After years of trying to play the Hollywood game, Shane Carruth is finally back with a new film. That news on its own is enough to send cinema nerds scrambling for seats. Upstream Color, which Brian Rafferty at WIRED aptly calls, “beautifully baffling,” and about which Steven Shaviro tweeted, “wrenching, nearly impalpable. Left me dazzled, tongue-tied. Sort of the Martian riposte to Terence Malick? I don’t even..,” is definitely worth the wait. Carruth, who previously dazzled us with the self-produced, garage sci-fi thriller, Primer (2004), spent the years since trying to get a script called A Topiary made, which, even with the support of no less than Steven Soderbergh, never received the funding it needed. He was on hand at the Music Box Theater in Chicago last night and answered questions between screenings of his two films. Reluctant to offer up spoilers and background on the underlying elements of the story, he was additionally thwarted by the audience from doing so. Carruth did say that after all the time he wasted on A Topiary, he’s sold on the independent route he’s been following.
Where Blade Runner (1982) uses memory as the basis for identity, gifting its android Replicants with an implanted past thereby giving them a sense of self, Upstream Color manipulates its characters’ lack thereof. Not knowing exactly what happened to you means not knowing exactly who you are. Both Kris (Amy Seimetz, who, among other things, was previously in Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture; 2010) and Jeff (Shane Carruth, who also co-starred in Primer) have experienced a trauma they don’t recall, and their spotless minds do not yield eternal sunshine. Their missing memory strips them of their subjectivity, which is then built back up again in incomplete layers, juxtaposed with suspicion, worry, and paranoia. It’s an allegory and a love story, but don’t go in trying to figure it out.
The hollow, breathless feeling I always choke down at the climax of Primer was evident throughout Upstream Color. If the grammar of Primer is mechanical, spurred on by engineers spending their off hours tinkering in the garage, then Upstream Color is organic, revealing itself through rote ritual, hypnotic motion, and passages from Walden. Where Primer was wordy, stacked with dialogue and guided by Aaron’s answering-machine voiceover, Upstream Color is primarily nonverbal, a collage of scenes, snatches of dialog, subtle sounds, and spacious music. As a composer, Carruth gave props to my favorite score of all time, Cliff Martinez’s Solaris (2002). Though both are beautifully sparse yet eerily unnerving, his own soundtrack for Upstream Color owes little to Martinez (Clint Mansell’s 2009 Moon score has cornered that debt).
Carruth promised not to keep us waiting another nine years for his next film, saying he’s hoping to start production on his next project, called The Modern Ocean, this summer.
Here’s the official trailer for Upstream Color [runtime: 2:10]:
The last few years have been hectic, and 2012 kept it moving in a big way. I’ll get to my personal stuff in a bit, but first, here are the people, events, music, and media that shaped my year.
Encounters of the Year: I had the honor of breakfast with longtime mentor and friend Howard Rheingold at SXSW this year. Howard has offered me endless advice and encouragement over the years online, and it was a true treat to chat with him face-to-face over a meal.
Also at SXSW, I was invited by my good friend Dave Allen to sit on a panel about music technology with Rick Moody, Jesse von Doom, David Ewald, and Anthony Batt, all of whom I am proud to now call friends. I’ll never forget the look on Rick’s face when I asked him to say grace at lunch that day.
We also ran into Hank Shocklee who was doing a panel discussion adjacent to ours. As the architect of the Bomb Squad, who produced such frenetic noisefests as Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet, as well as Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, Hank has been a hero of mine since high school. He hung out and conferred with us like we were all old friends.
Comebacks have really made a comeback this year.
— Seth Cockfield via Twitter, December 3rd, 2012.
Speaking of Public Enemy, I caught “The Hip-hop Gods Classic Tourfest Revue” at The House of Blues in Chicago on December 5th. I hadn’t seen P.E. since 1991, and I’ve only seen them on package tours like this (once in 1990 with Digital Underground, Kid N’ Play, Queen Latifah, and The Afros, and twice in 1991, once with Sisters of Mercy, Gang of Four, Warrior Soul, and Young Black Teenagers, and again with Anthrax, Primus, and Young Black Teenagers). This time around it was them, X-Clan, Monie Love, Leaders of the New School, Wise Intelligent, Schoolly D, Son of Berzerk, and Awesome Dre. Chuck did a lot of talking and Flav did a lot of goofing, but the few songs that they did–both old and new–were absolutely on point.
Earlier in the year, I barged into Helmet’s dressing room at The House of Blues in Chicago to meet Page Hamilton. In my defense, I was looking for Ume‘s room, and once inside, I asked Page where it was. Before I left, I got Lily to take a picture of us together because people always say we look alike, to which Page quipped, “Yeah, but I’m 105 and you’re, like, 29.”
