Opinion: Local Bands and Corporatized Music

Although I don’t think anyone on staff might fundamentally disagree with what follows, I feel obligated to add a disclaimer that these views are my own and do not represent the entire stance of Tuned Up. With that said, let’s dive in, shall we?

There are two truths that hold steady: local bands are bad, and corporatized music is somehow also bad. These may not be your personal beliefs, but for most of the people in the world, this is an accurate perception. Even in the past, I wasn’t allowed to write about certain bands because they were allegedly too small to matter (but if they can’t be promoted, how will they grow beyond this). There’s a belief that public buy-in is required for something to make it good. And then you’ve got the Swifties of the world who act like they’ve discovered oil when in fact you can find someone who likes her in any public space. I recently saw a comment on a YouTube video that if you are actively looking for new music (which probably includes you as a reader), you are in the minority. Most people’s ideas of what constitutes good art or music has been pre-curated. And since a lot of local stuff is at the very least outside the mainstream ethos, and often even contrary to it, by default many people don’t delve into it. There is also the average person’s appreciation for an artform, which I’ll get to in a bit, but I do not want to discredit casual listeners or gatekeep here. I know I listen to fewer albums per year than I used to due to other responsibilities. It’s okay to go back to foundational albums and classics.

On the other hand, there’s the corporatized music: music made to sell products (and in some events to push ideas). It’s those jingles that play on drug commercials with glockenspiel and clapping. It’s the stuff that sits under the weird GrubHub animations. And people have gone at length to criticize these for being lifeless, artificial, and meaningless. And while I could write at length between the art-and-marketing distinction, I don’t think anyone is going home to listen to “Lyrica Jingle 3” on loop. The consensus seems to be that these inoffensive musical numbers are trash, something simply used as a vehicle for something else primarily – and which hold little impact if separated from the whole.

But here the issue lies: if something is too raw and non-corporate, it’s bad. If something is too corporate, it’s also bad. Again, I’m speaking in public generalities.

But… where does the corporate distinction begin? Is it cowriters? Is it mass label support? A production team? Road crew? Custom pedal manufacturer? Tour bus? Regardless of if we can clearly draw the line, we cannot give musicians and other types of creatives special treatment in how we distinguish them from small-scale to large-scale. When you see two guys in a coworker center discussing a project, that’s a small business. When you’ve got a family running a handmade soap shop, that’s a small business. When you’ve got an office of 200 people, one who’s worked with five other large offices, that is no longer a small business. But perhaps more importantly, there is a shift in mindset from one-on-one engagement to scaling. Let me be very clear: I don’t think high artistic output is a bad thing. Some artists release multiple records a year. I’ve written around four novels in a year. But I would again stress the difference between meaningful, purposed creation and the idea of creating for the algorithm and for the unseen curators.

Is a popular artist in one sense that much different? I’m not going to make hard judgments here, but I think it’s worth considering. And then you’ve got people who make you pay to even talk with them at the merch table. That’s not exactly normal behavior, nor is it one that shows dignity for the listeners. And in many cases, the listeners may not care about the dignity of the artist. Out of all the Spotify Wrapped reports from last year, some of the listeners-to-plays ratios were a bit disheartening. When you get down to it, one fan listened to just two songs on average. And at that point, it’s probably not even far to classify that person as a fan. Unfortunately, with the convenience of streaming, both sides of this problem have been reinforced. Again, taste tends to be curated – made to consume over and over. And it’s artists that charge $200 per ticket who reign on the airwaves, people we’ll probably never meet in a “human” context. I don’t think it is wrong for people to be paid for their work, and I do think in general artists face a lot of dehumanizing elements in society (that they might not even be aware of). But when the scale of how far your songs can go becomes a primary motivator, and when you’re (consciously or unconsciously) setting social standards, it’s ideologically not that different than someone saying how great Dyson vacuums are – only instead of little jingles, it’s brooding, reverb-laden tracks and the “product” is what you need to support at the polls. And curiously, by simply existing in the mainstream, these artists’ boldest statements are perhaps not very bold at all, only amplifying whatever zeitgeist exists for their target audiences. So the same level of inoffensiveness of erectile dysfunction ukulele music manifests here as well. As always, there will be exceptions – but given the number of moving parts and extra connections involved, it is much riskier for a larger artist to deviate from the norm the same way a non-profit would not want to lose donors.

Where does this put us? It is worth re-examining the local artist. And again, if you’re reading this, you probably already have some sort of investment in the topic. I hope, at the very least, that I can put some vocabulary behind certain concepts. First, I don’t think small bands or artists are always good. And yes, I think there are some objective standards that can be applied without writing off entire genres (I certainly get vibe with atonal lofi). But, regardless of actual ability, there are certain things any local artist has.

  1. Accessibility – you can personally meet them and know them to some degree. You will see them in public. Your local community is their community as well, so by default you are facing common obstacles.
  2. Work ethic – I’m not a big proponent of hustle culture, nor do I fundamentally think we need to be Luddites. That said, five people driving in separate vehicles to a gig and hauling their Oranges up the stairs after working all day is impressive. Even if there aren’t huge financial returns from it, we need to accept that most people simply never create anything at all, let alone pursue their passions in tandem with their other responsibilities.
  3. The experience – There is something about an intimate, small show where a few people are standing up front and belting out all the words. For much of history, art was experienced communally. It didn’t exist as recordings or NFTs. You went somewhere. There is something about a work or performance occupying physical time and space, and I’m sure you can relate that some bands are very different live than their records. But the experience of a small show is much less produced. Some venues don’t even have lights. What you are getting is the band’s own ideas – they still have ownership of how their art is experienced.
  4. Thematic diversity – You won’t often hear a track about Albert Camus or about how jellyfish seem to never die on the radio. Because songs are curated around trying to get the most listeners, subject matter is more broad and generalized. I often find I appreciate weirdly-specific references to places that really give an anchor to reality. And there have been many times I’ve learned some cools things while piecing through a track’s lyrics. You’re probably not improving your SAT score by listening to Cardi B, sorry.

I’m sure there are more things that could be added to the list. But I would claim these aren’t inconsequential. The modern ethos is very much one of convenience, but art has never been convenient. It is costly to make, whether financially, personally, or often both. It is not intended to scale the same way you wouldn’t mass print a love letter you wrote to your significant other. And while many people espouse separating the art from the artist when some scandal happens, we rarely hear the inverse – of associating the art with the artist and tracing back the beauty and virtue to the people who produce it. Art, after all, does not happen in a void.

If we truly dislike corporations and corporate attitudes, my stance is not simply that we head toward iconoclasm. It is not enough to simply destroy what is wrong; something else must takes its place. So while it is more costly in a personal and financial sense to support local music and art, this is what ultimately shapes your local community. This is where we can introduce beauty into broken and neglected places. This is where we embrace that there is an embodied humanity involved in the creative process and that this physical flesh-and-blood effort matters.

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