I don’t know about you, but I started making music professionally right before life as we know it became determined by social media and music distribution became free and available for all. I’m not going to say that those days were better than today, because I firmly believe in DIY as the foundation for anything musically consequential. That’s where my roots are and always have been, so having access to a globally connected, music consuming community seems like a dream come true, right? No more wishing to get signed or trying to please some manager or record company just so you could believe you had a shot at being heard by an audience larger than your friends. Now with the slate wiped clean, I’d guess most artists probably believe they actually have a real shot at going viral overnight.
Welcome to inspiration in the social media/streaming era and the anxiety that data analytics place on art and it’s creators. For me, mystery—the opposite of knowing too much, goes a long way in creating a zone of inspiration where I can function. Feeling like you’re actually only one tweet away from somehow connecting with your idols can crush you as much as it can lift your spirit. But the idea that everything you need is at your fingertips, all the data, the tutorials, all the songs in the world, and all the potential for exposure sitting right there in front of you as you sit behind a screen is totally amazing. But, if you don’t put blinders on, it can warp your entire relationship with the act of making your art.
“For me, making art feels more like a compulsion that I can’t turn off. I’ve always done it and I ain’t stoppin’, even though now I deal with more underlying anxiety than ever before.”
There was a moment before over population on the web, when it was exhilarating to sit down and discover an amazing new artist or trade a great track every day. And it still happens, but more often than not it can produce anxiety, scrolling through playlists with millions of followers, wondering if you could produce a song that would bop along perfectly, generating enough positive data to end up on that list? Or when you see the names of what seem like thousands of new artists and songs every day because somehow they fit algorithmically?
Choosing to pursue a life in the arts has never been an easy road, that’s why parents often try to discourage it. Somehow they’ve learned by the time they’ve gotten older, that dreams die hard for so many who try. I’ve always ignored all that kind of thinking, because for me, making art feels more like a compulsion that I can’t turn off. I’ve always done it and I ain’t stoppin’, even though now I deal with more underlying anxiety than ever before. I have a feeling I’m not alone. Our over populated, over intellectualized and analytical world has taken so much from our fantasies and dreams. And for me fantasy is the language art comes from.
Fantasies and dreams allow you to think that maybe it’ll be your next song that will be the one that people will really dig, that you’re really not alone in your thoughts. That you think what you’re doing is a tiny miracle, because look what I made and feel those goosebumps! But then boom, you’re back in the world of cold hard numbers and trying to figure out how to break through the cycle of streaming anxiety. Of course, I remind myself, making anything of consequence takes patience, persistence and confidence.
Lately I’ve been producing songs to calm my anxious self. Songs that steal me away from all those numbers and help me stay planted in my own dream. Numbers are so seductive, especially when they’ve come to represent respect and love for your music. But numbers also determine which artists are “liked,” they always have and that’s why maybe having access to all this data, could be impacting the quest for true emotional connection and originality. Numbers are cold, passion is hot, mix the two and get lost somewhere in lukewarm anxiety.
“Can there really be an underground anymore? A place where momentum percolate up while no one is paying attention, somewhere outside the streaming universe?”
It’s a fight, but I can’t let myself get preoccupied with the numbers attached to songs or follower counts. That’s where the anxiety comes in, because we are taught to believe in the truth of what a number represents. But now, artists function in this hyper over-analytic thought based model of production; there’s an analytic for every aspect of what we do. Consciously or unconsciously, it seems like artists use that data to make their musical choices. It’s the fishbowl we’re swimming in and it seems like even the most famous of us may be falling prey to stat based formulas. Because of the massive amount of new music hitting us every day, there are potentially enough “hits” out there to have a different one top the viral charts every single minute of every single day. Numbers allow us to organize it all. It’s a factory and that’s nothing new. The thing that is new is how widespread playlist algorithms have become in determining popular taste. Does taste determine the algorithm or does the algorithm determine taste?
Can there really be an underground anymore? A place where momentum percolates up while no one is paying attention, somewhere outside the streaming universe? Or do those things just become co-opted instantly? Rebelling just for kicks? Or can you wage a true rebellion and still be successful in the streaming realm? To varying degrees they are out there, look at Sophie for one example. But maybe you’re like me and have a soft spot for feeling “heard,” and you think back to the days when all you cared about were what your friends thought. Then maybe you’ll understand the fantasy persistently lingering in my mind, that maybe I’ll make something that I can put my name on, that fits in algorithmically just enough and get to feel the rush of getting a hot million streams, really fast.