Home > Uncategorized > Music is Not a Meritocracy

Music is Not a Meritocracy

A lot of independent music discourse centers around the idea of “overlooked” or “under the radar” albums. The example that I notice every year is when Pitchfork releases their middle-of-the-year list of “overlooked” albums, which this year includes some of my favorites (Hand Habits, Sneaks, Kelly Lee Owens), including a couple that I wrote about specifically because I thought they weren’t likely to get attention elsewhere. This Pitchfork list always amuses me because it seems to miss the fact that, in the world of indie music, what makes a band overlooked is that they didn’t get a highly positive review or a flashy profile on Pitchfork.com.

The important thing to remember is that “overlooked” and “obscure” are media-created definitions. All music at one point just exists in the world in isolation, and it’s only media narratives and reactions that determine what music becomes “overlooked” vs. the music that becomes popular or critically acclaimed. It’s also obvious from the world of pop music that success and attention aren’t really correlated with being actually good at making music, but are instead usually determined by some sense of marketability, mass appeal, image, etc.

In independent music, critical acclaim is usually the big factor that determines if a band gets the opportunity to reach listeners and become one of those bands that makes everyone’s year-end list and is considered culturally relevant. But what goes into a band getting that acclaim instead of being one of the “overlooked” bands on the June list is almost entirely arbitrary. It’s decided by critics who write for websites that are more concerned with building a “brand” than honestly evaluating music as art, and who face myriad conflicts of interest.

The biggest issue is that sites like Pitchfork are hopelessly intertwined with the artists they’re supposed to objectively cover. An artist like St. Vincent is essentially part of their brand at this point; they feature her in news pieces and interviews all the time, driving traffic to their website, and she plays at their music festival. So even though her new song, “New York,” is dreadful, Pitchfork is going to pretend that it’s good because they make money off St. Vincent being an acclaimed artist who is synonymous with their hip young people brand.

In addition to this, just like in the world of pop, who gets covered in indie music is more about the image and marketability of an artist than their music. The difference between which band gets a coveted “Best New Music” tag and who gets something like a 7.4 is usually a matter of public relations maneuvering, an artist being friends with the writers, or it’s because the artist is particularly good at self-promotion and has a “personality” that can be sold to readers.

This all makes it sound like Pitchfork are these puppet masters who control everyone’s music taste, which maybe sounds dramatic. But it’s really not so far-fetched. I still remember when Pitchfork did a massive reader’s poll of the best albums from 1997-present, and the results were practically identical to what Pitchfork itself had declared the best albums from that time to be. They’ve created their own base of consumers who share their taste and values, and can probably convince them that almost any band is good with enough editorial work. It’s not that the artists they praise are flagrantly awful, but they are often not any better or worse than artists who get no attention at all. So people hear the artists they recommend and think “this is good,” and might not consider the other artists who could be in that spot instead.

I get asked sometimes why I care so much about the media stuff, and it’s because of that trickle-down effect. It’s undeniable that the music media has a lot of control over which bands reach listeners and which don’t, and in a world where word of mouth is everything, their recommendations set the tone for the discussion. And the more I find bands on Bandcamp or through random Spotify recommendations, the more I suspect that nothing really separates those bands from the highly-covered ones except for the opportunity to be heard and the perception that they’re not important, which is determined by corporations whose goal is to make a profit, not to help music.

Most people aren’t losers like me who have a bunch of free time to sift through Bandcamp and try to find all this uncovered music. They rely on the media to comb through the millions of releases and spotlight the stuff that is worth listening to. But right now, they’re not doing a very good job. Every site’s content is redundant and covering the same tiny swath of music (indie-but-not-too-indie music made in England and the U.S.). Just look at the year-end lists they put up and marvel at how similar they all are. With so much good music out there and given the inherent subjectivity of the medium, it’s hilarious to see everyone decide on the same 20 “best” albums. Rather than embracing the diversity in tastes and perspectives that the internet can theoretically provide, music has mostly become a monoculture where a small number of artists are celebrated and trumpeted as “important” while the rest are thrown into a pile labeled “obscure” and assumed to be oddities that don’t appeal to most listeners.

There are specific types of artists who I notice get very little coverage in today’s media landscape. The ones I like the most are artists like Emma Ruth Rundle, quieter personalities who make subtle music that isn’t politically charged and doesn’t lend itself to crafting the narrative that the media desperately craves to make their reviews seem interesting. There are bands who specialize in certain genres that the media largely ignores or actively treats with disdain, whether it’s shoegaze, goth, metal, etc. And maybe the most glaring example is all the quality artists from foreign countries who make music that is every bit as worthwhile as Americans, but go unnoticed by primarily American and British writers who are busy enough covering what’s happening on their own turf.

There is so much good music out there that it’s impossible to comprehensively cover it all, so some great artists are naturally going to get overlooked. What bothers me is that these overlooked artists are often assumed to be inferior in some way to the artists who arbitrarily get hyped by writers who are often narrow-minded and susceptible to groupthink. There is this underlying assumption in a lot of indie music conversation that this is a meritocracy, that the most talked-about bands earned their coverage because their music was undeniably good. It just isn’t true, and all you have to do is listen.

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