Coup of the Year: Death Grips: As Christopher R. Weingarten explores in his “Artist of the Year” story on Spin.com, Death Grips showed how to use technology to get what you want, and then disappear before anyone knows what happened. They duped the internet, a major label, and their fans and became one of the most talked-about artists of the year. It goes, it goes, it goes…
The Return of Aggro Rag Freestyle Mag: While Mike Daily has been perpetually busy over the twenty-two years since he ruled the BMX zines, he brought Aggro Rag back out for one last issue before the zine gets anthologized in book form on new year’s day, 2013. The come-back issue boasts interviews with fifteen flatland undergrounders like Mark McKee, Aaron Dull, Gary Pollak, Chris Day, Jim Johnson, Derek Schott, Gerry Smith, and Dave Nourie. Being “The Hip-hop Issue,” the zine also features interviews with Dark Time Sunshine, Sole, and a review of Death Grips’ Money Store.
Daily even asked me to contribute an interview with my friend Aesop Rock, which you can read right here. Big props to Aes for bringing sketchy back this year with Skelethon, giving wack(y) haircuts on tour, sporting the hobo beard™. The steez is on lock.
Music of the Year:
I’ve clearly had a Gunplay problem this year:
Other than Gunplay mixtapes and my usual prog/post-rock fare (e.g., Radiohead, Mogwai, The Mars Volta, Eno, Baroness, Followed by Ghosts, God is an Astronaut, etc.), these are some releases I relished:
Erik Blood Touch Screens (Erik Blood): How much reference to previous work is the right amount? Thomas Kuhn called the dialectic between tradition and innovation the “essential tension,” and Erik Blood has found the perfect middle. To call Touch Screens unoriginal would be to admit you didn’t listen to it. Yes, this is stuttery, gooey, taffy-like pop in the vein of Brad Laner and Kevin Shields, but Blood puts these things together with that third thing, the thing that comes from more than just nailing the essential tension.
“Most of [the shoegazers] couldn’t rock their way out of a paper bag,” once quoth Simon Reynolds. Not so with Erik Blood. There’s as much Loop here as there is Main, as much Anton Newcombe as there is Courtney Taylor-Taylor. I also hear some Can and Neu!, which Blood claims he likes but doesn’t consider an influence. “Though I guess everything one hears is an influence,” he concedes. I could listen to the last half of “Amputee” all damn day. “That’s the idea,” he told me. Blood broadcasts these soundtracks from some unplaceable future, some unknown space out of time.
With a pornography-related concept and a cover reminiscent of H. R. Giger’s painting for Dead Kennedys’Frankenchrist poster, Touch Screens is guaranteed to offend some. Don’t be scared, especially if you like your valentines bloody and your Warhols dandy.
JK Flesh Posthuman (3by3): To explicate the pedigree of Justin K. Broadrick would require a book-length exploration, but let’s try to nick the surface. He was a founding member of Napalm Death, invented and inverted genres in Godflesh, and happily drones in headphones in Jesu—not to mention stints in final, Head of David, Fall of Because, Ice, God, Techno Animal, Greymachine, and Pale Sketcher, among others. Now Broadrick revives his JK Flesh moniker to make some noise that doesn’t fit under any of his other active names. The sounds on Posthuman land between the lines and demonstrate that the disc deserves its own designation. Sure, there are echoes of past projects, especially Greymachine and Pale Sketcher, but this record has a soul of its own. A soul that deserves to be played very loud. These songs need to stretch out, to reach out, and to touch someone. “Idle Hands” sounds like some bastardized, end-of-the-world Hip-hop (apocalypse-hop?), the title track is the theme song to a spy movie with an all-android cast, and the other ones will satisfy your need for a soundtrack to entropy and the heat-death of the universe. No one knows what that would sound like better than Justin Broadrick.
Neurosis Honor Found in Decay (Neurot Recordings): Among the many burgeoning subgenres of post-metal, there is one band that is consistently named as a starting point: Neurosis has been bending and rending metal, punk, crust, sludge, drone, doom, ambient, folk, and other odd musical categories since 1985. Their latest, Honor Found in Decay (Neurot Recordings, 2012) more than illustrates both why they’re the godfathers of this sound and what exactly it is that all of their progeny are still trying to achieve.
On their tenth studio outing, the Oakland sextet gathers together pieces from their storied past to pull off a defining document of their sound. Honor Found in Decay is that rare record that serves the seasoned fan as well as the newbie. It continues their long and fruitful recording relationship with Steve Albini. The ten-plus-minute dirges are here (e.g., “At the Well,” “My Heart for Deliverance,” “Casting of the Ages”). The growling and wailing are in tact (e.g, “Bleeding the Pigs,” “Raise the Dawn”). The bulldozer grooves are as deep and wide as ever (e.g., “We All Rage in Gold,” “All is Found… In Time”). Like all of their releases since 1992’s Souls at Zero, this is nothing less than a monolithic affair.
Not that it doesn’t move them forward, but Honor Found in Decay feels like a summary of sorts—much like The Cure’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief were. And like those two bands, Neurosis has plenty to summarize: They’ve always pushed themselves in new directions and they’ve kept fans and critics guessing at every turn. Honor Found in Decay is just as complex and dynamic as the collective history that created it. It’s as lush as it is loud, as heavy as it is heady, and as mysterious as it is majestic. Your expectations will be immediately reached and quickly wrecked.
