Selling Out

Not too long ago, the New York Times ran an article about the rise of music licensing. It’s an interesting article, and it makes a lot of good points about the growing importance of licensing to musicians’ careers. I imagine if you thought about it you’d probably agree that a well-chosen commercial can make a big impact on a musician’s career these days. Just think of any recent Apple commercial: Would Feist be enjoying the popularity she currently has if Apple hadn’t used “1 2 3 4” to relaunch the Nano? Somehow I doubt it. I imagine, at least, that she probably wouldn’t have been on Sesame Street.

So I agree with the article up to a point. But then the author starts dishing out gems like this one:

What happens to the music itself when the way to build a career shifts from recording songs that ordinary listeners want to buy to making music that marketers can use? That creates pressure, subtle but genuine, for music to recede: to embrace the element of vacancy that makes a good soundtrack so unobtrusive, to edit a lyric to be less specific or private, to leave blanks for the image or message the music now serves.

I’m sorry, Mr. Pareles, but that is just so very much bullshit. Anyone who would seriously allow a thought of marketing to affect their songwriting would already have been writing commercial-friendly music. It’s not going to “corrupt” artists because corruptible artists are already corrupted.

If launching a “music career” is your goal, you’ll begin by making choices that are in line with that — see “…songs that ordinary listeners want to buy…” — which means you’re going to look for some method of getting your music out in front of as many ears as possible. The idea of the incorruptible artist who suddenly “sells out” and begins writing radio-friendly crap in order to make a buck — it’s a myth. Either the success was an accident, and a truly independent artist got “discovered” by a hip ad exec, or the artist was in some sense working toward that goal (or one like it) all along.

Understand me: I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. Writing music for money is no less noble than, say, writing game reviews for money. The whole idea of commercial music being ipso facto bad is something I find faintly amusing. I’m just saying, if you sell out, you were probably sold out to begin with.

Agreed? Great. Now, on to what I really wanted to talk about. Check this shit out:

It took Guns N’ Roses 15 years between albums to complete “Chinese Democracy,” certainly long enough to receive worldwide notice when the album was released this year. But instead of letting the album arrive as an event in itself, the band licensed one of the album’s best songs, “Shackler’s Revenge,” to a video game that came out first. Metallica fans have complained that the band’s new album, “Death Magnetic,” sounds better in the version made for the “Guitar Hero” video game than on the consumer CD, which is compressed to the point of distortion so it will sound louder on the radio. But they take for granted that the music will end up in the game in the first place.

OK, dude: If you think licensing music for Rock Band or Guitar Hero is in any way similar to licensing music for a Subway commercial, you officially have no friggin’ clue what you’re talking about. These music in these games is focal, not incidental. It’s the reason for the game. The songs sell the game, sure, but they sell the game in exactly the same way that they sell the albums they come from. The music-rhythm game is a new method of music appreciation, not some sort of nefarious new avenue of commercialism. To imply any different is to display a very special sort of ignorance, not to mention the almost admirable amount of gall necessary to parade that ignorance in the Times.

More and more, music games are growing into a new music delivery system, no more “commercialized” than radio or MTV or iTunes. In fact, I could argue that experiencing music through a music game offers a substantially greater appreciation for the song, because you’re experiencing it from both the perspective of the listener and the perspective of the performer.

An example: I was never a huge fan of the Who. I don’t mean that I disliked them, I just didn’t have much of an opinion about them. But then I happened to download the Rock Band version of “Who Are You” for a story on Green Pixels. And suddenly I understood why they’re considered one of the greatest rock bands of all time. Once I experienced the song from the artist’s perspective — felt the weird, organic structure and timing of Pete Townshend’s guitar work, the barely controlled chaos of Keith Moon’s drumming — I got it. It gave me an appreciation for the band that an infinitude of C.S.I. spinoffs could not.

Listen well: Music games are a vital new frontier, a way for the music industry to redefine and revitalize itself in the age of the MP3. They’re a way for listeners to experience new music in a powerful new way, to connect with artists in an entirely novel fashion and perhaps even discover a talent (or at least drive) to produce art of their own.

To try to make that seem like a bad thing isn’t just ignorant, it’s irresponsible. New York Times, you should know better.

One Reply to “Selling Out”

  1. I just wrote a new song about my grandmother who passed away in 2001. It was a painful, yet liberating experience to create a song that deals with such an emotional turning point in my life. The song is called, “My Lawnmower is a Craftsmen.”

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