Unbundled, Part III: Democratizing the Future

Why democratization and identity are the future of music.

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This is the final entry in the Unbundled series on music dynamics. Read the previously published pieces here:


unbundled

Power, Gatekeeping, Scarcity, and Democratization

Which brings us back to the last step in the cycle: unbundled once again. Only this time, the unbundled dynamic refers to power and ownership. The new unbundled form of power—referenced above—removes the focus of power from the major labels and fractures it, splintering it to varying degrees among the plethora of new artists and startups now emerging.

This is the best thing that could happen because it leads to a more stabilized version of meritocracy in music. The top-heavy, unbalanced paradigm of major label control over everything that a fan is exposed to is ending, and being replaced with a much murkier—but more expansive—reality. This in turn affects scarcity and gatekeeping on a massive level.

Scarcity is obsolete; democratization wins.

Ownership

Perhaps the most prickly point here is the concept of ownership in the new age. This is a contentious topic even among friends, and no one really knows what the landscape is going to look like in the next few years. What can be surmised, however, is that concepts of ownership of musical material are evolving. Sampling and other trends in electronic and DJ music, along with self-recording and independent releases, have muddied the waters of who owns what and to what extent.

Now the action of covering or remixing someone else’s song and posting it online bristles feathers. But (most) artists who do this also attribute the proper credits to the original artist(s)—many times in the cover or remix’s title—simply because it’s the right thing to do and because it helps them to disseminate their new version.

Asserting that cover songs and remixes hurt the original artist is a cloudy and jaded argument at best.

Yet, the argument can be made that with this new overhaul in ownership orthodoxy, perhaps the right people are now able to own the things they should have been able to all along. Let us not forget the reality of master tapes (where a record label owns the rights to an artist’s original recordings) which so many artists have regretted. Controlling one’s own material, and deciding what to do with it, are the ultimate power plays an artist can make. Appealing to this new sense of power is the best avenue for emerging music startups to make.

Such a concept is fairly reminiscent of a point Daniel Mark Harrison makes in a piece regarding bitcoin, wherein he illustrated that controlling access to material is the ultimate power: “…any major purchaser goes direct to a Bitcoin ‘miner’…and negotiates steep discounts for their volume purchase action.”

In this scenario, the music fan is the purchaser, the artist is the bitcoin miner, and the service that serves as a conduit between the two is better off appealing to and providing value to the artist rather than only the fan. Both are important, but the latter controls the material which the former wants to consume.

Money and Community

One of the loudest major factors that floats around is the argument over money, from streaming, downloading, merch sales, ticket sales, etc. Let’s be clear though: streaming and downloading—the purchase of musical material—is not where the real money is for artists. It never has been. The money has always been in the merchandise and live ticket sales. What does this mean nowadays? Community.

While it is certainly arguable and many times probable that new unbundling dynamics have struck at artists’ ability to make money from the sale of their music, it is equally arguable that it has enabled them to make money from other, more lucrative, avenues.

An artist can only sell a $10 album so many times (unless you’re a major label darling). Their real bread and butter is in their community cultivation: growing their base, getting people to come out, getting people to spread their music and message, and capitalizing on those efforts. Streaming and downloading revenue is at best a holdover until a better stream is tapped.

The dynamics that exist now in this new unbundled world provide new opportunities for artists. Now, they don’t need to make their money off music sales or streams. Enough access to fans and communication/funding tools exist that they can actually give their music away for free and turn a profit somewhere else.

And this is exactly what a growing number of artists are choosing to do.

The dissemination of their material onto a global stage is much more important than a few album sales here or there, and leads to better things on the other side. A more expansive universe brings more shows, more exposure, more true fans, and more branding opportunities. These are the real things that grant artists staying power.

The Expansive Powers of Identity

Lastly, there is identity. I examined in a previous piece how we’re seeing the rise of “identity platforms” in media. Music is no exception to this. In fact, it might be the shining example of it.

Identity gives music—and by extension all art—certain powers that contribute staying power. Identity is so powerful precisely because it exists independently of genre, mainstream recognition, money, or history; it’s unique in it’s own ability to build bridges where previously there were none. Regarding music, identity brings together people on a core level that can almost supersede differences they might otherwise have.

The power identity—especially in relation to art and music—in its potential to create ever-expanding identities—to create communities. Money is certainly a factor in this, but if a shared identity which draws people towards one another, and can shield them—for better or worse—from outside forces seeking to compromise that unique, collective identity. As music is given the ability to disseminate more and more, more communities will arise around newly-minted identities, and art as a whole will become more lush and layered.

In the wake of these trends in art, music, and media, the power will lay with companies and platforms to not only cultivate these newly emerging identities, but to provide fertile ground for even more embryonic ones. Music becomes a vessel for the expansion of art and identity.

The Upswing

Where does this leave us? In unchartered territory to start with. Artists will continue to grow their power as new technologies make the opportunities possible. The companies which see this trend and capitalize on it will be the ones to stick around and do well. The others, however, who are resistant to this new set of events, will find it challenging to court artists and acquire material if they are determined to hold fast to a paradigm that was beneficial mostly to the major record labels.

Independents artists, and consumers of all strata (not merely the mainstream), will not be ignored or marginalized anymore. They will continue to experiment with the bundling/unbundling process until they find the right fit for themselves, and for their careers. There will be less of a set standard that all need to conform to, and more of a flexible set of possibilities and avenues for people to mix and match to reflect their changing personal experiences.

