The other day I asked my Facebook friends for a topic to write about. Got a handful of interesting responses, one of them from a co-worker who wondered, “is mystery commodifiable?” (In today’s music world, that is.)
How could I not take a crack at that?
By now, most of us know the story: the internet ushered in tremendous innovations that have reshaped not only the music industry, but the entire informational/entertainment construct. Depending on your politics, you’re likely to either see this as a beautiful or horrifying development. As is the case with many transformative technologies, the real truth is probably somewhere in the middle. For every Ford Motor Company, there are dozens of vanquished carriage-makers.
True, the flattening of distribution structures and access points have allowed for countless more voices than could have ever been entertained on any previous communications platform. On the other hand, the flattening of distribution structures and access points have allowed for countless more voices than could have ever been entertained on any previous communications platform.
My redundancy was on purpose.
If you’re an old media gatekeeper whose business was built on scarcity and control of the distribution pipeline, you’re probably embittered by the developments of the last decade or so. If you’re a young visionary with a good idea and a sense of how to navigate shifting technological terrain, you’re thrilled at the opportunities before you.
In the old music industry, it wasn’t just product, shelf space and radio spectrum that was scarce. It was contextual information. Pre-MTV, the way you found out about your favorite act — besides the record store — was radio, print and, occasionally, television. But not every artist not won the promotional lottery. The glorious opportunity to perform on Ed Sullivan or give a juicy interview to Rolling Stone was not something that happened to every chump with a guitar and tight trousers. When your time to step up came, you had to deliver. But you were careful not to reveal everything, to keep ‘em coming back for more.
Today’s social media-dominated marketplace seems to function in the exact opposite way. Fans are trained to expect instant access to their favorite acts, and the musicians themselves are making themselves available to a degree their forbears could never have imagined. Sometimes it’s embarrassing, other times it’s brilliant.
While it is theoretically possible to be “mysterious” on the internet, the new music business puts a premium on those willing and able to churn out a constant stream of content and information, however superficial. Whereas artists of yesteryear would spend countless hours honing their message for a handful of mediums, today’s creators and entertainers are expected to be in near-constant dialogue across an increasing number of platforms, from blogs to Twitter to Facebook to podcasts and video diaries. Glory — and blowback — can come fast and swift, and the experience is often disorienting. How much should you reveal? What if you say something stupid? How does this make me money? Advance my art?
What if nobody cares?
That’s the real problem with today’s super-saturated information marketplace. There’s so many people clamoring for attention that it sometimes seems like only the loudest voices get heard. This isn’t true, of course — the world still values talent and ingenuity. But the world also embraces vacuousness and ubiquity. And the latter two qualities are the mortal enemies of mystery and cool.
But what is cool, and what is mysterious? Well, when I was a kid, all I knew about Led Zeppelin‘s Jimmy Page was that he lived in a notorious occultist’s old estate on Loch Ness and did things with groupies I was probably best to remain ignorant of. (I didn’t.) That air of mystery fueled my fascination (OK, maybe it was the dragon-embossed bellbottoms), and set me on my own path towards rock glory. My point is, it was hard to come by information about Jimmy Page, and he was the lead guitarist for the biggest band of the 1970s! Comparatively, I can find out everything I ever wanted to know (and more) about Kanye West by simply typing his name in Google.
There’s a fine line between mystery and obscurity, and artists walked it long before the internet. I’m sure that deranged rockabilly crooner Hasil Adkins probably wanted to be as famous as Elvis, but there really wasn’t a mechanism for that to happen. So he recorded when he could, how he could, and eventually a small percentage of the listening population found him on oddball compilations and short-run 7″ records. This, of course, only increased his legend among fans of so-called “outsider” music. Would he have lasted as long if he’d been able to simply post a YouTube video? Maybe. Maybe not. Let’s ask the “Chocolate Rain” guy.
I’m not advocating for one era over the other; I benefit immensely from having lived through both. And I find it especially interesting when artists try to cultivate mystery (or even obscurity) in today’s media environment. There’s a new(ish) electronic genre called “witch-house” or “drag,” whose practitioners are largely absent from the online fray. These artists play loose and fast with identity, pronounciation, geographic location, etc., in what seems to be a deliberate rejection of internet ubiquity. Check out what I mean.
To me, it seems seems weird to engineer an underground. In my day, the underground simply was, by virtue of its relation to mainstream culture. Now there is no single mainstream culture, outside of American Idol and Glee. Are we better off? Is the loss of mystery an appropriate trade-off for access to such a diverse array of expression? I say yes. In fact, you can hear me talk about it (supposedly) next week on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”
I hope I sound mysterious.