The market for personality (down with rock stars)
May 28, 2009, 6:18 pm
Filed under: Media | Tags: , ,

Well, as it sometimes does, life (actually homework) got in the way of posting this past week. But now that my layout assignment is finished, let’s pick it up again.

The last posting on TheNew20 was (partly) about distributing music free over the internet with the expressed intent of making it easy to download, redistribute, reuse and remix. In the comments section, Ian (who writes some pretty interesting stuff on Facebook if you can get ahold of it) posited that the such distribution would result in the anonymization of the artist, and that this would homogenize music and generally lower the quality of the musical experience for the average consumer.

To this I say “Nay, my friend! Your point is well taken, but consider this:”

The identity or character of the artist is, of course, extremely relevant in a music culture that has become inseparably linked with celebrity culture. A big part of the way that the average person consumes music right now is by reading or hearing about the life and personality of the artist in magazines or on television.

I would argue that it is actually this that leads to the homogenization of music and that by anonymizing music, we might actually improve it.

When the focus is put on the artist rather than the work, the work stops being the element of the performance that differentiates that performance from others. In pop music, being different usually doesn’t sell records, following formulae – i.e., meeting the exact expectations of an audience – does. This is, of course, why everything on the radio starts to sound the same after a while.

What provides differentiation – and hence, the competitive leverage that an artist needs to sustain a career – is the character that the artist plays in their videos and in their interviews and their magazine covers (and, even more recently, on their MySpace pages and Twitter feeds). Even if an artist’s music is essentially indistinguishable from others’, the personality they project makes them a distinct product and, hence, a valid and salient choice in a sea of otherĀ  consumables.

So a system where everyone sounds the same as everyone else – a system that should be doomed to collapse – becomes sustainable because it is propped up by the market for personality.

On the other hand, movements that have not embraced this system have tended to foster more innovation. Jazz and blues, for example, tend to rely on standards and commonly-used chord progressions that are shared and passed around with little regard for who the original composer was – if anyone even knows. Likewise, early hip-hop was all about the common pool of verse.

These genres arguably represent the greatest leaps forward in musical evolution in modern history, a jump that hasn’t yet been equaled (in fact, you could easily argue that most developments in contemporary music are just examples of people finding different ways to adapt these early forms).

So what was different between then and now?

Well, rather than being isolated by legal copyrights and the assumption that an artist – rather than an audience or community – own a given work, early examples of pop music were free to be passed around and tinkered with. Under this model, music is a shared experience that allows for many different people to contribute to a work, not just the person who “owns” it. Collaboration, not isolation, is the recipe for innovation – you know what they say about two heads being better than one.

That means that, somewhat contrary to common perception, anonymizing the artist and dismantling the personality market might actually be a good thing, a move that will foster musical innovation and improve, rather than diminish, the musical experience.

So Down with Rock Stars!! Bring on the mash-ups and remixes. And stop telling me who Fergie spends her weekends with.

BTW, if you’re interested in good (and often hilarious) mash-ups and remixes, I recommend the podcast Radio Free Hipster. Good stuff all around.


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