Culture is not about aesthetics. Punk rock is now enforced by law.

(Also in Polish.)

Record companies complain the Internet will destroy music. Musicians complain that they can’t make a living any more. The unsympathetic public, feeling the squeeze themselves, tell them to get a proper job.

The problem isn’t piracy — it’s competition.

There is too much music and too many musicians, and the amateurs are often good enough for the public. This is healthy for culture, not so much for aesthetics, and shit for musicians. Musicians in the early ’90s were already feeling the pressure of competition from CD reissues of old stuff; here in the future, you can get almost anything that has ever been digitised for free and listener time is the precious commodity.

This article is not about the majors or rock stars, but about the indie musicians and labels watching the waterhole dry up and wondering what the hell happened.

There is no shortage of genius works.

As Gwern Branwen notes, culture is not about aesthetics. There are too many brilliant records. There are too many brilliant books. He does the numbers to demonstrate the impossibility of keeping up, and the impossibility of ever having been able to keep up, even back in the twentieth century, when everything was really slow and records cost money.

The purpose of culture is actually social bonding — like you thought all those bad genres you’re not into were — and aesthetics to our level of obsession is just a nice extra along for the ride, and fodder for social signaling (which is why governments spend money on art funding). Culture is everything humans do to interact, and having it go through record companies is actually a completely weird state of affairs.

The problem then is not genius works, but finding, and making, them in your chosen aesthetic vocabulary (the one fixed in a couple of years of your adolescence).

If you’re thinking about money, you’re a small business. You poor bastard.

Economically, the 20th century was just a weird time: where it was possible to mass-produce recordings, but it was difficult and expensive; so we had a record company oligopoly, which is great for squeezing out cash. Now it’s not. Marginal cost approaches zero, and it’s marginal cost, not setup cost, that determines prices. So the price will tend to zero. Microeconomics is a bastard.

In most small businesses, pricing is a percentage whacked onto the marginal cost, and the setup cost is paid for in the percentage. Your setup costs are S (recording, designing the packaging, etc.). You can’t charge the customer upfront for those so you need to whack a percentage margin onto your marginal costs. This is the cost of each additional unit after the setup costs (pressing one more record, shipping one record, etc.), which are M per unit. So your total cost is S plus (M times units), and your return is (M plus percentage) times units.

This works when your marginal costs are large enough to whack a sufficient percentage onto (e.g., a CD) to cover S. It doesn’t when your marginal cost is almost zero (an MP3). Anyone can undercut you by taking a lower percentage on the marginal cost, and if their setup costs are also smaller they’re laughing. Thus, prices tend to drop as close to marginal value as is possible. If that’s zero, that’s what people expect to pay.

(I was actually surprised iTunes works at all, ever, for anyone — people paying $1 for something of zero marginal cost. Every sale is made because the people wanted to pay for the unit in question. Convenience is worth more than I’d thought.)

The market is not perfectly efficient. But the new degree of efficiency is quite horrifying and unexpected to musicians who started out in the gatekeeper oligopoly, and it’s not going to get less efficient.

Literally everyone is a musician if they want to be. Good for culture, bad for employment.

The serious problem for the working musician, though, isn’t records being cheap — it’s competition from other musicians. Because any talentless hack is now a musician. There are bands who would have trouble playing a police siren in tune, who download a cracked copy of Cubase — you know how much musicians pirate their software, VSTs and sample packs, right? — and tap in every note. There are people like me who do this. A two-hundred-quid laptop with LMMS and I suddenly have better studio equipment than I could have hired for $100/hour thirty years ago. You can do better with a proper engineer in a proper studio, but you don’t have to. And whenever quality competes with convenience, convenience wins every time.

You can protest that your music is a finely-prepared steak cooked by sheer genius, and be quite correct in this, and you have trouble paying for your kitchen, your restaurant, your cow. But everyone else is giving away zero-marginal-cost digital steaks, even if they’re actually reconstituted tofu or maybe poop.

This means art becomes entirely a folk enterprise: the sound of the culture talking amongst itself. This is lovely in its way, but all a bit fucked if you aspire to higher quality in your subcultural group.

We’re not going to run out of music, but it’s going to be a bit mediocre by and by.

(Music journalism might become a profession again. I thought it had been safely killed.)

No, I don’t have a quick answer.

Musicians are in competition with every other musician in the world, including literally everyone who wants to be a musician and doesn’t have to do it for money. All of whom have access now to the same outlets and channels the other musicians do. We have the technology; it’s cheap. The amateurs are frequently good enough for the public. The professionals sell fuck-all these days.

For live musicians, you’re in economic competition with every other thing in the world that isn’t going out to see a band — like, ooh, the entire Internet — and you know the pubs know it.

A few established bands have managed to record albums through Kickstarter-style pledge arrangements: charging directly on the setup cost, not the marginal cost. You do need to have a fanbase to leverage first.

