Do We Really Still Need the Label ‘Suits’ to Tell Us What’s Good?
A couple of weeks ago, Sal Nunziato wrote an op-ed in the New York Times entitled "Elegy for the Suits." The gist of his argument is that we've been thinking about the decline of the music industry all wrong. Nunziato contends we blame the major labels for their own collapse via overpriced product and endless reissues of the same old stuff when, in reality, we should blame the internet for offering seemingly infinite, unfiltered choices. "The internet has enabled anyone with a computer, a kazoo and an untuned guitar to flood the market, no matter how horrible or simply unready the music is," he writes.
There's some truth to Nunziato's arguments. Yes, there's an awful lot of, well, awful music on the internet and infinite options aren't all they're cracked up to be.
Ten years ago, Barry Schwartz's 'The Paradox of Choice' looked at how unlimited choices lead both to depression and difficulty choosing. A few things happen when we have 150 salad dressings to choose from, according to Schwartz. First, we may be unable to make a choice because we're afraid that we'll choose wrong. Next, our expectations are raised for whatever salad dressing we choose -- it must be the best out of 150, after all. Finally, we are critical of any flaw with our chosen salad dressing, as with that many choices one of them must be perfect.
Granted, music is a much more personal choice than salad dressing, but the mechanism remains the same: With so much choice on the internet, where does one even begin? And if you waste time listening to a cruddy band, who can you blame other than yourself? In the old days, you could blame somebody else for forcing Rick Astley into your ear holes: namely the makers and distributors of Rick Astley records.
But Nunziato argues the opposite. His point is that "the suits," meaning the label executives, made our choices simpler. They were perceived experts who knew what was good for us:
The suits made hits and created stars because they knew something. The suits had been around the block and back, having experienced, firsthand, everyone from Jimmy Dorsey to Jimi Hendrix to Jeff Buckley to J. Lo. I trusted them because they earned that trust, at least on a purely musical level.
This is true as far it goes, but it's also a bit romantic. Yes, the suits experienced Hendrix, but not until after their rejections sent him to England where a different set of suits eventually took a chance on him.
Nunziato also doesn't consider that the suits have also put their considerable resources behind some really horrible music and force fed it to us. In fact, they still do. The major labels still exist and those suits are still making decisions on their behalf. Clay Aiken's 'Merry Christmas With Love' is not a Bandcamp phenomenon.
I agree with Nunziato that the suits acted as a filter, sheltering us from the flood of "kazoo and untuned guitar" that plagues the internet, and though I personally may place Clay Aiken in the same category, I agree that filters are useful things. I don't need 150 salad dressing options -- 15 would do me just fine, maybe even five. Where I disagree is with the implicit point that the suits should be the only filters. What they pick for us to listen to is easy enough to spot -- simply check out the Billboard Top 100. If what's in the top ten is what's in your playlist, then the "suit filter" is working for you.
But what about folks who don't care about Nick Jonas and Maroon 5? I'm not picking on these artists, nor am I picking on you if you like them. Every generation has their Nick Jonas, be it Rick Springfield, Sean Cassidy or Pat Boone. There's nothing wrong with them, they just don't happen to appeal to everyone.
Personally, I'm looking for music that isn't on the suits' radar: the alternative and independent artists. I assume it's the indie bands Nunziato is referring to when he laments that "anyone with GarageBand can make a record."
Without a filter, it's impossible to wade through YouTube, Soundcloud and Bandcamp looking for the good stuff, and that's on just three websites. But the truth of the matter is that we all rely on our own filters and they're inevitably better at predicting what we'll like than the suits. Here are a few:
- Word of mouth. Our friends remain our best resources for new music, and for good reason. Of all humanity, we've filtered our circle of friends down to a small handful of people based on common interests. It stands to reason that there's a good chance that if Bob is turning me onto a new band, it's because he believes I'll like them.
- Crowdsourcing. I'm using the term broadly here, but now and then, enough organic buzz builds around new artists that they hit our radar. Alabama Shakes are a great example of this phenomenon.
- Live performance. Your local clubs function as a filter because you'll only hear the bands that come through town. The bonus here is that you're out of the house and you're listening to live music. Even when it's bad, at least you've enjoyed a night out.
- Music websites and magazines. For all intents and purposes, music writers are "mini suits." Their job is to wade through the sea of material that floods their mailboxes and draw your attention to the artists most likely to appeal to their readers. If you like your music heavy, visit Loudwire. Prefer hip-hop? Go to XXL. Obviously you're an alternative and indie fan, which is why you're here.
Too much choice can be paralyzing, but too little is just plain dull. I never want to go back to an era when it's solely up to "the suits" to decide what I get to listen to. I like the new world, where I choose my own filters to help me limit my choices.
Now I think I'm going to go fix myself a salad if I can muster the courage to choose a dressing.