The Tyranny of Novelty

A press release received yesterday afternoon informs me that Ben Folds, Amanda Palmer, Damian Kulash of the band OK Go, and writer Neil Gaiman (Palmer’s husband) will be writing and recording eight songs in eight hours on Monday April 25 at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, and will release them 10 hours later. This exercise, or game, or what-have-you, is part of a music conference called Rethink Music being held in Boston that week.

The album will be released via Bandcamp and, says the press release, the money generated from the first week of downloads will benefit a Boston non-profit called Berklee City Music, which provides free music education to teens who would otherwise not have any.

It’s a feel-good story. So why don’t I feel so good?

Look, I love Ben Folds, I like Amanda Palmer too, and I know we’re in a cultural moment in which innovation turns heads largely because no one knows what’s going on any more. I get it. And we’re supposed to see this kind of thing and say, “Wow! That’s so cool! Get a load of how record companies are becoming superfluous to building buzz and distributing music!”

(I know I’m supposed to say that last part because the press release told me to: “Like Radiohead did recently, this group will show how record companies are becoming superfluous to building buzz and distributing music.” See?)

But I’m not going to do it because there’s a part of this story that makes me sad. We have succumbed to the tyranny of novelty, and music will take a beating until we wake up from this collective trance in which we’re all only chasing the newest, “nowest” thing, in which the only values we can agree upon are buzz generation and viral success. In this environment, a unique real-time experience is worth paying for simply because it is a unique real-time experience.

We hear it over and over again (even though it is not yet precisely true): people don’t want to pay for recorded music. And what is recorded music? Music that has been thoughtfully written and crafted into a purposefully created finished form over the course of weeks or months.

What will people pay for? They will apparently pay for the output of celebrity musicians thrown together to complete the reality-show-like task of writing a song an hour over the course of one afternoon and evening.

I have nothing against the idea of unique real-time experiences, except, maybe, when they have shoved the possibility of thoughtful, purposeful creation off the stage entirely.

If the music industry is struggling and shrinking, maybe it’s not because of piracy after all, and maybe it’s not because of dinosaur business models that don’t know how to change. Maybe it’s because we’re busy finding every possible way we can to foster the novel over the good. Maybe it’s because, led by the harsh visions of this generation’s digital ideologists, we have come to believe in a world of innovation without end.

It’s actually a logical enough place for the music industry to end up. This is one industry that has shamelessly relied on novelty from the day that the wax cylinders first arrived in cardboard boxes in music stores. Fads have been fostered over and over again towards the crass end of selling crap to people who for one reason or another have been eager to buy it.

But as long as there was also the potential for quality recorded music being produced and marketed, the novelty crap was just something that came with the territory. In the future some insist we are moving toward, in which no one pays for recorded music at all, the side effect has suddenly become very clear, thanks to this otherwise harmless trade show promotion.

We are left with music as novelty, music as short-attention-span fodder, music as a means to the perpetual end of pay-attention-to-me.

And yes, of course, musicians in general have always been an attention-seeking contingent. In the past, the music was offered as proof that someone was worthy of the attention they were seeking. And we the audience stopped paying attention if the music didn’t ultimately warrant it.

Now the veil has been lifted. (A certain teenager with a song about a day of the week has helped too.) Without even a little pretense left that we are interested in quality or have any intention of paying for it, musicians are free to seek attention for the sake of seeking attention, and prop the mechanism up with all the perpetual novelty they or their publicists can conjure.

If this sounds like fun for you then you are potentially in for a golden age. Anyone who loves to crow about how the traditional recording industry’s so-called cash cow (namely, recorded music) has been tossed on the scrap heap of bygone products, welcome to your future.

The rest of us, however, may sincerely want to avoid this future. I have no interest in propping up dinosaur business models or perpetuating an industry that has thrived on unfair practices.

But I would also much rather pay for the output of an artist who has thought long and hard about his or her art and can offer an end product enlivened by quality and care, heart and soul, than for the titillation of one passing moment in time, however unique, however novel.

20 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Novelty”

  1. Since I buy mostly studio albums, very few live albums, and probably absolutely no “improv” recordings, I guess I’d agree with the last sentence.

    But, there is something exciting about a new work being created “live” and getting to hear it like you were there when it was happening. I’m looking forward to these creative folks getting together and hearing what they can create!


  2. Wonderfully written piece! Thanks for putting into words something that I’ve been thinking on some sort of subconscious level for quite some time.


