Within The Context Of All Contexts: The Rewiring Of Our Relationship To Music : The Record You've probably been surprised to hear a remarkable song you've never heard pop out of nowhere sometime recently — you're not alone. But as the terms of excavation shift, what are we losing?

Within The Context Of All Contexts: The Rewiring Of Our Relationship To Music

You've probably been surprised to hear a remarkable song you've never heard pop out of nowhere sometime recently — you're not alone. But as the terms of excavation shift, what are we losing? martinwimmer/Getty Images/iStockphoto hide caption

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You've probably been surprised to hear a remarkable song you've never heard pop out of nowhere sometime recently — you're not alone. But as the terms of excavation shift, what are we losing?

martinwimmer/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Imagine you are in an averagely pleasant pub in Manhattan, talking to a couple of people, half-listening to the music being played from the ceiling speakers, until a song from the distant past makes you start listening closely.

The song is Homer Banks' "60 Minutes of Your Love," from 1966, which was not an American hit, but became a favorite in the English mod club-dancer's canon of rediscovery called Northern Soul. Now this is a song: undiluted momentum from the first beat, one satisfying jolt after another. There you are, having an encounter with music's past. You point at the ceiling in recognition. You realize that you have been pointing at the ceiling more often lately.

All right: "You" is really me. I am a music critic, for whom all songs carry some kind of coding. I would be paying attention anyway — but I have a feeling you'd have noticed that song too. A while after Homer Banks, Ruth Brown's "Wild, Wild Young Men," from 1953, came on. Ruth Brown is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and her song was a hit, rising to No. 3 on the R&B charts that year; even so, you'd need to have a pretty decent grip on the history of American music to know it by ear. Later, I heard a few southern rock-shuffles strung together, including ZZ Top's famous "La Grange" and a more recent and more leaden one that I felt I should know and didn't. (It bothered me that I didn't.) And then, out of the blue: Blind Melon's "No Rain," a doughy song that seemed to be for some other place than this one, an early '90s MTV hit which I suspect far more people know than like. It felt even more shallow than usual, by virtue of the depth that had preceded it.

Clearly, I was listening to a streaming-service algorithm. The overall sequence made no sense. The music in that place, while I was there, at first felt like a gift — and then like an encounter with an alien presence. It had "taste" — and then no-taste. (Not "tastelessness," but an absence of so-called taste.) The signifiers had gone haywire.

Part of becoming an adult is learning to recognize cultural signifiers, which tell you something about where you are and who's behind the bar and what kind of time you might be having before you leave. These signifiers (not just musical ones) always, in some way, have to do with history, with the past. That Blind Melon song retroactively soured the Homer Banks encounter a little. Also, I recognized that Homer Banks song, but what if I didn't? The appropriate or typical response to it in our time might not be this is part of a tradition about which I want to know more, but rather: what the hell is this? And then, maybe, at best, a half-step further: What's the footprint of this thing? How many views on YouTube? Who knew about it first? How did this escape me? How did it find me? And so on. A paradoxical reaction, both uninformed and connoisseur-ish.

Here's a different example. A few weeks ago, in my Discover Weekly playlist on Spotify — constructed by an algorithm for someone of my data-set – came "Pourquoi Tu Me Fous Plus des Coups?," an electro-pop love song, a good one, by the French-Vietnamese singer An Luu. I put its lyrics into a translation engine: The conceit of the song is domestic abuse — one of those he-hit-me-and-it-felt-like-a-kiss songs, a complicated and disconcerting trope that also comes up in Bessie Smith, Rodgers and Hammerstein, The Crystals and Lana Del Rey. I'd never heard of An Luu, so I looked her up online. Oh, okay — she's an actor; she was in the movie Diva. I remember that. Otherwise, not much there. A YouTube video with about 10,000 views, and also a blog post about it written a few months ago by a media-studies Ph.D in Indiana. "I don't know how or why Spotify recommended this track to me," that Ph.D student wrote, "but I sure am grateful they did." Like me, he was registering the surprise of secondary use. Meaning: He didn't come to the song because something led him toward the work of An Luu, French-Vietnamese actor and singer, in and of herself. He came to it incidentally, because Spotify used it, within a playlist, as an act of seduction by orphaned data.