Other releases that stayed in the speakers and headphones include Deftones Koi No Yokan (Reprise), Baroness Yellow & Green (Relapse), The Mars Volta Noctourniquet (Warner Bros.), Sean PriceMic Tyson (Duck Down), and mixtapes by Waka Flocka Flame, Gucci Mane, Chief Keef, Alleyboy, and A$AP Rocky. Along with Gunplay (see above), Skweeky Watahfawls, Johnny Ciggs, Fan Ran and the whole Gritty City Fam are the finds of the year. Here they are with The Jam of the Year, “Hunnid Dolla Bills” [runtime: 5:23]:
Video of the Year: Killer Mike “Big Beast” featuring Bun B, T.I., Trouble, & El-P: If this video doesn’t move you in some way, you’re probably dead. First of all, the pairing of Killer Mike on the mic and El-Producto on production is a match made somewhere south of Heaven: It’s dark, it’s evil, it’s raw, and it’s hard as fuck and the record they just did, R.A.P. Music, proves it many times over. Next, we have this straight bananas lead track “Big Beast,” including sick verses by Bun B. and T. I. that will remind you why they’re both Hip-hop legends, and a catchy chorus by Trouble. Then, we have this face-eating, car-chasing, enthusiastically violent video that has them all doing some ill shit (that’s El-P in the mask) directed by Thomas C. Bingham and produced by CFILM1 in partnership with Adult Swim. Like I said, check your pulse [runtime: 9:23].
Movie of the Year: Looper.Rian Johnson is one of my favorite people on Twitter (his day-long stories about his beef with Jason Reitman are hysterical), and he’s finally made his Philip K. Dick movie. Time-travel is a trope I never tire of, and it’s used masterfully here, as in it stays out of the way of the story. Looper features stellar performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, and Jeff Daniels, but the real surprise was the young-but-amazing Pierce Gagnon. Watch out for that one.
Book of the Year: Nick Harkaway Angelmaker: A Novel (Knopf): Nick Harkaway’s second novel is a surrealist noir novel like no other. Angelmaker is heady and heavy, but Harkaway’s prose is giddy in its grasp. It’s a little bit steampunk, a little bit spy novel, a little bit mystery, and a whole lot of fun. As an added treat, I also got to interview him earlier this year, during which he told me of his writing, “…I suppose I have a tendency to use movie shapes — like the Classic Myth Structure George Lucas used for Star Wars — because they’re dramatic and recognisable and they keep you on track. Writing the kind of books I write, with lots going on, you need not to get lost. Structure helps. A story spine is vital. And so is knowing what the voice is, the tone. With those, you can go all over the map and come home safe, and you know it, and your reader gets that confidence in you and settles, so you can take liberties and amaze them. The less secure they are, the less likely they are to go with you when you do something unusual — and that unusual thing is often why you’re there, so that’s bad. They close the book. And once they do that, you have a hell of a time getting them to open it again.” Unlike several other books I read this year, that’s not a problem I had with Angelmaker.
Skateboard Video of the Year: Girl and Chocolate’s Pretty Sweet: You know nothing else came close.
Documentary of the Year: The Unbookables (Fascinator Films): The Unbookables are a loose band of comedians (emphasis on “loose”) handpicked by Doug Stanhope.This movie documents their 2008 tour of the middle of the country, from my own Austin, Texas through Kansas City, Missouri to Peoria, Illinois. The cast of characters (emphasis on “characters”) includes Brendon Walsh, Sean Rouse, Andy Andrist, Norman Wilkerson, Brett Erickson, Travis Lipski, James Inman, and Kristine Levine. The unfortunate star of the show is James Inman. If nothing else, this film documents how reckless behavior can bring people together as well as single one of them out.
The first gig is at Nasty’s in Austin, and one of my own University of Texas colleagues gets the narrative rolling by leaving drugs around for Inman to find, like an Easter Egg hunt with negative repercussions. I was at Nasty’s that night, and everyone killed. It was proof of both why these guys are The Unbookables and why they’re such revered comedians. Night two was a “chicken wire” show at Beerland during which chicken wire is draped in front of the stage and the crowd throws fruit at the comics while they attempt to tell jokes. True to its heritage, the show was a complete trainwreck with mostly just the comedians pelting each other with fruit. Few jokes were told as everyone just made fun of Inman.
Inman’s shady behavior continued through the gigs in his then-home Kansas City. He almost ditches the others as they get fired from the first show of the weekend there thanks to one of Travis Lipski’s tamest jokes. Tensions mount, Kristine Levine joins the crew, and the plot spirals out of control as our heroes reach Peoria. Luckily Brett Erickson is there to save the day.
There’s obviously a lot more to it than I’ve detailed above, but it’s not all worth mentioning. With that said, The Unbookables is a gruesome glimpse into the world of touring stand-up comedy, and it’s damn worth checking out. Props due to all involved — except Inman, of course.
