Montreal the next new thing in music? The New York Times says so. So does Spin Magazine. Were surprised that a place so obscure could have this kind of influence.
Once only the big centers, New York and LA, mattered. Only they had the self confidence of the innovator. Plus, they had the concentrations of talent, the force of competition, access to a scaleable fan base, a better chance to catch the attention of a talent scout, more media to help fan the flame of celebrity, quicker access to news of exogamous innovation, and more local experiment from which to learn. It was as if the big centers had a “gravitational force drawing in talent and resources. But the truth was simpler. Big centers materially advantage insiders and penalize outliers at every turn.
So much for the old days. Now obscurity is one of the places we expect to find the next new thing. Seattle, Atlanta, Austin, and Athens (Georgia) were all birthplaces of a creative impulse that helped transform music, taste, and the very sensibility of the moment. Obscure, little towns turn out to be “producing stations of contemporary culture, and New York and Los Angeles must, sometimes, follow suit.
As we know, the new power of obscurity is partly due to technological advances. Cheap technology makes for cheap production and capture. This ‘tech and some of the “capital advantage, of the big city has disappeared.
Some of it is due to cultural advances. The big one here is a refusal to defer. The margin used to feel like the margin. If we lived in a town like Montreal, we believed ourselves too unimportant to make a difference. This is over. No one defers to LA or New York City anymore. (Not in music, anyhow. Design, perhaps thats another thing.)
This advance contradicts the long standing “center-periphery relationship between cultural producers and consumers in Western societies. And it is probably true that the West transformed itself partly because it was prepared to move the resources and the deference of the periphery to the center with so much dispatch and so little apology. Indeed, I may be wrong to call the rise of the periphery a “cultural advance. I am pretty certain Matthew Arnold would want to call it something else. Culture, as he understood it, called for elites in centers to lecture or at least intimidate rubes on the margin. But from an anthropological point of view, it is an advance. The rise of the periphery means that there are more people participating in the creation of more various and vital cultural outcomes. Thus does Arnolds Culture give way to something more and a lot more it is, too.
Some of the new power of obscurity is due to changes in media and the marketplace. Staying in the know, once the bane of life in the provinces, is now cheap and easy. The internet helps here, but so does a surprisingly well-distributed underground music press. I am surprised how often I see quite obscure titles in really obscure places. (And I always think, that title used to be the New Yorkers advantage!) And music is easy to get, too. Growing up in Vancouver, we would sometimes have to drive to Seattle, or, if a jazz fan, San Francisco. Now Amazon gets it here “next day and iTunes, right now. (Disintermediation meets disintermarketing, or something.)
Obscure places “breathe in better than they used to. And so do they “breathe out. Any little invention that happens in an obscure place now has a better chance to “make it big. Not so long ago, it didnt matter how good you were, you had to go to LA or Detroit. We dont know how many people as good as Dylan or Hendrix just never scraped up the money for a bus ticket. This is a debatable point, but I believe its true that the media and the marketplace are better wired, “discovering solitary talent with new acuity.
So the periphery escaped the costs of the margin, which left only the benefits. Working far from the centers of influence and confluence, local communities can “go their own way. No need to look over ones shoulder. No grounds for “am I worthy? self doubt. They only need get on with it. Before long, the local community becomes a productive cross roads of competition and collaboration, commonality and differentiation, praise and disdain, tradition and departure, locality and internationality of influence.
For awhile its a cozy “cosa nostra (our thing) enterprise, at least until the national press corps and music labels come calling. Now the community offers up its riches to us all. Some of the players rise to greatness. Some stay home. The former are well paid for even a brief run of prominence. The latter pay themselves in indignation and the self righteous satisfaction that they did not “sell out. There is a tragic third group that finds itself dwelling in the excluded middle, not famous enough to make any real dough, too famous ever to go home again. And everyone else cultivating bar stories that prove they were in early and out early well before this little paradise was visited by the slithering, boneless viper of commercial temptation.
Im impressed 1) how few people it now takes to create one of these producing stations, 2) how quickly they create the conviction they are “on to something, and 3) how often they go about proving that they are on to something (and some of the rest of us go, “yes, Id like to be on to that, too). I think we have to assume that if we can find these communities in places as disparate as Atlanta, Austin and Athens, there must be in hundreds, perhaps, thousands, of them in North America.
Whats changed here is the notion that every so often we get the magical confluence of elements, ‘the right people in the right place at the right time, and suddenly a new order of cultural innovation. (The way we talk about Motown, for instance.) I think its fair to assume virtually all cities are host to considerable creativity and that we are now, as a collectivity, “sitting on a gusher. We are witnessing an outpouring of creativity in hundreds of places by thousands of communities, comprising many hundreds of thousands of people. Wow. Or maybe not. Could be, this is the predictable species-specific outcome when “our crowd has access to enough nutrition, education, leisure, stimulation, inducement, technology and opportunity.
But here the thing that really stuns me. I am told by reliable authorities that there are now lots of people who genuinely do not care if their creativity is ever witnessed by any one other than a small circle of friends. Not only do they not care if they are ever “discovered, they devoutly wish to avoid discovery. Creative, talented, accomplished, they never record their work. Some of it rises to genius, and then its gone. It changes constantly, but who would know. These strange people are the creatively solipsistic. They trust only in their own existence. Bless them, pity them, I dont know. But apparently we now have so much creativity we can just throw some of it away.
Creativity, it used to be a class, gender, age and ethnic privilege. Only a few people got to do it. Not many more got to consume it. Now we are so blessed with it that some of the creativity in our midst can “go dark and we dont care. Because it doesnt matter. Creativity used to spring from plenty only then to be taken captive by the rules of scarcity. Now what starts in plenty appears to be ruled by it too.
This puts us in a wonderful position as a culture, to be sure. With all those people experimenting in obscurity, chances are we will find precisely the music that suits the collective mood and cultural moment. The moment we tire of Atlanta, we may take up Montreal. When Montreal becomes tedious, we might resort to Birmingham, Queens, or Lake Louise. In the famous but not very becoming metaphor, we now have so many monkeys working so many typewriters, we can have our choice, and a succession, of Shakespeares. And this is no doubt a good thing as we become more dynamic, more various, multiple, as a culture. The ones I feel sorry for are the anthropologists. Because someone has to think of a way of thinking of all of this. I don’t envy them. I really don’t.
Carr, David. 2005. Cold Fusion: Montreals Explosive Music Scene. February 6, 2005.