I'd want to know who An Luu is and what else she did and what led her to record "Pourquoi Tu Me Fous Plus des Coups?" (The song was written, unsurprisingly, by two men — Jacques Duvall and Philipe Chany.) But Spotify won't tell me any of that, because Spotify tells you very little. Instead, I'm given an encounter that ends with me wondering: What the hell is this? Nevertheless, now I recognize the song, for what it's worth.

My sense is that such encounters, just like encountering little-known songs in movies and advertisements and new TV shows (such as when the funk-pop slow-dance "Amarsi Un Po" by Lucio Battisti, a wise and searching Italian pop singer of the '70s and '80s who never had any American audience whatsoever, appeared on Master of None last spring) are changing, perhaps subtly, what we are looking for from the past. And just as importantly, what we are getting.

I'm going to generalize for a minute. The new assumption we carry around is that we know most of what we need to know because of the considerable labor most of us put into using social media and streaming services. If you use them, think of how many ideas, observations, warnings, judgments, alarms, images, videos and sounds you absorb regularly. The neuroscientist Daniel Levitin has, by some wild math, estimated the information intake of a social-media user as similar to reading 175 newspapers per day. I would imagine this all leads us to feel we recognize what is "relevant" simply because we feel the fatigue of so much keeping up. If something escapes our attention, it must be pretty negligible. Relevance, as logic requires, is finite. If it weren't, then everything would be relevant, and there would be no use for the concept. What really takes us by surprise is when we hear music that has perhaps never been important to our way of thinking but is somehow smuggled into our presence. We experience a feeling of temporary disbelief, or of being privy to an alternate reality. It's lucky to get our attention.

Old music, reframed or brought into new circulation, can be as dynamic and unpredictable as new music. Its work is not done by the end of its own epoch. This was always so, but once, only a small number of people truly knew it; scholars, mostly, who understand that the past evolves by our understanding of its context. People like Mary Beard, the Cambridge professor of ancient Greek and Latin languages and history, who wrote in a 2012 essay that "the study of the Classics is the study of what happens in the gap between antiquity and ourselves."

College-radio DJs, a guild whose influence is disappearing, knew too. I was one during what I take to be the first great wave of reissued popular music, the mid-'80s. American roots music issued from little record labels in Massachusetts, California, Germany, England; Rounder, Arhoolie, Bear Family, Charly, Ace. (Reissues of funk, disco, electronic and psychedelic music came slightly later.) When Ace, an English label, released B. B. King's music from the 1950s in an ongoing series of LPs during the mid-'80s, there was a sense that a presidential door had been unbolted. These extravagant outpourings of blues, massive and sophisticated and virtuosic, weren't really accessible in any other way. There was no YouTube, no Amazon, no Discogs, no Spotify. Even when Ace made it available, this music would not probably reach you unless you moved toward it — and when you did, you committed yourself a little. (As the DJ and writer Jace Clayton remarked in his book Uproot, in the context of listening to streaming services, "surprise entails going toward the thing that you do not yet know, and ignorance involves stepping away from it.") Here was the past as national library, offering you on the back cover what sober and legitimate context was required, but otherwise letting the work, in considerable quantities, stand for its own powerful self.

Around the same time came a different orientation to the past, typified by the Norton label, run by Miriam Linna and Billy Miller. Norton presented American music from the '50s and '60s as regional and eccentric and extreme. Hits, in Norton logic, were exceptions; the more common reality was a bunch of tapes made by nobodies like Hasil Adkins, Wade Curtiss and Jack Starr. "The idea was the discovery of stuff that was not available at all," Linna told me. "We hated to call ourselves a reissue label — we wanted to find people whose music was never released." Here was the past as delirious garage-cult fandom, with lots of information attached, and it was just as immersive as the legit kind — again, as long as you went toward it, rather than waiting for it to come toward you.

When I think about listening to those B.B. King records in 1986, I am thinking of a time when the role of music's present was usually surprise, counter-argument and probable oblivion. The role of music's past was confirmation, grounding, study and possible immortality. My sense is that these roles are being reversed. In 2014, Daniel Ek, the CEO of Spotify, said to the New Yorker journalist John Seabrook: "We're not in the music space — we're in the moment space." This implies that music's past could become a sequence of brief, discontinuous moments, like quick-fading Snapchat pictures.