The future of music is three things: freedom, community, and democratization.

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Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business!

Unbundled, Part I: Reformatting the Barriers

How unwrapping the previous barriers is changing music.

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This is a continuation of the Unbundled series on music dynamics. Read the previously published piece here:


The first movement in this symphony is the “unbundled” piece. It’s all about “reformatting” the conceptual barriers that initially existed for decades. It’s divided into two parts: Choice and Format.

The former is an exploration of how choice has evolved with the changing technology, and how it’s taken on a power it previously lacked. The latter, however, discusses how new formats have changed music and broken down barriers which artists historically were—most times—unable to scale. Similarly, it’s given light and life to format types which for decades have been ignored by the broad base of music consumers, except perhaps for the most die-hard fans.

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Choice

The first and most obvious form of unbundling in the music industry is the industry itself; no longer is there simply one music industry to partake in.

Now there are multiple, and they exist as completely separate universes; the major label mainstream, the exponentially growing independent industry, and everything in between. Along with this kind of unbundling of different musical arenas comes a freedom for music fans to explore in new ways.

Where non-mainstream fans were once relegated to shoddy mixtapes and bare-bones independent releases (which many times meant lower quality), now they have a plethora of music sources to choose from, as do all music listeners.

This leads to a level of choice the likes of which has never been seen in music. Now, it’s realistically possible to exist as a music fan outside the mainstream in a holistic way. You’re able to not only find the music that you like, and which speaks to you, but are similarly able to take advantage of growing communities of people like yourself. With the free access to all this new material comes access to other like-minded people.

This is community.

Chris Saad pointed to two distinct contributing factors which have lead us in this direction:

  • Reducing the cost of inventory and discovery to, in many cases, zero or near zero
  • Reducing the cost of direct communication and orchestration with more people at once—bypassing the need for manual mediators/editors/orchestrators/curators

Format

Saad’s post also mentioned this within the scope of musical format. What was once a record and CD has now become digital information, thus with more power to disseminate. Even the album format itself is restructuring, as fans looking for a single-song experience are abandoning the long form in favor of something musically shorter.

But this has a swing dynamic as well; while some argue that the album format is dying (or is already dead), many see the opposite.

The unbundling of the album format has actually given it more power than it had before. Now, when an artist chooses to create a full album, a fan knows that there is an artistic meaning behind that, rather than a record label’s fiscal bottom line.

It also lends long-overdue validation to releases that fall in between singles and full albums. EP’s and double-sides have long been ignored by most but the hardcore fans. Now, however, they exist with the same legitimacy as their gaunter and fuller peers.

The Ironic Thing

The ironic thing about these two points—choice and format—is that they’re inherently about one overarching concept: community.

As choice expands and begins to encompass formerly ignored genres and artists, new communities have the ability to coalesce and thrive. Choice isn’t merely about having new material for already established communities to engage in; alternatively, it can lead to a mixing of communities that otherwise might not happen.

Punks and jazz fans may begin to mix over a new punk-jazz fusion genre, and people who otherwise would never have met one another can now suddenly exist alongside each other. This leads to an increased level of creativity and an exponential production of creative material.

And this material is further disseminated throughout communities—splintering them and rebonding them—through new formats of information technology. Communities cease to be rigid and orthodox in their functionality towards music and instead become more elastic—they become living, breathing things which grow and continue to evolve.

This is the unbundling process within music as it should be: an unwrapping of previously rigid dynamics that lends more flexibility and power to the overall process of community cultivation.


The next movement in the symphony will be Part II: Shifting the Paradigm, which will take a look at the BUNDLED dynamic. Concepts discussed will touch on how bundling — but doing so incorrectly in the new era — impacts music consumption and community cultivation.

Stay tuned!


Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business!

Unbundled: Introduction to the Bundle

Why the unbundling of the music universe matters.

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In recent years, the dynamics of bundling and unbundling have changed everything in media. But they’ve had an especially palpable effect on music.

This is an exploration of the bundling and unbundling dynamics taking place in the music universe right now. Because of the massive amount of information discussed herein, it is necessary to cover it in series of parts, each explaining a particular aspect of change and restructuring.

This series will appear as the following:

  • Introduction to the Bundle
  • Part I: Reformatting the Barriers
  • Part II: Shifting the Paradigm
  • Part III: Democratizing the Future

Additionally, all four pieces (including the introduction) will subsequently appear as a single, holistic text, entitled: Unbundled: The Story of Music.

This is the first entry in the story.

A New Emerging Dichotomy of Freedom and Reach

A few months ago, Chris Saad penned an article on the dynamics of bundling, and how they’re affecting a number of fields. In his piece, Saad addressed how concepts of bundling are impacting areas of creativity like art and music, among others. Ironically, it had a similar air to Joshua Topolsky’s earlier article on media companies, which itself prompted my response on music-startup realities.

Such examples were only briefly mentioned, but one can go deeper on them, particularly in the way of music. Things are happening now to the age-old structure of music that arguably haven’t changed for the better part of five or six decades. And even that is only the tip of the iceberg.

