Friday, 10 June 2016

Musical Annoyances

This blog may turn out to be a series of grumbles and, if so, you may not find it as thoughtful or interesting as some other blogs I've done. Of course, it depends if you think bloggers should be entertaining their readers as to if you think that matters much. Me? I'm just writing things in public and providing a link on my Twitter to it. If you come here to read its for you to justify why. It didn't take up any of my time for you to do that. You made your own choices.

So today's subject is music and, by extension, culture and particularly how these things operate. Basically, I think its fair to say that they operate in ways that annoy me. This might not necessarily be a matter to concern anyone else but, as is usual with my blogs, I imagine that if something piques my interest then maybe people in a wider sense might want to consider the issues that I see arising. 

The first annoyance concerns things around commercial music. There was a fairly prominent release recently in the nerdy electronic music market by a duo feted by various people. They released their product digitally in various file formats and bit rates. And each had a different price. This annoyed me. I asked myself whether, hearing a digital file playing music, I'd know what file format and bit rate it was just from listening. The answer is no I wouldn't and neither would you (yes, even you self-deceptive audiophiles wouldn't either). Now let's remember at this point that it costs no more to produce an MP3 than it does to produce a WAV, a FLAC or even an OGG. So the production cost argument doesn't wash. "Ahh, but its a quality issue" I hear you cry. Really? Can you objectively demonstrate that this file format has a "better quality" than another? And if "quality" is the reason for the price difference then what is the quality comparison to a physical product like a CD, tape or vinyl? My point here is this is all arbitrary and inconsistent. Basically, people are charging whatever they like. I'll just leave this point by noting that on Bandcamp, which seems to me to be the best music buying and listening portal out there, you pay the price asked and can then CHOOSE your file format. Ostensibly they all cost the same. Certainly, there is zero justification in my mind for price differentiations between them. 

I read an interview in the last 24 hours with the duo mentioned above about their music-making processes and their recently released album. One thing I noticed is that they seem to be going against prevailing trends in what they do. In the electronic music world now for about 5 years there has been an increasing return to hardware for making music. The endless flow of new machines and instruments has swelled greatly in that time and there are now more desktop modules, keyboard synths and modules of various other kinds than there has ever been. Its easy for a relatively small sum like $500-$600 to build a setup of electronic machines that would make perfectly acceptable electronic (and even analog) music. And many people do do this as the many You Tube videos I watch weekly would attest. The software synth revolution that came in with the 21st century when software such as Ableton Live, Propellerheads Reason and much of the Native Instruments catalog of instruments came to be has been turning recently. No one would want to watch a video in which someone tweaks his mouse anyway. But a table full of boxes with flashing lights connected up to a mixer? That's a different matter. So that's why it struck me with a bit of a blow that Autechre, for that is the duo I'm talking about, claimed not to have bought any new musical hardware for at least 5 years. Everything they do is in code, software, Max/MSP specifically. Now I'm not a computer person or a coder and never have been. So what that even is baffles me. I just found it interesting that they use that exclusively now. They want control at the atomic level it seems and they feel only code gives them this. They literally build what they need.

Of course, you may or may not like Autechre. I don't really think it matters anyway when thinking about how they do what they do or even why they do it. But this raises another issue that's been annoying me recently: music magazines. Now I'll freely admit that I don't read music magazines, either the consumer kind or the ones addressed to those who make music which seem like thinly disguised advertorials for various companies and their equipment. But I have seen them and briefly browsed. My moan here is about commercialism I guess. For why do these magazines exist? They exist to plug and flog stuff. They aren't charitable organisations there to assist people. Those who sell music and musical equipment want these things to exist so they can promote their wares. Fair enough, right? Well, no, not really. Not to me. "Marketing" is one of those things which really gets my back up and especially when its some "review" written by someone who thinks he (its usually he) is a writer when all he does is give his opinion about something and quite often without much background or insight to do so. 

Now one question that comes to my mind here is why is this opinion worth reading? An opinion is something everybody has. Opinions, furthermore, are as many and various as there are people to have them. So why is this person who has got a gig at a magazine writing his down worth reading and taking seriously? My answer its that its ego. There are people who think that reading a certain magazine means something. There are certain people who canonize the opinions of certain other people as if their opinion is more than an opinion. I see them sometimes on Twitter saying they have read this magazine or that magazine. "And?", I think to myself, rolling my eyes. But I just find this inane, truly inane. There is, at any one time, more music in existence than anyone could ever listen to in 100 lifetimes. So are you really going to let Joe Blow in Trendy Music Magazine decide for you what's good and what's bad? Are you going to let some music equipment magazine tell you what piece of equipment is good or bad?

What did Joe Blow do to earn your trust in a such a way? And why are you letting him stop you from simply discovering things for yourself? This latter option, by the way, is very easy. Go to Bandcamp. Type your term of choice in the search box. Up will pop ten pages of albums you've never heard before. Now that is discovery. And, crucially for me, it removes the slimy layer of knowledge from the process from people who think they know what is "good" or "cool" or "best" in contemporary music when all they actually know is what they got sent this week and their opinion of it. I'd like to speak up for innocence in music discovery, the kind where you have no idea of who this is you are listening to or what they do. The music then speaks to you directly and innocently. Knowledge, as Adam and Eve knew well, only spoils things. Yes, I do think much today is spoiled by the fact that we know too much (without actually knowing anything at all). Yes, I am arguing that knowing less is to experience more.  Yes, I am arguing that a lot of our knowledge is fake and based more on ego, custom and convention. You read these magazines and you see the same old "truths" hawked around as common knowledge. "Fuck off" I think to myself. Get yourself a mind. The most important opinion about any piece of music is your opinion that you came to for yourself. And, lazy bones, no one else can come to that opinion for you. So do the hard yards and stop relying on other people. Don't read music magazines. You will be better for it. (And if you're now thinking "But then how will I know what to listen to?" you've just exactly demonstrated the attitude I want to change!)

I downloaded Syro by Aphex Twin yesterday. This Grammy-winning album is from 2014 and was much masturbated over in my Twitter timeline back then. Pitchfork (who are the devil, make no mistake) regarded it as their 4th best album of 2014. By the way, how does one decide what a "best" album is? Surely what they actually mean is "this is something we liked 4th best"? Their opinion, after all, is not a matter of objective fact. Its just an opinion. Like mine. Or yours. Even if all the music mags in all the world pooled their "best of" lists and did a mandatory worldwide poll of opinions it still wouldn't be objective fact that Syro by Aphex Twin was the "4th best album of 2014". It would just be intersubjective agreement. Democracy does not provide facts. Rather, it just provides a bigger opinion. And opinions can't tell you that any piece of music is objectively better than another. Such talk is crazy talk. Aphex Twin is another artist with a nerdy fanboy fanbase. Is Syro good? I find it to be totally crappy elevator music. Isn't Aphex Twin meant to be cutting edge? This crap was so bad I deleted it again. There are a million nobodies making 10 minute videos on their IPads on You Tube who make things more appealing to me. And yet somehow, thanks to marketing and something indescribable, Aphex Twin is feted as some kind of monkey genius. 

The only moral here is "So what?". No one is mandated to go with the flow or accept anyone else's musical judgments. I positively encourage you not to. Find your own way. Like what you want to like. Be active in finding your own way. Make your own soundtrack. The only valid opinion is your own.

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