January has always been slump month when it comes to new pop music. Musicians tend to turn bearlike around this time, hibernating until conditions seem friendlier. Yet the resourceful pop lover will be anything but bored right now, with so much to reap from the eternally sunlit realm of the Internet.
On Christmas — the year's slowest retail day — one-man brain trust Damon Albarn offered a new album, "The Fall," to fans of his cartoon band the Gorillaz at no cost; he'd made the 15 tracks on his iPad during an October tour. New Year's Eve saw MIA release a new mix tape, VicKI LEEKX, which begins with the phrase "we chose the right format," an ideological swipe at the idea that pop is served best by the industry-marketing machine. A few days later, Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips told a Rolling Stone reporter of the group's plan to record and share a song a month instead of producing another traditional album. The always whimsical college rock elder mused on new possibilities, such as packaging the songs inside small toys. Most important, though, was a straightforward declaration of purpose. "We want to try to live through our music as we create it," he said, "instead of it being a collection of the last couple years of our lives."
These are just a few examples of musicians defying the norm as pop continues to evolve away from product and toward process. This is part of a larger trend, touching all corners of the culture. A few voices in the wilderness still profess longing for old-fashioned masterworks; in a recent conversation with "Fresh Air" host Terry Gross, for example, filmmaker David O. Russell skeptically asked, "[w]hen did it become true that if you just do something that seems like daily life, that that is art, or is great?" Increasingly, however, artists across genres and media are excitedly experimenting with ways to break down old hierarchies between high and low, casual and formal — even finished and unfinished work.
David Hockney's been selling works realized on his iPad; film and television bigwigs Joss Whedon and Bryan Singer are creating online serials that reflect the intimacy and healthy amateurism of YouTube. Blog-to-bestseller authors Julie Powell ("Julie & Julia") and Emily Benet ("Shop Girl Diaries") proved that sharing daily intimacies can draw in more than casual readers. More established writers, including the Twitter fiends Susan Orlean, Margaret Atwood and Roger Ebert have proved that social media can at least approach the realm of art.
The king and queen of cloud-enabled process art are the writer Neil Gaiman and the musician and performance artist Amanda Palmer. The recently wed couple produce plenty of well-honed product: He's a bestselling author of graphic novels, fantasy, young adult fiction and more, and she's perfected her post-millennial cabaret act in the bands Dresden Dolls and Evelyn Evelyn as well as with an endless stream of solo work.
What's revolutionary about Palmer and Gaiman, though, is their constant willingness to share new creative work with their worldwide network of fans. "Hit reload to see a fistful of new content," reads a line on Gaiman's website, and it's true, a reader could spend all day clicking on a mouse-roulette wheel and finding new short stories, essays, video and other material. Palmer goes her swain one better by posting fan art and videos as well as her own. She's been known to announce "flash concerts" via Twitter, sending hundreds of devotees to a just-disclosed spot to see her play. " WE ARE THE MEDIA," she declares on her blog. She, Gaiman and their fans are also their own self-sustaining creative community.
What artists like Palmer and Gaiman are doing often feels unprecedented and difficult to grasp, partly because new tools are powering the changes; music made on an iPad today seems like a novelty, the way the solid-body electric guitar did when back when Les Paul first developed it. But when it comes to music, at least, the new frontier may be leading us back to the source.
From the first time a prehistoric wanderer rhythmically hit a rock with a stick, music has resulted from human interactions with machines, unfolding before our ears. A piano is simply a prettier tool than a laptop. Even at its most story bound — say, in a Bob Dylan ballad — music-making is more profoundly about its own unfolding than about anything else. That's one reason why Dylan's bootlegs prove so fascinating: They expand our sense of what each of his classic songs can mean.
The most exciting music communicates the story of its own invention in ways that refresh themselves with every listen. That's why we love to hear music played live, and it's why moving beyond the confines of the album and the single can only intensify the influence of pop in our daily lives. Music becomes more to us in every moment that we live with it: more embedded in our psyches and more crucial to our communities and our privately constructed selves.
Kanye West's 2010 album "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" was, by virtually every critic's assessment, a hugely engaging old-fashioned album — and partly that's because its dense musical palette has that quality of constantly revealing different nuances upon repeated listening. (The same, it must be said, can't be claimed of all of West's rhymes, which are often disappointingly sexist.) The power of the completed work was only enhanced by what led up to it: West's much-imitated G.O.O.D. Fridays program exposed the beams of the finished album through a weekly posting of rawer material, only some of which became part of that final product. On one level, the G.O.O.D. Fridays program was a form of hype. But it was also a window into West's evolution that showed it to be continually worthy of engagement.
Great music is now constantly becoming available in ways that force us to reconsider what we're hearing, and how we listen. For half a century, musicians and fans have congregated along two poles: the album and the single. There's been plenty of spirited debate about the relevance of each form, as sales for conventionally distributed music continue to shrink and music lovers perfect new practices, building playlists and ripping music from the cyberspace cloud.
Album sales continue to drop — Nielsen's data-collecting service SoundScan just reported they're down in the U.S. by 12.8% — and hit singles grow scarcer, with only 86 scanning 1 million or more in 2010. These realities have had painful economic consequences. But they don't mean musicians aren't making great stuff, or that listeners aren't absorbing it.
The problem is, we still haven't devised a language to describe the increasingly vibrant area between the two poles of the studio album and the hit single. It's existed since the dawn of the modern-day music industry, this territory of remixes and B-sides and EPs and homemade tapes. And in 2011, this realm is increasingly where the action is.
That's not because artists have stopped making deep, complex, cohesive albums (there might be a new one by Radiohead this year!) or brashly musical, conversation-sparking hits (have you heard Wiz Khalifa yet?). It's because artists across the spectrum, from the indie fringe to the mainstream, are taking different kinds of risks by presenting work that isn't as easily contained with familiar categories. Musicians are coming to terms with exposing themselves creatively in something closer to real time.
Listeners — especially public listeners, like critics and people within that drifting iceberg known as the "music industry" — need to find ways to accurately assess this work, to promote it, to help it claim space next to the "real" releases that still dominate year-end lists, reviews sections and marketing plans.
Artists like Palmer and Gaiman and West, at any rate, are simply going to keep reinventing the terms themselves. For a year and a half, Beck has been bringing together a stellar crew of friends to participate in his Record Club, an informal gathering where musicians record new versions of albums by artists as different as Leonard Cohen and Yanni. The work is available, in video form, on his website.
That's only one outstanding element on Beck's website, which also includes regular DJ sets by him and featured guests, all kinds of video, and transcripts of Beck's conversations with such greats as Tom Waits and Caetano Veloso. Following in the footsteps of his Fluxus artist grandfather Al Hansen, Beck has made his online space into an artist's atelier where happenings of all kinds allow him to elaborate upon his vision.
I'll provide one more analogy that might help us comprehend where music is going: another crucial cultural work of 2010, not strictly linked to pop music but deeply reflective of the changes overtaking it. "Exit Through the Gift Shop," the Oscar-worthy documentary by the English conceptual artist Banksy, is a playful Escher print of a film, as much an optical illusion as a real depiction of the current art scene. (Is the whole thing a hoax? No one seems to know for sure.) But the film does present one clear ideal: The vibrant guerrilla warriors who throw up their graffiti-style works wherever space becomes available remind us that creativity can flourish everywhere. Banksy's adventures don't make for a perfect parallel for the music world, but they could serve as inspiration, as we all seek to define what it means to make art beyond the frame.