A few days ago I was fortunate enough to interview Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn of Pomplamoose. (Look for the story in an upcoming issue of Keyboard.) In talking about their unique approach to YouTube video as a factor in the unfolding of their career, Jack said something like this:
“Music is the product, and the video is the packaging. You can have a great product, but if you don’t have packaging, no one will know about your product.” I’m paraphrasing, but that was the essence of it. At first I felt this was a profound observation, but as I mull it over, I’m starting to take a slightly different view. I think maybe “packaging” isn’t quite the right concept. I think the videos give the music a human face.
Pomplamoose records songs, so the music already has a human voice — Nataly’s voice. But because we can watch them play the music, it’s clearly an exciting human activity. We can watch them play the guitar, the bass, the drums, the keyboard, the tambourine. Nataly’s face becomes, in our minds, the focus of all of the various rapid-fire video cuts.
The reason electronic music is so marginal in the artistic landscape is because it’s faceless. If I post a video of my music on YouTube, what will viewers see? An old guy staring at a computer screen and fiddling with the mouse? I could shoot a video of that, but aside from being boring in its own terms, the video would have no connection to the sound and excitement of the music. Okay, how about a closeup of the screen, so people can watch the meters in my audio software pumping up and down? No, that will be interesting for about three seconds, at most, and then we’re off to yawnsville.
I’m leaning away from the “packaging” concept because I don’t think novels have this problem. It doesn’t matter what Terry Pratchett or Carl Hiaasen or Kurt Vonnegut or pick-your-favorite-author looks like. It doesn’t matter if they tour the country and read aloud to their fans. Why not? Because the novels themselves provide the human face. As we read a novel, if it’s any good, we become engrossed in the lives of the characters. That’s what matters, not whether John Updike or Annie Proulx reads well or has a riveting video presence.
It’s not just electronic music that has this problem, either. Music in any form is inherently quite abstract. Let’s suppose you’re a graduate of a top conservatory, and an absolutely stunning pianist. You decide to record your own performances of the Bach Partitas, because you feel you have something personal to say about them. So you go into a recording studio and spend a few thousand bucks creating a CD box set. And … now what? Nobody will care. You’ll sell maybe a few copies to your mother’s friends, but that’s it. Why? It’s great music, we’ll stipulate that, but it doesn’t have a human face. It’s far too abstract.
So in desperation, you grow your hair long, buy some leopard-skin Spandex tights, hire a laser light show with smoke bombs, learn to play the piano standing up while thrashing around like a gorilla that’s being electrocuted, and take your Bach Partitas on the stadium circuit. The music may be exactly the same as before (though in all likelihood it will be a great deal worse once you add drums, bass, and a canned string orchestra). But if you keep at it, within a couple of years you’ll be selling tens of thousands of CDs. Why? Not simply because you’re playing down to the ignorant masses, though that will surely be a factor, but primarily because people can see who you are. They can see your emotion. You’ve given the music a human face.
Speaking for myself, I don’t want to change my music in any way in order to give it a human face. I don’t want to specialize in cello solos (not that watching a cellist is all that easy to relate to). I’m too old to enjoy gigging. I certainly don’t want to sing (and you should be grateful that I don’t). I like sitting here in front of a computer, creating abstract and intricately shaped soundscapes. But it does kind of bother me that nobody cares.