Move of the Year: Austin to Chicago: Continuing the family trade, my girl Lily got into grad school at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, so we packed up and moved from the Tattooine of Austin to the Hoth of Chicago. Thanks to Zizi Papacharissi, I joined the adjunct faculty at The University of Illinois at Chicago. This will be the biggest, coldest city I’ve ever lived in, but we’re certainly enjoying it so far.
Many thanks to Chris Noble at Level Magazine, for which many of the reviews above were originally written throughout the year. Thanks to Tim Baker over at SYFFAL for turning me on to Gunplay and the Gritty City Fam. Mad thanks to Michael Schandorf, Adriane Stoner, and Zizi Papacharissi for making the transition to Chicago a smooth one. Onward.
SXSW can always be considered an extreme example of the platitude “when it rains, it pours,” but this year, it was a bit too literal. SXSW Interactive weekend was a rainy, sloppy affair like I haven’t seen in my few years in Austin. Someone — nay many ones — downtown likely made a killing on rain boots and umbrellas because they were everywhere, and I know nobody packed those for the trip. Once Interactive was over and the guard changed for Music, the rain had subsided and the sun shone again. The outdoor shows that would have been a drenched disaster went on without weather-induced incident.
I started off my own, soggy SXSW Interactive with a quiet breakfast with Howard Rheingold. He was here to talk about his new book, Net Smart (MIT Press, 2012), and it was his first time at SXSW since he was the keynote speaker for Interactive ten years ago. His book Smart Mobs (Basic Books, 2002) was just out then. Lots has changed around the conference since, but the ideas in that book were prescient (as proven by its echoes in Amber Case’s SXSWi keynote this year). Net Smart will definitely send out the same temporal ripples. Other than books, Howard and I talked about everything from the weather and breakfast to life and careers. It was so nice to sit down with one of my mentors for a face-to-face interaction after over ten years of virtual ones.
Next on the list of rain-limited events was a trip to Red 7 to see my friends Jake Flores, Ryan Cownie, Seth Cockfield, Brook Van Poppelen, Lucas Molandes, Nick Mullen, Blake Midgette, Kath Barbadoro, and others put on some free funny. Now, a show like this is a fairly typical night for me here in Austin, but this line-up is like three really good versions of those nights all put together. We had to go through a wormhole to find the back door to Red 7, and once inside we found our friends in the dark, damp, abandoned-warehouse feel of Red 7’s backside (there was some other event hogging up the inside space). Assorted badges followed us in, but most quickly left. The venue was perfect for the material in play though: dirty, dark, wet, hilarious. For those outside the community, the Austin stand-up comedy scene is one of its best kept secrets. It boasts not only open mics nearly every night of the week, but damn funny line-ups on a regular. Jake’s show was no exception. Against all the SXSW rules, we left early to catch Ume at Stubb’s.
Ume played on the big, outdoor stage at Stubb’s, which left us happily skanking in the mud. Eric Larson was out of town, but Mark Turk filled in nicely on bass, even after only two rehearsals. He and Rachel held down the rhythm and rumble while Lauren brought the flash. Fresh off of a Left Coast tour with Cursive, Lauren kept up her supernova energy (this was also only the second of no less than eleven shows Ume played during SXSW). The last couple of times I’ve seen them, they’ve ended with a new song that sounds like Lauren is singing for Kyuss. The track is thick, heavy and huge. According the Eric, the working title is “Black Stone.” I’m anxious to play it very loud on my headphones. We saw them again on Tuesday at Bat Bar with Eric happily reinstalled. Even with sound issues, they never disappoint.
Monday found me getting my Music badge, which I’d tried to get the previous Friday, but was denied. Credentialed up, I met Alex Burns for lunch. Alex and I have worked in tandem on at least two versions of 21C Magazine as well as several years together on the Disinformation website. Alex is another great mind with whom I’ve been in touch and exchanged ideas for over a decade and finally met IRL at SXSW. People say it every year, but it cannot be overstated: The sidebar conversations that an event like SXSW affords are very often its true value.
While meeting in the green room preparing for our panel “What Happened to the Big Idea in Music Technology?,” Hank Shocklee stopped by to say hello. As one of the sonic architects behind the sound of Public Enemy, Hank has had a profound influence on the way music sounds in the twenty-first century, as well as my appreciation thereof. It felt more than appropriate to run into him before we took the stage. Dave Allen (North), David Ewald (Uncorked Studios), Jesse von Doom (CASH Music), and I had done a version of this talk in San Francisco last September at SF MusicTech Summit. At SXSW Music, we were joined by Anthony Batt (BUZZnet, Katalyst, etc.) and novelist and music critic Rick Moody (author of The Ice Storm, On Celestial Music, and many others). This gathering of minds represented every aspect of the issues we were addressing: From artists to fans and from technologists to journalists, we used everyone’s expertise and experience to express our opinions about the direction music is headed as an industry, a cultural practice, and as a commercial enterprise. Ours is a discussion that will continue as long as people love making and hearing music and other people try to capitalize on that love.