Part of what was so intriguing about Saad’s examination of these morphing areas is just how much change is going on which is not being discussed. In many ways, Saad’s piece shines a light not only on the changing bundling and unbundling dynamics taking place in music, but how these two different forms—yin and yang—are interacting with one another to shape a new musical landscape. What we see is an emerging dichotomy of freedom and reach that we haven’t seen in quite a while.

Three Trends in a Specific Order

Within the context of music, three trends—unbundling, bundling, and unbundling again—matter. And they matter in that sequence. This is so because each (un)bundling action touches a different area of the music arena, and thus their interaction together forms a new paradigm.

They lay out as follows:

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Covered in Part I, Reformatting the Barriers

  1. Choice
  2. Format

BUNDLED

Covered in Part II, Shifting the Paradigm

  1. Bundled in the Wrong Way
  2. Power and Paradigm Shift
  3. Sexy vs. Unsexy

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Covered in Part III, Democratizing the Future

  1. Power, Gatekeeping, Scarcity, and Democratization
  2. Ownership
  3. Money and Community
  4. The Expansive Powers of Identity

The music industry, like all other forms of media, is undergoing such a massive tectonic shift that we’re only beginning to now see how big the fissures are. The most interesting thing will be how these changing power paradigms affect the music coming out, and the communities which are built around the material.

Stay tuned!


Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business!

Blogging: One Month In—A Retrospective

Today marks one month since I started blogging every day, and man has it been a long month. Though long doesn’t necessarily mean bad, and in the last few weeks I’ve found myself able to talk about a number of topics that might not have occurred to me otherwise. True, a lot of my posts have been on topics like music and tech that I continually follow, but the desire to write every day has enabled me to streamline my thoughts into a more digestible format.

In the last month, I’ve discussed numerous things in the music and tech space, including:

Yet I’ve found myself able to write about things that otherwise would seem unimportant, had I not had a goal to write every day. I’m not sure writing posts on writer’s block, on singing, art, and on concepts of passion would ever have occurred to me without the goal to produce new material:

Perhaps the most intriguing thing that’s happened though is how my desire to write has only become more engrained in me. I’ve always been a writer—essays, journalism, poetry, and research papers always came fairly easily to me, and even provided a sense of enjoyment most times. But now my writing has taken on a whole new dynamic in my life.

In fact, it mirrors what artists tell me when I ask why they choose the tough path of day jobs and long nights on the road: “I do it because just like I wake up every morning and need to breathe, I need to play music.” And that’s how writing is to me now. I wake up ever morning and need to breathe, and then I need to write.

An Artistic Analysis of Four Tech Investors

Seeing the World Through Artistic Eyes

Part of being an art student is that you inevitably see art everywhere, whether it’s meant to be noticed as art or not. This goes for anything—drawings, graffiti, cars, apps—and most recently for me, Twitter profile avatars.

Twitter avatar profile pictures of Fred Wilson (top left), Brad Feld (top right), Hunter Walk (bottom left), and Marc Andreessen (bottom right)

Twitter avatar profile pictures of Fred Wilson (top left), Brad Feld (top right), Hunter Walk (bottom left), and Marc Andreessen (bottom right)

As I was scrolling through my feed the other day, I saw a number of avatars go by, and my resulting thought process surprised even me—I thought wouldn’t it be cool to analyze those the way I used to analyze art pieces for my art history classes (well, cool is relative I suppose, but I’m an art nerd, so there). So that’s what today’s post is about: no talk of music, apps, or any major tech trends. Just an artistic analysis of the profile avatars of four tech investors. I wasn’t sure exactly how to order these, but I decided it would interesting to go according to an art history timeline, rather than simply by alphabetical order. Let the analyzing begin.

Fred Wilson

Fred Wilson‘s Twitter avatar is one of my favorites from an artistic perspective because of its striking power. I look at Wilson’s picture, which sets a large facial portrait against a lime-green background, and think immediately of the work of modern Austrian painter Egon Schiele (something which I’ve tweeted about numerous times). For those unfamiliar with Schiele’s work, he redefined the concept of portraiture in the early 20th century by daring to accentuate bodily features way outside their normal proportions. Some common aspects of Schiele’s work are overly-large eyes, and a strong, set jawline, usually defined by a sharp contour, which can clearly be seen in his pieces “Self Portrait” (1910) and “Self Portrait with Physalis” (1912).

Egon Schiele; left:

Egon Schiele; left: “Self Portrait” (1910); right: Self Portrait with Physalis” (1912)

Looking at Wilson’s picture, the enlarged eyes and clearly defined jawline fit the mold of Expressionism which Schiele helped to pioneer. The eyes are deep-set—almost sunken—but with a gleam that seems to burst from the canvas, made even brighter by the bold green that encapsulates the pupils. The cut jawline is mirrored at the top of the piece by raw, almost rugged strokes of brown making up Wilson’s hair. Yet while the zig-zag strokes chisel the top of the portrait in an almost sculpted way, the slight waviness of the hair on either side of Wilson’s heads help to capture a curved smoothness which bleeds out into the dynamism of the green background.

Fred Wilson Twitter avatar

Fred Wilson Twitter avatar

The life of the piece, though, is centered in the eyes, and the cheeks. The eyes swirl knowingly—disjointed only by the large space between them. The cheeks meanwhile, glow warmly with the only hot colors on the canvas: a roughly hewn pink which darkens towards the face’s edges. Even the the portions of the piece where the paint seems too thin are almost indicative of Schiele’s practice of leaving paintings unfinished. Collectively, Wilson’s avatar contains deep traces of Expressionism roots, though nodding to a lighter palette than was typically used in Europe at the time.