  3. The good (or bad, depending on your point of view) thing about all of this is that novelty wears off very quickly. Being “now” only lasts a moment. Whoops, there it goes.

    On the other hand, the stuff that lasts isn’t “now”. Gimmicks don’t become timeless, because they get old very quickly. Let them have their fun. Meanwhile, somewhere in the background, someone is meticulously crafting good songs and building a following outside the spotlight. When the dust settles, we’ll remember them.


    1. Agree with you, Faza. I do grow discouraged sometimes that at this strange and wonderful moment in musical history, we are culturally so distractable by nonsense. So many smart people consciously choosing to direct their time and attention to the artistic equivalent of a car wreck on the side of the road. And I feel badly for all those folks who are in fact making great music that they may be destined to be appreciated only after their time. But I guess it’s often been that way with music, huh.


  4. It’s worth pointing out the phenomena that people often respond (with heartfelt sincerity) to things an author felt wasn’t very good.

    Speaking as an artist – what it really comes down to is doing what interests you – and then putting it out there and hoping anyone cares. And if they don’t – you hope they care about the next thing.

    It’s also worth noting that as the face of the industry shifts, as the world generally shrinks and people become more and more accessible to each other – the things that interest us as artists aren’t necessarily the the things they used to be..


  5. Wait, wait a moment. Are you trying to tell me that Jazz, that’s mostly on-the-spot-improvisation solos, or Led Zeppelin’s live jams, are all “novelty” just because they’re not well-researched/well-thought-out recorded and mastered pieces? No, they are not. They are simply a TYPE of music. Doesn’t make them either good, or bad. It depends how good the musician is. For jazz for example, good improvisation is what makes the good musician.

    Same for theater, there are some of them that only play improvisation plays. My favorite actor, Robert Carlyle, got his first movie job because he was such a kind of an actor. Without that experience, he’d probably still be an unknown actor today.

    As for what’s a fad, or novelty, it’s all in the eye of the beholder. Vast majority of the people in the music industry will tell you that chillwave is a fad, for example. But how this can be true when it touches me so deeply, like the best pieces of art can? How can this be when I listen to some of chillwave songs and they immediately transport me to being a 6 year old girl, sunbathing in Preveza with my family, my originating town in Greece?

    In other words, nothing is “bad” or “good”. They just are. They only become classics, or forgotten, just because different influences in our lives tend to move us one way or another. And the reason why whole genres live and die within 2-3 years now, is because our way of life has accelerated this way, and new influences are hitting us every day. Back in the Medieval times things never changed. That’s why they had the same kinds of songs for 300 or 400 years at a time. But now we’re living in a different society, so just because new kinds of music doesn’t appeal to you doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s just that you don’t have the necessary influences. For example, my husband doesn’t “get” chillwave. Not because he can’t comprehend its structure musically, but because he grew up in North Europe. No beaches there. The music doesn’t speak to him because of that. Doesn’t mean the music is fad because it was made and recorded in a bedroom, usually within a few hours.


    1. Answering your first question, @Eugenia: no, I am most certainly not trying to tell you “that Jazz, that’s mostly on-the-spot-improvisation solos, or Led Zeppelin’s live jams, are all ‘novelty’ just because they’re not well-researched/well-thought-out recorded and mastered pieces.” Never occurred to me to think that, nor do I believe my essay implied that. You assumed for whatever reason that I was deriding all spontaneous creation.

      What I was taking issue with was how we have come to a place at which people might rather pay for a gimmick–collecting musicians together to write eight songs in eight hours–than for music that has been more thoughtfully created.

      As for your idea that novelty is in the eye of the beholder, this is a curious opinion, and I disagree. Just because some things may be incorrectly identified as fads does not mean that fads therefore don’t exist. Of course they do.

      Your related opinion that “nothing is ‘bad’ or ‘good'” is also simply your opinion, and I disagree with that too. What’s more, I look forward to the day when we grow past the postmodern tendency to assume that everything is irreducibly subjective, that there are no transcendent values. It’s a very silly and ego-gratifying idea.


  6. you know why i’m excited about this?

    that is a video by amanda palmer, with a song she says she wrote earlier that night. instead of writing a blogpost to continue a discussion with fans she decided to just write a song. put her in a room with some other talented people with the goal of writing music? that is something i want to watch. is it something i want to listen to after the fact? who knows. i bet it’s a 50-50 split of stuff i like and don’t want to listen to again. i’m just excited to watch some creativity without knowing if the resulting music will be a “finished product” or not.


