Live Muzak: Transient culture and the hysterical search for authenticity

I went to We Love Green on the weekend. A music festival in a beautiful Parisian park that, I kid you not, is usually full of peacocks. I was certainly among the older members of the oh-so-chic, not-so-chalant crowd. And it got me thinking about how the radical changes in how music is distributed and consumed has had some pretty big changes to live music.

It used to be different.

In the 1990's your music was your tribe. Your identity. It’s how you told your peers, and perhaps more importantly, it was like your own personal muse, consistently illuminating your values to yourself. Your chosen genre became your tribe. It defines your identity. An identity that didn’t deviate to neighbouring musical styles. Hip-Hop guys. Grunge guys. Metal Guys. All different.

Music festivals in the 1990's started to do the genre hopping so we didn’t need to. It was expensive, and hard to get full line-ups of just Hip-Hop to places like Perth for example, so mixing established and emerging genres become de rigueur. That made it easy for hardcore genre fans to enjoy the other without having to compromise their integrity. But honesty, most live music was big acts being opened by little acts, all within the same musical genre.

Then music changed towards the end of the 1990's. You know this story. It changed because distribution from artificial scarcity to managing abundance. It went from $A29.95 Compact Discs that were artificially high (and at the time pretty hard to copy) to being something you copied as free digital files with your friends both online and offline. Then the iPod. All leading to a generation of music fans who could genre-hop because of the sheer abundance of free music at their fingertips. Music become a commodity. Then it became air; everywhere and free. So that’s good for normal people right…

And now?

So here are some things I noticed about live music today.

I saw one kid in a band t-shirt. One. A white Run-D.M.C. tee on a girl. Selected to complete a rather fetching ensemble, I suspect, and to very good effect. Just part of the look. A semiotic cultural reference, an icon, not an identity or affinity. But fuck, at least she wore a band t-shirt to a music festival.

Live music, and its accompanying conventions really have failed to keep up in this schizophrenic attention economy that the internet propagated. Forty minutes between acts on the main stage? You’re killing me. Sound checking your drums again? And they still work. Now you’re killing your industry. Seriously.

Most of the acts seemed a little too accepting to be the muzak to big picnic in the park. No one fought for my attention like The Darkness might, or like Peaches might, or Björk might. That sheer insistence on connecting just wasn’t there. Replaced with a nervous irony. I love irony, just don‘t hide behind it.

I didn’t really feel a connection, a holy (or unholy) unity between me, the people, the music and the musicians. No one believed it. Just, nothing.

Conventional wisdom holds that the money in music is now in the delivery of live music. So they really need to start fighting harder for my conspicuous consumption.

Lines for the toilets are still the only really memorable part of your day.

I didn’t see one video screen at the festival because there weren't any. Which meant about 5% of people were close enough to see what was happening on stage. All I could see were some rather vulnerable looking people whose stagecraft didn’t seem to make it thru customs.

There’s a lot more young French girls in attendance than French guys. Maybe young French women define their identity by a much wider range of cultural consumption. Because you don’t come here for the music. You come here for the organic food and the selfies.

Mobile phone reception (or lack thereof) could kill festivals. Reception is so bad, cell towers so overloaded that during a music festival it requires the patience of a saint to post that selfie, tweet that #hashtag, or send a text to your friend who couldn’t make it. The humble brag is just too hard. So if I can’t tell anyone just how much fun you’re having right now, at this exact moment, is it worth enjoying this moment right now? “Sorry, just. Trying. To get reception. What did you say? Who’s playing? Do I know this song?”

The acts generally use a stylistically limited palette of synth sounds. Sounds that reference the aesthetic of 1980's pop music. But not the song-craft, ethos or ideology of 80's pop. They forgot the important bit. Sounds without meanings. A fashionistas soundstage that belies a central artistic anxiety — in a world where you can click, swipe and jump to anything at any time, what exactly do you want from us?

This originally appeared on Medium.