It’s also worth noting, however, that Schiele is not the only art master represented. Henri Matisse seems to make an appearance as well, mostly in the nose-area. While the nose seems almost too large for the face surrounding it, it nonetheless conjures up images of Matisse’s “Portrait of Madame Matisse (The green line)” (1905), or even his “Self-Portrait in a Striped T-shirt” (1906). Intentional or not, I nonetheless look at Wilson’s picture and see Schiele’s Expressionism and Matisse’s Fauvism and Modernism.

Henri Matisse; left:

Henri Matisse; left: “Portrait of Madame Matisse (The green line)” (1905); right: “Self-Portrait in a Striped T-shirt” (1906)

Brad Feld

Brad Feld‘s picture is similar to Wilson’s in that it’s a painted portrait. That, however, is where the artistic similarities end. Whereas Wilson’s piece drips of early 20th century Expressionism and Fauvism, Feld’s portrait exhibits a more mid-century style. The thinner mouth and quirky glasses add a Pop Art flavor to the portrait, a fact that’s exacerbated by the bright greens and purples that play through both the back and foreground.

Brad Feld Twitter avatar

Brad Feld Twitter avatar

While still set amid deeply defined contours, Feld’s jawline is nonetheless more curved and flowing than Wilson’s, and with the light stream of pink that follows the chin-line, Feld’s smile is captured perfectly. The curvature of the lower half of the portrait plays on the wavy strands of hair which sit at the top, floating in a controlled messiness which adds a sense of jubilance to the work.

The most striking feature, though, is Feld’s eyeline. Encased in straight-edged square glasses, the eyeline cleanly divides the portrait into two halves, thereby introducing a sense of order into an otherwise happy-go-lucky piece. The Andy Warhol-esque psychedelic color-scheme in the background is indicative of mid-’60s Pop, as is Feld’s mauve shirt collar. Seemingly taking direction from color-schemes like that in Warhol’s “Marilyn Monroe” (1962), Feld’s avatar bleeds with a real ’60s flavor.

Andy Warhol;

Andy Warhol; “Marilyn Monroe” (1962)

Of particular note, though, is Feld’s smile, which reminds me of pieces by a famous Pop artist, though not one the mainstream is too familiar with. James Rosenquist emerged separately from Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, but is notable for his use of “the grin,” which can be clearly seen in the baby portion of “F-111” (1964-65) and in President Kennedy’s smile in “President Elect” (1960-61). The grin which plays through Rosenquist’s pieces finds a home in Feld’s piece as well, framing the portrait in visions of Pop from all styles of the decade.

James Rosenquist; top:

James Rosenquist; top: “President Elect” (1960-61); bottom: “F-111” (1964-65)

Hunter Walk

Hunter Walk‘s Twitter avatar isn’t hard to place; one look at it and the first thing any art student or aficionado would think is Roy Lichtenstein. The cartoonish quality of Walk’s picture is not only evident, but is the main focus of the piece itself. Whereas the previous pictures exhibited more subtle elements of the art movements which seem to be at play in them, here there is no question. The animated nature of the piece has a disarming effect on the viewer, making Walk’s smile seem all the more friendly.

Hunter Walk Twitter avatar

Hunter Walk Twitter avatar

Much like Lichtenstein’s “Drowning Girl” (1963), Hunter Walk is portrayed in a series of curves and flowing lines. Though obviously different subject matter than the aforementioned painting, there is nonetheless a similar ebb and flow that connects the two. Walk’s hairline is jagged only in certain spots, leaving the rest to create a circular movement around his head. The dynamism that this movement contributes to the piece cannot be understated because it is precisely mirrored by his shoulders and neck tilt.

Roy Lichtenstein;

Roy Lichtenstein; “Drowning Girl” (1963)

Rather than appearing stilted and set, Walk seems to lean into the movement, adding to its run through the picture. Even the shadowing of his beard and smile accentuate the flow of the centripetal movement. The darker shade of gray used for the beard moves along the face smoothly in some areas, and yet is cut sharply in others, much like the movement of waves splashing up against a cliff. The smile, meanwhile, is simple, but creates an eddie around which the flowing contours of the beard and facial lines must move.

Perhaps most interesting of all, though, is the way in which Walk’s beard in the piece seems to harken back to Lichtenstein’s common use of pointillism. While clearly one solid color throughout, Walk’s beard is nonetheless styled and colored in such as way as to appear to be more individualized than it really is. When compared to Lichtenstein’s oil piece “I Can see the Whole Room…and There’s Nobody in It!” (1963), Walk’s avatar seems to take on a different sense of shadow. As the man in Lichtenstein’s painting is lightly shadowed along his face to create a deeper perspective, so too does Walk’s beard in his avatar create for him.

Roy Lichtenstein;

Roy Lichtenstein; “I Can See the Whole Room…and There’s Nobody in It!” (1963)

Marc Andreessen

Perhaps the most post-modern piece of the four is Marc Andreessen‘s avatar, done in a way which most would describe as “South Park-ish” owing to its cut-and-paste style. While this is actually a good description based on South Park popularizing the cut-and-paste style in the last couple decades, it begs the question of what does that mean artistically? Is it just a cartoon? If so, why doesn’t it look like Hunter Walk’s Twitter avatar, which also exhibits a clear, cartoonish quality?