    1. Hey @sham, I get that entirely. I have nothing against spontaneous creativity, honest! My disgruntlement is actually rooted (as usual!) in the “future of music” assertion that recorded music must and will be free. And I was questioning a culture in which it seems somehow more natural to assume people would pay for this sort of hit-or-miss novelty effort than for music that was seriously considered and thought out.

      I also should note that I think that Amanda Palmer is a singular talent–a musician with a set of skills uniquely well-suited to a social media-fueled music scene. Not many musicians can play in her ballpark.


  7. You hit it right on the head for me. I have been just as clicky and searchy as anyone, and often find great music through this and other sites, ( free and legal ), but I am old, and I am old school.I love to improvise and listen to improv immensely, and there’s nothing like a well crafted song.
    I feel like the craft is disappearing somewhat, like an old fisherman lamenting about the kids not being able to make their own nets.Whether or not the event you mention is part of this flashy sideshow is beside the point; there is a huge amount of stuff and fluff going on.
    I like the comment from Faza ” when the dust settles, we’ll remember them “


  8. >ego-gratifying idea.

    I don’t see why it’s ego-gratifying. “‘Good’ is a point of view”, someone said, although it must have been the Sith Emperor in Star Wars. 😉

    Regarding your main point, that some people think that recorded music must be free. It won’t be free. What’s gonna happen is Netflixism. Ten bucks for a month of unlimited streaming and offline syncing. Already available today with Spotify, RDIO and MOG. This way everyone gets their wish: listeners get all they can stomach for cheap, and artists get paid regardless.

    I’m using RDIO, and most of my friends here in the Bay Area do too. We get an iOS and Android app, we have a Sonos and a Roku app (so we can output the music to our hifi system in our living room), and we have a Win/Mac desktop app too. And when we’re away from wifi/GSM, so we can’t stream, RDIO has the ability to do syncing. You check the albums/songs you want, and you sync them to your mobile device for offline listening. All that for $10 per month. So I really don’t see the dangers you’re portraying in the article. Fad or no fad, well-recorded or improvised, it’s gonna have a price, and it’s going to be cheap.


  9. @Eugenia
    Unfortunately, streaming services and subscriptions aren’t anywhere near the scale in which they can actually support artists’ careers. Folks have been claiming that they are the logical future for the music industry for many years now, and you may enjoy and support the services, but as long as tens of millions would rather freeload their music it’s unlikely these “new models” (they really aren’t so new anymore, are they?) will find the wide audiences they require to scale properly. Also, as far as streaming, such services are beholden to a limited pot of advertising dollars to draw from, which means their growth potential is limited in terms of revenue. These services are part of the mix, but they aren’t the answer. What you might consider is that by accepting or encouraging cheap prices for music, consumers will be getting increasingly cheap music in return – which is how I’d describe the project Jeremy writes about here. Still, better to accept a cheap price than no price at all!

    @Jeremy Really liked the new piece. Reminds me of what Edward Bernays (the godfather of PR) said, that what we call “news” is really just anything that’s out of the ordinary. Knowing that, he was able to draw attention to a product and its substance/value/utility became secondary to hype. So, novelty can be the work of a unique artist expressing themselves honestly or a new product set to change the world, but it’s usually just savvy PR. It’s up to us to sort out one from the other.


  10. >as long as tens of millions would rather freeload their music it’s unlikely these “new models”

    I don’t think so. Netflix now has 22 million households, RDIO and MOG are simply younger and they’re expanding really fast. I don’t see why anyone would prefer to pirate rather than pay $5 or $10 per month to have everything out there.

    >Also, as far as streaming, such services are beholden to a limited pot of advertising dollars to draw from

    No, there is no advertising involved. You pay subscription, just like with Netflix. No ads.

    >by accepting or encouraging cheap prices for music, consumers will be getting increasingly cheap music in return

    No, I do not agree with this at all. You are forgetting that the very reason music used to be so expensive ($10 to $20 per CD), was for two reasons: 1. The CD had a cost, 2. The recording/mixing/mastering had a cost. Today, there is no reason for pay extra anymore for these. Very few people buy CDs anymore, and the whole recording thing is done in a bedroom. As a result, the prices don’t need to stay high! It’s not that the music got worse, it’s just that the tools got cheaper! So why pay the same price? I usually don’t buy any album anymore over $8, in most cases never above $6. In fact, I moved from iTunes to Amazon exactly because of its lower prices. Artists still make as much money, if not more, since they produce all by themselves from A to Z.

    >These services are part of the mix, but they aren’t the answer.

