Countless times over the almost dozen years since we began publishing this magazine, I have written or spoken as kindly as could be managed the following phrase: We try not to hold an act’s commercial success or failure against them.
And we really don’t.
If you browse back through our covers online you’ll find indie artists, major-label artists, barely signed artists, a good handful of legends, and a few celebrations of willful obscurity. Or willful celebrations of obscurity, depending.
But this issue is a little different, for the Shins are, at just the moment I sit typing, arguably the biggest indie band in the nation. They debuted at #2 on the Billboard chart (after, I hasten to add, we’d made the decision to put them on our cover). Aldo Mauro photographed them — or, rather, their leader, James Mercer — in Manhattan the day before their appearance on “Saturday Night Live”, as only the second indie-label band ever to appear on that show.
A handful of the albums celebrated by our covers have gone on to sell into gold-record status, but not many, and we’ve never before stumbled so headlong into the deep and rushing waters of contemporary stardom.
It’s a weird feeling, to be honest.
There’s another thing I say too often in public: I’m the patron critic of lost causes, so, do you really want me to like your music?
It’s meant for a laugh.
It’s not entirely true. I’ve been…right…a few times.
That’s how I thought it, how I typed it just now: Right. It’s the word I always use, followed by a list of a handful of artists whose names would be familiar to people who don’t read this magazine, musicians whose magic was so blindingly obvious that not even I could miss it.
And that’s meant for a laugh, too.
What the hell do sales figures have to do with being right?
A few weeks back I had a pleasant e-mail exchange with a reader who felt we should not have counted the work of corporate millionaires when assembling our year-end poll. (We’d have published his letter, but it ended up being too long.)
Being poor doesn’t make you a better artist; it makes you hungry. Being rich doesn’t make you a better artist, and I suspect the temptations of wealth make it even more difficult to create lasting and significant work (though clearly that’s not a problem I’m apt to face, not either way you read that lazy sentence).
But, truth to tell, it’s Super Bowl Sunday and I’ve allowed myself — once again — to get caught up watching the wrong scoreboard. We don’t hold artists’ commercial successes or failures against them precisely because it doesn’t matter. The work matters. Art, after all, is created for an audience, for a marketplace, but one rarely gets to choose the size and makeup of that audience.
And so I’m right about the new Patty Griffin, and the new Mavis Staples (it is going to be a good year), and maybe the public will agree, maybe it won’t. Right, that is, that the experience of listening to those two records is such magic that I want everybody I know to share my pleasure, and at high volume.
Besides, the game is changing so fast it’s not even clear to me who’s keeping score, nor what winning (much less being right) means. For most of the last 30 years I thought I had a decent handle on what a record label was, what it did, how they were both good and evil institutions.
Anybody who says they understand what a label is now, much less what one will be tomorrow, well, they’re either brilliant or delusional, and I’d pick the latter.
It is argued that a less mediated marketplace — that is, music consumption without record labels — will allow more musicians to make a better living. Certainly a lot more music is being recorded and disseminated than was the case ten years ago, and the big labels are putting out less of it. But is it better music, and are the musicians making any more money? I’m not sure.
I am sure that a lot of good people in the music industry — the ones you want on your side — are looking for work right now, or will be soon.
And I’m pretty sure the Shins are having the ride of their lives right now. You have to be tickled for them, just as unlikely-looking a bunch of guys as were in the bands who first made Sub Pop famous, led by a fellow who looks to me like the cousin to the late, great Andy Kauffman’s “Latka” character from Taxi. Only he sings a whole lot better.