Tired of the Hype, But That's All There Is
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and
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The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the
Are full of passionate intensity.
William Butler Yeats was not writing about today's music industry when he penned those immortal lines in the aftermath of the Great War, but he could have been. Quite simply, the biz is a thing that has fallen apart, and the center no longer exists.
Where once there was order — bands built followings in local scenes, got signed, made it on the radio by hook or by crook, toured hard and, with luck, made it to the top — there is now, what exactly?
Blog bedlam. An echo chamber of the ill-informed. Innocence drowned in perpetually raging rapids of flavor-of-the-week whitewater that too often leaves little but sneering cynicism in its wake. Small wonder that so many of the best have lost their fervor; too often, the best bands are ignored, and the most ardent fans have been deceived ten times too many.
And even as I type, the floodgates creak open for another mighty tide of propaganda. The rumble-buzz from the bee-loud hive mind is already rattling the teacups in our cupboards. Everybody! South By Southwest season is at hand: Clap your hands and say hype!
Which band of scruffy suburban liberal arts majors with yelpy voices and guitars (angular, of course) will be this month's perpetual savior of rock and roll? Which duo of face-painted Warhol toadies will fill dance floors as never before with their delightfully decadent disco/funk-infused electro-pop? (Answers: Vampire Weekend and MGMT, respectively.)
How many of these acts will we still be listening to two, three, five months hence? For every legit quality band like Arctic Monkeys or Arcade Fire, there are three moldy headstones for forgotten groups like the Datsuns, White Whale, Bound Stems, Tapes 'N Tapes and Wolf Parade. They were born to be hyped and hyped to die.
In a piece in last year's Oxford American music issue, essayist Bill Wasik (the flash-mob inventing swami of all phenomena hipster and viral) nailed it. He quoted a blogger, in a hurry to scoop Pitchfork's review of a now-forgotten 2006 blog band called Annuals, thusly: "Get ready to get sick of hearing about this band."
Such is life in an era in which music is increasingly less about actual sounds than it is about being in the inner sanctum of Those Who Heard Them Before You. Granted, it has ever been such — going back to the 1960s in music (and before that in other arts) — every once-underground, later-ubiquitous entity has its "I liked them before they sold out" contingent. But the Internet and the attendant utter diminishment of recorded music's monetary value have exacerbated this exponentially. Through time-stamped blogs, it is now possible to prove that you were there first. And now that all recorded music is free to everyone, its only real worth is as a fashion accessory.
Or maybe it is more like addiction. Wasik also interviewed John Richards, one of the most prominent DJs on Seattle radio/Internet indie rock behemoth KEXP. Richards likened himself to a cred junkie. "A big deal with us is discovery," he said. "And you're discovering not just a song; you're discovering a band. When you're just discovering a second album, there's not as much hype involved."
Richards's example was the Pixies' Surfer Rosa, which he said changed his life. But then every subsequent Pixies failed to deliver the same euphoria. "You take the drug, you never get that high again, you know?" he said, echoing the forever everywhere coalition of speed freaks, crackheads and junkies.
For any given band, the high only lasts for one album, one tour stop in each town. This can be a retroactive process. Let's say you were at a Wolf Parade show in early 2005. You were neither impressed nor turned off by the band — you just stood there, occasionally nipping off a Lone Star. But then months later, Pitchfork gives the band's record a 9.2. You hear that, I dunno, Brian Eno or John Cale has sung their praises. Suddenly that humdrum night is transformed in your memory into a magical evening.
So you go to the same band's next show, and everything is all wrong. Richards spoke to Wasik about how it went for him with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.
"But the second [show]," he said, "well, now it sold out early, and it's at a bigger club. And I'm not that guy anymore. I'm not the guy discovering them. I'm just a guy who is with everybody else who also knows who they are." [Italics original.]
