Thursday, June 12, 2008

NMW Spotlight: Barry Alfonso on The Internet's Multitudes and Tribes

As an independent journalist and music critic, Barry Alfonso has contributed articles to Rolling Stone Magazine, The San Diego Union and the LA Times. He was assistant editor of Songwriter Magazine and has written press material for various record companies. He has interviewed people as diverse as Eugene McCarthy, William Burroughs, Count Basie, and Captain Beefheart, as well as labor activists, World War II veterans, Depression era artists, and others. In 2005 he was nominated for a Grammy Award for his liner notes to Peter, Paul and Mary's "Carry It On" CD. His book "The Encyclopedia Of Christian Music" (Billboard Books, 2002) is considered by many to be the standard for the industry. In addition to these accomplishments, he is the co-writer of the #1 Pam Tillis hit "In Between Dances" and the theme song from the Tom Cruise blockbuster "All The Right Moves".

* * * * *

Ninety Mile Wind : Most of us would agree that the IT Revolution has changed the mindset of the intellectual property creators and the audience. What would you say are some of the biggest differences between the music of today, and that of decades past- before the Internet?

Barry Alfonso : I'm not sure that the music itself is very different from what was being done ten or twenty years ago. It's just that there is more of it, with different styles and genres being appreciated simultaneously and nothing completely going out of fashion. Just about everything new I hear is loaded with reference points that harken back a generation or more. Not much difference there. It's the factors surrounding the music that have changed, who makes it, how they share it and who consumes it.

What's going on now reminds me of descriptions of what happened after Andrew Jackson was elected president in 1828. Before that, ordinary citizens used to call respectfully upon their country's leader. After Jackson took office, the rabble came pouring into the White House, tracking mud in, spitting on the carpet, breaking the dishes and so forth. That's what happens when you throw open the doors and the un-genteel people are allowed in. It's healthy and good ultimately, but things get messy and stuff gets destroyed as well.

There's also a quality of illusion here. Just because the common folks could barge in on the President didn't mean they could change everything. Jackson and his party could pass some bills the ordinary voters liked and could appoint some of them to office. But the rich weren't exiled and their money wasn't confiscated.

I think the current situation in popular music resembles this situation in some ways. There's a sense that the grand old mansion of The Music Business is trembling because all these obscure and unvetted people are trampling through it. Everyone is as worthy of respect as everyone else and everyone has a shot at being a star, supposedly. But this sense of equality is somewhat illusionary and deceptive.

NMW : Perhaps by trampling through it and maybe snatching a souvenir ashtray or a swatch of curtain here and there, some recording artists are saying that the "grand old mansion" is just a quaint reminder of the past, not relevant anymore, and it should be dismantled. How do you see this "illusory and deceptive" equality that you mentioned playing out by example?

BA : All of this is driven by technology, of course. And one of the unfortunate things about technology is that the novel becomes the normal very quickly, you don't notice how extraordinary something really is.

To pick one small example, millions of individuals now think nothing of setting up website pages presenting themselves to potentially millions of strangers across the planet. All these pages look basically the same, whether nobody visits them or everybody visits them. Bob Dylan can have a My Space page the same as a little old lady writing poems in Mandan, North Dakota. And they all have "friends." Bob and the old lady are the same - except for the fact that they are completely different. They both have a shot at reaching a college student in Seoul - except one shot is much better than the other. But the potential is there, and that is the great American promise. And that potential is what has kept the USA from tearing itself apart since its inception. Seemingly, this same potential will sustain countless songwriters and other creative people as they figure out how much response they need to justify their acts of creativity.

NMW : It's also the sense that the response, whether real or illusory, is more immediate now, that's what's driving the whole thing. The Internet really has emboldened the American Dream by making it more possible for an entrepreneur or an artist to reach their target audience or target clients faster than ever before, at least for as long as access isn't controlled by providers, corporations or governments. Seems like a very big societal sea-change, and potentially a healthy change for the musical arts. Given your knowledge of history, have there been any parallels in the past I wonder?

BA : This is new. This is a profound change, but an ambiguous one. I can't honestly lament the slow collapse of the old music business order - it's like watching the Soviet Union atrophy.

