SoundCloud Was a Haven

soundcloud.com was a haven for creative people working in sound. The launch of the New SoundCloud has perhaps brought an end to that. It has become an even better place for those who wish merely to promote their music, although some of the problems yet to be ironed out affect them as well. Most of all it’s become another playground for the Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr crowd. Basically it’s becoming a repetition of the standard market model—a few creators and a mass of consumers—but with an internet twist.

I’m not going to give an in-depth critique of the new interface. There are two multifaceted changes that, to me, are fatal flaws which I think will decide whether I stay with SoundCloud when my membership is up for renewal in the spring; whether those I follow stay on SoundCloud; and whether this blog will fail because I have nothing to link to.

In the spring of 2011 a friend suggested I post my recordings on soundcloud.com. Why not. I put up a fifteenth anniversary collection of my poems/soundscapes/soundtracks (whatever they are) called 15 Years of Prattle and Din (take note: I am not linking to it). It might not have gone much farther if I hadn’t stumbled into something much more interesting than a possible audience.

I’ve since heard that SoundCloud was conceived as a means for sound artists to connect, share, communicate, and collaborate. That’s what I found: an almost-community; a semi-social network of similarly-minded creative people (mostly poets and experimental sound artists) amidst the hundreds of thousands or millions of musicians posting there. A nebulous collective of very distinctive talents with whom I could become involved.

For me this was a new experience, having spent much of my life in creative isolation. It started out slowly by exploring and joining groups, by following the artists found there. It was exciting enough just to discover people with similar ideas, just to be a fan. But then I’d read the comments on the tracks and sometimes add my own—this would lead to replies, which became discussions through further comments and emails. Now I feel like I’m a part of something that might well come to an end.

So, one change in the New SoundCloud, the tiny comment boxes that are only a single line, might kill it for me. This is two-fold. First, the aforementioned dialog becomes stunted. The comments are unnecessarily difficult to read.

Second, and almost as important to me, is the option of passing on information to listeners, to show a little courtesy to those who might actually care to hear what I’m saying. I think right from the beginning I posted some production notes on the track page, but very early on I also started posting the text to my poems and rants on the track page. This was initially at the request of non-English speakers. With them having to open up a special page, it seemed like they had to work too hard to know what I was saying. I started to post the text in a track comment. The feedback I’ve gotten is that this is helpful, even for native English speakers, that a person can listen to the recording and then go back to verify what they think they’ve heard. But I can’t do that with the new comment boxes.

The other problem area involves listening to those I follow.

The positive reviews of the new interface tell us how much easier it is to listen to your stream, how much simpler your stream is. True, if you’re a passive listener. I’ve never paid attention to the stream (didn’t even know it had a name). On the dashboard (which is now gone) there was the stream, there was a tab for incoming tracks, and a tab for activity on my tracks and comments—those latter two tabs are what I would pay attention to. Both tabs are gone: activity on my tracks (and comments on my comments?) shows up in a sidebar to my stream and the incoming tracks are only to be found in the stream itself. This might have been a good thing, simplifying the inflow of information. But now that the social media crowd are the focus of the SoundCloud experience, tracks can be reposted (honestly, I don’t begrudge this—I just want to be able to block repostings). Thankfully very few of those I follow have been reposting. Even so, it adds a lot of clutter and distraction to my stream.

There’s currently no way to delete recordings from my stream, as I could with incoming tracks. If I can’t block incoming repostings I’d at least like to be able to delete them from my stream. More importantly, after I’ve heard someone’s recent posting I would delete it from my Incoming Tracks page to minimize clutter and make it easier to explore just those recordings that have been posted since the last time I checked in. Not any more. This, also, might not be a problem if I had all the time I needed. I don’t. Time is an extremely precious thing in my life and the New SoundCloud is wasting it.

I only follow about 100 people, but even this is a drain on time that could be spent creating my own work. I follow them because I’m interested in what they’re doing and/or because I support the cause (this would be all the poets). If I only have fifteen minutes to listen before I have to do something else, all the recordings I didn’t get to will be buried under those I’ve already heard, plus all the newer incoming tracks, plus all the repostings. I have so little time to listen as it is, now I have to dig for those recordings I actually want to hear.

For years I’d been looking for a few people doing something similar to what I’m doing, recording poetry with other sounds, or who are just interested in such things. Then I accidentally stumble into this really cool place called soundcloud.com. I’d like to stick with it. More importantly, I’d like the others to stay with SoundCloud.

For now I’m still using the old SoundCloud, as are many of those I follow. But for how long?

I hope this blog is a lament and not an obituary.

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Pretension

Last summer I had an email exchange with fellow soundclouder Lee Foust about contributing to this blog (he’s in the process of publishing a book, more information regarding this and other works can be found on his website and his blog, Sputnik—you might also want to google his old band, Nominal State) . He mentioned that his students found many things “pretentious” and that he thinks pretension is a requirement for the creation of art. The subject has been nagging me for months.

