Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Note From DJ Shadow



Well, here we are again, another year, another decade. Optimism about the future is tempered with a nagging sense that underlying factors causing most of the misery in the world still exist. Lucky, then, that I’m a musician and not a politician.

Specifically, when it comes to the wallet, everyone’s suffering…of that there can be no doubt. And what of the financial prospects for musicians and recording artists in the years to come? Shaky, at best. Unless you’re one of the grotesque ‘Idol’-type pop disasters in the top 5, you’re looking at getting a day job or finding other sources of income. Conventional wisdom amongst my peers has been remarkably short-sided over the last decade: “Yeah, CD sales are down, but all the money is in licensing.” Not anymore. “Yeah, licensing money is down, but the video game industry is killing it.” Less so these days, according to recent data. “Well, the real money is in touring.” Really? When was the last time you saw a ‘new,’ post-record company artist headline a major music festival? At this rate, we’ll be stuck with Coldplay for decades (no offense intended).

Time for a little straight talk, from one reasonably intelligent human being to YOU, the reasonably intelligent reader. As distasteful as it may sound, the fact is that so many of our heroes: Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, The Beatles, whoever you care to name; generated much of their best art in return for financial compensation. If you take away the compensation, guess what…the art stops. For example, how many young rap artists are grinding away these days in New York, trying to get a deal? Not too many, certainly compared to the ‘80s and ‘90s. There’s no allure, no pot at the end of the rainbow. People have been asking for years now, “Where’s the next Nas, the next Jay-Z?” Be prepared to keep waiting…and for music, overall, to keep sucking. Why? Because only bottom-of-the-barrel, embarrassing pop tripe generates enough income to feed the machine. Anything unproven or risky? Nobody’s going to bankroll that kind of ‘experiment.’

Let me be clear: I love music. I love the culture of music, making music, playing music, geeking out over music from the past and present. I love old record company stories, and the characters that inhabited it. In other words, I have learned to appreciate the merchants of commerce as well as the art. If you love movies or cars, chances are you can relate to what I’m describing. What would Hollywood be without the larger-than-life, audacious personalities behind the scenes? What would cars be like if there had never been Detroit?

Gone are the recording studios (including the historically important Plant down the road from me in Sausalito), the record shops, and the music magazines. Replaced by the oh-so-cynical, oh-so-corrosive AM talk radio of the new millennium, the Internet. But I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. Chances are, you may have even been one of those majority who danced on the grave of the falling record companies, pointed to Radiohead giving their album away for free and said, “See, look, if they can do it, why can’t everyone else?” Slowly, I turn…

Every artist is entitled to their own price point, just as every consumer has a choice in what they purchase. Nobody puts a gun to someone’s head and says, “Hey, buy this Picasso for 20 million.” Likewise, if $9.99 is too much to spend for one of my albums, so be it, your choice. But if you’re holding your breath, waiting for me to boost my cool-quotient by giving my music away for free, it’s not going to happen. The fact is that I feel my music has value. You may disagree, and that’s fine. But I know how much energy I put into what I do, and how long it takes me to make something I’m satisfied with. Giving that away just feels wrong to me. It’s not about money per se; I can donate a large sum of money to charity and not think twice, but I won’t give my art away. I’d rather sell it to 100 people who value it as I do than give it away to 1000 who could care less. That’s MY choice.

I realize these are all unpopular subjects. Artists are never supposed to address their flock about such icky subjects as business and commerce. (By the way, and I hope it doesn’t sound disingenuous, but now would be a REALLY good time to express my undying THANKS for your support, which matters IMMENSELY in my ability to retain music as my primary endeavor. As a fan of others, I always used to wonder, “does this artist or group really care about whether I buy their stuff or not? Do they care that I go to their show?” YES, WE CARE!!!!! Now, more than ever). Most think that I should stop whining, grow up and embrace the Internet, become more active, tweet more, hype more, give more stuff away, etc, etc. Honestly, I’ve tried…and will keep trying. But the bottom line is that not every paradigm or system is right for everyone. We’ve all been told for years that the Internet is our Savior; it’s cool, youthful, hip, the solution to every problem, and if you aren’t joining a new networking site on a weekly basis, you’re a social pariah. Sorry…I just don’t feel that way. I’m old enough to know that when 99% of the population is marching lockstep in one direction, sometimes it’s wise to break rank and go the other way. Plus, I simply don’t like sitting in front of a computer screen all day.