The obvious answer is the destruction of neoliberalism, of bullshit jobs and indeed of the capitalist system in general, and a world where we don’t have to fight in a rat race for scraps from the owners’ tables rather than make music, but that might be a bit complicated to fully outline a viable plan for in a music blog.

Suggestions are welcomed. (I’ll note that “everyone just needs to change their attitude” is unlikely to work in practice.) In the meantime, go buy something from your old favourites, they almost certainly need the cash.

(By the way, this is a problem I personally have: the loved one just quit her job to do art full-time. Here in the future, selling art for money that we seriously need is proving interesting. GO BUY A T-SHIRT. We’re all supposed to live off T-shirts now, right?)

Update: 2016 followup.

73 thoughts on “Culture is not about aesthetics. Punk rock is now enforced by law.

  1. I have a contrary viewpoint: our standards are too low.

    Most rock is trivial to make. We’ve upgraded technical knowledge since the 1980s, but that’s to be expected with the sheer flood of materials and lowering of cost to learn and perfect an instrumental skill. All of the surface attributes of music have improved.

    Thus we have the same mediocre stuff, but with better musicianship and production, and since it’s cheap to make, a flood of it. In part what makes it cheap is that anyone can do it; there’s no profundity or clarity requirement for the underlying content.

    In this flood, anything really good gets lost, which leaves listeners committed to an average that seems good on the surface but is contentless. This is why listeners aren’t buying much: the market is informational entropy in which any example is about as good as the others, so you don’t need many since they’re all so similar.

  2. We have teenagers making good livings producing new music without the help of record companies..People such as Madeon.. You sound a lot like Mozart complaining about the Clash.

  3. Interesting read, and seems to be a fairly accurate way of looking at the music industry as it is.

    I think you’ve missed something, though. Its not just convenience that makes iTunes work. Its that we see a song, or indeed any media, as having value.

    That value can fluctuate wildly, of course, depending on the media and the preferences of the customer. But theres a threshold and as long as the price is under that, people will think ‘yes, this is worth it’.

    Furthermore, competition doesn’t just drive prices down, it drives quality up. Sure, the world is full of the mediocre, of one hit wonders, of bands and producers and rappers and artists that can produce a decent product but never rise above the rest. So? Thats always been the case. The cream the of crop will rise above, and because they produce a better product they are able to charge more (or at all) for it.

    I mean, I don’t care if people are handing out tofu steaks for free. If I want a really nice proper steak and they only way to get it is to pay for it, then at some point Ill pony up the cash. Might not be every meal, but when I decide its worth it, then no worries.

    And theres ALWAYS been a ton of mediocre music. Itll never go away because it has mass appeal. Honestly, if you’re upset that you’re finding so much of it, pull back the search a bit, let the good stuff filter up to you.

  4. After suffering through all the ego and junk in the 1980’s and 1990’s that was the industry side of music, I am happy to watch the big labels die a slow horrible death along with their “producers” and other parasitic vermin. I only wish it had been filmed in a documentary properly along the whole way. Long live “bad” music! There is no such thing. There is such a thing as “bad” listeners. I am one of them sometimes. It usually has to do with a damaged ego, a grandiose sense of self entitlement and a righteously poor attitude about life. I am guilty of having all three every so often. I’m working on getting better all the time.

  5. It seems we can’t agree on what makes good or bad music; the punks here who believe professionalism makes for *bad* music ought to be overjoyed at the state of things. (I’m not saying that professional music must be good, but I *am* saying that the idea that amateurism is *better* is, um, kind of…uh…*counterrational*?) A change in style is not going to fix the business problem, or it would’ve done so in 1977–begging the question, of course, on whether there was a problem in 1977. We certainly wouldn’t say about any other human endeavor the things we say about music, or at least rock music.)

  6. Fortunately and unfortunately, paradigm shifts are natures way. The unprepared are less likely to survive. Note dinosaurs. Unqualified competition exists every where. Musicians, photographers, artists, carpenters, plumbers, accountants… you name it. Only quality is supreme and enduring.

    Walt Whitman was a self published author who rose above the competition in a prolific “vanity press” market place. The quality of his innovative style still endures. Personally, I find the reasons for success and failure to be self-evident.

  7. But we’re not talking about nature here; we’re talking about civilization.

    As for Walt Whitman, I’m not sure that he would’ve gotten anywhere if 1855 had treated the arts the way 2013 does. Quality may endure, but not at a high enough rate to feed anybody–especially if no one knows about it. (Whitman apparently sent a copy of the original edition of *Leaves Of Grass* to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who endorsed it.) The only self-evident thing about success and failure that I can see is that success comes from accessibility and the right persona much more than quality. Individuality, imagination, inventiveness–gedadahere. Or do you really think Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber are making today’s best music?

  8. @Jeff Blanks
    If you figure how to extract the behavior of civilization from nature… you be sure and let me know.

