Last Updated on May 29, 2023
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Do musicians these days make too much music? If so, then why, and should they stop? In this episode of the Beat Motel, Sam springs an essay on us, and we discuss bands we used to love but have since stopped listening to.
Also covered in this podcast episode:
- Bands who end up as a parody of themselves
- How many cliches can you cram into one song?
- Sam’s essay questioning prolific musicians
- Should musicians release EVERYTHING and let the audience be the filter?
- Do modern-day musicians have a relationship with their audience or with the Spotify algorithm?
- Who are the modern gatekeepers of music?
- A plea to label album artwork clearly
- The chaos and joy of being in bands
- Black Metal bands having a laugh
- The Clash
- The Stone Roses
- The Melvins
- The Subhumans
- Death Grips
- Boards of Canada
- The Body
- These Are End Times
- Pissed Resistance
- Sick of it All
- Gorilla Biscuits
- Dead Kennedys
The Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han writes in his book Psycho-Politics:
“We are living in a particular phase of history: freedom itself is bringing forth compulsion and constraint. The freedom of Can generates even more coercion than the disciplinarian Should, which issues commandments and prohibitions. Should has a limit. Can has none. Thus, the compulsion entailed by Can is unlimited. And so we find ourselves in a paradoxical situation. Technically, freedom means the opposite of coercion and compulsion. Being free means being free from constraint. But now freedom itself … is producing coercion. Psychic maladies such as depression and burnout express a profound crisis of freedom. They represent pathological signs that freedom is now switching over into manifold forms of compulsion.”
Between 1999 and 2022, the Body released (only counting albums) 22 albums (7 solo, 15 collaborative), and a collaborative live album.
King Gizzard and the Electric Wizard have released 23 albums and 14 live albums since 2010.
On a slightly more subdued front, Death Grips released 7 albums in six years (but no albums for the last five).
Similarly, between 2012 and 2022, the Melvins released only 11 albums.
I’m sure there are other examples.
Now, my argument is not that the music on these albums is shit. Far from it, and frankly, I wouldn’t know – I haven’t listened to most of it. Who has? And who can trawl through so much and really come to terms with it? Some of the Body’s stuff was great, and a friend assures me that some of the Electric Wizard stuff is great. Death Grips were at the forefront the current noise-hiphop scene , and the Melvins do what they do.
But, rather, to build on Byung-Chul Han’s analysis, I argue that this rate of output has the potential to produce burnout in the listener. This is done through the process of what the philosopher Zizek calls “interpassivity”, which is the process in which (I quote) “humans transfer responsibility for an outcome from themselves to a more abstract agent.”
And so, I argue that by releasing at such a relentless rate, by endlessly putting out such material, musicians are transferring the role of responsibility of their art to two abstract agents: in one corner, the consuming audience, and to another, the algorithms of Spotify and such.
To the first corner, these acts are asking their audience to construct a coherent understanding of the music, rather than try and produce something like that themselves through constraint and editing themselves.
If one thinks about the concept of meaning in art, there has been a discussion for such a long time around who controls meaning. It is widely accepted by many now that once the art has gone public, the meaning is for the audience to decide – this piece speaks to me about blah blah blah.
So, if you’re the artist, why not release everything and let the audience be the filter of your own quality?
The problem with this sort of artistic interpassivity is that it puts those who want to embrace the music on the route to burnout.
Take any of those named acts above as example. In your first listen, they’re all pretty startling. And yet, through the relentlessness of releasing music, it becomes so easy to ignore them – their release rate becomes a conveyor belt of noise, with no time to digest what they have produced. Rather than as one album, these things released as albums should be better listened to as a continuous thing. Also, surely they don’t think everything they produce is good?! Every album becomes the Clash’s Sandinista! And rather than become a unique artistic statement, they just become noise.
The relationship between the so called “underground” and capitalism has always been a bit murky. Even if the musician isn’t left-wing, opting for independent labels or self-release (if it is a choice), the scene as a whole it is marked arguably by a selling-direct to customer model, and (mostly) trying to be reasonable about the price. The idea of absolute exploitation is attempted to be avoided in this models.
As far as I understand, in the classic Marxist explanation of the capitalist mode of production, the worker is alienated from their production by selling their time and skills to the capitalist – the capitalist owns what the worker produces and the tools they do it with. This is what, say, the punk scene in its variety of connections and independent acts and labels tries to avoid.
And yet now, far from rejecting the capitalist model of production of the day, those alternative musicians who are producing so much are a new capitalist model of artistic production showing itself.
If you look at the relentlessness of what it means to be an online personality, it’s the same thing – your life because a commodity to sell. It is a process that creates an alienation of musician from product (themselves), and product from audience.
In this relentless output, these pieces of music are no longer a dialogue between musicians and their audience, but musicians and an algorithm – the other one of Zizek’s abstract agent. To bring it back to Byung-Chul Han: just because you Can release everything, it doesn’t mean you should.
There’s a reason why someone like Prince has such a vast back catalogue of unreleased material in his archives – because even a genius like him understood not everything he did was genius.
Maybe that’s the point of following the model – release as much as you can because people don’t make much money from records these days, and a lot of it (if any) comes from streaming. Thus, musicians are captured by the new pay lord of streaming. You can only become successful if you don’t burnout before you’re done.