This was the first, introductory post for Arthur Magazine’s little-seen (and now erased) blog on the Yahoo Music site. Kind of a statement of purpose for Arthur circa 2007. It is a bit self-righteous/snide/grandiose, but geez, look at the dumbness that was going on. Different era now but maybe it has some resonance? I dunno. This was written for a general-ish audience (that didn’t really exist, haha) and it’s deliberately provocative. And it’s dated. But whatever. There it is. I was often exasperated by dumb stuff in the mainstream media, had trouble just ignoring it.
Hidden in Plain Sight
by Jay Babcock
I was recently asked by a newspaper reporter to comment on artists licensing their music for use in commercials. For a certain generation of fan, or music journalist, I guess, there is still some vestigial outrage over a musician playing for his supper. For these folks, selling your music to soundtrack an iTunes or VW ad is a big sell-out, a violation of some unspoken, unsigned compact between artist and fan regarding the purposes to which art can be rightly put. Few of us are surprised anymore by this casual betrayal—there’s all sorts of justifications for it, of course, and we all know it’s gonna happen anyway—but still, it stings to be reminded, once again, that nothing is sacred, not even our holy texts (cf. the Doors’ “Break On Through,” Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon”). We hate to learn that even our monastics have a price.
Get over it, says everyone under 35. Raised on the Market Knows Best principles promulgated through hip-hop, sports, celebrities, government, public education and other wings of corporate capitalism (the real winner after the failed counterculture revolution of the Sixties), most of Gen X and Gen 9-11 don’t blink once at all the formerly taboo-on-their-face money-makin’ practices that have become commonplace in today’s music industry. (There’s that word, “industry”: whenever something stops being a Mode of Expression or Field of Endeavor and becomes an Industry, you can be sure a steep decline in quality is around the corner.) For most of us, there’s simply no issue here. An artist, if they’re not a fool or some weirdo on a self-denial trip, will of course sign a deal with a record label owned by a sleazy transnational corporation, perform on tours sponsored by other sleazy corporations and the US military recruitment machine, and participate in whatever crypto-payola scams are going on right now (radio station “charity” wintertime acoustic concerts being possibly the most egregious offenders in this category) in the hopes of getting some airplay, some screentime, some press, some publicity, some tour sponsorship, some ringtone deal, some movie soundtrack deal, some videogame deal, some slot in Starbucks in-store programming and yes of course, the grand slam, at least for a “new”/”fresh”/”buzz”/”breaking” band: a TV AD DEAL. Those who fail to do so are unlucky, or unworthy, market failures, yanked offstage by the proverbial cane—held, of course, by Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand.
But isn’t there a larger question here?
What if we turn it around a bit, and ask WHY IS IT that the only way a young musician can get across to the general public these days (to the degree that one exists anymore, having been successfully niche-ized, atomized and banalified in pursuit of corporate profits, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post…) is as wallpaper for some other product? Why is it that we can’t hear new music on the radio, or see new music performed on television? In other words, why isn’t music on its own, given its own space in the still-powerful mass media? Isn’t music good enough? Or, could it be that it’s just not profitable enough? And if the latter is the case, shouldn’t we ask why the mass media system–and our planet’s airwaves, which belong to all of us–structured in such a way that our right to meaningful, rich, sensuous, full-of-life art is increasingly denied?
What I’m saying is: artists have not failed their obligation to their art by selling out to the system. Instead, the system itself has failed the artists, and by extension, the listening public. But even as music-as-itself has been deemed insufficiently profitable, people still want to hear it…and so our nation’s finest corporate super-brains have diligently supplied us with the most efficient, state-of-the-art music industry schemes available: Fox’s “American Idol”—a quasi-industrial training film disguised as a TV game show/soap opera, an idea borrowed from the Brits—and CBS’s corporate reality show “Rock Star,” which, in its initial season, featured actual humans competing on camera to replace the dead guy in INXS, the whole affair breathlessly chronicled by the co-hosting team of Brooke Burke and Dave Navarro.
