Right Place, Right Time- Birthday Week

An Editorial:

For those with a vested interest in the future of recorded music, the long trail of angry comment threads, heated rebuttals, and obligatory over-analysis in the wake of Emily White’s essay, “I Never Owned Any Music to Begin With” appears to have run its course. In it, the 20-year-old intern for NPR’s All Things Considered casually admitted to never having purchased more than 15 CDs in her lifetime while her iTunes collection boasted over 11,000 songs. While owing some portion of that library to illegal file-sharing, White instead attributed the majority of which to hard-drive and CD swapping between her friends and family.

The controversy reached viral proportions in a response from one of the founding members of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, David Lowery, who took White (and the rest of her “Free Culture” generation) to task in a fashion that was both equally soft spoken as it was academic. Reaching straight for his curriculum, the current lecturer at the University of Georgia Terry College of Business did just that – lectured in prose as to how the file-sharer has replaced the big, bad record executive as the great swindler of musicians’ deserved earnings. While insisting that he didn’t mean to “shame or embarrass” White, he couldn’t help but sound condescending in ways that only highlighted the growing generational divide between the alternative rocker-turned-professor and the hard-drive swapping intern.

Thankfully, the viscous yet unavoidable bubble of Gen-X smug was popped in a hilarious and candid admission from Dismemberment Plan frontman and Huffington Post Director of Commercial Production, Travis Morrison, aptly titled, “Hey Dude from Cracker, I’m Sorry, I Stole Music Like These Damn Kids When I Was A Kid”. While I encourage everyone to read his piece if only for entertainment’s sake, the title just about says everything anyone was thinking in reading Lowery’s rebuttal – stealing music, while still at the heart of the issue, is by no means a recent phenomenon.

Photo by Elvert Barnes.

I’ve written a lot about file-sharing for BTR and how far too numerous strands of other seemingly unrelated controversy stems from a total  dismissal of the issue by our society, but I actually don’t have much to directly contribute to the White-Lowery-Morrison line of conversation. Nearly every last possible viewpoint is available in either blog post or comment thread by now. However, the mere fact we’re all finally talking about the unintended consequences of file-sharing does highlight the all too painful truth that, regardless of the reason, anyone making music today has chosen probably the worst time in history to do so.

Anyone who believes it’s possible to get any future generation to pay anything more than $5 for a whole album without making it feel like a donation ought to consider working for the Ron Paul campaign. In which case, let’s set aside the ethics of file-sharing  (since my feelings on the subject are already well published), and shed a more positive light on the matter — one from a more generational standpoint that I don’t think has yet been considered. Albeit, we’ll be changing subjects ever so slightly.

That being, what appears so forgotten in the constant toils over file-sharing is that only because of it’s undeniable influence does there stand any remote chance that the current-to-upcoming generations of musicians may deliver better music and more outstanding art than we’ve heard in decades. I’d even be as optimistic as to say such work may be possibly more consequential than that of the all too lauded Baby Boomers. If and when such work ever floats to the surface of our shattered collective attention spans, we will have no one but Sean Parker to thank for it.

My reasons for this belief derive from accepting the general hypothesis of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, where he argues that so much of being successful has more to do with being at the right time at the right place than we would think. To make his case, he uses parallel examples of outstanding 20th Century innovators in the worlds of music and technology. For instance, the trajectory of geniuses like Bill Gates and John Lennon, Gladwell posits, can’t be explained merely by the fact they were unbelievably gifted individuals. Rather, they were born in the right year to the right cultural landscape in which their natural talents and passion would be most conducive to their environments.

For instance, Gates, who was born in 1955, was given a front-row seat to the technological revolution in more ways than one. His early education gave him extremely rare access to very high-end computers, some of the finest in the country at that time. With that experience and his God-given drive, his attendance to Harvard in the early ’70s culminated in his fully realizing the extent of the impact that such technology would inevitably have on our world. Such reasoning lead him to dropping out of Harvard and starting Microsoft.

Despite Gladwell’s focus on being at the right place as opposed to the right time, for the sake of my argument, lets consider Gates’s birth year first and foremost. In Outliers, Gladwell sites numerous tech CEOs who were all born in the early to mid- 1950s. Though many of them aren’t household names, one only need to look at the story of Steve Jobs (also born in 1955) to realize how much the success of those like Gates had to do with them being born in time to see events like the birth of Silicon Valley, if not supervise such happenings themselves.

