The Feedback Loop

Does the mass media influence culture or does culture influence what the media absorbs and the marketers try to sell us? This is the thesis question at the heart of Douglas Rushkoff’s/PBS Frontline’s movie “The Merchants of Cool” (2001). I’ve been showing this movie in my Rhetoric classes because we are discussing persuasion and I think it’s so interesting to see the way the reaction of the masses is measured, and consequently, the way marketing messages are then altered to appeal to the tastes of certain target markers, such as teenagers.
Friends, remember when indie rock was really indie? Remember when bands did their own recordings and they were put out by small (ish) ultra cool, ultra un-heard-of labels like Up! Records, K Records, Kill Rock Stars and Matador (back when it was, ahem, independent). You’d rush to be their first kid in your scene or the first one at your college radio station to get the new Sunny Day Real Estate or Death Cab for Cutie CD and you’d tear open the plastic and pop it in your player at home (or on your college radio show) and lean back in your chair breathing a sigh of relief that you were ahead of the curb; one of the more musically elite.
We saw those days go away with the late 1990s/early oughts as many of those little indie labels crashed and burned, or got absorbed by much bigger companies such as Sony and DGC. In some ways, that doesn’t totally bum me out. Because for some bands that were small and un-heard-of back then, like the Dandy Warhols or The Black Keys, having the stability of a major-label backing actually does open up some doors. Some of these bands got huge tours and excellent distribution. A real punk-rock kid at heart would never fess up to this; but really, every rocker’s dream come true. After all, what good is slaving away at new songs, practicing every week (or every day) with your band and self-recording if the only people who will ever get to rock out to your stuff are your friends and family? No one who tries to form a band wants that. Trust me, no one.
The sell-out like of discrediting a band simply can’t be used the same way it could before the 1990s. (I mean, I guess it can sort of apply… if you’re accusing a band of changing their aesthetic completely to comply with the expectations of a more mainstream audience, like recent accusations thrown at Deerhunter have claimed, since the singer no longer goes around wearing women’s dresses and covering himself in blood at their now-sold-out shows).
The funny thing is, even though we keep hearing about how the record industry isn’t making any money since no one buys albums any more, the fame machine still seems to be in place, only more emphasis is now on alternate forms of distribution and packing a live concert hall. These seem to be the only ways left for really making money.
So what does that mean for the bands? Does it mean that no one ends up a multi-millionaire Mick Jagger or Bruce Springsteen anymore? Maybe. It seems the rotation of rock music trends faster and faster these days, spitting out new “it” bands and radio wonders such as Lady Gaga and 30 Seconds to Mars faster than you can write out a check; gobbling up and excreting last month’s MTV has-beens faster than ever.
But should this cycle discourage kids from picking up guitars and going out there in the future? I say, only if it’s been done before. And then I say, yikes, look-out! Almost everything you might try has been done before. Music and art influence music and art influence music and art. Still, wasn’t it Zappa that said “Art is making something out of nothing and then selling it?” Maybe the sale is the root of intention.


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