Ten years ago, I thought the effect of widespread, immediate access to so much of the history of recorded music would be that the past would come to merge with the present. It would simply become another room in the house. I liked that idea, and I imagine Mary Beard would too. But it seems, instead, that the more likely use of the past, and the more profitable one, is as a weird or uncanny diversion. It delivers you a punch in the neck and then retreats back into a flat, non-hierarchical landscape.

Audio cassette.
Serts/Getty Images

My encounter with Homer Banks happened during a conversation I was having in an Irish pub with Ken Shipley and Rob Sevier, who run the Numero Group, a Chicago-based label for reissuing old music. They have worked together for 15 years, long enough to become foils: Shipley is sparky and associative, optimistically building theories, and Sevier is saturnine and skeptical, taking them apart.

They were in Manhattan on scouting trips. The day before, they'd visited a private collector of instructional belly-dancing records in Brooklyn; they're working on a project about what they called "appropriated ethnic music." After meeting me, they were off to visit a New York avant-gardist of great stature with a promising archive of early work. They spend long periods of time working on multiple deep and esoteric projects simultaneously, finding master tapes, securing the rights, then doing the complicated work of re-framing the past. This is their passion.

Are they obscurity snobs? Probably. But beyond that, they are betting on a belief that even average listeners know there is more to the history of music than what has been placed before them by radio, algorithms or the happenstance of social media. Their work has originality and integrity as primary-use culture — you buy, you move towards, a Numero Group record or box set dedicated to a single artist or label from the past, beautifully designed and well-annotated, and you're going to learn a lot. But primary use isn't paying the bills anymore.

"Ten years ago, it didn't take any effort to sell 5 to 10,000 CDs," Shipley told me. "Now you're lucky if you can sell 3,000." Just recently, as they noticed in their last round of royalty statements, Numero has started to sell more LPs than CDs. And though there has been a gradual rise in the sales of LPs, the few small (actual) stores that sell them, as Shipley explained, prioritize LPs that young people are actually going to buy. The Beatles' Abbey Road, Metallica's Kill 'Em All, and so on. There may not be room in the bin for obscure soul records after that. The LP revival does not lift all boats.

Not long ago, they realized the vastness of their interests was outpacing the market. They'd been great at the game of reframing the past, and have been nominated for multiple Grammys for that work, but were now sitting on dead stock. As a consequence, they are putting out far fewer records now, a fifth as many as they did four years ago. And their priority, increasingly, is to be able to administer the "sync rights" (synchronization rights, for songs to be used in movies or TV or in ads) themselves. They've negotiated for songs — mostly American music from the '60s and '70s — in many movies: The Circle, The Trust, Loving — lots and lots. Take my word for it. If you don't talk about music while pointing at the ceiling in bars, perhaps you are doing it while pointing at the television. Same thing. You are pointing at the means of production. Secondary use.

"Our business is changing away from being a record company to being a copyright company, which is kind of ugly," Shipley said. From primary to secondary. "But: You make these records, they're really beautiful, and the record audience is actually really minimal. I don't care who you talk to" — here he named four other pre-eminent "reissue" labels — "Light in the Attic, Ace, Rhino, Now Again. Physical business is not the business any more, it can't survive on selling CDs and LPs. It's not a sustainable way of thinking about copyrights. The sustainable way is to figure out: One, how can you get something to stream as many times as possible? Two, how can you put it in a film, television show, or advertisement? Those are the two avenues for historical music that are available to finance it."

They hope that the '60s Girl Group playlist they made for Spotify, full of obscurities, called "Basement Beehive," will become more widely listened to than the mainstream-oriented one created by Spotify. (It's making gains. It could happen.)

Actively reframing the past is another way. Shipley and Sevier, who are putting their fingerprints on currents in music of the past that did not have a name or genre: "Kid Soul" (little-known Motown-era bands with pre-adolescent singers), "Black Vietnam" (war-haunted '70s soul and funk). They're taking many approaches: national-library, garage-cult, critical reframing and playlisting. They are sharing minute obsessions for fun, because obsession is fun, and it is communicable. But they are also challenging theories of relevance.

"We're reframing in a way that corrects for hits," Sevier told me. "Look at what the history of popular music is at any given point. What's focused on are the hits. We're getting into what happened at the time and creating a restructured version that just looks at what happened in the scene, but doesn't have anything to do with hits. Isn't interested in it." The restructured version doesn't just rule out big, dumb pop music; it might rule out B. B. King, too. But their theory is still legitimate. The American imagination, and American media, can stand to devote more time considering what was not made successful by the usual commercial forces.

