February 12, 2006

Tails and niches

This, from reader Alex Williams, is well worth throwing into the current discussion of current pop's anti-futurism:

'just a few points that an economist friend of mine and I have been discussing of late re: the demonstrable slowing down of excitement and innovation in music (and not just pop, obviously...)

Your last posting in response to S. Reynolds appeared to be heading off in this direction, with the outlying limbs of pop providing it with its impetus and "thrills" for at least ten, maybe twenty years now, and that these limbs (in the doomsday scenario which you kind of half subscribe to) are likely to gradually wink out one by one leaving only ossified genres and music which moves, but does not live or grow. One thing to consider here though is music as in some senses a business, not exactly like any other, (it certainly has strange foibles and kinks) but a business none the less. The changes in the market are likely to have had an effect on the produce and interrelationships between the interested parties (the companies, the acts, the consumers and the media). There is a term in the economics of the niche (apparently), which is the "long tail". As the technology of replication and distribution improves (along with increased globalisation) it becomes increasingly lucrative to market to ever more esoteric niches. As marketing becomes ever more targeted, media naturally evolves to track these niches (or conversely to rush to the most watery of middle-ground fodder). This can be observed in the changing patterns of British music media- with ever more niche publications it makes less sense economically for, say, the NME to cover as broad a range of music as it did previously-- as it is already being covered in far greater depth than it could feasibly manage. Hence its retreat to its self-perceived "core" values- an endless variation on four whey-faced white boys with guitars, in essence.

The paradoxical thing (and a point which you yourself have raised) is the seemingly growing eclecticism of the average consumer of music. However, as you pointed out, whilst they might listen to a broader range of music, the post-modern instinct is to consume in neat little boxes, a musical buffet where the sauces never mix, just sound files carefully labelled and eternally sub-divided on the hard drive. But why then this lack of desire to see further blending (not necessarily to create mere pot-boiling aimless eclecti-tronica, but to create the seeds of new genres)? A number of answers here...

*Increased availability of music leading to devaluation of intellectual and emotional relationships between consumer and music necessary to create high demands of it... see this
[Results of a normative study on changing nature of music consumption in the UK.]

*The niching of media output leading to a lack of what might be termed "selektas"- in the past due to the far more unitary nature of the media covering music far more genres rubbed uneasily against each other, allowing high profile journalists to "selekt" elements of music along with ideas from outside to create new blueprints for genres yet to exist (see Morley and new pop as the perfect example of this), or to create new terminology to link together previously disparate emergent movements (P Sherburne on micro house being the last notable example of this that I can think of). Also as publications head ever more in the direction of the mainstream or alternatively the niche they become respectively too commercially driven to make such bold statements or too safe in their little niche-cocoons to want to shake the system.

*The increasing historic stability of genre leading to a lack of belief that any further great changes and shifts might occur… This is especially prevalent in what might be termed “rock” or “indie” music, the utter lack of futurity or modernity as a core value. If consumers are habituated to change as the natural course of music then it is natural that when such change does not occur, they will become more demanding, take maters into their own hands, however if they have been brought up as guitar-based music fans have with the idea of an eternal same, then how could there ever be the possibility of change. Genres are in part of course ossifying because they no longer tread on each others toes or call into question the others values and conventions. And not just genre-by-genre, but in terms of the pop mainstream and the alleged avant underground. Each of these is far too stable and unchallenged,

Indeed it seems to be about expectations. In music as in many areas of creative and political life nowadays it is apparent that there is little more than a hegemony of the possible, a self-limiting awareness that “there is no further to go”. Which becomes of course a bitter self-fulfilling prophecy. The major problem is really that the numbers necessary to demand the impossible, to be ultimately utterly dissatisfied and demand and create something better and to disrupt and unsettle the staid conventions of all the mummified tentacles of this octopus of music I doubt exist. To achieve a post-punk/new pop like event (or even rave into the mainstream moment) only requires a relatively small critical number of people for it to take off. But crucially, given the slowing of expectations it seems even this is unlikely. As an example of this, look at The Guardian article recently referred to on Dissensus—not even an inkling of the idea that the central problem in the case of The Arctic Monkeys (especially sonically) is that they exist entirely within the remit of ideas from almost 30 years ago. But when you remark of this fact to anyone, seemingly, the response is simply that there are no new ideas, and it’s all over. And if people only believe in the possible, it’s all fucked.

What is perhaps necessary is for the tail to no longer wag the dog and for artists, media and consumers to evolve new committed positions within the emerging distributive networks and allow a rebirth of the excitement and invention which marked popular music from 1950s onwards in the last century. Because it is doubtful as to whether we could structurally return to things as they were. The other options are to tunnel further into the various niches, or to play ever more elaborate po-mo games (hauntology perhaps?) But that is pretty much an expression of terminal decline into mere classical languages.'

UPDATE: Padraig responds, with a question.

Posted by mark at February 12, 2006 12:32 AM | TrackBack