Andreessen’s avatar is a mix of post-modern, cut-and-paste qualities, but it also employs a sense of Pop which is prevalent in the other avatars. The sharp, clean lines cast the picture in brisk light, asserting that it’s so simple, there must not be anything under the surface. But there is.

Marc Andreessen Twitter avatar

Marc Andreessen Twitter avatar

The cartoonish Pop quality hides the other influences which dance through the piece. The basic oval-shaped hands, straight-line eyebrows and simple circular head harken back to the bare-bones approach towards geometry of Cubism, while the flat, cut-and-paste quality is indicative of the Superflat movement. As Cubists like Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris attempted to unravel the notions of geometry in art, so too did post-modern artists like Takashi Murakami desire to understand depth in a different way.

Right: Pablo Picasso;

Right: Pablo Picasso; “Girl Before a Mirror” (1932); left: Juan Gris; “Harlequin with Guitar” (1919)

The simple, circular curvature of Andreessen’s head in the avatar seem to mirror the circular head of the girl in Picasso’s “Girl Before a Mirror” (1932), while his egg-shaped eyes mirror those of the man in the Juan Gris painting, “Harlequin with Guitar” (1919). The flat quality of the avatar, however, jumps almost a hundred years forward, to the Superflat movement of the 2000s, pioneered by Murakami. As Murakami explored the flatness that depth could have in pieces like 2001’s “Tan Tan Bo,” so too does Andreessen’s avatar explore concepts of flatness and depth (perhaps without even knowing it). In its exploration of depth and geometry, Andreessen’s avatar is thus more artistic than it initially appears.

Takashi Murakami;

Takashi Murakami; “Tan Tan Bo” (2001)

Art and Tech Intertwined

Though these are just four analyses of four Twitter avatar’s it’s become clear that art and tech are more closely intertwined than perhaps initially thought. This might explain why I see pieces by Basquiat and other artists come up so often in the tech industry. But it may be even simpler than that—it may simply be that art resonates with people in the tech industry precisely because they are also in the business of creating as much as painters and sculptors are. Or maybe they just like how it looks, that’s a valid point too. In the end what matters is what you see when you look at pieces and avatars like this. For me, I see art that is deeper than what’s on the surface. What do you see?

Studies on Van Gogh’s “Ravine”

The Setting

Vincent Van Gogh’s Ravine (1889) sits in the Impressionist Room of the Boston MFA, a breathtaking work of cool, subdued colors and broad-brushstroke technique. Set in a bright room under light cascading and reflecting off the other Impressionist works, Van Gogh’s Ravine is not immediately eye-catching. In contrast to the other works in the room by Signac, Renoir, and Monet, Van Gogh’s piece, though painted in the same Impressionist style, is not done in bright fluttering colors, but in cool tones of grays and blues that provide a more subtle feeling upon viewing. While the Renoir pieces to its right and left rely on heavy pinks, oranges, reds, and yellows, Van Gogh’s Ravine seems almost to hide from the eye at first, rather drawing its power from its simple and subdued cool impressions.

Van Gogh's "Ravine"; 1889; image courtesy of the MFA

Van Gogh’s “Ravine”; 1889; image courtesy of the MFA, Boston, MA

Utilizing the full spectrum of cool tones to paint the ravine walls, Van Gogh creates an undersea aura as he decorates the gray ravine walls with splashes of green, blue, and white. As the charcoal-gray tones set the backdrop for the ravine, Van Gogh’s introduction of the blues over it breathes into the work a sense of depth without which it would seem plain and flat.

A Clever Eye-Line and Clearly Cut Contours

Van Gogh illustrates for the viewer an eye-line looking directly along the ravine’s bottom, as if one were standing in the ravine itself. With his use of gray and black to sketch the cuts of the ravine walls, Van Gogh starts to depict for the viewer the illusion of a three-dimensional landscape. Yet if Van Gogh were to have used his blacks and grays exclusively, his illusion of a three-dimensional scape would not have been as effective as it is. By introducing blues and whites, Van Gogh takes his three-dimensional construction steps further. The navy coloring along the edges of the river carves out the path the flowing water takes as it winds its way through the canyon, and his use of grungier and brighter whites along the ravine walls creates for the viewer a sense of movement in the water.

Curvature of the river's cared out path

Curvature of the river’s cared out path

 

Movement Through Color

With the water movement outlined through his masterful use of blues and whites, Van Gogh then turns his brush towards giving the rushing body a depth for the viewer’s eye. Contributing sea-greens to the rushing bend of the water in the foreground of the painting, Van Gogh succeeds in creating for the viewer the illusions of depths of water flowing over one another, as the surface rushes and crash into bursts of white and light gray along the sides of the ravine. Indeed, Van Gogh uses particular colors to cut contours as well; his use of black (rather than a use of navy or gray) to cut out the small recess in the foreground of the painting makes the recess all the more stark and powerful, contributing to the overall movement-aesthetic of the work.