Speaking of music technology, the Vinylrecorder T-560 was on display at the trade show. This device allows one to cut a vinyl record from recordings on a computer. It’s like burning a CD, except it offers the “warmth” of vinyl playback. As many times as events at festivals like this prompt me to question what year they think it is (e.g., Bruce Springsteen? Counting Crows? Billy Corgan? We’re only doomed to repeat history if our elders keep force-feeding it to us.), I have to admit that the idea of pressing my own records looked like the kind of useless fun I often enjoy most. Home recording fun notwithstanding, the back-to-the-future approach of the Vinylrecorder is a great metaphor for many of the attitudes represented in music technology: “How do we use what we have now to get back to the way things were?” they seem to be asking.
This is part of the reason we gathered to talk about these issues. There’s no going back. Technology has lowered the barriers to entry, but you still have to be good at what you do. The internet has made fame much easier and fortune nearly impossible. You have to learn the technology. It’s easier now than ever to get heard, yet harder to stand out. Events like SXSW emphasize just how noisy and cluttered the current music milieu is. How do you cut through it all? If you want engagement, be engaging. Show us something. Doug Stanhope has a joke about how you never see ads for drugs. “If you have a good product,” he says, “people will find it. You don’t need to advertise.” No one owes you a living just because you make music (or Doug as a comedian, or me as a writer, etc.), but if you do something people want, they will find you. Rain or shine.
Many, many thanks to Dave Allen, David Ewald, Anthony Batt, Jesse von Doom, and Rick Moody for the great discussions both on and off the stage; to Hank Shocklee for the chat; to Rebecca Gates for coming by; to Howard Rheingold and Alex Burns for sharing meals and beers; to Andy Flynn for hooking it all up; to Ume for rocking everything as usual; to Tarryn Lambert and friends for the lively debate; to Brooke Pankey for braving the city streets on a bicycle with us; to Luke and Abby Brewer for walking nine miles even though we couldn’t get their young selves into a show; and special, special thanks to Lily for enduring the whole week with me.
In 1986, Tony James’ post-Generation X outfit Sigue Sigue Sputnik released a record that included advertisements between its songs (If you haven’t heard it, you probably should. It’s called Flaunt It). James explained the move saying, “Commercialism is rampant in society. Maybe we’re a little more honest than some groups I could mention… Our records sound like adverts anyway.” Though it was taken with the appropriate amount of irony twenty-five years ago, the idea was disruptive. Well, my good friend Dave Allen invited me to join him on a panel at SF MusicTech Summit this year where I heard someone propose — nay they had a business based on — the same idea as the Sigue Sigue Sputnik farce, designed for streaming online… The topic of our panel? The Lack of Disruption in Music Technology.
Audio streaming sites and services seem to be all the rage this year, and whenever he starts a new project with a client as Digital Strategist at NORTH, Dave always asks “What does it solve?” In our panel meetings we added “Who does it serve?” to that. Streaming services have become what Dave calls “the mechanics of consensus.” That is, they all use the same outmoded model (i.e., draw up business plan, acquire venture capital, launch service, place advertising on the free part, charge for premium service without advertising, etc.) as if it’s the only way to do things. This model follows and barely updates the broadcast radio model of the 1920s. As Dave says, “There’s nothing new in digital!” In his pre-talk post, “What happened to the Big Idea in music technology?” he points out that
…when FM radio became homogenized and the US radio stations formed into conglomerates such as Clear Channel, they neutered the DJ. When Wolfman Jack was programming his own rock shows in the USA, and across the Atlantic in London John Peel was exposing young people’s ears to music they’d never heard, they were just two examples of the extraordinary power DJs had on the music business. They were tastemakers, influencers, and filters of music culture. When the conglomerates did away with the role of the DJ in favor of automated playlists they ruined everything. The DJ was the voice of the station and he or she was considered dangerous to the bottom line if they were to offend their advertisers – they had to play nice, or go. The music streaming companies didn’t see the problem that needed solving – the lack of authentic DJs who programmed their own shows – because they thought “interactivity” was the answer.
The streams on these services are controlled by algorithms, and they’re similar on every service. If you like one Norwegian Black Metal band, you’re soon to be recommended every Norwegian Black Metal band. Discovery comes from difference, and these algorithms are based on similarities. They all serve up sameness. How about some Swedish Black Metal for a change? The DJs at KEXP (or whomever), as well as Wolfman Jack, or John Peel might keep you in a stable groove, but they also know when to yank you out of a rut. Dave says that getting up from his desk to flip over a record on the turntable is about as interactive an experience as he can imagine while at home listening to music. Either way: The human element cannot be replaced with playlists.
RT @rebeccagates: read a comment from #sfmusictech about “need to make music more participatory”. uhhh…how about going to a live show?