When I pointed at the ceiling, Shipley and Sevier both made the same doubtful face. They were listening to the whole sequence of songs, not just the one that got me excited. This, I said to them, must be the real challenge in your work — it's easy now to have an adequately new experience with old music. You don't need to be curious about anything in particular; you just leave it to an algorithm or a new Netflix show and you'll hear something you don't know. They looked at me as if I didn't know the half of it. Or a fifth of it.

As Shipley suggested, I spoke to Matt Sullivan, of Light in the Attic, founded in 2002. "The sync world... to be frank, it's one of the last bastions of making a living in music," he said. His label, he explained, had hired one person to work on licensing ten years ago — now it has three. "There are more original TV shows," he said, "and a lot of supervisors now — this has been building for the last 15 or 20 years — come from a college radio or record-store background. Master of None, or Fargo, these shows have phenomenal music. They're almost the new form of college radio, in terms of a discovery tool."

This seems true. You want to know about new hip-hop and R&B? Watch Insecure. You want to see music used with subtlety as a mood, or as an extension of the character? Watch the shows Sullivan mentioned, or Transparent, or Big Little Lies, whose music supervisor, Susan Jacobs, very recently won the first-ever Emmy for music supervision.

Like Numero Group, Light in the Attic has released some of the most interesting records of the last 15 years: its Native North America compilation of Canadian Native-American folk-rock; the catalogs of Lizzie Mercier Descloux, Betty Davis, Françoise Hardy, and Rodriguez, all of which can reorder and expand the histories of pop you have in your head. It just put out a collection of the work of the 1990s Los Angeles post-rock band Acetone, a band which for me certainly needed reframing, since I ignored them at the time. At the moment, starting with the compilation Even a Tree Can Shed Tears: Japanese Folk & Rock 1969-1973, the label is looking toward Japanese pop from the '70s and '80s, the next frontier for discophiles — and if Sullivan is lucky, for secondary use.

It could be that the current generation of music supervisors for TV and film are establishing a new express lane that connects a certain kind of obscurantist taste (mining for overlooked artists who are either representative or unusual, but not exceptional in the old way, the stun-you-up-front, accomplished-all-around way of B.B. King, or Aretha Franklin, or Prince) and the most powerful secondary-source platforms for music. From there, they all run together; an obscure old song that gains traction in a film or TV show can quickly enter streaming-service playlists.

Our relationships to music are dictated by the means of its transmission to us.
Getty/Glasshouse Images

"I can fancy a man," wrote Oscar Wilde in The Critic as Artist, "who had led a perfectly commonplace life, hearing by chance some curious piece of music, and suddenly discovering that his soul, without his being conscious of it, had passed through terrible experiences, and known fearful joys, or wild romantic loves, or great renunciations." Music is particularly good at suggesting a kind of alternative past for the listener, Wilde argued, because it is always implying motion, and because it has a life of its own. It can't be bound by the intention of the composer.

Zach Cowie might disagree. I used to correspond with him 15 years ago when he worked as a publicist for Drag City records, and it was clear that he knew more about music than most of the writers he was helping. He is now one of the music supervisors for Master of None (he and Kerri Drootin are responsible for that Lucio Battisti moment at the end of that show's second season). They were also nominated for the music-supervising Emmy this year. He finds himself in an interesting position: His job is encouraging secondary use, but he worries about what secondary use is doing to music.

"I don't think any music goes beyond its intention," he told me. "And a lot of music that is being passed my way as a supervisor has a commercial intent. A lot of reasons got us to this point, but I can detect it right away. My interest in finding these old things is to find music that was made for the sake of making music," he said. "Music-making has changed so much since the era of everything's-available, to where I hear more direct derivativeness than ever before. I get pitched stuff all day: 'Imagine Kate Bush fronting Kraftwerk!' Well, the reason I love Kate Bush and I love Kraftwerk is because they never wanted to be anything other than themselves."

