Thursday, April 30, 2015

For Love or Money?

(I actually started writing this post about a month ago, so please forgive the outdated reference to the time change.)

I feel a little melancholy this morning. One reason may be that it's a gray, misty morning the second day into Daylight Savings Time. But the thing that really seemed to trigger my melancholy was seeing a new email message pop up in my account, one from the Avett Brothers. I joked with myself - "Oh, they are sending me a message!"- though I knew very well it was a message alerting me to a pre-sale for tickets to concerts in my area.

It wasn't until a little later, when I was driving to work in the gray, misty morning that the melancholy really set in, when a sort of melancholy song by the Avett Brothers ("All My Mistakes") came on. And it occurred to me that the band whose music I so love has become a commodity, a brand, sending marketing emails just like Best Buy and Hancock Fabrics.

Now don't get me wrong - I totally understand why it has happened. The music is how these guys make a living and support their families, and I don't begrudge them being able to do that. I also realize that if not for commodification, I would never have discovered these guys and had all the pleasure their music has brought me. So I feel a bit like a hypocrite to even start to analyze their "brand" (but I'm going to do it, anyway, ha ha).

I show a PBS Frontline video called The Merchants of Cool in some of my classes. One of the points made in the video is that popular culture is always on the hunt for something "cool," which generally (to me) seems to come down to something authentic, something that hasn't been packaged by the big companies and sold to us as "cool." The video points out that while a lot of us are satisfied with the "cool" sold to us, sometimes we hunger for real "cool," something that hasn't yet been touched by the finger of corporate America.

The career path of the Avett Brothers could be a case study for an updated version of this video. The band started with two brothers playing acoustic music as a side project to their main gig of being in a rock band. You can't get much more authentic than that - brothers sneaking off to play the music they love, not the music that will "sell." The story gets even better - they met and auditioned their bass player in a parking lot. That was followed by years of building audiences for their music, one concert at a time. They earned a reputation for themselves as having a killer live show, and they put out five studio albums, three live albums, and two EPs on the independent record label Ramseur Records before their album Emotionalism caught the eye (ear?) of mega-producer Rick Rubin. To make a long story shorter, they signed with Rubin and since then have put out three major-label albums.They now play to audiences in the thousands and are one of the top draws at the big music festivals like Bonnaroo. They are going to be musical guests on one of David Letterman's final shows. Their story is the dream for anyone who aspires to be a performer.

Yet, I fear that success has come at a cost. One of the songs from an early Avett Brothers album articulated what some view as the band's mission statement:
They may pay us off in fame
But that is not why we came
And if it compromises truth, then we will go
As far as I can tell, the brothers have tried to stay true to their pledge to present truth as they see it; some of the songs on their last album, like "Good to You" and "Part from Me," are almost painfully honest glimpses into the cost chasing success can take on a relationship. I believe the band also tries to be true to their roots in their live shows. I went to a concert back in September of last year, and the impression that stuck with me is that those guys worked HARD for two and a half hours to entertain the crowd. They sang 27 songs, including five or six encores, and there was no "dead" time or dull "let us catch our breath" moments; they were "on" in every way for the whole show.

And yet....I sense commodification is weaving its fingers around them, insidiously, of course. For a few days after the concert, I had withdrawals (ha ha), so I tried hunting up footage on YouTube (the band has also been very smart in their generous use of online video). As I found concert footage, I began to notice some of the moments from the show I saw live were also reappearing in videos taken at other shows. Seth doing the solo at the end of "Kick Drum Heart" and throwing his arm into the air dramatically following a hard chord. Scott running/skipping around the stage during that same solo and coming up to give Seth a chop-massage on the back while Seth was shredding. A lineup of the band members doing a little waltzing sway to "Down with the Shine."

Why should that bother me? Hey, as a teacher, I have certain little gimmick phrases I use in the lecture on a particular topic semester after semester - if something works, keep it. But I couldn't help feeling a little - I don't know, taken for a ride, maybe? - to find out what I thought was the enthusiasm of the moment in the concert was more like a script. And now I'm getting marketing messages in my email.

I suppose what makes me melancholy is something else from The Merchants of Cool. The narrator makes the point that once marketers find something genuinely "cool," they exploit it, mass-produce it, sell it, until they kill it and it's no longer "cool." Then they move on to the next "cool" thing. One of the Avett Brothers' songs, "Famous Flower of Manhattan," has what I consider the perfect line to describe this:
And people don't ever let you down
Forever find a way to kill whatever life they've found
I guess that's what I'm afraid of - that the merchants of cool will take these brothers and their sincere, honest songs and use them up until nothing real is left and they are just a brand. I've seen it happen to other artists - I used to love Brad Paisley's music, and now I can't stand to listen to his recent stuff because it just seems to be more of the same old "popular" crap that is country music these days. I can't stand it to think that might happen to my precious Brothers.

It's not inevitable, I remind myself. There are artists who have been part of the big music machine and yet stayed true to themselves, and these brothers seem to be pretty grounded. And, darn it, I don't have to be such a rhetorical critic, reading deep meanings into every little thing (ha ha). I'm going tomorrow night to do some more field research - the band is going to be within three hours of home, so I'm bookending this hard year on the job with a concert in September and one in May. I'll see what I can observe, and maybe I'll report back. In the meantime, here's the song that got me started on all this:

1 comment:

Ephemera said...

That's an interesting post. It reminds me very much of some of the things KAF has said about musicians she follows. Some of them have even dropped their label after they felt they were being forced to fit some "formula." They chose to stick with their music rather than jump on the fast money train.