    To me, they are the answer. It’s the only thing that can work from all these strategies that float around. And Netflix proved it.


  11. a few points:

    a lot of people still buy CDs, primarily due to portability or lack of constant high-speed internet access

    More music that artists have recorded in their bedroom is available, but this does not mean that most artists do the whole recording thing in their bedroom.

    CDs are cheap. That’s why AOL could afford to put stacks of them out and mass-mail them. CD prices started out high because record companies marketed them as superior to cassettes and therefore had to charge higher-than-cassette prices. They made enough profit that they never lowered the prices.


  12. >a lot of people still buy CDs

    The point is that the number of people buying CDs is declining by the day. Well, vinyls are still around too, that doesn’t mean that they should have an effect in determining what the next strategic step should be.

    >lack of constant high-speed internet access

    The people who can’t afford high speed internet access, or simply don’t have it in rural places in the middle of nowhere, are also the people who will not pirate anyway because of the same reason. So this is a moot point.

    >this does not mean that most artists do the whole recording thing in their bedroom.

    There are those who are not proficient with computers, and prefer to pay the cash to go to a studio. But most young artists today know how to handle audio apps — that are now offered for cheaper and cheaper — so that’s not a problem with them. Again, it’s a matter of looking at the trend. Old people will eventually go out of the picture, younger artists will fill it in.

    Look at FlickR if you need an analogous example. Digital cameras became popular 10 years ago, the software tools followed, and now we get photographic art from amateurs rather than pros. Sure, sure, there ARE still pros who do art, but they’re fewer than before. The pros moved over to wedding photography to pay their bills, and left art to the masses. Some of this art is free, some of it is free after asking permission, some of it is still commercial, even if that’s not the primary job of the person who shot the picture.

    Art, for the very first time in history, is democratized. This is something to CHEER on and support, not try to keep the old status quo where people buy a CD that their radio is keep playing every 45 minutes, paid by the major labels, who take 90% of what you paid, and leave only 10% to the artist, who is told to go to tour to make money, and who is robbed of his copyrights, and he eventually dies penniless (like most ’60s/’70s acts).

    Sorry, but I’m very glad to see this type of music world die a very painful death. Let the best artists make money by buying their album (and I do, I spent $2k last year in buying albums), but let the bulk, the majority of music art out there be either free, or cheap, made by people like you and me.

    >CDs are cheap. That’s why AOL could afford

    CD-pressing is NOT cheap. CDBaby and others take about 30% to 40% off of the revenue for each CD sold. Digital music instead can be done via cheaper distribution companies (that usually don’t ask for more than 10%), or in some cases, via self-distribution for highest pay-out.


    1. Yikes– the idea that there will come a day when “the majority of music art out there” is “either free, or cheap, or made by people like you and me” gives me the willies. The so-called democratization of art is to me a contradiction in terms. The democratization of creativity: great. Let’s go for it. But worthy art is not something just anyone can do. Available tools do not give automatically give the user the depth of soul required.

      I have no interest in perpetuating the world of exploitative major record labels on the one hand, but on the other hand I would mourn, deeply, the day when all music is produced by people in their bedrooms, people “like you or me.” Very little of what I personally listen to or care about (or feature here, for that matter) could possibly be done that way. Just the same way that I do not want to spend my time reading books written by people “like you or me”– I want to read books by great writers who have something deep and meaningful to say. From my perspective, this just isn’t true of every last person on the planet.

      I acknowledge that this is just my opinion; it’s really nothing to be argued about any further.

      Lastly, to answer an earlier (sort of) question, the idea that nothing is actually “good” or “bad” is ego-gratifying IMO because it removes the idea that any outside authority can claim to judge the merits of something. This in turn fosters a “No one can tell me what’s good or bad; everything is up to me!” mentality which, as noted, surely gratifies the ego, even if it misrepresents reality.


  13. >The so-called democratization of art is to me a contradiction in terms.

    Art is *anything* that can inspire, or create an emotion — bad or good emotion. If a person “like you and me” can create something that can do that to other people, then we’re artists. We might not be Picassos, but we will be artists for a number of people who will look up to us.

    I’m now a filmmaker for example (before that I was a tech reviewer and a computer programmer). I’m not a great filmmaker, by my own admission. But I have at least 3-4 videos out there that I have received many emails for, that people tell me that they were inspired by my videos and the humble tools I used (sometimes as low as $300 worth of equipment), for the result I got out of them. The fact that I used cheap tools to create something good-enough that in the past would take many thousands of dollars, it’s inspiring in itself for many people.

