Kendrick’s Pulitzer and the Broader Issue of Discoverability

I enjoyed the NYTimes’ music editors’ discussion on the awarding of the Pulitzer Prize to Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN, the first time an non-jazz or classical music album has won. It seems like the consensus between the Times’ Pop and Classical music editors is deserved acceptance, but the conversation soon leads into a broader inquiry into the purpose of these awards: to shine a light (and finance) underexposed, underappreciated, and underfinanced work, or to recognize the most deserving work (in which case, Kendrick’s selection seems overdue).

If anything, it seems like the selection committee (which reportedly voted for DAMN unanimously) suffers from the same problem that has plagued most critics and all awards committees for decades: being late, oblivious, or purposely ignorant to the cultural zeitgeist. The critics point out several inexcusable cases of artists who have never been bestowed a Pulitzer, as well as those recognized decades after the release of their work.

Within the conversation is an incredibly resonant and hidden topic that captures the downside of the digital “liberation” of music brought on by streaming – popular artists have become increasingly popular, and new artists have less opportunities for critical consideration by the masses.

“DAMN.” is surely deserving, yet its victory feels like another sign of the world, and therefore the musical culture, we live in — embodied by the streaming services, through which the biggest artists and albums get more and more, and everyone else gets a smaller piece of the pie. This system is corrosive to music, period — classical, jazz, hip-hop, everything.

It’s a worthy thought that I think extends across all entertainment and as our mediums for consumption have become more digital, and effortless (i.e., less “intentional”) we spend less time developing and considering our tastes and discovering new artists, and leave much of this work to algorithms or established tastemakers (Increasingly, it feels like the best way to be recognized is to collaborate with an established artist – see: Thundercat / Kamasi Washington with Kendrick Lamar, Chance with Kanye, and then DRAM with Chance, etc. etc.).

Whereas record stores and radio stations (and bookstores, indie movie theaters, etc.) previously played a large role in helping us establish our music tastes, these avenues for ‘discoverability’ have all went online (and mostly to our mobile devices), and through the ‘winner-take-all’ economics of the internet, are in the hands of a few companies (less than two hands (ten) in total, I’d say).

Working in the publishing industry, but also someone who takes cultural consumption seriously, this is something that I think about a lot: how do we go about addressing the monopolization of entertainment distribution and retailing by an increasingly small number of companies?

While the internet is colloquially thought of as a way to democratize people’s exposure to differing opinions, art and ways of thinking, the internet has almost entirely gone the otherway: we’ve become beholden to just a few websites (or apps) for our internet “surfing” experience, and even more beholden to whatever’s “trending” on those sites, whether that trending is artificially manufactured or not. Even blogs (like this one) seem like an increasingly outdated mode of internet consumption, and have been taken over by aggregators like Facebook, Medium, and Instagram/Twitter for the more short-formed among us.

Somewhat counterintuitively, the place for serious cultural criticism and consideration of new artists continues to be in “analog” or from a bygone era: music digests like Maximum Rock’n’Roll continues to soldier on, and countless print-focused DIY magazines, zines, and publishing imprints continue to sprout up (see: NYTimes coverage on small press food magazines), and independent radio stations like WFMU continue to be the favorites of the artists who grace their airwaves (in a dose of good news this week, a woman named Suzanne bestowed a $10m gift to Seattle radio station KEXP in her will. One of KEXP’s prominent taglines – “robot-less radio.”) The other common thread, aside from their continued cultural importance, is their lack of long-term financial liability, as these companies would be the first to admit that they’re not-for-profit enterprises, following a “higher calling.”

I still don’t have a good method for replacing the role of record / book / video stores. While word of mouth continues to be the foremost way of learning about new music / movies / tv shows / books, the way which we consume these forms of entertainment have become fewer and more corporate. Another way of thinking about it: is Netflix not just a single television station, albeit one with more viewing options than normal? As Netflix has increasingly become a major player in the production of their own content, they’re increasingly no different than seemingly “old-guard” entertainment companies like HBO, AMC, or Showtime.

I may come off sounding like an old man yelling at a cloud here, I do think that it’s somewhat undeniable that the continued decline of the physical / analog isn’t without at least some consequence, and the long-term impact has yet to be determined.

As with many of the unintended consequences of our internet age, the solution is resides in being more intentional, and less automatized, with our habits. Author / designer Frank Chimero recently shared his system for navigating the music streaming universe in a recent blog post. As Chimero beautifully puts it: “A music fan needs a system to manage the abundance and glue back together their listening experience.”

I’m incredibly fascinated by these types of systems that seek to reign in the “riches” of the internet age. While they may not be any sort of payoff in the terms of remuneration or reknown, rather these systems seem to provide a sense of order to our hectic digital lives, where even the seemingly de-stressing act of listening to music can take on a sense of overwhelming and impotence. These systems emphasize the bygone analog habit of uni- or duo-tasking, while leveraging the internet to help better catalog and track our consumption. I’d be curious to see out similar methods to regulate other habits that have gone online, both related to consumption and outside of it (including email, longform articles, instant messaging, etc.).

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