Trendspotting in 2012

Justin Spicer / December 20, 2012
Classic scene from 1996 film, Trainspotting

Looking back on what was in 2012 seems frivolous. We can’t measure real cultural impact until years, even decades, past. Consider this the equivalent of VH1’s series of programs about the Aughts that began in the middle of the decade it chose to cover. But there are moments we should look upon as the year closes.

Let’s begin quaintly with viral music of the year: PSY.

(PSY – “Gangnam Style”)

The South Korean artist seems an unlikely YouTube sensation, complete with a song of garbled consonants and half-witted lyrics upon a nation that is isolated in Western thought and tradition. But PSY is truly a product of the American star-making machine. A student of famed Berklee College of Music, PSY joins a “prestigious” list of musicians (Quincy Jones, Rivers Cuomo, Annie Clark, Melissa Etheridge, Bruce Hornsby, Meredith Brooks, Ed Rolland to name a few) who learned the business of music. The amount of hits produced by a college of music should be towering, so the idea that PSY joins a long list of musicians who have found themselves on the charts no matter the genre should not be surprising.

In other words, “Gangnam Style” is not a sleeper hit. It SHOULD be a hit. A melody cobbled from the latest trends, a video full of flash that is easily mimicked and an artist with a bit of mystery are some longtime ingredients to pop star creation. It is unlikely PSY has staying power—but he was SCHOOLED in Music 101 (clichéd but true). No matter the genre or interest, Berklee indoctrinates students with not only the basic understanding of instrumentation and composition, but how to project that into the audience the student seeks to attract. It doesn’t take years of retrospection and investigation to understand the appeal, we have a storied history of such occurrences and Berklee College is often a breeding ground for batches of pop culture usurpers.

The biggest usurped story of 2012 may fall at the feet of critical darling Frank Ocean. A member of Odd Future collective, Ocean released the impactful Channel Orange to throngs of early support.

That is until Frank Ocean came out of the closet.

America continues to be a homophobic nation, no surprise given its history as being racist, sexist and too many other prejudices to uncover. But we’re also a nation that overcomes these –ists for the betterment of our country, even if it takes a few decades and centuries too long.

The amount of support and undying love Channel Orange garnered among the hip-hop community experienced at least a hiccup at Ocean’s admission, even as others questioned the timing. People began to dissect the meaning of Ocean’s words and music, choosing to ignore the primary rule of music: it is what the listener makes it. Ask the legion of Judas Priest fans.

(Frank Ocean – “Pyramids”)There’s no denying that some will never be able to rise above the notion that homosexuality is a deterrence to their enjoyment, but it was a sad moment to watch social media become a playground for bigotry and homophobia when Ocean bravely and defiantly stood by his bisexuality. All the critical and commercial acclaim for Ocean took a noticeable hit thanks to the admission, but Ocean also knew the good that could come from it. It wasn’t about album sales or reputation among his perceived peer group; it was about his reputation among his real peers.

Frank Ocean (Promotional Photo)

The true testament to Ocean is his choice not to label or completely identify his sexuality. He has continued to confront questions that ask point blank about his sexuality with answers as steadfast as his resolve to release his open letter without consulting anyone. Taking control of one’s self is central to an artist’s identity, not the labels associated with it. Ocean was a man well-off thanks to his songwriting and the hype surrounding his work pre-Channel Orange. Lo and behold, he found himself flanked by supporters—some completely new to Frank Ocean because of his proud declaration.

But a strange symmetry never arose from Ocean’s bi/tri/homosexuality: the row caused by the anti-gay rhetoric of Tyler the Creator and Odd Future in past album content. Ocean has remained cautiously mum on the matter and Tyler turned the admission into a joke about Ocean’s love of bagels (even though Tyler and the collective openly stand behind Ocean’s decision and sexuality).

The point of view can be had that Odd Future’s homophobic lyrics are the product of irony and comedy, but even the Beasties Boys—notorious for the same inward frat lyricism–apologized for defamatory lyrics about homosexuality and sexism. It took maturation and growth for the Beasties to not only face up to their past indiscretions, but to erase them (though some will never be undone thanks to legions of college parties still bumping Licensed to Ill). Though bigotry is a rich source of great comedy (hello Dave Chappelle!), it’s also a weapon for those who choose to use it as the basis of their own truth.

But Ocean’s bisexual love letter comes at a time when the gay community is beginning to make inroads, with same-sex marriage passed by voter referendums during the November 2012 election. The overall tide is turning even if there are holdouts. What remains to be seen is, as empowered as Ocean is and as sophomoric as Odd Future’s lyrics are, the effect Ocean’s open sexuality will bring to the hip-hop community?

The parallels to Ocean/Odd Future and the Beasties Boys are not unintentional, even if the trend linking the two in 2012 had little to do with lyrical content.

Sadly, the world lost Adam Yauch during 2012. Yauch succumbed to cancer and the world began a grieving process for a man that had transcended his initial station as MCA, one third of influential hip-hop group the Beastie Boys.

As mentioned, Yauch was at the forefront of the Beasties growing up. He addressed the physicality of it all early in the bands’ lyrics, pointing to his graying features and slower motions throughout Paul’s Boutique. But it was also Yauch who signaled the group’s emotional maturity during the early and mid-90s, becoming involved in the Milarepa Fund and its cause of freeing Tibet from Chinese rule and cruelty.

The music of the Beasties followed suit, with the band becoming elder statesmen in a community lacking in respect. Ill Communication was a call of forgiveness, the band’s first apologies toward women, homosexuals and anyone else offended by their youthful act a decade before greeted with sincerity and boyish humor, now aimed at themselves rather than easy marks.

Adam Yauch — Photo Courtesy of Young Hollywood

Despite changing tastes and the mainstream being in a continued state of flux, Beastie albums were always eyed by the masses. There was little disconnect between the older, wiser Beasties and the ever-youthful audience they wooed along with their aging fans who were in lock step with their every move. As the threesome matured, a generation followed suit.

Yauch was also creative beyond the Beasties and his Tibetan causes. He helped found Oscilloscope Laboratories, a film studio that has gifted the world with a well-ranging library of documentaries, indies and think films that continue to garner critical and commercial acclaim. The imprint of the Beasties on Western society won’t be erased by Yauch’s passing: it has only strengthened. Frank Ocean, Lil B, and a host of forward-thinking hip-hop artists breaking away from tradition and expectation are proof of it.

Yauch and the Beastie Boys were never accused of selling out, even after breaking through the barrier with Licensed to Ill. Yet there were plenty who were in the middle of the sellout crosshairs in 2012, an argument as old as time.

The eagerness by which some bandy the term “sellout” around is all too alarming. Art is an extension of innocent creation, a chance to share a bit of oneself with an audience. Though a war is waging between art and commerce, the two aren’t exclusively mutual. They can work hand-in-hand to spark creativity or revolution among others.

The definition of sellout is grotesquely obscure, made up by those using it in excess. But the limits one will go to actively sellout ranges no matter one’s definition. Though a sizeable audience applauded and lauded Amanda Palmer heaps of cash via Kickstarter, others were appalled that an artist would crowd source money to make an album and ask for volunteers to be a part of her live band during a tour.

Amanda Palmer (top) and Mike Doughty (bottom) — Photos Courtesy of Artist’s Websites

Former Soul Coughing mastermind Mike Doughty recently offered up the chance to buy unique versions of the unplayed song “Dogs/Demons” for a base price of $543.09. For that lofty price, Doughty will add a few personal touches and send you the song on a digital recorder complete with location of said recording, the date and fan’s name. Adding a bridge to the song will cost $267.18, and a full-on personal message from Doughty is north of $35,000.

Are these moments of selling out or distinct attempts from social artists to make direct connections with their crowd? It’s easy to scoff at the proliferation of these stunts–from fundraising websites, subscriptions and personalized music—but it’s the nature of a business that is evolving. Commercials are now seen as an avenue toward discovery. Being viral on YouTube is the modern equivalent to hourly slots on MTV in its heyday. Any film or television show that plays modern music is providing a new audience most artists would never crack through traditional means. As the internet morphs into an inclusive promotional vehicle, aiming entertainment to anyone with a fast enough connection, musicians are forced to adapt and adopt. Social media is the new immediate. People feel closer and are closer. It’s all to be had with one click.

This evolution brings with it the hot topic of the last decade, which began to reach a boil in 2012: art and the act of fair compensation. Removing any sellout cynicism, what about those artists who are sticking to the traditional means of writing and recording?

Grizzly Bear — Photo Courtesy of Lane Coder

On the heels of her first original album in nearly 6 years, Chan Marshall (Cat Power) was forced to cancel European tour dates due to the cost of extended health issues and the fact that she was broke. This idea was furthered from a lengthy post from Jana Hunter (Lower Dens) wherein she details the costs of traditional musicality–recording, pressing, PR, label percentages, recoups, meager earnings split between band members—and how streaming services such as Spotify and Rdio have hurt independent artists. It seemed shocking when coupled with a New York magazine piece where members of Grizzly Bear, a popular indie band that MUST be making money, could not even afford health insurance.

The initial reaction was indeed shock– shocked that millions of working poor and blue collar workers didn’t raise a glass to welcome Grizzly Bear, Marshall and Hunter to the plight of most Americans. We’re a nation undervalued, not only by those who consume art but by those who create the goods we use every day. In their defense of the music business, they showed ignorance to people far too busy to hear their pleas because they have been busy working 5, 6, 7 days a week.

Putting socio-political ideas aside, the bigger shock should be for those consumed by the argument of music as art and the cost/fair wage of creation is why are these artists even participating in a business model that for more than a decade has proven itself without value? Social media feeds were overflowing with missives from moderate indie musicians in solidarity for these artists, a kinetic echo that has been sounding since the dawn of punk.

We all love good recording studio mythos, and like many of us, these artists have consumed stacks of [auto]biographies of artists, producers and label heads who recount the “glory days” when bands could hole up in a studio for weeks and work out the kinks of an album while consuming copious amounts of drugs, booze and sex.

To be fair, it’s not as if Lower Dens or Grizzly Bear are engaging in lengthy recording sessions. The economy and their record deals can’t allow such frivolity if money is to be made by the band. More so (and back to the idea of punk), why are bands continuing to fall into these traps? The success rate for any artist to live on the art they create doesn’t have a tangible percentage because it’s infinitesimally small. Though history has donned rose-colored glasses concerning bands from the 60s and 70s making it big while throwing televisions out of expensive hotel room windows, it has conveniently swept away the enormous piles of bands that succumbed to the wrath of art yielding nothing in return for its creation except abject poverty and a millimeter move closer to the edge of insanity over reason. It’s not some new phenomena considering the lengthy list of artists (since the defining moments of civilization when art was first defined and cultivated) that have lived penniless, homeless and without reward no matter the size of their audience or the coffers of their so-called admirers.

It’s confounding to find musicians falling into the same business follies and then turning to defend those visible cracks and fissures when it proves unbeneficial. It’s hard to ignore the thousands of musicians working 40+ hours a week that still create art, too hoping to make something from their craft yet grounded in the realization that it just doesn’t happen for 99% of musicians. It’s nothing to do with the amount of talent or exposure, it has little to do with illegal downloads and on-demand streaming services and nothing to do with the dilution of art through decades of pop culture fads and trends. It has to do with talented musicians continuing to prop up a dying institution because they believe—despite entire epochs’ worth of proof—that the business and the people will reward their work with sustainability.

The argument from some is poor. Jana Hunter’s idea “[i]f you consume all the music you want all the time, compulsively, sweatily, you end up having a cheap relationship to the music you do listen to” has no empirical weight. Where are the facts and data to support this idea?

(Lower Dens – “Brains”)

Truth is, YOU signed a contract and within that contract YOU had the choice to stipulate whether or not you want your music as a part of these streaming services. Hunter is correct to point to them as wonderful promotional tools. If you want access to this particular tool, it comes at a price (that isn’t as steep as two-bit journalists and uneducated musicians would have you believe). How about the rate at which you allow sound quality to be degraded for compact discs and digital downloads (320 and FLAC aren’t really lossless or high quality formats)? How about the lopsided agreement in royalties between your band (and legal representation) with the label, no matter how “independent” as it may state?

To attack an artist’s desire to earn a living from their work is sinister and I’m not doing that, I’m attacking the notion that because you create something that it has to be promoted, promised and delivered through a particular set of standards to reach the audience for which it is intended and the idea that those motives automatically entitle an honest living just because it was created. Look no further than the rapid proliferation of underground, niche, boutique, limited run and one-off labels that exist to deliver music straight to those who “compulsively, sweatily” desire it. There is no longer a need to spend time in an expensive studio with an expensive producer and engineer, there is no longer a need to press exorbitant amounts of compact discs and vinyl to satisfy a market that isn’t buying whole albums at the same rate they were 10-20 years ago.

This methodology also bypasses Hunter’s belief that the relationship between art and audience is cheapened. More of something doesn’t disinfect or water down the appeal so long as the product is enjoyable for the audience in which it is intended. It’s the tired argument behind pop stars and their monopoly over the buying public’s money. There’s more than enough pop to go around and it is never absent from the hearts, minds and charts. Even during the grunge years, pop was always a go-to chart topper. We exist in a culture that NEEDS more, and though some relationships are cheapened by excess, more are emboldened by it because it creates personal bonds. In a world shrinking thanks to social media, those bonds have become public identification; we are branding ourselves by the music and art we choose. That may eliminate large swatches of high art but music created for consumption rarely classifies as conceptual. Those who still adhere to traditional punk and do-it-yourself ideals get this; they harbor no illusions about the market into which their work will enter.

These labels are populated with the aforementioned 40 hours a week crowd, those struggling to make ends meet with a job and still unable to afford health care and anything outside their needs for sustenance. Any instrument or affect that aids in their creation is often the product of long hunts, frugality and a little luck that comes with community building. It’s the product of the community they foster among themselves, creating music for anyone to hear however they may hear it.

For further faith in the intended audience, an interview conducted with Adam Meyer, head of tape label Sacred Phrases, indicates how these smaller, non-traditional labels view current music consumerism as it applies to current trends: “Standing out really isn’t a huge concern,” he said. “I think the people that listen to the type of stuff we release can easily tell what’s good and what’s not. The flood of releases and labels has caused the listener to evolve and to pay more attention, and I think that’s awesome.”

In the same set of interviews, Joyful Noise founder Karl Hofstetter sums up the difference between the traditional model and the one emerging outside of it geared on unusual packaging, presentation and sound: “We are rather ambitious with our release curation, and I don’t know of many labels who would think it would be a good idea to release 10-album cassette box sets, or a year’s worth of flexi discs. But we get excited about these weird types of releases, and I think that sets us apart from the labels that follow a more traditional business model.”

There is plenty of blame to go around. Yes, we as consumers created this dogmatic market and artists are paying for it. But artists continue to do it to themselves out of nostalgic masochism. They’ve allowed audio quality to degrade, they’ve allowed themselves to enter into record contracts that benefit few (and rarely benefit the artists), and they’ve scapegoated the market for the failings of the capitalistic dream that all who uniquely contribute will be rewarded thusly. Musicians who know not to ask much from the industry are being rewarded differently and though that usually doesn’t yield results like a livelihood and health insurance, it does provide an escape and a chance at a lasting impact that so few following the tired formula seem to embrace. It’s about immediate returns rather than longevity for those looking at it through a spectrum of compensation; it’s the opposite for the artists who are happy to carve out a little place for their music and hope people gravitate to it.

It must be hard to watch as labels crank out limited run cassettes and vinyl pressings whilst continuing to gain an audience. It must be harder to see labels of all stripes failing as well. It is just as much a labor of love as any middling or subsidized indie label release but no one cares about the degraded sound because it’s part of the guerrilla deliver system; tape players are $5 a pop on eBay. No one complains about missing out on their favorite artists because tours are rare and often a part of a large bill that keeps overhead costs like venue and equipment rentals low (or nil). It’s a throwback to sleeping on floors, scrounging for gas money and eating bread layered with bread to foster togetherness.

Lower Dens (Promotional Photo)

The crux is independent musicians forget it is 2012 and that any shift in habit they cast stones at for the reasons their music isn’t producing fruitful rewards is because they’ve allowed the business to rig it this way. Blaming your consumer base isn’t going to guilt them or win them over. It may not be punk music, but the punk movement sprung from those looking to break away from the business practices of yore. It carried on through the DIY movement that has morphed and expanded across the globe. The internet didn’t change anything; it just shed a larger light on the cracks in the system. Any smart consumer isn’t going to waste their money on a failing enterprise. The new crop of underground labels support a wide swatch of genre and sound, some take off and some fail but most operate under basic business practices aimed at sustaining the label and helping the art and artists as frequently as possible. The days of being a band that can live fat off of modest album sales and club tours are eroding quickly. Just as the newspaper industry is struggling to meet the demands of the new technological age, so too are gaggles of musicians who are sticking to old methodologies like embittered editors afraid of emerging from routine to adapt.

But those who adapted have become the trends of 2012 and beyond. More year-end lists are topped by albums with little to do with the old guard; albums truly independent from the label, bands and agreements that make them so. It’s time for those planted in the traditional model to break free, stop blaming the consumer base that can as quickly aid them as they have hindered. It’d be wonderful to look back at 2013 as the year that the label machine finally broke; artists gaining their freedom from the standard to forge something new and exciting. Stories about a nation all receiving health care and art being recognized as the cultural force it is, free from any definition.

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