If Cowie is right — and if the commercial intent of more and more new music is, increasingly, for secondary use — what then? Will ahistoricism eventually make all music even out? The English theorist and critic Mark Fisher, who died earlier this year at the age of 48, had a Marxist answer to this question. Capitalism, as he wrote about it in the books Capitalist Realism and Ghosts of My Life, unhitches us from a structured idea of history and makes us unable to imagine a future of any kind, including a future of art. He noticed that pastiche was all around us in pop music of the '80s, coming with quotation marks included. But around the turn of the 21st century, he argued, the quotation marks came off, resulting in bands like the Arctic Monkeys. "They're clearly a retro group," he said in an interview from 2014, "but the category of retro doesn't make any sense anymore because it's retro compared to what?" It was around 2003, in his estimation, when he felt that listeners on a grand scale got used to the idea that they would never hear anything new again.

I'm sympathetic to that idea, but I can't fully get on board with it. Fisher was generally talking about pop music, which carries the profit motive genetically. But pop music isn't all music, and it makes sense that what lives by capitalism may die by it. I have spent a lot of time writing and thinking about music in which innovation happens slowly, and in which tendencies that might otherwise be known as "retro" are really strategies for survival, for learning from the elder spirits. In jazz, the elder spirits are often still alive, playing, sometimes giving lessons. Then there's hip-hop. Hip-hop's never satisfied for long. It comes with aspirations of change.

This isn't a bad period for music's past. (No time ever was.) And it has some clear advantages — a mania about stories, stoked by public radio and podcasts and documentaries; the everything's-available assumption, making what is not available seem exotically attractive; a sense of sociocultural reparation, leading the charge in bringing some artists back to light; and a furious new intensity of research, which is a byproduct of all the other advantages. (For example, A 12,000-word essay accompanies Numero's Hüsker Dü box set.) Now may be the time of passive encounters and secondary use, but it is also the time of the Julius Eastman revival. Eastman, the New York composer who died in 1990, was uncannily contemporary —an honorary citizen of now — in his forthright blackness, gayness, and disinterest in institutional power. The reissue culture of the last few years has directed us to his recorded music and has started to bring his repertory into contemporary music ensembles. None of this happened because of ahistoricism — quite the opposite.

But what if the real proof of Eastman's relevance is if his music becomes used for TV shows and streaming playlists, and thereafter lives only as vague allusions in the music of others who want their tunes to be picked up for later secondary use?

Boombox, well-loved.
Caspar Benson/Getty Images/fStop

The real lesson of the past, now that cultural artifacts have become so easy to share, is the unwieldiness of it. Once there wasn't enough, now there's too much to go around. A national-library approach to old music, understanding artists of special stature in and of themselves, may be respectful and responsible and history-minded, but isn't the only way, and can hardly be trusted. Who has bestowed the special stature? And what's their stake in it?

One of my recent interests is an English label, or some kind of music-organizing entity called Death Is Not the End, run by Luke Owen. He finished university seven years ago, he told me, and has worked for record distributors ever since, surrounded by old music. He has put together a series of brilliant shows for NTS — an English, web-based radio-station — filled with music still lurking below the level of collection, from pre-LP times, from the radio, from microphones someone stuck in the air at a certain time and place. The shows overlap with what he has released on his label, mostly digitally or in small editions on cassette. One of his recent shows, in mid-August, was an edit of various tapes from from reggae sound-clash and sound-system sets in London during the '80s and '90s. They represent hectic places. The backing tracks stop and start, the singers and toasters wail and imprecate and drift in and out, including one called Screamer, who made me think, much like Wilde's man, I've been there. They're not unlike field recordings, and as with many field recordings, there's not a lot of information attached to this music. The assumption, somehow, on behalf of someone, is that you don't want to know the information, or it's unknowable, or it's all better when presented as an uncanny mystery. I've looked up Screamer. Next to nothing. Less than An Luu.

The recordings come from sites like Who Cork The Dance, among others—online storage-houses of old soundsystem tapes. This isn't ephemera, it's the true broth. The sound-clash program was one of the best things I've heard in months. I went toward it, learned from it, made primary use of it. But I also got a major hit of the uncanny feeling, the punch-in-the-neck feeling. I wondered what was rendering this music especially attractive to me: the indistinct, slurry-like sound quality? The density of the action, making me conjure the place? The ongoingness and never-endingness of it, such that one thing is pretty much as good as the next? The fact that I don't know how to find out more about Screamer?

What's the worst that can happen? Oh, I don't know — where to begin? That new music won't suggest a future; that the only viable use of music's past is as ahistorical amusement to accompany scripted stories or conversations in bars; and every note ever played will level out into a vaguely seductive past-present. Perhaps, at that point, all music will become field recordings.