Monday, November 26, 2007

In Praise of Obscurity

In the current issue of Paste, esteemed music critic Geoffrey Himes laments the decentralization of the music industry, and points out that his favorite album of 2007 will go unnoticed, even by most ardent music fans.

And I’ll see Geoffrey’s obscure artist and raise him two: my three favorite albums of 2007 are by a Boston wunderkind named Ezra Furman, a bunch of Ohio indie rockers called Southeast Engine, and a Virginia country/folk neo-hippie named Devon Sproule. Who? Are those albums better than the ones released by Bruce Springsteen, Arcade Fire, and The National, the albums that occupy the top three rungs on Paste’s Best of 2007 list? Sure. At least I’d argue that they are. But nobody’s heard them, and even when it’s your business to pay attention to new music, as it is to the staff of Paste Magazine, it’s impossible to cover all the worthy music released each month. It’s inevitable that some gems fall through the cracks. There are a million bands with their self-produced CDs and their MySpace pages. Ninety-eight percent of them are utterly forgettable. And a few of them are astoudingly great, and undeservedly obscure.

The problem, as Geoffrey points out, is one of promotion and distribution. You can’t buy an album you can’t find. And you can’t find an album if you don’t know to look for it. And in an era when big music labels are fighting for their very lives, and responding to sluggish sales by employing increasingly conservative tactics to sell the same tired old musical formulas, it’s almost impossible for new and innovative bands to get noticed. Geoffrey is absolutely correct, and the old fart Baby Boomers I relate to every day are wrong. There’s no lack of great music being made these days, and no, it hasn’t been all downhill since John married Yoko and Led Zeppelin stopped using Roman numerals in their album titles. The ratio of greatness to crap hasn’t changed significantly from the supposedly halcyon days of the sixties. What has changed is the ability to hear the great music.

The downbeat news for all those wonderful but obscure musicians and bands: don’t give up those day jobs. It’s harder than it’s ever been to secure the big break. If the big break is your goal, then sign up for American Idol and practice your Motown covers. But if you can live with the notion of making music because you love it, you’ll do fine. Music blogs like this one and music magazines like Paste will continue to champion your work. And there will be an audience for what you do. Just don’t be surprised if some nights there are only twenty people in the club.


Joel said...

I coincidentally saw the other day that Ezra Furman is offering his most recent album for free, but today's the last day. Link:

Anonymous said...

I wanted to thank you for those three albums you reference here. By your recomendation I have bought all three at one time or another, and have fallen in love with each. I will be reviewing each for a few different publications and hopefully can help get them passed on to some new listeners, but man, thanks so much for telling us about these wonderful artists and their music. I often feel like there is so much good music out there im just not hearing, and due to studies and working and the like I simply havent the time to track them down so your recomendations have been awesome! For what its worth, which is not much, I will forever trust your recomendations, i love these albums so much.

Anonymous said...

i heard and purchased ezra. because of you.