Sheez, all this is starting to remind me of baseball card collecting. Pre-1981, it was exciting. You set enough of your allowance aside to buy a few packs of Topps, hoping that one of them would have that rookie card of Rickey Henderson or Fernando Valenzuela in it. You wanted to be that guy, you see, the one who was there before everyone else.
Sometime around 1981, a Federal court declared that Topps could no longer monopolize baseball cards. Soon the market was flooded with competitors, each vying with the others with subsets upon sets of special issues, 3D and hologram cards, embossed packs and cheap-o commemorative coins.
Within a few years, you couldn't be sure if your rookie card was a rookie card anymore. You'd look on the back and see that Ken Griffey Jr. or Barry Bonds had played in a handful of Major League games the previous year and think you were in, but then you'd discover that Upper Deck or some such had issued some limited edition card years before, when those guys were still in school. They heard of those guys before you did, you see.
There was a glut in the market. You lost your bearings. Your 12-year-old ass could no longer be that guy who discovered this baseball player with his allowance — you were just a mook with a handful of worthless cardboard and a stick of stale pink gum. Comic Book Guy types who could afford the good stuff hoarded the cred and the kids were doomed to dorkdom.
And look what happened to baseball cards — sales are now a quarter of their peak, card shops are few and far between, and those that remain peddle more Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh! and Magic cards. A couple of years ago, Major League Baseball was reduced to launching a $7 million campaign to remind kids that baseball cards still exist.
"The baseball card industry lost its way because the manufacturers forgot that the communal aspect of collecting is what made it enjoyable," wrote Slate's Dave Jamieson in a 2006 article on the death of that hobby. "How can kids talk about baseball cards if they don't have any of the same ones?"
Granted, a love of music is more fundamental than collecting baseball cards, but there are some similarities. Today's music market is likewise glutted with bands and hype. Being a fan today is confusing, not the communal event it once was. Instead of turning each other on to bands at school and at parties, we each discover groups while alone at our computers. Few are into the same bands at any given time — there's a git in every crowd ready to mock you for being so December 2007.
Cred is all about proximity to cool, and in the eyes of the national scene, Houston and dozens of other cities like it just aren't there. Almost all of the anointed bands have come from a select few resolutely Blue State (or Canadian) cities: NYC, SF, L.A., Seattle, Austin, Minneapolis, Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Chicago and the like — hipster burgs Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger branded as "the Urban Archipelago." Even Dallas/Denton (home of Midlake) and Atlanta (Black Lips) are making strides toward attaining Urban Archipelago cred.
But Houston has never made it to the capital-B buzz-band hall of hype. And we are not alone — right there with us are cities like Phoenix, Tampa, San Antonio, Cincinnati and San Diego. Our colleges aren't as cool as the ones in those other cities. Neither are our industries. We aren't fashionably European-looking. We are the fat kid at the prom of cool cities.
And so our native seekers of cred move to Austin, New York, Chicago and L.A. Why? Because all the other cool kids are there.
And instead of working on crafting a regional sound here, everybody wants to either sound like they already live there or move. Wasik noted this death of regionalism in his article. Annuals are from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, like its kissing cousin Athens, Georgia, once a hotbed of jangly power-pop bands such as the db's and Let's Active. The Paisley tie Big Star/Byrds-worshipping scene was followed by Superchunk and the rise of other lo-fi bands such as Polvo and Archers of Loaf.
"Today in Chapel Hill, former members of Superchunk run Merge Records, arguably the nation's most influential indie label — but its bands hail from around the U.S., Canada, and even Europe," Wasik writes. "Annuals...summoned no more excitement in their own hometown than they did anywhere else."
And we might add, they sound like they could be from anywhere. Isn't the indie aesthetic supposed to break with homogenization? If not, shouldn't it?
Meanwhile, the entire universe of cred will soon pass through town, barely tapping its brakes on its way to Austin, Texas's island of cool. Very likely some of us will be able to answer a paraphrase of the question posed by Yeats at the end of his immortal poem: And what hyped band, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Austin to be born?
And are you ready to be sick of them yet?
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