But perhaps Van Gogh’s greatest triumph in his color-usage in Ravine is the way he uses his colors to create movement and power in other areas besides the river. In the top recesses of the painting, Van Gogh uses lighter blues over grungier whites and splashes of navy to create the same moving sky as in many of his paintings. Indeed, the movement in the sky seems to mimic that seen in The Starry Night (1889). More than that, though, the sky seems to mimic the water of the river: the light sky-blues laid over the navy’s and whites create a rippling effect evocative of light on water.

The light-blue rippling sky above the ravine

The light-blue rippling sky above the ravine

With the sky rippling above, Van Gogh sets about creating the walls of the ravine. There, sharp contours of black cut in mismatched and jagged patterns alongside gray rock-faces and navy shadows. The most striking thing about the way that Van Gogh paints the ravine walls is the strokes with which he does it; rather than straight lines intersecting at random points, Van Gogh uses swirling brushstrokes to create a flowing downward motion and feeling, opting only to create a few jagged protrusions toward the ravine’s bottom. In doing so, Van Gogh presents the walls of the ravine not as entities separate from the river and sky, but as similar parts of the same whole.

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The flowing sea-like plants on the ravine’s wall, right side

 

The flowing sea-like plants on the ravine's wall

The flowing sea-like plants on the ravine’s wall, left side

Upon the ravine walls, Van Gogh paints flowing canyon plants in red-oranges and sea-greens, with the plants having the added effect of resembling sea anemones and underwater seaweed. By adding such unique plants to the sides of the already flowing walls of the ravine, Van Gogh completes his creation of a marine world within the walls of the ravine. As if mirroring the flowing currents of an ocean or river, the waving plants dot the upper sides of the canyon walls, creating a “pop” for the viewer with their bright colors against the backdrop of the gray-blue-white walls.

Little Eddies of Stillness

Perhaps the greatest expression of movement with color in the painting, though, is Van Gogh’s use of dark grays and white to create boulders in the bottom portions of the work. In using such colors coupled with his curved brushstrokes, Van Gogh creates portions of the painting that act as metaphorical voids of movement; these voids are perhaps the only “stable” parts of the work, and in turn starkly contrast with the portions of the painting where real movement flows. For example, the boulders in the lower left-hand corner of the painting exhibit a very different type of brushstroke than that used to depict the plants and river around them. With their curved, almost subdued brushstrokes, the boulders create a break in the movement of the brushstrokes around them. Like an eddy in a river disrupting the initial inertia of the river’s flow, the boulders serve as barriers against which the movements of Van Gogh’s other brushstrokes crash.

The boulders in the lower left corner, providing a stillness

The boulders in the lower left corner, providing a stillness

With his brushstrokes long, loose, and flowing and his paint thickly applied, Van Gogh adds to Ravine the same feeling and effect as exhibited in his more famous works such as The Starry Night and Bedroom in Arles (1888). As in his painting The Starry Night, Van Gogh utilizes the technique of dividing the painting into sections, with each ravine wall making up a triangular section and the sky completing the final area.

Black and White

Still, though, one of the most intriguing aspects of the painting is not Van Gogh’s usage of marine and tropical colors, but his use of black and white. Indeed, Van Gogh uses white as a true color rather than a place holder, making use of different shades, with bright white “popping” off the walls of the ravine and the surf in the middle of the work, and a more subdued white blending with the blues in the sky. Van Gogh addressed this notion of black and white color usage in a letter to Émile Bernard in June 1888, stating, “I am going to put the black and the white, just as the color merchant sells them to us, boldly on my palette and use them just as they are” (Chipp, Theories of Modern Art, 1968, p. 32).

Black strokes blended with the greens and blues

Black strokes blended with the greens and blues

True to his declaration in his letter, Van Gogh uses the colors black and white as real colors in the work, not simply as backdrop colors to make the other colors of the painting appear more vivid. Rather than using black simply to define the lines and contours, Van Gogh blends black strokes in the with green plants, using it to add shadow and depth to the motion and flow of the plants along the ravine walls. Similarly, rather than using white to create a simple void on the canvas where other colored paint colors do not appear, Van Gogh blends in in the with river movements and the along the lower cliff faces, creating the rush of the surf crashing along the canyon walls.

Marine World

With his usage of broad brushstrokes, thickly applied paint, subdued colors mixed with brighter “popping” ones, compartmentalization within the painting, and rippling movement, Van Gogh’s Ravine is a brilliant tapestry of masterful techniques. Creating an almost marine-like world in the middle of a ravine, Van Gogh plays with something as basic as the setting of the painting, while at the same time still delivering strong movement through broad strokes (the river and the canyon walls) around areas of rest (the boulders). In pulling all of these aspects together, Van Gogh experiments not only with the nature of flow and movement, but also with the effects of particular colors upon those very motions.

Why Music Journalism Bias Works

A Shopworn Adage

When I began music blogging, one of the first things I heard repeated over and over was the phrase, “you need to be unbiased in your journalism.” I heard it even more when I shifted my focus from writing about artists that everyone already knew about to ones that people should know about. As I retuned my radar (under the moniker Underground Takeover) to scan for artists that were up and coming, I noticed that the skepticism became more palpable; it seemed that writing a post slamming a new artists—being “unbiased”—was somehow a badge of honor that marked one as “a real journalist.” Yet something didn’t fit.

