If a tree falls in the forest and there’s nobody there to hear, maybe it should get online
I’ve always heard people say the best music you’ll ever hear is the music you’ll never hear. I hung onto that back when I was taking my life as a singer-songwriter very, very seriously. After all, for a long time, I mostly played to nobody in nowhere towns so far from civilization, not a soul could hear me scream.
I’ve been thinking about that adage again this week, though, as I’ve been on a bit of a Caroline Wonderland bender, running into folks who’ve never heard her work. By the way, here’s a video:
But it also got me thinking about this thing I’ve long been discussing with friends and colleagues. That there’s no longer any possibility of there being another Elvis, Beatles, or Bob Dylan. At least not in the sense of one artist or band with that level of inarguable artistic skill reaching that level of fame. (Okay, I recognize some people may argue Elvis’ artistic skill, but I’ll defer my argument in the King’s favor to this post by Adam Sheets from December.) The reason being that, while the internet has connected us in the most notable way any technology has since the advent of the television, it’s also opened the floodgates beyond any single source’s control. When the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, for example, everyone tuned in. Everyone doesn’t tune in to any one thing all together at the same time anymore. That is a thing of the past.
The only recent exception I can think of is the election night speech made by Barack Obama, but that has little to do with music, except very, very tangentially.
While pockets of the internet (ahem) seek to join us together in some way, for the most part they simply wind up fragmenting us. Social media types like to call this nichefication. While pop music still happens – for better or worse – it’s my experience that most people listen to some semblance of music which runs the gamut. We’ve discussed this here ad nauseum – the lack of reliable “filters”, where everyone finds their music, etc. But I think this adds to the truth of the matter that we, as music fans, don’t agree on everything anymore. And why should we? Enough people agree with each other on enough things, find places to discuss those things (like here), and open each other’s eyes to still newer, brighter, more intriguing things.
But, doesn’t the absence of that thing we all do, at the same time, together, mean it’s now less true that “the best music you’ll ever hear is the music you’ll never hear”?
Well, for one thing, isn’t half of what makes a song good dependent upon the time and place it’s sung and played, and who’s listening?
If a song never gets heard by me, how can it possibly be the best song I’d have ever known? For me, and granted this is my opinion, the best songs are the ones which reach me at the right moments. Those which say what I need to hear, or maybe what I don’t want to hear. They throw in odd notes or intricate, unexpected rhythms, which knock me aside for a second, just far enough to look back on myself with some perspective. But that can’t happen unless the song actually reaches me.
Somewhere else, there’s someone getting knocked aside by a different song. And that’s good for them. But that’s the song they’re actually hearing now, too. The song that’s not knocking them aside? That would be the one they don’t hear. So there’s that.
But, also, it’s no longer true that the music which finds us over radio airwaves, through our friends, the TV, films, etc., is all filtered through a couple of corporate channels with their own agendas. Music is absolutely everywhere. These days, I’m shocked and appalled when I go anywhere and don’t hear some kind of music in the background. Even the airplane plays artists like Neko Case when you’re boarding. And that’s good stuff.
In fact, there’s quite a bit of great stuff, by those bands who wouldn’t have made it out of their tiny middle-of-nowhere gigs ten years ago – the recording industry being what it was then, versus what it is now. I guess I mean to say there’s no longer any excuse for not hearing great music. It may take some more digging on your own time, but the notion that there’s some rosetta stone of glorious music that will never reach your ears strikes me as probably no longer true.
Anymore, an independent artist without an audience is probably not even really trying to plug in. Absolutely anyone can get their music heard. Absolutely anyone doesn’t have to wait to get picked up by a label or licensed to television. Absolutely any artist can get their work on iTunes, YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, NoDepression, and any other place where people gather to hear and discuss music online. Those “best artists you’ll never hear” don’t exist in vacuums anymore. I type that knowing I could get slaughtered by indie artists in the comments. But I also type it knowing I’m a musician before I am a writer, so I look forward to that discussion.
There was a time, I know, when an artist would cast their songs into the ether – mailing physical copies of cassette tapes to radio stations and clubs, the odd label exec they ran into at a party, hoping the phone would ring, driving exhausted from town to town hoping it would eventually get them discovered. There was something particularly tragic about those brilliant songwriters whose work didn’t fit handsomely enough into a radio format, or some palatable formula, and so would forever go unnoticed and unheard in the margins. No doubt there are still those artists – too ahead of the times to be understood by large audiences – who will continue to struggle for their art. I hope they stay true to it, and find a place on the internet and at festivals where they can almost sort of fit. But for the rest of the musicians at work these days, there are just too many channels into which they can plug their work, too many outlets to still be entirely obscure. There’s no longer any excuse for being that tree falling in a forest with nobody there to hear.