16 Nov, 15

Henry Rollins - The impact of music in our world

What kind of impact does music have in our world?

Music is such an amazing and powerful thing, that it would be hard to find an answer-that-fits-all. It is obvious that music has an impact on people, otherwise music festivals would have 100 people attending and not 75,000.

There are different levels of impact because of the ways that music is currently delivered and consumed. I use the word "consumed," because I think it is key to understanding how many people regard music and thus, how it impacts their world.

Humans have been finding rhythm, melody and harmony for centuries but the way millions listen to music has changed radically in the last few decades and that I think speaks to the question.

"The way millions listen to music has changed radically in the last few decades and I think that speaks to the question"

There are good and bad aspects to the current accessibility/delivery systems of music. I think they are for the most part, good.

One aspect of the good is that it’s easier to make music. Hopefully, this allows those with music they want to get heard to be able to do so without emptying their savings or ending up with a pallet of physical material that they can’t move.

The Bandcamp site for bands is a fantastic thing. I try to buy at least 1 to 3 records a day. I know that sounds a little over the top but I do. The point I am making is that many times, I have been made aware of a band’s music and then allowed to hear it on a Bandcamp site, dig it and then buy vinyl or whatever other media is available, right there and often, directly from the artist.

On my radio show, I can play a song and then send the listener right to the band’s site to hear more, check out tour dates and make an immediate connection with that band or artist, so the curiosity is not dulled or diminished.

There are more examples of the good but I don’t think anyone reading this needs to be led around to other low hanging fruit examples.

The bad aspects are truly bad but in my opinion at least, not at all insurmountable.

Several weeks ago, someone at my office informed me that every record and DVD I have ever done could be downloaded for free and asked what I thought about that. It is a version of the same question I have been asked many times.

I have received less-than-equitable treatment at the hands of record labels large and small to the point to where nothing they do could possibly surprise me.

I am not surprised that someone would listen to a band’s music for free because I cannot be convinced that they are doing it while enjoying the fact that the songs are the livelihood of the artist and they are willfully denying that person or persons due compensation. They are listening because they like what they're hearing. It’s the delivery system that makes what they do "illegal," a characterization I really can’t get behind. Ultimately, I would rather be heard than paid. This seems to be the choice I have been given.

So, are you the listener going to do right or not? That’s up to you. I think that if you met the artists, saw how hard they work and how they often have to live to provide you with their blood and chunks of their guts, you would not treat what they do as mere content.

"So, are you the listener going to do right or not? That's up to you."

That’s the word. Content. A lot of music has been reduced to that. Millions of hours of music content is consumed all over the world daily, often via mp3, from a cell phone, through some awful sounding pair of speakers affixed to the ear. Ugh.

To me, the real crime starts and ends right there. If that’s how you’re listening to music—you’re only ripping yourself off. If you think what you’re hearing is having impact on your world, your world is a quaint gesture that borders on trite. As I write this, I am listening to the Chelsea Wolfe Live at Roadburn LP. The impact is total. I do not know this person but I will not disrespect her efforts by not paying for the record. By listening for free as “audio content,” I not only slight her but do a gross disservice to all music and every musician who ever lived. I will not do it.

When music is just a thing you drag and drop onto your desktop for free, it is arguably without value. That someone can totally strip something that was often created at great human expense of all worth and shove it into a “file” is a perfect failure. It is cultural crime.

What can we do to ensure that artists' voices are heard?

Be unrelenting in improving not only the accessibility of music delivery but also upping the sonic quality of the content. If it's digital, then help music fans understand what they're missing out on with low resolution downloads. If downloading and streaming are going to be how millions of people listen to music, then make that as excellent as possible.

It’s one thing to get the signal out there, and that’s important of course, but that can’t be the end of the mission.

If you are listening to a low resolution version of a song, (I can’t believe this a real conversation. I can’t believe we have to give a music file any dignity whatsoever but here we are.) you are not hearing the artists’ true voice.

So, first, work on making music availability synonymous with quality. This I think will help to ensure sustainability.

As to sustainability:

How about collectives of several small bands and labels who can combine forces, pool reserves to get storage space to work out of to sell direct to fans? Physical and high quality download. I cite as an example of a way forward Dischord Records in Washington, DC. They not only put out Dischord releases but distribute other labels.

If it sounds like I am almost describing a protective environment for animals on the endangered species list, than I am hitting the mark. I think this is where it’s at. The megahumans at Tidal want your listening environment to come from their zero eclectic factor source only. To me, they offer hi-def mediocrity, suffocation and culture death. (What am I, Werner Herzog over here?!) I think it is useful to consider all independent music as under threat and add preservation into any equation going forward.

How about facing the fact that a majority of people are fine with mediocre-to-substandard everything from that which they eat to whom they cast their vote and that being the case, stop wasting energy and just forget about them?

Okay, they’re gone now. Let’s take those who are left, those who can be reasoned with and educate them on everything from the life of an artist to what a lot of damn work it takes to get any musical inspiration anywhere. Then convince them that by being a fan of an artist, they are a member of their support team. You like their music? Good! Show it. Buy direct. Go to the show. Drag someone with you. Get the tour only release. Make people understand that it is the fan that is the engine that allows the artist to keep it going.

I try to take full responsibility for the artists I listen to. Even with bands who are pals of mine, I NEVER ask for a free record. I buy it. I previously stated that I was listening to the Chelsea Wolfe Live at Roadburn LP. What I didn’t include was that I bought all four color variations! I am a maniac and often take things to extremes but it usually ends well. There are labels such as Utech, Castle Face, American Tapes and Teenbeat that I buy one of everything they put out. I don’t always think every single release is great but I think what these labels are doing is, and so, I show up.

Henry Rollins

To devalue music, which is so easy to do now, is to risk losing some of its most beautiful species. Do you really want to be stuck with the species that prevail? If you're reading this, I doubt it.

Don’t kill off your option by treating the music you love like it is indestructible, disposable or easily replenished. It is not. It is fragile, incredible. Regard it as such.

I can’t say that any of this will ensure anything but these might be ways to keep rocking the jam sessions for a long time. People can be reasoned with, and if shown the facts, make good decisions.

By Henry Rollins, distributed under a Creative Commons CC-BY license.

Image by @polytropos, distributed under the CC-BY-NC-ND creative commons license.

The Secret Lives of Playlists

Not all Spotify playlists are created equally. To begin understanding this, look at them closely. Literally.

Sofar Sounds - The Uber of House Shows?

Some musicians in the Bay Area are criticizing a popular house-show startup over paltry compensation, while others challenge its very existence.

It’s All In Your Head: Shutting Up The Voices That Tell You “No”

There’s something so terrifying about putting yourself in a position where you could possibly be rejected, harshly criticized or worst of all…ignored.

View all articles