Gladwell parallels the story of Gates and Jobs with that of the Beatles, focusing on how being born in the early 1940s made them young enough to creatively digest rock n’ roll’s initial years. This in turn gave them a distinct advantage when playing their eight hour-long sets in Hamburg during the early ’60s (a period of the band captured perfectly in the film Backbeat), in which they could ostensibly practice and absorb the near entirety of the genre’s five-year cannon up until that point.

While Gladwell only really focuses on the Fab Four to articulate his musical parallels, a New York Times article celebrating Bob Dylan’s 70th Birthday so astutely noted how the Bard’s accomplishments can be attributed to his birth year to nearly the same extent. However, the Times piece tends to focus one particular age (14) and one single incendiary cultural event that changed the lives of teenagers in the ’50s everywhere at that time – the rise of Elvis Presley – to explain the same developmental dynamic.

Both Gladwell’s Outliers and the New York Times article can be rightly criticized for over generalization and lacking substantive academic attribution but I don’t think there’s much harm in taking them for what they are: thought provoking treatments on how our origins, environment, and ambitions are certainly related.

In which case, it may sound inappropriate to be drawing analogies between musicians of today to the millionaire rock stars of yesteryear (or merely, anyone as monetarily successful as Bill Gates or the Beatles) considering that the current musical landscape in no way provides such ample opportunity to create serious wealth. What is worth noting, however, at least in accounting for other relative figures like Bob Dylan and Steve Jobs, is that all of these individuals can be considered creatively successful independent of their material success. Even though Gladwell focuses on success by using examples of insanely wealthy individuals, lets focus on the fact that each of them changed the world regardless of the reward they reaped for doing so. (To his credit, Mozart does get a passing mention in Outliers even though he died a pauper).

In this way, musicians of today probably have more in common with the experience of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs than they do the Beatles or Bob Dylan. By this I mean, the incendiary moment that inspired the career path of tech entrepreneurs in the 1950s was the access they had to large amounts of data and technology, allowing the level of their passion to fuel the means of processing that information. Similarly, musicians of today — or specifically those born in the ’80s to early ’90s — were teenagers (and perhaps even that oh so critical age of 14) at the arrival of Napster and file-sharing.

The difference, of course, is the exclusivity of those technologies, in the case of tech entrepreneurs, or lack thereof. The universality of an experience like the internet may only stand to further damn chances of widespread success for the individual troubadour. On the other hand, the fact everyone was watching Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show didn’t stop the Beatles or Dylan. In fact, that was more than likely a motivating factor for them to follow in his footsteps.

So more optimistically, if the presence of a single artist, albeit a figure as transformative and gargantuan as the King, did so much to inspire all of the great art that came over the next 10 to 15 years later, then we can’t we expect from the art of those who have been given unlimited access to any kind of artist of any era or genre?

If Elvis was the arrival of a pelvis thrusting messiah to the sexually repressed, the Internet by comparison operates more like the big bang: an incomprehensible shattering of everything we’ve known before, whose physical nature, for better or worse, may only send us farther into the hearts of our own muses– as differing as they my sound.

Let me end by saying I don’t see this as a bad thing. Sure, there’s a good chance we may never see a Dylan, Elvis, Beatles, or Michael Jackson ever again — in the sense of a true and challenging artist as a shared, universal experience. But I when I say the music of the future will be just as great if not greater than the past it’s because I believe we will each have our very own Dylans and Beatles and Jacksons, and believe in those heroes just as much as our parents ever did theirs.

And because of such dispersion in the leveled playing field (especially in the independent sphere), those artists will have to make a consequential choice – one that will require them to have greater sense of character than the giants whose shoulders only their creativity, not their integrity, will be standing. That question being: If your Sgt. Pepper sells hundreds instead of millions, is it still worth making? An affirmative answer to that question will mean they have to want it more, they will have to be hungrier – which leads us to a distillation of the better half of Gladwell’s equation for genius, the one that matters most for the quality of their output: the passion it takes to make something great.

So for better or for worse, those twenty-somethings with bandcamp accounts may not have been born at the best time to become a rock star, in all the bloated and materialistic senses of the word. Their birth years, however, will have been the years when real artists were forged in the fires of trying times and unbridled access to inspiration.

At the very least, I think everyone can agree that they will have been the best years to be born a music listener.


1. Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown and, 2008. Print.