either deserve more support than the other? The answer is contextual with some coalescent carryover but it still boils down to a hard yes and an equally robust no. Confused? Hopefully, I can fix that.

Beginning with the contrastingly more established and not simply limited to the performers in question. Those lucky enough to have a sustainable income from their stage and recording time were cut to a stiff halt during the initial part of the pandemic and are still reeling in recoil now when said issues are still forcing tour and gig cancellations. Amongst these performers are the sound crews, guitar techs and a myriad of other vital bodies including underpinning live music spaces and venues. Without naming names, various larger bands in the Punk and Alternative scenes hosted and played streamable live shows over the course of the various national lockdowns in order to raise money for their respective crews, who were completely left behind amongst it all. Bands require support for continued existence regardless of global difficulties but it is this example and respective instances that haven’t left my mind since. To be concise, though renown implies fortuity, this implication is by definition not a certainty and there is unequivocally more to it than meets the eye, from logistics to finances and crucially, to people.

It goes without saying that some are more fortunate than others in the multifaced music scene but there is also a colossal amount of very specific circumstances and decided amounts of disambiguation and carryover. The DIY band has always struggled and through some “accepted” level of romanticised perpetuity, will continue to do so. The obstacles of the renowned listed above transcend both scenes but for the more humble of the two the struggle is often unyielding. First of all, as you’d expect considering previous sections of this tome, the argument to spend more time on these up-and-coming or simply underground bands is infinitely paramount when viewing the great game of accruing support. Rent, fuel money, studio costs, production, travel arrangements, spending money on merch to generate more income to feed back into the vicious cycle. The list goes on, perpetually. Especially so when the interlinked ‘[…] sound crews, guitar techs and a myriad of other vital bodies including underpinning live music spaces and venues’ are discussed.

I did say “who, when and why” would return. This is yet another section designed to make you think and yet it also substantiates the question of who is more deserving as much as it nuances it and yet doesn’t definitively answer it at all, rather increasing its greater depth. Ah, The New Music Conundrum. But again.


Our Role

By “Our” I of course mean everyone involved across the spectrum.

We all dwell within this contemporary playing field. The way we are able to access music may not be limitless yet but it’s chasing that goal. In this field, as we’ve already discussed, the instantaneous nature of the likes of streaming services and hybrids such as bandcamp and the like enable incredibly easy access, despite the arguable and often entrenched convolution. Further heighten this exposure and availability with that of paper and online zines and publications and of course, the lynchpin that are independent record labels and promoters and finding new music or simply supporting what you love is there for the taking. This is particularly relevant to the underground and DIY scenes. However, given all that, there is still one intentionally lacking element.

Us.

All of this requires you. It requires us, me, them and back around again. YOU HAVE TO DO THE WORK. That is the reality. Spoon feeding, the work of others and even algorithmic culture all have their emphatic benefits and will ultimately tick things over when you are too busy. They will undoubtedly reap SOME results but it is ultimately down to us. WE, as we digest opus after opus, are just as much of an important cog in this multi-faceted machine as those set at the crafting table. Revisit blogs and zines, check-in for what bands are doing and use the paramount power of the search box rather than waiting for something to break your doom-scrolling. Do your research on gig and festival line-ups, the level of engagement is endless with such bountiful rewards on the other side. These tools are only as good as the usage we invest in them.


Gigs: Another Layer

This is more a bonus section that I feel adds an interesting and relevant nuance to The New Music Conundrum. How do gigs, tours and live shows play into the question of what to like, and who to support within this expanse?

Well, they encompass and enable all of the above when you consider and dissect their status. I would argue that they carry a level of irony, in that they are essentially neutral. Though this may not be not proportionately so, it is rather in their presence and representation when proliferating the various aspects of the contemporary scene. In this observation and “argument”, they are seen to fuel and enrich – depending on the context of course –  everything discussed in this article. It is ironic that they are the best place to find and be exposed to new music in its rawest and purest form, providing and enabling unadulterated support but also, that they reward and promote nostalgia. Gigs are vital for the relevancy of all those playing them and are a continuously sustaining drip feed for all of it.

There is also that moment of intersection and coalescent beauty as “new” and “nostalgia” examples cross over. Admittedly, I am speaking from my perspective as a very small part of the greater Punk scene, but its a well-worn yet still well-fitted trope that sees larger more successful bands taking those who are few steps down the ladder than them, on tour, providing them with support slots and that itself, is something that pleasingly cascades down to those playing their first set. Those “big names” and tastemakers all started on the same stages.

Perhaps the reason for this section is now obvious enough for me to leave it there.


A Semi-Conclusive Observation

As I read this back, I can’t help but feel I may have ranted on for perhaps too long but at the same time, I feel lighter for it.

Apparently, this is a far more complex topic than my initial notes suggested. So, what is the best way to navigate The New Music Conundrum? Well, I can only repeat and concisely amalgamate the points that have spilt from my brain throughout this piece and give my far from gospel-equating opinion.

Maintain a healthy balance. There is a lot out there, all of which is inspired by a veritable genealogy of influences and their thoughtful odes on either side of the familial tree. Such sonic wealth is descended from the “greats” if you wish to use that term and in their own way, going back again, they are themselves honouring their own lineage from this process. Spend that time playing through every record a band released, revisit what inspired the now, indulge in those who are amidst inspiring and then ride with those who are inspired, all the way down to those earnestly mastering their training wheels and those who have freshly discarded them. Do this revision, leap onward and dive into the now. Importantly though, do so at your own pace as you engage with the new, those who are passionately building the foundations for the next sequential troubadours to themselves follow. It can get overwhelming and with the current phase in the timeline, it is easy for trends to try to rule your mind and for negative behaviour to seep in.

Love what you love whilst still helping to proliferate the new, that would be my final iteration of this advice, as it allows you the freedom of yourself AND assists in maintaining a vital part of our culture. But what do I know, eh?


Thanks for reading and if you made it to the very end, I am both equally impressed and apologetic. I would like to thank Chris from The Last Mile for once again taking the time to help me with this and for that I shall leave their band amongst the links I promised.

As usual, I would also like to thank anyone that has either engaged with Ear Nutrition or the other site I once ran that somewhere in here, I have left a reference to.

Nice.

 

Founder of Ear Nutrition, Matt is likely reasonably over 25 and first cut his words writing for the now hiatus-existing site, Musically Fresh. He enjoys a variety of guitar-driven music but has a strong penchant for Punk music, with fast melodic Skate Punk sitting firmly at the top.

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