Technology has driven entertainment for a long time - the invention of railroads enabled minstrel companies and theater troupes to reach isolated parts of America two centuries ago. Was that any more fundamental a change than the invention of the Internet? At the risk of getting a little too metaphysical, I'd say that the great distinction between railroads and the IT revolution is the lack of physicality - the person who stepped off the train was flesh and blood and the images moving across the computer screen are ghosts or imaginary beings. Democracy in communication and the arts has allowed just about anyone to turn themselves into as many ghosts as they can extract from themselves. Cyberspace is haunted by trillions of ghosts now. Web pages are like lost worlds floating in space, sometimes long divorced from the people and circumstances that created them.

This is very American and very democratic. But there's a danger in getting too comfortable with this situation. When the extraordinary becomes banal, everything is possible and nothing really matters very much.

NMW : It's almost like Walt Whitman's poetry where he spoke to future generations; "If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles. ... Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you.." He really was the first one to speak to America as a ghost. It's interesting that he shunned the physical spotlight, lived as a recluse, and was a great self-promoter by somewhat devious means; writing reviews of his own work under fictitious names and that sort of thing. All of this sounds very much like the Internet of today, and I can't help but think Whitman, especially, would love it.

BA : Walt Whitman can be seen as a disembodied voice of the People. He said, "I contain multitudes" - but I question whether he wanted everybody to contain multitudes. The math on this is interesting! Whitman was a benign egotist who unashamedly sang of himself. He extended the ideas that [Ralph Waldo] Emerson had about attuning every person to their own inner vibrations and making everybody the center of their universe. But here's that paradox again - if everyone does it, everything is equally valid, and then nothing is. Now, medically, everyone can be healthy. But aesthetically, all art, even all sincere art, cannot be good. I think that's what I'm mostly trying to say here.

NMW : So, have we lost something in all of this individual free expression, perhaps too much expression, and do you think the great stuff will eventually rise?

BA : Well, I think great things will continue to surface, but they may not reach as large of a public as they did before. And the whole ability to decide on what "great stuff" is has been eroding over the decades.

It's been true for a long time that an underground exists in the arts along with the mainstream and that the two realms are often hostile to one another. But in the past, the underground has aspired to influence the mainstream, and the mainstream has turned to the underground for vitality and new ideas. I think that process is in danger of being diffused or diverted. The underground is now a series of discrete tiny caverns with labyrinthine passageways linking them at obscure angles. These little separate cells are becoming self-sustaining and those artists inside them may not feel the need to break through the walls and reach out to others. They are developing their own languages and customs, like an isolated tribe.

NMW : Internet Cultural Anthropology might be a future subject for specialization. I see a new career on the horizon!

BA : Sometimes when I'm in a certain mood, I'll feed in some odd combination of words into a search engine and see where it leads me. Generally, I can come up with a blog or two based upon any incongruous phrase. And what I see when I go to them are people individually expressing themselves and singing their Songs of Themselves about bad hair days and beloved pets and a disappointing cheese sandwich. These things are so specific, so personal, that when you read enough of them they all blur together. I think that the blogosphere is becoming a vast snow bank of extremely individuated snow flakes that add up to a blindingly blank landscape. All those little details ultimately cancel each other out.

NMW : That's an interesting metaphor. We really can't absorb it all, can we? It almost makes us paralyzed by the available options sometimes. All the more reason to know exactly who you are and what you're trying to do with your art or music, or you'll simply disappear in the "blank landscape". Personal expression is a good thing but...

BA : Too much of just about any good thing should be questioned. That goes for individual expression as much as anything. I don't think we should go back to the days of kings and rich patrons controlling the lives of artists. That kind of elitist system is obviously bad. But so is the leveling of the artistic hierarchy to the point that almost no one can make a living at their craft, because something nearly as good by somebody else is available for free a click of a mouse away.

NMW : And that gets back to the difficulties of Internet promotion. I've experienced this first hand. I read recently that Judas Priest was using Tunewidget to promote a soon to be released single. Yet this approach would probably not work for an unknown artist who doesn't have the "viral" potential of a huge fan base. What are your thoughts on what this fracturing of the market into "isolated tribes" means for an aspiring artist trying to establish and sustain a viable, long-haul career in the Song Of Myself Internet world? Are their some reasons to be optimistic?

BA :
I think that any moment of change creates reasons for optimism, if only because there are new things to rebel against. An advance in technology is the hardest thing to resist –you just can’t fight the Machine, literally. But you can question the way that the people in charge are teaching you to use that technology.

For all the vast possibilities opened up by the IT revolution, artists are still very vulnerable to the effects of decisions made by those with power. Issues involving intellectual property rights and net neutrality are obvious examples of this. Small tribal communities out in the wilds of cyberspace cannot protect themselves if they remain isolated. And I worry that, for many of them, the temptation to live on a small island of like-minded souls is very strong.