It’s not all about interactivity though. There is also a mounting wave of social-media fatigue — on both sides. TAG Strategic’s Corey Denis pointed out that some artists don’t want or like to engage with their fans. We often say that a 21st-century art inherently involves multimedia, and while that might be true more often than not, it doesn’t mean every artist wants or needs to tweet. There are as many kinds of artists, performers, and entertainers as there are arts, performances, and entertainment. Some of them don’t require status updates. Social media killed the video star. Where companies and consultants are still pursuing interactivity and engagement, Dave often pushes for more passivity. People are tired of engaging with you, and sometimes there’s just no reason for you to “be social.” From the other side of the fourth wall, my man Tim Baker just posted this piece at SYFFAL about how social media kills fandom. He writes,
As for artists, I can’t tell you how many have destroyed their legacies and turned me off to their works completely based soley on their Twitter accounts. Artists and Twitter should be a match made in heaven but time and time again it is used as a sounding off board for the most idiotic, self absorbed and generally dickish thoughts, or recaps of the minutiae that only someone on the autism spectrum would need to share. Additionally most artists are not smart in the sort of way that translates into short form quick bursts. It comes off much more as indulgent at best, and idiotic at worst. Gone are the days of artists being interesting because they were mysterious and unobtainable and here are the days where modern artists are overexposed and not even remotely interesting. It is sad really that the tool that when used sparringly is so effective, is abused to such a level.
David Ewald calls this phenomenon the “erosion of trust,” and it happens at every intersection: artists to labels, labels to radio, labels to technology, everyone to “social media experts,” fans to everyone, artists to everyone, etc. Why should they trust you with something they can do themselves? But also, why should they trust you with something that don’t want to do and don’t necessarily care about in the first place? Artists should concentrate on their art. As fans, we’ve bought and replaced every format out just trying to hear the artists we love. If the music is good, we will find it and support it. We don’t need your help. As a lifelong music fan and someone who doesn’t use any of the online services, I can honestly say that my experience with music is better right now than it ever has been. Anyway, by design our panel asked more questions than it answered — and definitely more than we could answer sufficiently in an hour. Here are my thoughts from SF MusicTech Summit, collected in web-ready, low-bandwidth blurbs:
Solve real problems and serve real people. Artists and fans are real people. We don’t care where your money comes from.
Discovery is disruptive. Discovery comes from difference. Stop seeking and serving sameness.
The human element cannot be replaced with playlists. Just because technology can curate doesn’t mean that it should or that it does it well.
Social media killed the video star. Be social when it makes sense. Shut up when it doesn’t.
Music will take care of itself. Stop acting like music needs you to save it. It doesn’t.
Sometimes our Earth’s orbit brings us closer to other heavenly entities. Last Saturday for instance, our own Moon was closer than it has been in twenty years. Well, annually in mid-March, we collide headlong into another planet, a clusterfuck (as Buckminster Fuller would say) of talky panels, film screenings, and live shows that is known as South by Southwest, or more commonly by its planetary initials SXSW. This was only my second visit and the first at which I have spoken. The daylight saving’s time wormhole swallowed up a few key things and possibly a few people on Sunday morning, but I’m pretty sure everything I said about last year still holds. The panels are good, but the side conversations are the goods.
My favorite locations on panel planet this year, included “Indie Success: Caching in on Collaboration,” a discussion of creativity and collaboration with Kenyatta Cheese, Heather Gold, Allee Willis, and Mary Jo Pehl. I met Kenyatta at SXSW last year because he was on a panel with my friend Alice Marwick, and I met the awesomely multi-talented and hyper-driven Heather at Geekend 2010 after my talk there. This is how the tribe grows.
Kenyatta is a beacon of positivity. He is just a benevolently inspiring presence. His words are strong yet playful at the same time. I ran into him and Tricia Wang (these two) serendipitously one afternoon on 6th Street, and my day was just completely made. “I am Kenyatta Cheese, and I am of the web,” he opened at this panel, and when the legitimacy of his last name was questioned, he said, “I didn’t choose my name, but I’ve chosen everything since.” Believe that.
The web allows us to create and distribute the most mundane of our thoughts, but getting them to the point of getting them out there is often a large part of the struggle. Heather insists that we need to give ourselves permission to create, and Mary Jo Pehl put it, “it’s so freeing to let go of the idea of quality.” Songwriter and artist Allee Willis posts her creations as they happen. She said that being a happy artist means knowing your comfort zone and getting out of it. She keeps every iteration of everything she does, 42,000 terabytes’ worth. It’s more about the process than the product (This was a common thread this year, as even 4chan founder Christopher Poole said in his keynote, “It’s the process at which you arrive at the product that is fascinating.“) Find the balance to corrupt the balance. You can’t learn from perfection. Let it go, work with others, and release your darlings. This is good.
I also caught a great talk on Gamestorming by the authors of the book of the same name, Dave Gray, Sunni Brown — whom I’d met in the registration line — and James Macanufo. As you know from my previous posts about notebooks, I love attempting to represent ideas visually — with pens and paper. Well, the Gamestorming crew is all about that. They encourage us to think of meetings or projects as games and to pursue them accordingly. James also encouraged creating artifacts, that is, writing things down. “If paper didn’t exist,” he said, “we’d have to invent it again.” I cannot be more supportive of these ideas. I love this stuff.