    I’d wager that Emerson WOULD NOT have endorsed Whitman if the poet lacked the literary ingredients. Walt’s rhetorical content would surely have fashioned itself in a modern context. He was still an exceptional, and insightful literary phenomena. Along with his self promotional instincts; his success was likely.

    It’s important to make the distinction between musical talent and the entertainment industry; which is much more than music. But, the topic of discussion is about succeeding in a world of too many musicians.

    I’ve spent over fifty years surmising talent, and consumer tastes. I’ve run successful music venues, hosting all musical styles. My success depended on understanding all of the variables that you pointed out.

    Again, the different levels of success in entertainment is “self evident” when you examine talent, consumer tastes, and trends.

    I agree with you. There are way to many talented musicians that are obscured in the shadow of a gigantic entertainment industry.

    If you have relevant experiences to disputes my experience. I’d like to hear it.

  9. David, I was responding to a poster above who called punk “superior” to the “professional” music before it. This is plainly false–he might like it more, which I suppose is fine, and it may be more true to the spirit of rock’n’roll, which may or may not be of primary importance. But those aren’t the same things. *Wind and Wuthering* is a greater artistic achievement than *Never Mind The Bollocks–Here’s The Sex Pistols*, and you can still like the latter better if it reaches you and *Wind and Wuthering* doesn’t.

    And I don’t even know what to say to the idea that music as such can’t be an “adult” thing. The whole thing seems preposterous, but then such ideas are what hip-consensus rock has run on since punk came along. The impression I get has always been that punk, unlike the ’60s movement, couldn’t tell the difference between blue-sky thinking and black-is-white thinking (though I’ll admit there was a bit of that in the ’60s, too).

    As for Walt Whitman: Well, it seems like we live in a different world now. Could Walt Whitman (or whatever his artistic equivalent might be today) make it commercially in our world? It doesn’t seem like it, but maybe this is, for some reason, a phenomenon limited to music. No other endeavor gets the pass that popular music (including rock’n’roll) gets; amateurs, it seems, *aren’t* good enough for the public anywhere else–why would they be good enough here?

    “This generation” never had any dreams; the Boomers (well, the ’60s people, anyway) were the last generation to have them. Subsequent generations decided having dreams was a *mistake* and stopped having them, the better to display their savvy and sophistication if nothing else. So they go on with their OK lives with their OK music and fashion and feel OK and don’t think any better is possible. Reviving punk won’t do anything, because (1) it *always was* pop music and (2) all it really did in the first place was make hippie-bashing cool, a major gift to the reactionary forces then gearing up. The ’60s really did change a lot of people’s heads; the thing to do is look at why they went off course, then *get them back on course* instead of joining The Big Hippie-Bash.

  10. “artistic achievement”? That’s a very broad claim to make. Do you mean a musicianly achievement? ‘Cos it obviously wasn’t in cultural impact. Which isn’t quite the same thing, as I detail tediously in the post itself, but a large part of their medium was the culture, after all. Nevertheless, “Anarchy In The UK” remains a slice of perfection.

    I suggest you’re comparing apples to oranges, and railing against the heathens who dare suggest oranges might ever beat apples. As well as attempting to refight battles that both sides lost.

  11. Well, OK. “Achievement in art as opposed to culture”, then.

    As for “apples and oranges”, again, no one would ever say such a thing about anything but rock’n’roll. You may *prefer* oranges and dislike apples, but that might simply make you incapable of telling a good apple from a bad one, or even make you decide that all apples are bad. “Anarchy in the U.K.” is a good ol’ rock’n’roll song–not a particularly bad one, mind you–at the end of the day, and good ol’ rock’n’roll plainly seems to have “won”, to the extent that we no longer even talk about things we used to talk about (and for the life of me I can’t see how that’s a good thing). If you like good ol’ rock’n’roll, well, there you go, but there’s simply no way I’m going to agree that there’s something wrong if it’s Not Good Enough For Me, Me Sad Old Hippie, because that’s how it comes across. Suggesting that punk “lost”, especially when it’s still the acme of hipness *three dozen years on*, just seems totally odd to me. What would it mean for it to have won if the world we live in means it lost?

    It’s interesting that you mention “perfection”. Alt-culture is full of references to “perfection” and “perfect pop” and whatever, which leads me to think it’s actually a very Classical movement, all about taste and proportion and rightness and Good Songs as opposed to wild imagination and inventiveness; it just happens to be applied here to rock’n’roll. But I thought rock’n’roll wasn’t supposed to be about perfection.

  12. @Jeff Blanks,
    Not sure where you got the idea “R&R wasn’t suppose to be about perfection.” Don’t get me wrong… I’m not sayin’ it should or shouldn’t. All I know is I remember when there wasn’t rock n’ roll. The air-waves were swamped with “Little Doggie in the Window” music. When rock came along… it was sublime.

    Being a first generation rock player aka “Rock a Billy”… I’ve experienced rocks total evolution, both in it’s perfection and not. That determination of perfection was, of course, influenced by my personal bias and taste. Such is the nature of the game.

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