The reason why Whitman’s Song of Myself wasn’t just an exercise in trivial egotism is that he sought to find a universal connection with others. Whitman was a man of great empathy and compassion, but I also think that he needed to find commonality with others for his own self-protection, if not sanity. From what I’ve read about his life, he had that combination of pride, calculation and delusion that so many great artists have. As resolute as he was, his voice could easily have been lost. The huge scope of his vision saved him. If he’d gone underground and stayed there, he would probably be forgotten today.

: Many people of his day had that huge scope you speak of. In some ways technology has not broadened our scope but narrowed it. We’ve become more adapted to specializations and less able to “take in” the big picture. What solution do you see in the future?

: I do feel a measure of hope about what's happening out there, if not a Whitman-sized faith in humanity. Discarding corrupt, dying forms – and the old-model music biz is one of them – feels good. The challenge now is not to push against something harsh, but to resist sinking into something soft, inviting, lulling. You can see yourself traveling through the IT world as if you were driving your own private automobile, where you zip down the highway with a few friends inside, the outside world flashing by in a blur. Or you can see yourself sharing a larger vehicle with people you don’t know or agree with. It’s a less cushy ride, but it’s a lot more real.

* * * * *

Barry Alfonso can be reached at and you can sample more of his writing at his website

Copyright 2008 by Craig Bickhardt and Barry Alfonso


Jannie Funster said...

Fascinating. Great article. Thanks.

I like that the IT outlet allows many musicians who wouldn't otherwise be "heard" to feel validated and that's got to be a good thing. There are so many friendly, supportive folks out in cyberland.

Also I think that humans come programmed to sort through what's better music from the more diluted stuff, whichever genres they like, and if an artist really believes in themselves and promotes their music via the many available channels - IT and Real World alike, cream's gonna rise, naturellement.


Anonymous said...

In Sydney, which is all the way on the other side of Down-Under (in the land where I come from), our songwriters organization have just announced there's a New Radio Station boasting that 50% of the rotations will be Aussie artists. All well and good for the Aussie artists?

Well my opinion is, it ain't good for good songs. My experience is that it's a dangerous game when the dictate revolves around numbers and not quality.

Australia already had a percentage rotation dictated by law, understandable in the scheme of things, but Crikey!, I have a hell of a battle with my program finding enough quota to satisfy that law as well as my requirement that the song satisfy the ear as well. A song has to give good aural, other wise it's just another bit of digital.

Could it be that Radio listener rates are down because the public is sick of the rubbish?

If I can get to the point, there are some of us who do appreciate what the songwriters do. I think (hope?) in the long term, all the crap will wash away and listeners will actually start to 'listen' again instead allowing themselves to be raped in the ear.

And, if I had the choice between Gillian Welch and Carrie Underwood, I'd go see Craig Bickhardt.

Tunesmiths Cafe

chromehead said...

Thanks for the insight, Makk. I am thinking you meant to post your comment to the Blog entry "Some Wisdom From Lefsetz", but we are happy to post it here. I appreciate your continued support and commenting!

Barry Alfonso said...

For the record, I'd like to postscript to the above interview. This comes with a December 28 2011 interview with Thomas Frank in Salon. I agree with his statement that political discourse -- reinforced by the way we generally use the internet -- has balkanized the way we look at the world...

Q: At one point you talk about “a cognitive withdrawal from the shared world.” It seems like the modern digital communication revolution encourages this. “A cognitive withdrawal from the shared world” — that sounds like a description of the Internet.

Frank: This is where we’re going. You can now believe things that are demonstrably false and never be challenged, directly or indirectly. You can withdraw. That’s the end that the Internet is constantly pushing us toward. That’s what modern marketing is all about.

So it’s a technological phenomenon, but it’s also an ideological phenomenon, a product of the times we’re in. You saw this in the ’30s, especially on the left. People would be so committed to this economic utopia [communism]. They believed in it, and their faith in it was so great … It is a product of economic collapse. People are desperate. They think their entire way of life is crumbling around them, and they reach for … a utopian system where everything is explained.

This is the genius of Fox News. It is fun to watch, and if you agree with them, it’s very gratifying to watch — and on a level deeper than most TV entertainment. The message is “You’ve worked really hard. You played by the rules and now they’re disrespecting you. They won’t let you say the word ‘Christmas.’”