One of the main themes from last year — context (or lack thereof) — popped up time and again in discussions this year. Much to the chagrin of several reviewers of Follow for Now, and when the web started inflating and people were getting hired as “content creators,” I toyed with the idea of being a context creator. I still think it’s a viable task (I may put it down as my occupation on my 1040 this year), and so does my good friend, fellow traveler, and SXSW partner-in-crime Dave Allen. It seems like the core of what Dave and I — and our mutual friend Jeff Newelt — do is make connections and provide context for them. I see it like this: at its most basic, human interaction consists of three things: 1) contact, 2) content, and 3) context. They can occur in any order or simultaneously, but all three all have to exist in order for meaning to shine through. Leave one out, and meaning leaks.
Historical context is especially important and the most neglected, and that’s the main point of Dave’s post on SXSW this year. Our digital archives are so vast that we have access to much of the past, but no way to contextualize it in time. I am digressing, but this is a problem Dave and I talked about regularly this week and will be exploring further in the future. The idea is also deeply embedded in Tricia Wang‘s work (and subsequent panel, “Sleeping at Internet Cafes: The Next 300 Million Chinese Users“) in on the next internet community in China. As Geert Lovink once put it, “The New does not emerge. It erupts, then fades away.” We have to keep it in context.
Thanks to Jeff Newelt, Dave Allen, and Ume, I managed to see screen-scramblers Eclectic Method three times during SXSW. They do a multimedia remix show that’s like they’re flying a plane, driving a car, and conducting a train all at once: It moves in every direction, and they somehow keep it controlled. Their show on Sunday at the Seaholm Power Plant was huge. Just HUGE. They played the much smaller Pepsi Max event on Wednesday (just before the legend Pharoahe Monch), and a short set at the Austin Music Hall the next night (pictured).
The line-up that night was bananas: local favorites Ume, ‘Bama trunk-popper Yelawolf, Texas representative Trae the Truth, a DJ set by Erika Badu, Eclectic Method with Childish Gambino AKA Donald Glover, and the legendary Wu-Tang Clan. I saw The People’s Champ Paul Wall on his way there and Bam Margera backstage. Bananas…
Ume filled the cavernous venue with their joyous noise sounding the best they’ve ever sounded. No offense to their old drummer Jeff, but the addition of new drummer Rachel really steps up their sound. They’re bound to finally smash the next level now… I was bugging out so hard during Yelawolf’s set that it prompted Eric from Ume to tweet, “It is fun watching @RoyChristopher have fun.” (Favorite. Tweet. Evers.). Yelawolf killed it, and I certainly enjoyed myself.
After several discussions with folks at the show, we concurred that in order to legitimately claim the the Wu-Tang Clan was in the building, there had to be at least five of the extant members present. Well, We got U-God, Cappadonna, Inspektah Deck, GZA, and Ghostface Killah — just enough for the city. They were plagued with sound system problems, mainly screeching mics, but the energy was at a feverpitch. The five of them eased out on stage one by one, exchanging verses, and when Ghostface finally emerged, I thought the Austin Music Hall was done for.
Somehow since last time I’d seen him, Rob Sonic had become convinced that I didn’t love him anymore. Fortunately he came back to town with Aesop Rock and DJ Big Wiz (collectively known as Hail Mary Mallon), and I was able to profess my love to him anew. The boys were in town to rock the back patio at Home Slice Pizza. They brought their friend Kimya Dawson (see the clip embedded below), who made me weep like a baby every time she took the stage. Aesop Rock, Rob, and Wiz did a quick but thorough mix of old and new material, all of which was the toppest of notches. Cannot wait to hear all of their new records (several in the works from these folks).
Somehow, my man Merrick (of Music Impacts — more on this project on the site later) got us into the VIP at Perez Hilton’s party at The Moody Theatre, where we drank free drinks and watched Liz Phair freaking own the place. No small feat considering the size of that monstrosity. We stumbled off into the night not long after her stellar set (which included classics like “SuperNova,” “6’1″,” “Flower,” and closed with “Fuck and Run”).
A ten-day orbit of fun and stimuli like this makes saying “thank you” seem ridiculous, but I must try anyway. Many thanks to old friends Dave Allen, Jeff Newelt, Kenyatta Cheese, Heather Gold, Kerrisa Bearce, Travis McCutcheon, Miriam and Jake Hodesh from Geekend, Aesop Rock, Rob Sonic, and Big Wiz, as well as Lauren Larson, Eric Larson, and Rachel of Ume (and mutual friends Andrea, Jessica, Ronnie, and Chad), for getting me into stuff, buying me drinks, and just for simply being my friends.
I walked out of my place at midnight on Day Number Nine, and I could hear the distant drone of a million bands still playing downtown. You can’t worry about missing something on Planet SXSW, because no matter what you’re doing, you’re always missing something.
Here’s Kimya Dawson and Aesop Rock (a.k.a. Poltergasm!) doing “Delicate Cycle” at Home Slice Pizza on March 19, 2011 [runtime: 4:33]:
Quoting Ray Kurzweil, TEDxAustin co-curator Nancy Giordano opened the day by saying that as humans we’re prepared for linear change but completely unprepared for exponential change. We were certainly unprepared for the full day of potential change she and the TEDxAustin crew assembled in the Austin Music Hall on February 19th: Right Now. Giordano warned us a few times of “intellectual whiplash” when the schedule leaped from one topic to entirely another. She never warned us about “expectation whiplash” though. Right Now was a rollercoaster.
