During a recent bout of traveling, I was hanging out with some Guys in the music business. It was a good opportunity to geek out, and we got to talking about Daft Punk’s new record, and whether it was any good. The conversation was rough going, though, and not just because anybody with divergent taste is wrong. The thing is, I wanted to talk about how much of the album is just a retread of late disco licks and how much is doing something radically new with those licks, at least of the level of arrangement, or whatever that question sounds like after the second bottle of whiskey. Without fail, though, the pros just wanted to talk about the process of publicizing and marketing the record. The opinions ranged from a) marketing a record at that scale was itself an interesting, if not brilliant, artistic move to b) no piece of music deserves or can withstand that kind of publicity to c) oh, more corporate pop?, how … irrelevant.
Weirdly, many of the people commenting on the record in these terms hadn’t actually even listened to it. From my hovel, I hadn’t noticed all this marketing they were talking about, but it was apparently a huge deal. Looking into it, their impressions were confirmed in that most of the meta-discussion about the record is about the hype, not the music. Instead of spending the next 15 minutes inserting links and providing material for the next half hour of your procrastination, I’m gonna advise you to just google it. The record is called ‘Random Access Memories’, but if you just enter ‘Daft Punk h’, the predictive search field will probably fill in ‘hype’ for you.
Okay, so if everybody is focused on something that is beside the point, something’s up. We’re gonna take a detour over porn, but we’ll make it back. Bear with me.
Dan Dennett, a philosopher many respect, likes to quote Lee Siegel when he, i.e. Dennett, is mistaking God for phlogiston. Here’s what Siegel says:
“I’m writing a book on magic, I explain, and I’m asked, real magic? By real magic people mean miracles, thaumaturgical acts, and supernatural powers. No, I answer: Conjuring tricks, not real magic. Real magic, in other words, refers to the magic that is not real, while the magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic.”
Properly deployed, that’s one of the most important analogies you’ll ever read.
Take porn. If you’re watching porn and the ‘teenage’ actress with stretch marks and crows’ feet is making more noise than a macaque being tortured in an ambulance, it’s a turn off because nobody screams like that. We’d all be deaf. You want amateurs to be ingénues, you want coos and moans to be heartfelt, tears and squeals to be real, and all fluids to be slightly smelly. But you also want infinite variation and quantity so that you never get bored and can scratch that day’s itch, and you don’t want a single camera lit by a low-wattage bedside lamp in an eastern European hotel. That is, you want slick professionalism in lighting and steady cameras, the availability afforded by mass production and the authenticity of homemade.
Just like the magic, the only arousing porn is homemade, but if it’s actually homemade, it isn’t porny enough.
Now let’s take it back to music. To drown out my colleagues and piss off pricks like Lars Ulrich, I listen to music quite a bit while at the computer over a subscription service. It’s not a plug, but it’s relevant to know that I use Spotify because it lets you add little apps inside the music browser. For example, there are apps to help the culturally insecure learn the difference between Joh(a)n(n)Bach and John Cage, jazz apps that do the same for Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, language apps that aggregate ‘teach yourself Inuit’ records, etc. The weird thing that makes this worth mentioning is that there are apps for ‘indy’ labels, but there are none for the big record companies. There’s a Matador and a Pitchfork app, but none for EMI or Sony. Similarly, there’s an app for Nick Cave but none for Kanye.
There are two ways to make sense of that. The first, and wrong, way is that the indy labels need the publicity, so they took the trouble to hire the code monkeys and lawyers to make these apps happen. That’s precious. To see the second way, you first have to realize that EMI and Sony aren’t even really separate entities. EMI is owned by a consortium run by Sony, parts belong to Warner Brothers Records, which also owns a lot of ‘indy’ labels. Universal is owned by Vivendi, which also owns the better portion of the world’s media, in addition to the Star of India and Jupiter, along with GE. These media megaliths have their own app, but it’s hidden in plain sight, because it’s Spotify itself. This is obvious because when you first open Spotify, the first page is full of Lana Del Rey, Feist, LMFAO, One Republic and such, who are on Interscope, which is owned by Universal, which is owned by…
The music business isn’t fragmented, it’s concentrated, and Spotify is a Trojan horse to get the hydra onto your hard drive. But it’s so cheap! Of course it is. The music is a loss leader. The only way you can sign up to Spotify nowadays is via Facebook, where people are also busy liking the latest Johnny Depp movie (if only to snipe at it) these companies also produced. The media conglomerates are probably losing money on most Spotify users, and the musicians make less than a church mouse on SSI, but they don’t care because they make their (notional) money at the level of investment banking, exactly through merging, hiving off, and pushing other conglomerates like P&G and Nestle with their control of the vertical and horizontal.* You’re doing them a service by letting them into your field of attention and telling them how you’re responding to them telling you what to want, and they even get you to subsidize their penetration.
So now you should be able to see that the apps for Matador (which is owned by Beggars Group) and Pitchfork are just ways to give Spotify, the big boys’ app, credibility. For you American partisans, they’re the unelectable Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin to convince you that the GOP is not just a good ol’ boys’ club, or the union endorsements to convince you that the Democrats aren’t subject to corporate influence.
When consumer products seem authentic, it’s usually because they’ve been made to seem authentic on purpose.
Now it should be clear what’s going on with Daft Punk. People have no problem with hype. In fact, they love it. They pay more attention to royal babies than their own. They want their Facebook statuses to attract more ‘Likes’ than they have friends, and their Twitter accounts to have more followers than tweets. But they don’t want to have to buy promotion or be fooled by hyped posts that are only popular because the posters have bought the influence. That is, hype is great, but it’s supposed to be organic, authentic, real.
And that was Daft Punk’s crime. They generated plenty of hype, and plenty of hype about the hype, but they generated it – shamelessly. There’s a sense that the band hijacked the public’s attention, and the public is desperate to think that there’s another way of getting attention, so they rebel against being told what to do – while doing it. It’s equivalent to a 13 year-old grumbling about having to take out the trash – while taking out the trash; or to a blogger grumbling about the faux artistic pretensions of Spotify while listening to…
Remember: “Real magic, in other words, refers to the magic that is not real, while the magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic.”
Authentic cultural products, in other words, are those that have been hyped enough to become ‘culture’, while the culture that is actually authentic, that is beyond hype, never attracts enough attention to become culture.
*So what’s in it for the musicians? Distribution, which is the nuts and bolts of fame, which is the social currency they crave.