Me with Those Mockingbirds at The Middle East in Cambridge, MA, 3/9/14

Me with Those Mockingbirds at The Middle East in Cambridge, MA, 3/9/14

The shopworn adage that music journalists should be and need to be unbiased when reviewing music doesn’t work in practice simply because it’s based upon a flawed premise. Non-bias works well in coverage of politics and economics—however, it does not work well within the realm of music and art. Music is an individualized, subjective response to the world or to life by each respective artist. It is a contradiction in terms to try to judge that individualized, subjective response by an impersonal, objective standard, even assuming that we could agree on what that standard is. In addition to that internal contradiction, the fact is that so-called “objective” music journalism is unenjoyable to read either by the music fan or by the artist. Indeed, I didn’t—and still don’t—like writing negative music journalism. Concluding that a work of music is either “great” or “terrible,” or somewhere in between, fails to provide the reader with an understanding of the artist’s intent, or worldview, or what the artist was seeking to express by his or her creation.

Music At Its Core

At its very core, music is simply another form of art; an expression by one or more creative minds of how they see and interact with the world. As with all forms of art, you either like something or you don’t. You may like it somewhat, or it may grow on you after a period of time. All of these possibilities have nothing to do with how “good” or “bad” something is. Within the context of art, concepts of “good” and “bad” don’t exist. How can they? I’m not much of a Rolling Stones fan, but there are a ton of people who are. I’d prefer to listen to a Wipers album (if you know who the Wipers are, then I’m impressed), but my preference doesn’t make me right or wrong.

What I learned from my days in music journalism is that, regardless of what one might glean from watching Almost Famous or reading Rolling Stone, today’s world with the internet and plethora of music blogs and journalists has brought about the democratization of music journalism. This has created a new view of music journalists within the music community, both by artists and by journalists as well. This new perspective is that if you write negative pieces, you’re just some fool with a laptop and internet connection; but if you write positive pieces, then you become a credible news source. And amazingly, this new understanding of music journalism is held as much by music fans as by the artists themselves. After all, when someone attacks an artist I love as “derivative” and “overdriven,” then that journalist attacks me by extension, an action which does not engender a positive feeling in me for the writer.

Me with Sunshine & Bullets at Smith's Olde Bar in Atlanta, GA, 7/5/14

Me with Sunshine & Bullets at Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta, GA, 7/5/14

I expect that the established music journalism world will say that without articles ripping new album releases, music fans will be unable to know what’s “good” and what’s not. But as demonstrated already, that line of thinking is flawed in itself since the notions of “good” and “bad” don’t exist within the confines of art at all. You either like something or you don’t—”good” or “bad” simply don’t enter into the equation. (Outside the scope of music journalism, interestingly enough, Marc Andreessen makes a similar point about journalism in general in the new age here, when he spoke last year at Stanford).

I do not advocate for writing positive pieces about music one doesn’t like. If you don’t like a piece of music, it’s impossible to fake a positive review written well enough to fool a reader. Thus it becomes clear that one should write about the music that really resonates with one’s personal tastes. Don’t write rap music journalism if you’re a punk fan. But the flip side is also true: when you’re writing about something you absolutely love and can barely contain yourself long enough to lay the words down on paper because you’re dying to get back to that song again—well your audience can also tell that, and from my experience, that’s when you have them hooked.

Don’t Be “The Enemy”

The added benefit to writing positive pieces about music you like is that you very quickly begin to develop relationships with those very artists. You will no longer be held at arm’s length—as “the enemy” portrayed in Almost Famous. Instead, as you become as much of a fan as those who attend the artists’ shows, you will benefit from reciprocal artist loyalty in most cases that becomes indispensable to you as a writer. I could never have imagined how much reputation is tied to what and how you write until I started getting emails from friends of friends of artists I’d reviewed, asking me to review or interview bands they knew, or their own bands. This opened me up to opportunities I’d never even considered but retrospectively was so lucky to be able to be exposed to (something that Steven Sinofsky talked about here, when he spoke at UC Berkley last year).

Me with June Divided at Warped Tour Atlanta, 2012

Me with June Divided at Warped Tour Atlanta, 2012

Within my own universe I began to do things I’d never thought of. Writing music articles turned into artists seeking me out to do interviews (and making themselves readily available to do so), artists sharing demo mixes with me weeks or even months before final products were released, and artists asking for my opinion, initially just as a fan and eventually as a friend. It’s a wonderful feeling to see your name in the liner notes of an album by an artist you so doggedly support.

Through all of these experiences, I became privy to things that I never could have, had I been shut out as the “enemy journalist.” Having a reputation as an “album killer” may be good for climbing the corporate ladder at an established music magazine, but it’s counterproductive in the real world of music. If you want to sit behind a desk all day and write reviews that will garner views because of how ruthless they are, by all means do that. But if you got into music journalism to talk to artists (which I do daily), to go to shows and (very possibly) get waved past security backstage (which I have been often), to get press access to festivals like Warped Tour (draw your own conclusions here), and grow a reputation as someone to be in contact with within your industry (draw your own conclusions here too), then I highly suggest reaching out with a positive keyboard to this industry.

 

Thanks to Dad, Charles Jo, Scott Menor, and Terrence Yang for reading drafts of this.

Navigating Swift Currents

As we come to the end of 2014, things seem quiet in the music-tech arena—at least for now. Yet it wasn’t too long ago that things were blowing up between Spotify and a number of artists over royalty rates and compensation practices. No doubt the most famous of these disputes (this year) was between the streaming service and popstar Taylor Swift. In what has come to be known by some in the tech and music communities as SwiftGate, Taylor Swift abruptly pulled her entire catalogue from Spotify just around the same time that she released her new album 1989. The response was nearly biblical.