Several people* have pointed out that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Sunny Vanderbeck isn’t after the end of capitalism, just capitalism as we know it. In one giant leap toward fixing it, he takes a long-view that includes responsibility for the world in which business is done over short-term gain. In another, he advises openness. No more relying on sweatshops or sneaky offshore practices. If we make and demand that processes be more transparent, change happens. Change is a contagion. … Ralph Wagner showed us the future of biotechnology, then Robyn O’Brien, author of The Unhealthy Truth (Crown, 2009), showed us how it can go horribly, unhealthily wrong. Here’s hoping her contagion catches on. She showed us crazy data on genetic food modification, pesticides, and food allergy and cancer rates in the U. S. versus the rest of the world. These are not a pretty pictures of our country or its policies. … Runner Gilbert Tuhabonye advised us to do our work with joy. He has done his under many circumstances. He advises joy.
“Language and culture are the software of the 21st century,” proclaimed Sylvia Acevedo, CEO of ComminuCard. Um, I’m no rocket scientist (Acevedo is. No, really.), but I would argue that language and culture were the software of every century prior to the 21st. Software is the software of the 21st century. … Osama Bedier monstertrucked through his Skyped-in presentation with his back thrown out and taught us about the history and presumably the future of payment. By way of comically extended metaphor, he also taught us why the limitations of the Space Shuttle are based on the width of horses asses. It’s a great story, and I won’t give it away here. Gregory Kallenberg illustrated how creative media can bring polarized opinions together with his documentary Haynesville (2009) about a giant natural gas reserve (170 trillion cubic feet or the equivalent of 28 billion barrels of oil) in the backwoods of Louisiana. It’s an amazing story of hope and possibility. … Poet and teacher Joaquin Zihuatanejo brought tears to the eyes and chills to the skin with his starkly told stories and dynamic delivery thereof. If you’ve ever doubted the power of words, look up Zihuatanejo. … After we all got hyped up, Flint Sparks made sure everyone got very relaxed. The bumpers and graphics on the screen between and during the talks were excellent, and I was stoked to see Public School among the credits.
In each of our packets, there was a list of three people TEDxAustin thought we should meet. As most conference-goers know, the sidebar conversations are usually as important as the planned speakers, the serendipity of bumping into the new. As John Maeda once put it, “serendipity comes from differences.” Unfortunately, we tend to seek out similarities, and I found some like-minds in the halls (big ups to Kevin and Paul from M3 Design, Todd the freelance writer, and Travis the designer), but even my micro-experience echoed the larger impression of a bunch of white folks patting themselves on the back. By the end of the day, no one had found the three people on their suggested list.
Gary Thompson has some great ideas about how the internet and the cloud should serve us better, but he’ll have to help Sunny Vanderbeck fix capitalism before he’s likely to be able to implement any of them. Companies still want our information to stay separate because it serves them — and capitalism — that way. … Peter Hall was my favorite speaker by far. He talked about the difference between maps and mappings, and showed lots of great examples. He’s at my own University of Texas at Austin, so look for me to be tracking him down soon. … Lionel Tiger, author of The End of Males (St. Martins Press, 2000) and professor from Rutgers University who coined the term “male bonding,” came to defend the men. He made many interesting points about boys growing up believing they’re just bad girls, but the reason we don’t have men’s studies departments and courses on masculinity is the same reason we don’t have White Entertainment Television: It has always already been that. The study of history up until the last 30 or so years has been the study of men. We’re still doing it wrong, but we’re doing it.
TEDxAustin: Right Now ended with a bit of a whimper and not a bang. Tavo Hellmund was the most “sought-after” speaker of this event, but I couldn’t really figure out why. His talk was on the benefits of bringing a Grand Prix Formula 1 facility not only to the United States but to southeast Travis County, which he’s doing. It seemed antithetical to the piped-in Brené Brown talk we’d just heard. … He and Dustin Haisler should talk about generating interest in their communities. The messenger is the message, Hellmund seemed to be saying. Haisler, who spoke last, has obviously read Clay Shirky’s last book, but not Dan Pink‘s. Harnessing the cognitive surplus to renovate local government looks great on a comment card — it’s like democratizing democracy — but incentivizing it with virtual money doesn’t sound feasible. I don’t want to play Farmville with the players of Farmville, so I hardly want my city government run by them. Incentive comes from within. Engagement starts with the person, not the external rewards.
I left TEDxAustin inspired and very glad I managed to slip in, perhaps with a few of my expectations violated. The organizers, curators, participants, and volunteers all deserve massive gratitude and credit for putting this thing together.
Here’s one of the videos of one of the talks we watched at TEDxAustin. It’s Brené Brown from TEDxHouston 2010, and it’s awesome [runtime: 20:45]!
* Michael Hardt, Mark Fisher, Fredric Jameson, and Slavoj Žižek, at least.