Dave Navarro: now there’s a name to conjure with. Is there any other musician in recent memory who has so thoroughly–and publicly–squandered and betrayed all of his promise, talent, credibitlity and integrity? The man who who played guitar in Jane’s Addiction–a radical, somewhat-misunderstood band unfortunately overshadowed by the Lollapalooza colossus that its singer spawned–now spends his short time on the planet doing play-by-play for a fake band of rock careerists and hosting oh-so-dangerous-by-the-numbers premiere parties for insipid “torture porn” feature films. Dave has just launched “Spread Entertainment,” which is all about his deep desire to “to use the Internet to support artists and see things that are out there that other corporate structures aren’t allowing us to see. It seems with satellite TV, the Internet, magazines—there’s almost so many options, and we’re only seeing the same five things.” A rather breathtaking statement, asking us to somehow ignore Dave’s active participation in all the aforementioned craptaculars, as well as his “work” on the execrable Camp Freddy Radio program, broadcast Saturday nights in Los Angeles.
Which rather conveniently brings us back to where we started: one of the reasons musicians, especially young ones, license their music to all comers on the TV ad front, is because they can’t get substantial radio airtime anywhere, not even self-styled “indie”/”we can play whatever we want” shows like “Camp Freddy.” And so, everyone loses.
Case in point: on Saturday night, March 3, driving downtown to see Marnie Stern play at The Smell in her first-ever L.A. gig, my radio-scanning ended, naturally, when I heard Van Halen. Happiness! Until, at the song’s conclusion, it became apparent that I’d accidentally tuned in to the dread Camp Freddy. Now, this was in the week just after Eddie had announced that, unlike Amy Winehouse, he would go back to rehab, which in turn meant the summer’s Van Halen reunion tour with Diamond Dave Lee Roth and Eddie’s 15-year-old son Wolfgang on bass, was off—suckage!—which got non-Diamond Dave, that is Dave Navarro, talking about how Eddie’s signature fingertapping guitar style, once widely imitated, was now obsolete. Which was pretty laughable, given that within a half-hour of his making that comment, Marnie Stern was finger-tapping our faces off at the Smell. (Don’t believe me? Watch her and the equally remarkable free rock drummer Zach Hill in duo performance here.)
Now, if ever there was an artist worthy of mass media coverage, of being granted access to the airwaves, of being let through the gates to those of us who, in spite of everything, still have curious, engaged ears, it’s a once-in-a-decade (or more?) talent like Marnie Stern. You want finger tapping? Well, here you go! But she doesn’t even register with Navarro and the other gatekeepers, because they’ve all been paid off. Or are lazy. Or willfully ignorant. Or compliant. Doing what they’re told, letting in what the robots tell them to: drones for hire, de facto censors of consciousness. Bow down to the new kommisars: for-hire ad agencies and marketing firms, like Deutsch LA, whose boss told the Los Angeles Times last week that “Everyone has a cool friend that exposes them to new things—the idea is that a brand can become that kind of channel.” Word to the wise: a corporation doesn’t want to be your friend. It wants your money.
Opening up the gates, or rather, ignoring them altogether, is what Arthur—the print magazine, the website, the label, the festivals, and now this Yahoo!Music blog—is all about. Arthur isn’t for hire. (Arthur’s not even for sale—the magazine is free.) Arthur is a labor of love for those of us working here—it’s not a marketing initiative, not a quest for lucre. (Some things really are more important than money.) And so, when we’re given the opportunity to do what we want, we do what we love: we champion the musicians, the artists, the thinkers out there who are doing extraordinary work, who you might dig if only somebody hipped you to them—somebody who hasn’t been paid to do the job, somebody you could trust. That’s been our aim since we started Arthur in 2002: to be a learned, enthusiastic guide to the bustling, effervescent, mindblowing, and endlessly re-generating underground–the loamy place where everything good comes from. The place that denies entry to no one.
Not even Dave Navarro.