All I saw for weeks on end was a back-and-forth exchange of words, accusations, arguments, and media coverage between Swift and Spotify. Even the service’s CEO Daniel Ek took time to release a public statement responding to Swift’s qualms with the service. This was definitely a story with legs—it just didn’t seem to die down.

Yet what struck me the most were not the statements made by either side, or even the statistics each used to bolster their respective cases. I was more focused on the amazingly divided response that Swift’s actions and statements generated from her fans. Personally, I’m ambivalent—I enjoy some of Swift’s music, though not all, and would not call myself either a major fan or a hater. When Swift wrote her op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, though, there were immediately a couple of things I didn’t agree with. Perhaps the most presumptuous statement I thought, though, was:

“Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is. I hope they don’t underestimate themselves or undervalue their art.”

This statement, though most likely made with the best of intentions, comes across to many within the music community as narrow-minded and out of touch. First, I readily agree with Swift that music is indeed art; art is subjective and highly personal to each person who experiences it. But art is not inherently rare. Nor should it be. This is an outdated concept that smacks more of a stuffy art-history academic than a modern musician. Art as a commodity, or even simply as a means of expression, should derive value from its inherent existence and experience; economic value is secondary to the very nature of what art is. In stating that art requires qualities of rarity and economic value in order to be valuable as art, Swift thus demonstrates a misunderstanding of what art functions as at its core. The concept of music as free is a notion that I will tackle in a later post (probably more than one), but what I will say with regard to Swift’s analysis is to point out how narrow its definition is. There are a great many artists who distribute their music for free, either online or as free giveaways at shows. By insinuating that these artists are devaluing their own art by making the decision to freely distribute, Swift does two things: 1) she demonstrates a worldview that is essentially narrow in its scope, and 2) she effectively succeeds in insulting these artists, more or less stating that they’re not smart enough to “know better.” It’s been a while since I performed as an artist in my own right, but even I still take offense to the above insinuations. Am I really to believe that Swift never played a pass-the-hat acoustic set at a Starbucks or diner somewhere when she was just starting out? [1]

But back to the response to Swift’s sparring with Spotify. If the goal was to generate a media response, then such a goal was certainly achieved. The responses from Swift’s fans in the general music community were far more diverse than even I would have thought. They ranged from those championing her decision and statements to those swearing they will never buy another Swift album from here on out (of course, the latter of those is hardly a statistic that can be confirmed at present). Yet what I focused on through this whole maelstrom of attention and biting back-and-forth comments was the way it could very conceivably (and most likely did) affect Swift’s fans on a psychological and emotional level.

Music, as stated, is emotional and highly personal. There’s a certain identification that one feels when one identifies with a particular artist, song or album. The psychology of wearing a shirt with an artist’s moniker on it effectively marks one as flying a flag for that artist—they become an extension of oneself—an extension of us. We use an artist’s music as a way to expand our sense of expression to the world. That makes our identification with that music highly volatile. Snap decisions like Swift’s have the opportunity to aggressively backfire (depending on one’s point of view, I suppose). Thus I question the long-term effect of Swift’s actions and statements. Yes, the immediate effect was fantastic for her: sales of her new album 1989 blew through the roof upon it’s release on Oct. 27, 2014. It opened at number one on the Billboard 200 and sold over 1 million copies. But I can’t help but focus on the gripes of those fans who felt personally betrayed by Swift’s removal of her catalogue from and subsequent sparring with Spotify. Are those fans going to go see her on tour? Buy a shirt? Tell their friends about her new album? Probably not. The way I see it, Swift has effectively traded long-term benefits for short-term gains. One thing I know about music and artist-loyalty is that it can be a fickle beast. The possible (probable?) effect of dividing her fanbase I think will constitute a major challenge for Swift to overcome in the future. She will have to spend time, energy, patience (and most likely money) trying to reconnect with those fans she might have alienated or even lost.

While it’s possible that the short-term gains may have been worth it to Swift and crew, I think the next currents will prove more difficult to navigate in the coming months. I think Swift has a lot of work ahead of her, and a lot of damage-control to partake in (ironically, not unlike the damage-control that Metallica faced in the wake of the whole Napster controversy). [2] I suppose only time will tell. We’ll reassess in the new year.

 

Thanks to Alyssa Shaffer, Charles Jo, Mom, and Dad for reading drafts of this. (And to Paul Graham for reminding me that thanks are as much in order for assistance as much as publication of the final product).

 

Notes

[1] Within the music community, the term “pass-the-hat” most readily refers to a (usually) acoustic set where no cover charge is required, and the artist relies mostly on the generosity of the audience to throw a few dollars in a hat or the guitar case to show their appreciation for and enjoyment of the performance.

[2] As many may remember, when Metallica waded into the thick of the Napster controversy in 2000 (most visibly driven by drummer Lars Ulrich), their rabid fanbase subsequently split into those who supported Metallica’s decision and those who vehemently opposed it. The alienation of a portion of their fanbase proved a challenge that took Metallica a number of years to surmount (and arguably one they are still surmounting). It affected both their sales of merchandise/tickets and their reputation within the music community.