Photo by Alex Welsh
YOU CAN READ GUSTAV FOSS’ (MUSICIAN AND LEADSINGER IN THE CPH-BASED BAND THE POWPOW) ARTICLE IN POLITIKEN VIA THIS LINK
Dear Gustav Foss,
I have read your article in Politiken, and I have to admit that it makes sad. It makes me sad because it shows a devastating trend among some upcoming musicians in Denmark. The article simply glorifies the past and displays a one-sided understanding of the history of music and a lack of insight into the technological developments in the field. That said, let me quickly sum up the article.
In short, by using a fast food analogy, the article states that the increasing amount of streaming services, and their use of charts for music discovery, has resulted in an army of “fat, lazy, and uncritical consumers”; music listeners incapable of distinguishing quality from quantity, and good from bad. According to Gustav Foss, this leads to a lack of musical worship of both idols and the music in its entirety as a culture. This is mainly illustrated by a glorification of the MySpace era, the 80s, 90s, and 00s. In addition, it is illustrated by pointing to the almost god-like status of a band like The Beatles, even referring to the Beatlemania. Where the past musical landscape primarily took place on the musicians’ premises, the present takes place on the listeners’ premises. In conclusion, the uncritical music listeners consume what we put in front of them on the table, or feature on musical charts, without further emphasis on culture, opinions or quality. The result is that artists will choose to become anonymous in the quest for the next big musical hit.
It is Society’s Fault
It all sounds rather progressive, maybe even revolutionary – at first. Maybe it is because I have heard it all before. Turn back the time twenty-two years, and you will find yourself in the year of 1994. This was the year Kurt Cobain of Nirvana died, but it was also the year the Danish band TV2 released a legendary track called ‘Det er Samfundets Skyld’. Let me rephrase a part of the third verse for you:
“It is me who is the show. It is me who is the star. It is me the idiots want. I am mostly talking about nothing, myself and then myself. And sometimes I get sick. I mean how stupid can you be. How can so many people be satisfied with so little? It is society’s fault, yes, it is the fault of society”. The track caused a minor stir back in the days with its separation of cause-and-effect, and of behavior and responsibility. The problem is that I do not know whether or not Gustav Foss is serious when he states that the takeaway charts and increasing use of streaming services are actually the cause leading to uncritical listeners and creative own-goals in the chase for the next hit.
The main problem with the article is, that the glorification of past decades is simply misleading. First of all, in the early years of Beatlemania, they were primarily seen as a boyband. After touring Hamburg, they got in contact with manager Brian Epstein, who wanted to change their style, which the boys accepted. The formula was simple: take a couple of young men, who are homogenous enough to get along as a band, then show the world what differentiates each member as an individual; you had the smart one (John Lennon), the cute one (Paul McCartney), the quite one (George Harrison), and the funny one (Ringo Starr). By using the new medias at the time, they conquered the world with movies and television performances. To continue the fast-food analogy, The Beatles was simply served and exposed by exactly the same forces being used today by Simon Cowell and the likes. What separated The Beatles from the rest was their ability to enhance the possibilities of these new medias. What would you do, if you were another band at the time? Would you sit down and whine about how unfair the use of commercial stars in TV was, or how stupid and uncritical one-third of all households in the USA were because they simply watched it and loved what was severed to them? – Were they uncritical, fat and lazy, or a highly intelligent, sophisticated audience?
Secondly, Gustav Foss points to the way Myspace was different to Spotify, TIDAL, Wimp and the likes. According to him, Myspace was music on the artists’ premises, compared to today, where streaming services feed us an endless stream of junk. I can see where you want to go with that statement, but the only thing different today is that the entities feeding you have changed. Where record labels, publishers, and TV stations with monopoly-like conditions were the ones feeding lazy listeners back in the days, the current landscape is way more fragmented, and in a volatile state of continuous developments. What makes me sad is how Gustav Foss completely ignores and overlooks platforms like Soundcloud, Noisetrade, and Bandcamp. Let’s take the Berlin-based music-content platform Soundcloud. Even though platforms like Spotify gets way more buzz in the media, that is by no means reflected by the numbers. Both of the streaming platforms have large user bases; Spotify has “only” around 75 million active users while Soundcloud has 250 million. What is even more important is the fact, that Soundcloud’s content is created by its users and not acquired via licensing deals. In here, users can get tips on other artists they may like, and also, see which bands their favorite artists have reblogged. The German platform has simply taken over the void in the market, which Myspace left open. Soundcloud is not mentioned one single time in Gustav Foss’ article.