I’m not saying that I don’t use the Internet on a regular basis; I do. And obviously I’m very proud of this site and its ability to support itself through the store. Honestly, I just think a large portion of the dialogue and content available online is an utter shit fest: a Pandora’s box of violence, neurosis, bad impulses, and bad intentions. It has become the “Super Horror Show” the Last Poets could never have dreamed of, like bad television on steroids and angel dust simultaneously. CL Smooth memorably called television “a schism…negative realism.” And much like the TV of the ‘60s and ‘70s, you will NEVER hear or read anything negative about the Internet ON the Internet. There’s too much money to be made, by someone somewhere (and hey, why ruffle the feathers of the goose that’s laying the golden egg, right?). 20 years from now, it will be interesting to see what hindsight reveals. I predict a flag on the time-line: when we moved closer to becoming a passionless, listless, hollowed-out society, one in which art and nature could no longer provide the psychological shock to the system required to endure another harrowing day of terror alerts and super-bugs. Music can only suggest sex and violence…the Internet provides both, full frontal and full strength, 24/7. Maximum dose.

Whatever…what will be will be. As long as I breathe, I’ll make music, love music, support music. I used to get in fights at school to defend my right to listen to rap, and I’ll fight on against any institution or prevailing thinking that seeks to dictate to me how and when the music I make is to be disseminated. If there’s 50 of you, or 100, or more out there willing to accept my right to choose, as I accept yours, then welcome aboard…you are my fan base. The rest of you that don’t, and want me to play someone else’s game…I wish you well. Let’s just leave the subject at that and call it what it is: a mutual misunderstanding.

Regardless, it’s going to be a hell of a year. I am working hard on new music, and hope to share some of it with you in the coming months (really!). I’m fully aware that there are many former fans that insist my best work is behind me. Well, respectfully, I disagree. It’s not easy walking the tightrope between artistic validity and financial solvency, but I stand behind all of the decisions I have made to date. What matters to me is that EVERYONE reading this knows that I take my career, my music, and my fans EXTREMELY SERIOUSLY. When I started in music 25 years ago, my mission was to provide an alternative, to expand the scope of choice available to music lovers like myself; and above all to demonstrate a willingness to go the extra mile and put the MAXIMUM EFFORT in EVERYTHING I DO, so that the bar continues to be raised, not lowered. Whether that manifests itself on stage, on record, or as a character in a video game, I honestly feel that I have given it my best, win or lose, and I’m proud of that. I have to believe that your continued support is a vote of confidence, which I take great comfort in as I strive to create some of my best work to date.

I may not be the best looking dude out there…I may not be the most linked-in, the most prolific, the most successful…but I’ll be god-damned if I’m not up there with the most passionate. If you agree with what I’m saying, that so much music we’re fed is utter GARBAGE that insults the intelligence, then no matter where you’re at…the States, the UK, France, Japan, Canada, Australia, wherever…we’re ALL outsiders, and we owe it to each other to band together and fight for something better. Personally, I’m loving the challenge, and when the time is right, I look forward to reconnecting with all of you.

Until then…

DJ Shadow

4 comments:

Micah said...

Fuck yes!

Disappearing Matt said...

YES!

Jishaku said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jishaku said...

Look, I agree that no-one should have to give away their art for free, and $9.99 is a great and just price for a record.

I also think I understand that there's a good deal of pain that comes with being an artist in a financial downtime and a technological advancement that is basically digital anarchy.

But somehow I kind of feel like you're the victim of a transitional period in between systems.

You mentioned that only "only bottom-of-the-barrel, embarrassing pop tripe generates enough income to feed the machine." But with the growth of the internet, we might be witnessing not just the death of the ones who made JUST enough money from this machine, but instead the death of the entire machine itself.

As unjust as it feels that music is being passed around so carelessly now, doesn't it kind of intrigue anyone that this might also mean the end of terrible musicians earning millions through marketing? Of shiny A&Rs making shallow brands out of mildly talented teenage singers, or bands with middle-of-the-road music becoming immensely popular through manufactured images or advertising?

I mean, you yourself said "As long as I breathe, I’ll make music, love music, support music." If surviving in the music world becomes harder work, and there's less money to be made, won't that essentially take the "business" out of the "music business", to leave only "music"? Sort of eliminate greed from the whole process so that only true artists who are intrinsically motivated to be creative like you remain?

I don't know, maybe I'm being optimistic. But I guess this whole development inevitable anyway, since it's all about convenience. Progress will always have sacrifices, like the post office is struggling now that there's e-mail. And it is true that the internet spouts a crazy amount of terrible, horrific things that no human in their right minds would enjoy.

But I haven't actually made up my mind about this yet. Is there anyone else out there who can tell my why I'd be wrong/right to hope that a beautiful phoenix will rise from the ashes of the present music industry?