    Same goes for music. Some free/cheap music will be crap (in one’s opinion), and some music will be good, EVEN if it’s done in the bedroom. It’s up to the listener to find the good from the “bad” artists, sort out the mess. In the past, we had the major labels dictating to us what to hear via the radio, now, it’s up to us to find the acts we like. Heck, this is why I’m visiting FT, to find new acts and new songs! If these songs were made by pros, or by amateurs it makes no difference to me as long as I like them.

    Same goes for books — since you mentioned it. Check this book for example, released 2 years ago. It was written in a bedroom. It didn’t have a publisher. The author simply gave it away for free. And it exploded. Does this mean that the book sucks, because it didn’t have a publisher? I don’t think so. The majority of readers on Amazon (self-publishing) loved it.

    Just because someone doesn’t have the moniker of “professional”, doesn’t mean that his art is worthless. It doesn’t mean that he has “nothing meaningful to say”. Doesn’t mean that all such work is crap. Doesn’t mean that art becomes pedestrian. Doesn’t mean that all of this amateur work is going to be free. Doesn’t mean that the most talented artists will never be heard (on the contrary). Doesn’t mean the death of art either.

    It simply means that the tools now allow everyone and their dog to do what they couldn’t do just 20 short years ago. This is *major social progress*.

    >it removes the idea that any outside authority can claim to judge the merits of something

    There is the law to tell us what to do and what not to do. But in terms of what’s “good” or “bad” in every day life I personally do not want anyone to tell me what’s what. I’m an atheist myself for example, so I certainly don’t need the church, or God, or my mother for that matter, to tell me what’s good or bad. I make up my own mind about what’s good or bad. This is not ego-centric as you said, but simply freedom. Freedom to think out of the box, freedom from norms and status quo, or society’s expectations. It would be ego-centric if I was using that philosophy to oppress others, to benefit on their backs. But I’m pretty sure that’s not what I do. Apart from the “bad” things we all do in the Western Civilization (e.g. buying iPods or clothes that were built by people in developed countries in slavery conditions), I don’t think I’ve ever harmed anyone around me.

    The original argument about all this was about good and bad music, and my opinion was, and remains, that there is no good or bad music. There is music you like, and music I like. How can either be good or bad? So for this bedroom-created music, if it speaks to you, great. If it doesn’t, great too. But please don’t insinuate here that bedroom-produced music is [probably/mostly] bad because it didn’t involve $20,000, a studio, and an audio engineer.

    Have a look at these two songs. Made in his bedroom, by an artist that I actually met in real life later, and he told me about his process. The guy’s true artist in the whole meaning of the word.


    1. @Eugenia – I do not doubt your earnest intentions but by now we’re talking past each other and wasting everyone else’s time, not to mention flouting my own comment guidelines. Good luck with your points of view. I disagree with pretty much everything except those various points where I apparently didn’t explain myself well because you have misunderstood or misrepresented me. But no more counterpoints from this end.


  14. Those two songs, while having potential, are executed and presented/sound amateur. They sound like, the visual equivalent of a child’s first stab at writing letters. Like any art, higher art, it takes, time and dedication to the craft. This is absolutely missing. It sounds like a mickie d burger compared too food prepared with thought, care and craft.

    That is what is ‘bad’, the music itself isn’t, but it  certainly it isn’t honed.  The problem with that is, subsequent generations can’t tell the difference. That is the great dumbing down, that is culture going backwards from years of improvement and toil. From the Internet to carrier pigeon. It is easy to discern quality, it is not an opinion, to claim such is to reveal in mediocrity…..or worse.

    Strawberry Fields started in a bedroom at the foot of a bed, listen to it in that form. Thank god it was honed, crafted, thought about, re-thought about and redone over and over. To give us the masterpiece that keeps us interested in it’s beginnings. If he wrote that today, at the foot of the bed and immediately ‘released’ it to YouTube, that would be a tragedy to the song , the artist, culture and future generations as, nobody would care. 

    That is what is going missing in this culture, you will NEVER get the quality/quantity of a honed, creative force like the Beatles in this environment, as far as they would’ve gotten would’ve been the cavern.

    The greatest of athletes need coaching too reach their highest potential, music and the arts are no different, kids putting out music from their bedrooms, sounds kids putting out music from their bedrooms, not art.

    Higher thinking/art takes hours and effort too procure, relative subjectivity against that is the battle cry of the lazy masses chewing on mediocrity.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: