How To Be a Music Fan
Or, The Merits of Refined Snobbery and the Pitfalls of Passion
Way back in the dark ages (that’s the 1980s, for our purposes here) when car phones were just for rich people and a boom box equaled street cred, vast segments of the younger generations identified themselves almost entirely by music. Remember that? You could be a punk with funky hair and scuffed up combat boots. But you couldn’t wear cowboy boots, because they were part of the uniform of the goat ropers. Well, except the exotic ones made of snakeskin and such – those were for the hair band guys. But those dudes couldn’t wear their boots with Wranglers or Levi’s. Had to be spray painted skinny jeans or spandex. The type that make one wonder how all those feats of sexual debauchery in green rooms and on tour buses worldwide could have been remotely possible. Balls gotta breathe, you know. Then there was New Wave, and some leftover disco, and a bunch of other stuff I can’t remember right now. Plus Motorhead. There was always Motorhead. And the fans of each of these music styles and more toed the line and adhered to the uniforms. It looked like, when you walked into a high school or a mall or a putt-putt golf course, that the clothes were the key. But nope. They were driven by the music. Crossover advertising at its finest.
For every little musical niche, every “genre” as some idiot posing as genius somewhere along the way decided, there was a uniform. And a lifestyle. And a haircut. And an attitude masquerading as a life philosophy. It was all so simple then. Neat little boxes stuffed with neat little followers secure in the belief that being part of their neat little group made them unique. Rebels. Worthwhile.
The whole damned zeitgeist was on a ten year coke bender.
But record execs and their finely coiffed minions in tailored attire were quite happy. Because the “genre” concept was a moneymaker. They didn’t invent the whole thing in the ‘80s, but they came awful close to perfecting it then. There wasn’t an internet yet to speak of. No social media, no iTunes, no great digital melting pot for the ears. So when some A&R clown got ahold of something salable, and got it tied into the right “genre,” it was cash money raining down like manna from above. Simple. Marketable. Utopia.
I mean, if your idea of utopia is being spoonfed pablum from a master’s constantly recycled mindfucks. If you like that place where your own undeniable identity can be obtained through assimilation into the likeminded masses, the ‘80s were as good as it could get. Hell, if you put on the right uniform and learned the right arcane trivia about the right bands, you could sit with all the pretty girls at lunchtime. Rock and roll.
Of course grunge showed up in perpetually unwashed jeans and ratty flannel to kill all of that. There were no more pretty girls. Or if there were, no one could tell. It might have been the antithesis of the Victorian era, but from a ladies’ costume perspective it was just as prohibitive in terms of trying to identify the hot chicks.
And as the ‘90s progressed, and the internet grew, and the 2000s came into sight, things began to change fundamentally while managing not to change at all. What happened, see, was confusing and came all in a rush at the time. Young country sprang up to choke out the new traditionalists, honky tonk sawdust floors trading worn boots and Randy Travis songs for Little Texas and, oh, I don’t know, Tim McGraw. The guy who practically introduced skinny jeans, but to this day can’t wear ‘em like Dwight Yoakam does. (Neither can the rest of us. That’s a good thing. And most of us were too smart to try anyhow) Somewhere around that same timeframe, bands like Soul Asylum accidentally put bits of actual melody in some of their songs and that, along with something or other about smashing a pumpkin, was the death knell for grunge. Took a while to die, but the masses seemed to remember at some point that harmonies and clean clothes had a certain appeal. Green Day brought punk back with some kind of power pop edge that had (ugh) mass appeal, and in all of that insane gumbo-like milieu the return of Meat Loaf – of all people – continued on the boisterous wings of Bat Out of Hell II.
What a stupidly upside down and wonderful preface that time period was for the sweeping pervasiveness of the internet. As that new and soon to be omnipresent outlet grew legs, every marketing guru from here to Timbuktu spent countless hours pondering the opportunities it might provide. Boy howdy, did they come up with some. Centuries in the future archaeologists will argue vehemently about whether the appeal of MySpace was rooted more in the music one could find in its dark recesses or the ability to glitter up a profile home page. They’ll probably decide it was all a pagan paean to the omnipotent Tom, whose realm of pseudo cyber dating helped wreck countless relationships.
No telling what they’ll have to say about internet radio, or ReverbNation or Bandcamp or Kickstarter. One wonders if at some point during a detailed academic study of the intricacies of the bitter royalties fight, future scholars will suddenly discover YouTube and just say, “Hell, they didn’t have any real copyright rules to begin with. We’ve been duped. Curse those wily music fans of the backwards 21st century.”
The undeniable impact of the rising tide of new outlets for music, and new devices on which to store and play it, has been utterly and inherently profound. In some ways, for the best of all possible reasons. For instance, it’s just stupidly easy these days to queue up a custom playlist where Metallica rocks an ancient Irish ballad followed by Willie Nelson covering Ed Bruce’s “The Last Cowboy Song.” You can stick Sinatra and Adele on your MP3 player along with Motorhead (again, there’s always Motorhead) and GWAR and Blue October. You can revel in the freedom to be a fan of Jamie Johnson, Mike Ness, and the Grand Philharmonic Orchestra of Insert City Here. Because it is all insanely easily available to you. And you are now undeniably free to explore, to find new bands, to unearth exceptional songwriters, to find that which moves your soul.
But do you exploit that opportunity? Maybe you do. Most don’t, it seems. With the greatest tools for making music accessible and available that mankind has ever known, so many still fall into the old “genre” honey trap. The difference between now and the ‘80s? The uniforms aren’t quite as strictly enforced anymore. Thank God. But it seems the unspoken guardrails around the cliques and clichés quite often remain. You can tell the bro-country crowd by their puzzled “How come I ain’t bad assed enough to have a mug shot yet?” thousand yard stare. If your luck fails, sometimes they even get within proximity and you hear them singing along. And the bro-country crowd hates the real “Outlaw” crowd. Or at least they think they do, although the truth is nobody in the “Outlaw” crowd seems to know who’s who or what’s what. Well, some do – but they’re not the ones going around laying claim to the title. No time, see; they’re tied up honing their craft, writing and singing their own songs their own way. Maybe they sound like Jackson Taylor, maybe they sound like Brian Burns. You can take all of that you just read and pretty much insert any genre or subgenre you like and the point will stand. Screamo to grindcore to whatever flavor of Pop Rocks it is that seems to dominate Top 40 when hip hop or Avenged Sevenfold don’t own the day. And there’s charts for all of that and more, to boot.
So the bottom line? In a world where the outlets for music are ubiquitous and there’s truly something out there for everyone, it’s damned near impossible for an artist to get “found.” In that sense, the epoch we now inhabit is no different than that which gave us Beavis and Butthead. Maybe video killed the radio star, but internet’s killed the video star. The lesson there just might be that we all ought to quit looking for stars and start looking for substance. But that’s not how it works most of the time.
We still flock to the big names. The machine behind “the music” keeps creating new followers and clones, because the threat of a trendsetter is anathema as a risk to the bottom line. And all around us, people still fall for the schtick. The names and the arcane trivia might change, but arguments today between fans claiming Miley’s superiority over, I don’t know, GaGa are familiar in tone. You probably remember them from the lunchroom a hundred years ago, when Zakk Wylde’s fans were always mixing it up with the Yngwie Malmsteen aficionados. Or something. At least back then the outlets were scarce and there was an excuse. Simply no longer the case today.
Yet on the arguments roll, like a freight train with cut brake lines down a mountain in a blizzard. What gets lost in all the hubbub now is the same thing that got lost back then: Quality.
Entertainment abounds, to be sure. And sometimes entertainers and artists are embodied in a single performer. It’s magic when that happens, or at least it can be. But usually we get just one or the other. And even with all the nifty outlets and convenience available to us, so many of us just gravitate toward the simple entertainer. Leaving legitimate and worthwhile artists to continue putting hope in evolving new technologies and methods of getting their music out, all the while wondering how in the hell the worth of a timeless song ever got pegged at ninety-nine cents. Or how a song that can touch lives got marketed at a cost equivalent to one intended only to touch libidos. It’s the epitome of a challenging situation, and the looming promise of widespread acknowledgment and support can become a tsunami of crushing proportions when the new voice crying in the wilderness finds itself still just as ignored as it’s ever been.
The cool new tools which could have helped us separate the wheat from the chaff find themselves primarily used solely to perpetuate the mundane.
