As I discussed here, we’re stuck with a largely stagnant mainstream, because mainstream is no longer under competition from the alternative, the underground, the elite and the plain weird. While it’s true that seminal works don’t necessarily need to be popular to be influential (Velvet Underground & Nico; case in point), counter-culture itself is a lot like guerrilla warfare; while you can chip away at your enemy for a long time, you do need to eventually win a conventional battle to be victorious. Yet when everyone’s tastes are satiated, when there’s no real counter-cultural movements because everyone who would otherwise contribute their input into what gets played isn’t engaged, then from whence does any counter-cultural movement come?

The British Underground movement of the 60s was instrumental in overthrowing the norms of the day and establishing hippie culture, and a whole host of intelligent and highly influential bands. Not all of them were necessarily part of the movement, but once the precedent had been set, we saw an absolute explosion of creativity within rock and jazz music. The same thing happened with punk and alternative rock in the late 70s, and to a lesser extent in the late 80s with the popularisation of grunge.

Is there another side to this? Whereas once music was limited to the radio, occasional TV and their parents’ record collection (or as a function of wallet size), any kid with an internet connection and the smallest of hard drives can explore just about everything ever put to CD at any hour of the day. This isn’t even to mention the huge volumes more we’re listening to music; not only through MP3 players but just by spending more time at the computer than we did before they were, you know, invented.

More important than all of us listening to more music though is that the way we do listen itself has fundamentally changed. From an era of putting on a record and letting it play round the living room, music has become more commodified. Not commodified in the sense of becoming more commercial (although as I have said, commercial music is most definitely more dominant and bland than it currently should be), but in the sense that more and more it’s a product that we consume, rather than a form of art that we actively participate in. When it’s all at our fingertips we become obsessed with listening to it all; from one song we move to another, to another and to yet another. Anybody who has ever listened to their MP3 player on public transport would surely know how much patience dwindles and song flicking occurs. Forget listening to a whole album; you’re lucky to make it more to than two minutes in.

So What Do We Do?

Do I want us to all go back to the “good old days” where much less music was available to fewer people? Not really. Technology itself isn’t the issue, and in fact it’s most definitely an enabling force, capable of dramatically reshaping the landscape, as it already has.

If technology isn’t the problem, then what is? Well it’s about how we’ve adapted to it. The issue, like many things concerning capitalism, is the difference between individual and collective rationality. Music has become highly integrated within our lives, and through that very same process it’s lost some of what makes it so special in the first place. It’s an accessory; something we talk about, read about, and listen to a lot of, but less and less something we lose ourselves in. Sure, we still engage with it. But we also read and talk about celebrities, and indeed that’s what music has become more and more about. Who said what to whom and when and why and holy shit Kanye West just interrupted Taylor Swift.

So in all the fuss over how much music there is easily available to us (ie: all of it), we do lose some of what made it special in the first place. One of my personal idols, Gavin Harrison (drummer of Porcupine Tree), recalled once in an interview how when he was young he’d have only two records, and he’d keep going back to them and find new things. Every six months or so, he’d go to buy a new record, and it would be a careful, protracted decision. Twenty-thirty years later, the very idea is just ridiculous. Therefore, given that technology can hardly be un-invented, the only option is to simply use it better.

Of course, we use it pretty well, there’s no denying how integrated the Internet has become in our culture and will only be more so. The problem is we get stuck inside our own world and ignore all other developments. That said, how can you expect people to become more involved? Most media is controlled by oligopolistic institutions that are hardly democratic or in tune with the people; Rolling Stone, VH1, MTV (both owned by the same conglomerate), reality TV shows, record labels etc; are much more effective at telling the public what it wants to hear than actually listening to them. Roger Waters wrote an album in 1992, Amused To Death, which covered virtually the same themes; that we’d be so lost in our own world, perpetually entertained, that we’d begin to lose contact with each other and the world around us.

Unfortunately, a lot of this is tied into our society in general; how we conduct our economy and how our political system is run. And as I detailed in part one, things have become worse since Amused To Death, when reality TV barely even existed. And hell, even if you did start some new magazine or website that was genuinely receptive of the public mood and encouraged creativity over commerce, it’d just get bought out, like all competition does these days (Huffington Post by AOL, Book Depository by Amazon).

So what can you do? The best thing you can do, as bland as it sounds, is to generally get involved, whether it be in writing about music, creating it or simply listening and promoting it. Alone, that doesn’t sound like much, and frankly it isn’t. What’s more important is networking. Finding similarly minded people who don’t care for being spoon-fed by an exhausted capitalist beast; an engaged and powerful intelligentsia, that’s what the ultimate goal is. Because if you, like me, are sick of the status quo, where mass appeal is preferable to complexity, where creativity is marginalised and people still wonder why there are never any new ideas; well we damn well need it.

The rules of the game may have changed in the twenty-first century, but sadly music really hasn’t. I want that to change.

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