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Monday, September 22, 2003
So I went to that panel thing and it was pretty boring. I got first-person confirmation that Lyor Cohen (Def Jam / Island / UMG) and Jason Flom (Lava / Atlantic) are slimy tools. Lyor kept saying things like "we're less of a music company and more of a lifestyle company" and "we like to think of ourselves as taste-makers;" both he and Jason forgot they were at a New Yorker panel and not a FMQB conference, but that's probably OK. It was kind of funny to see how both sort of considered themselves mavericks running spunky little labels instead of, you know, members of some of the biggest media conglomerates on Earth. Especially Lyor. I mean, c'mon, you're Lyor Cohen, dude!

Although there was much discussion about MP3s and their effect on the blah blah blah, no one seemed willing to discuss the recent dunderheaded RIAA lawsuits, even though two members of the panel were RIAA folks and two very much weren't, including Danny; there was way less fighting than I was hoping for. Ah well.

The questions were also pretty lame, including one about emo (sheesh) and one from "this weasely little guy," as a friend put it, about whether labels were advancing music as an artform or something. They ended right before I was going to ask my question, which was going to try and present the VR view by asking about the C-Lo / Dixie Chicks contract lawsuits and about majors starting to do licensing instead of recording agreements where the artists would put up their own money to make albums and then retain copyright, and then maybe try and move to more broad stuff about labels downgrading into simple promotion companies instead of upgrading to "lifestyle companies" as Lyor talked about. Ah well. Probably would've been too nerdy anyway.

But there was one illuminating moment, which came to us courtesy of Mr. Robb Nansel (who "looks like he spent way too much time on his hair this morning," as the same friend put it) of Saddle Creek, home of Bright Eyes, notable not only because of what he said, but because of the fact that he didn't say a whole lot else without being prompted. I don't remember quite what the context was, but here's a rough approximation of what he said:

We try to sell records in such a way that fans and musicians can be as comfortable as possible. We don't shove it down everybody's throats.

Now, on a certain level I can understand what he's saying. Hell, I'm in two bands, and I've mentioned them here, what, twice? (I'm not even going to link to them half-ironically / half-sincerely in this post.) I understand quite well from personal experience how off-putting intense self-promotion can be, how for people of our particular musical disposition it can either make us totally uninterested in the music or make us far less able to enjoy it, for whatever reason. So I'm sympathetic to that particular viewpoint.

But at the same time: c'mon man! Fucking comfortable? Since when was music basically about comfort? Isn't it supposed to be about outsized emotions, about being a teenager or being a rock star or being this mythic country/blues/folk legend, about heightening everything about about making everything louder, about dancing and crowd-surfing and seduction and fucking? Comfort? Fuck comfort! Don't get me wrong: I like comfortable music, and we all know how I feel about unrealistic overstatements about music being "dangerous" or "disturbing" or whatever. But if we're going to admit that music can sometimes be outsized and, if not shocking, at least a little bit disorienting--and I don't see how a fan of Bright Eyes could think otherwise--then what goddamn reason could there possibly be to make the promotion "comfortable"?

Maybe a distinction needs to be made. Like I say, it's pretty annoying and off-putting to see self-promotion: to have some guy in a band come up to you or call you or keep e-mailing you about how great he is and how you should check him out, etc. And I even occasionally get grossed by certain publicity stunts. But you have to recognize that there's a big difference between that guy bugging you about his crappy band (although that's even kind of endearing if he's a friend) and advertising, articles, and reviews, which aside from being much easier to ignore, are also not initiated by the artist. And that matters, because it helps us to answer the question: why is it so off-putting? Sure, I'm well familiar with the annoying allergy indie kids seem to have to some pretty damn fun aspects of culture, but that doesn't explain all of it. I think you can nail it to the idea that when an artist is doing promotion, they're not working on their music. And while it's true that most artist, for better or worse, do spend a lot of time not working on their music, we don't want to think this is the case. In other words, the reason we don't like hype is because it should be all about the music, man.

Look, I'll admit that there are definitely certain standards you want to keep to when it comes to promotion. Overexposure is a worry, and I'm not so sure I'd be personally happy to go right to Pepsi Smash! even if I don't mind it when other artists do. But is comfort really the standard? I don't think so. Saddle Creek certainly doesn't think so: six months ago, you'd be hard-pressed to think of a more overexposed label than Saddle Creek or a more overhyped artist than Bright Eyes. I mean, Robb himself was at a goddamn New Yorker panel with Lyor Cohen. Maybe they're backing off now in reaction to that (viz. the new Bright Eyes release, a multi-disc vinyl set), but the fact remains that after a certain point, the people who are going to be uncomfortable with you having a review in Newsweek are not the kind of people you want to concern yourself with if you want anyone who really cares about music to hear your stuff. These kind of people are the ones who are still way too concerned with authenticity--whether of the traditional kind or their own particular brand thereof--and who, tragically, are not willing to play the game of pop culture. Which is really too bad, because man, it's fun! But there's definitely a certain amount of disbelief-suspending you have to do in order to fully engage with it. For instance, you have to sort of overlook Britney's lyrics and enjoy, rather than be vaguely weirded out by, the fact that she came to prominence wearing schoolgirl skirts, because, let's be honest here, it is actually pretty damn funny and cool, and concerns of exploitation and tastelessness (and inauthenticity, I guess--"you so did not go to Catholic school!") vanish because, well, because it's not very fun. And who cares? As I've said before, as long as we're yowling pseudo-poetry over electronic noise, no matter what the content or the intent, it's all gonna be inauthentic.

And what's this about ramming it down people's throats? Hey, isn't that fun sometimes--to have something just be everywhere, to have it be the soundtrack to your life whether you're doing it or not? To have everyone know about it and talk about it? Maybe you don't think so, but I sure think so, and for a lot of people, let's be honest, nothing makes them more comfortable than to have something be overexposed. And, sweet Christ, man, haven't you ever heard something so good that you want to shove it down everyone's throats, that you just want to say "This is the greatest thing ever and listen to it now or I will punch you in the arm until you do"? And sure, maybe it's not the best thing in the entire world, but doesn't it make you feel that way at the time? (At the time: the temporality of pop music. V. important.) Don't you want to share it with other people? I hope so! I don't want everything shoved down my throat, of course, but sometimes, oh sometimes, it is very nice.