That’s where being a music fan comes into play. Forget genres and all that mess; we’re not here to try to convince you where your own personal sonic tastes should reside. That’s your call, same as it’s ever been. But understand this: In a dive bar somewhere in your town, some sorry picker is pouring out his or her soul on a six-string. Maybe they suck, maybe they’ve worked hard and made it up to okay, and maybe, just maybe, they’re damned good. In any of those scenarios, they’re honest. Technology can’t quantify integrity. It can only transmit bits and bytes. But music fans can use technology to share the honesty and the goodness. For every sorry picker in a dive bar in your town, there’s a counterpart at the next wide spot in the road. You have the power to share your local hero, and you have the opportunity to explore the one your own counterpart in the next town or state or country is trying to share. Ain’t no rule says you’ve gotta like ‘em all. Hell, I sure don’t. But that opportunity. That’s the key. There’s a musical buffet in front of each and every one of us that we can customize to the settings our individual and worthwhile lives desire. There’s an artist out there who moves you more than most, perhaps even more than any others at all. Share ‘em. Get invested. Forget being the cool kid who knows the guitar slinger. None of us are gonna get rich and famous writing groupie books twenty years from now. Get invested for powerful reasons, and share the goods. Don’t Bogart the music, fool. The man or the woman who makes it has, generally speaking, a very specific set of talents and gifts. Like every last one of us, there are also a laundry list of abilities they lack. Find out what those are, and figure out which abilities or skills you possess which might help them compensate. Maybe they’re not good at spit and polish organization. Which would mean keeping track of gigs is probably a little hard for them to do, and Lord knows, missing gigs is a great way to get blackballed when you’re starting out. Being No Show Jones might’ve worked in a weird way for George, but it’s a dealbreaker for No Show No-Name. Maybe somebody you’re a fan of isn’t very good with computers, and maybe you are. Smart website design is an absolute must these days. So is a good well rounded understanding of the various outlets, their unique pros and cons, and a fundamental sense of how each of them do or do not fit into a toolkit that best fits an artist’s business strategy. Ha. Because all artists have those, right? No. They do not. And they’re too busy chewing blacktop watching the night fly by through drowsy eyes to think one up. Maybe that’s something you’re good at.
And maybe it’s just as simple as getting involved and voicing your support. You gotta get out to shows when you can, and you gotta avoid asking your friend to get your name on the list. Especially if they’re playing for a percentage of the door. Unless you’re there in an official capacity to perform a service which will help them, pay up.
Sometimes, honestly, it’s as simple as reaching out and letting them know, personally, that what they do impacts your life in profound ways. All of us want to know that our work matters. Nothing magically dissolves that desire when someone grabs their guitar and gets up on the bright side of the mic.
The world has changed. Seems like it’d be a lot easier to be a performing artist these days. But it’s indescribably more difficult, and far less financially rewarding. Since iTunes set the price and started carving albums into singles, it’s become an a la carte world. Which means the ability to tell a real story on a meaningful album has been demonstrably diminished. The pressure to get a single out and selling like hotcakes because rent’s coming due can be soul crushingly immense. Those are the struggles now facing legitimate artists. Regardless of genre. We all want our favorites to keep turning out new material, to come play in our town, to be our Facebook buddies and volunteer to play at our birthday parties for free. We often ignore – not willfully our maliciously, but effectively nonetheless – the material challenges that they’re facing. And since they’re often kind and goodhearted folks whose livelihoods depend to varying degree on building goodwill, sometimes we hem them in and hurt them with nothing but simple ignorance and the best of intentions.
We’re not confined to radio and mass marketing anymore. But both still bombard us.
We’re not constrained by the dress code or the uniform of the sole genre of music we define ourselves by – we can get to any music at all anytime we want, and iron our clothes or go butt ass naked as we wish. But we still fall into our ruts.
We’re no longer separated from our musical heroes by an impassable moat whose only drawbridge is the green room. But we don’t stop and view them as humans like us.
The world has changed. For artists, for music, and for fans. Our options on the listening end have grown exponentially. Theirs on the creative side have in reality often shrunk while appearing to expand. What all of that means is pretty simple: If we want to be music fans these days, we’ve got to get involved and give every bit as good as we get.
It’s what we always really wanted way back in the day when we memorized cool trivia to get a spot at the table with the pretty girls. Now that the opportunity’s actually here we might as well take it. And be honest for a sec – the girls (or boys) you were trying so desperately to impress back then aren’t really the folks you’d want to hang around with these days, are they? Bet you’re awful glad that one or two of them didn’t wind up being the person you wake up to every morning. So the world has changed. So have we. And we’re every bit as much better equipped to make a difference in it now musically speaking as we are able to make more informed decisions about what defines the caliber of a person we want in our lives.
So get involved. Share. And thank your lucky stars you don’t need a Devo hat to listen to whatever moves you these days.
Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs. When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline. When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas. Visit Dave Pilot on Facebook.
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