Don’t Hate The Game Hate the Player. Learn to Play the Game.
To sum up, what I want is simply to ask Gustav Foss to take some responsibility for his own success. Instead of talking about the current audience in patronizing terms, he should start with his own band’s way of running their business – a band is a business, so start running it like it is one. The problem with the tone of the article is that it describes contemporary Danish musicians as somewhat helpless creatures; as if their success were the result of external events. That the majority of music fans all over the world will eat whatever music you put in front of them (be it on charts on Spotify) is not at all a new thing. Even though Gustav Foss wants the 90s to be the decade of the grunge music, he completely ignores the fact that the radios had another agenda. Look at the charts, and you will find that in 1994 Ace Of Base, All-4-One, Boyz II Men, Celine Dion, and Mariah Carey conquered the top five positions on Billboard’s Top100 chart – even though a legend, Kurt Cobain, died that same year. The story goes on and on.
Contrary to what Gustav Foss believes, it can be argued that the new digital opportunities have actually reorganized the balance of power so that the musicians have regained considerable power. At the time of The Beatles, music depended more or less on whether or not you could break through in the radios and at the TV stations, therefore, success was more of less on the premises of the managers, publishers, and medias. If you had released a couple of unsuccessful albums you should be more than lucky, if a management would want to continue working with you on that “really promising number three”, thereby making your road to success even longer. Today you can go viral within seconds, without being signed by anyone or without already having made a name for yourself in your home country. Just think about CHINAH. On the other hand, you can also create buzz with your live performances, with only a few tracks online. Just think about The Entrepreneurs.
Success and Fans Are Only A Click Away
You as a musician need to look at yourself. What do you do in order to create some buzz for your band? What do you do to get people to show up at your concerts? Instead of transferring the responsibility to all other people, start focusing on your actions as a musician. In recent years, several local venues have been struggling with bands that do nothing to get people to show up at their gigs, thereby making the band miss potential future fans, and the venues to lose a lot of money – that is NOT the way to get a second booking in the future. Start working on your brand. Become the band all venues want to book, simply because of your live performances and the way you market yourself and your concerts. Recognize that you are an actor in the service industry, so start working from that foundation, instead of pretending to be a valuable asset when you have no potential buyers.
Free music and charts are not the main problems, nor are they new things for music discovery; the quest for the next big hit at the expense of artistic integrity is the main problem. When everything is free and available, your band’s attitude, behavior, and actions become an even more pivotal factor in fan-retention. Integrity is your key asset. Use the void in the present business to your own advantage – it has never been easier. That subcultures are even more hidden today simply makes them even stronger, and more niche than before. You can hate the game as much as you want, but that won’t change it. Therefore, start learning how to play the game instead of whining about it.
It does not make me sad, that Gustav Foss states, that the music business Anno 2016 and quality music is more of less doomed, due to ignorant music fans. What makes me really sad is the fact that he more or less puts forward his hypothesis as if it is a generally applicable truth. Make your music interesting without changing it. Use the endless stream of new digital opportunities; if Danes don’t love your sound, try Germany. Use blogs and magazines online but don’t use a random scattershot approach. What do you think a blog does when they get the opportunity to write an exclusive premiere but doesn’t have the time for it? – They find the time. To end this in your own fast food analogy: If you know that the takeaway-playlist economy is not the future, act like NOMA. If you want to figure out the next big hit for the charts, at the expense of artistic integrity as stated in the article, then that is indeed a creative own-goal that won’t contribute to continuous success.