I find I’m unable to pick apart what he said to guide you into my own essay—and we’ll generally be talking about something different; that is, different interpretations of pretension and how it applies to art—so I’ll quote his paragraph in full, and maybe it’ll nag your thoughts, too:

“As yet I don’t really have much myself to say on the issues that you raise or upon the form itself. I try, in my CW workshop, to play recordings for students and perform myself once a year at the art school where i teach this course, to expose them to performance and inspire them–but, for the most part, they seem rather shy. Often performance for them is “pretentious.” At art school this seems to be the most feared word. As a post-’77 punk I find this similar to the revolutionary musician’s “street cred.” The establishment (mainly through journalism) tames and quiets the musician or artist by creating false paradigms–the artist is a savage who cannot understand what they made/do and if they self-consciously (as in performance) do appear to understand their own art they are “pretentious.” I always argue that without pretension there is no art–innocent art is a lie–the artist always knows what they are doing, I think, we must pretend/fight to let the chaos in rather than vice-verse. So, performance is a hard sell to America’s youth I find. Even I, listening to FareWell Poetry found it rather too slick–but I’m falling into the same trap I think, I find it rather controlled and too well orchestrated. There is, I guess something to be said for a little chaos, a little chance in art, perhaps. So I spin around in contradiction apparently. Ha.”
—from an email dated July 9, 2012

To that I want to add a dictionary definition of the word:

1

: characterized by pretension: as

a: making usually unjustified or excessive claims (as of value or standing) <the pretentious fraud who assumes a love of culture that is alien to him — Richard Watts>

b: expressive of affected, unwarranted, or exaggerated importance, worth, or stature <pretentious language> <pretentious houses>

2

: making demands on one’s skill, ability, or means : ambitious <the pretentious daring of the Green Mountain Boys in crossing the lake — American Guide Series: Vermont>

—from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary

The social meanings of pretension are pretty clear, basically synonymous with social climbing and ostentation, the ubiquitous wanna-be quality of the modern world. In my day-to-day drudgery behind the scenes of corporate America (I install office furniture), I see this sort of pretension primarily in the marketing and art departments (the latter could lead to a whole discussion of people figuratively putting on berets…to me, they are fashion flakes, people more concerned with social status than art…or to a discussion of how many of these people feel they’ve sold out, given up on true creativity by making corporate icons, when in fact they’re generating the only kind of art our society values, whether it’s the logo or the Sunday newspaper ad, which often causes them to give their beret a defiant tilt).

In regard to art, pretension often seems a misnomer, something applied to anything you don’t like or don’t understand or are uncomfortable with, as it appears with Lee’s students.

I came of age in the era of Progressive Rock (born in 1957—you do the math). In my experience pretension is a synonym of grandiose and over the top. It’s what artsy people in England do. Basically, it’s the opposite of Real Rock.…I’ve actually come around to another side of this argument and find that dumbing down is more pretentious than trying to excel. If you have the training, as, for instance, many of the prog rockers had, why would you ignore your skills and ambitions to play simple rock? Is it more sincere? Are three basic chords somehow more authentic than six esoteric or exotic chords? What’s more pretentious than someone from a middle or upper class background with a PhD. singing folk songs or blues?

I was brought up to be a janitor or something similar. So, for me, any creativity, any artistic activity, anything that pushes my imagination and consciousness beyond going to work for 40 hours a week and then taking care of my home and family is pretension. (Actually, it might be considered insanity.) I have absolutely no business writing or recording poetry (or even reading it!). I have no business drawing or painting. Who the hell do I think I am writing a blog and expressing opinions? So much of my life is a betrayal of who I was meant to be.

The only art that I saw before I was eighteen (I exaggerate slightly in that we were presented with Literature in high school but few students could connect with it in any way) was commercial art: advertisements and illustrations, pop music and Hollywood, radio jingles and slogans both corporate and political, billboards and magazines, television and radio. This is almost certainly reflected in my own art, especially my drawings and paintings. Even here I could say that what I create is pretentious in that I usually hope to express something—usually nothing more than to give notice that I feel or that there was an electrical blip somewhere that might be construed as thought. This is nothing more than a continuation of the pop culture of my youth. If I had been born into a different era, one that only believed in entertainment, where making meaningful statements was something left to the scholars and writers of Literature and to professional artists, I might have been content to entertain. Maybe I would even have been content to sweep floors.

I find any art that doesn’t push boundaries, any artist who isn’t going beyond what was done yesterday—which I suppose could also be considered pretentious by many who don’t like the next step or don’t understand it—falls short. “I always argue that without pretension there is no art–innocent art is a lie…” I tend to agree with Lee’s statement. Any artist who does the same thing over and over, who isn’t pushing boundaries, who isn’t trying to surpass what they’ve already done is either a moron or a cynic (placating an audience).…In a sense the artists of the Modernist period were false in exploring primitive, child, and insane art—”innocent” art—in trying to find a purer, more honest art: it could be considered strangely pretentious. The search, based on a question, was honest. Presenting their products based on that search as pure and honest art was pretentious. I don’t know that this makes it bad art, that we should no longer study Gaugin, Picasso, or Klee. I don’t see the Academic art of the late-19th Century as being any more pretentious, just as I fail to see Prog Rock as pretentious. The questions are: does any of this art express anything of interest; do you find the technique and message working together; does this work make you feel anything. And if you’re at all familiar with the artist’s career: is the artist developing; is the artist growing as a human being and is this expressed in the work.

In my experience art begins with chaos and spontaneity. It’s rare that I feel like a conduit for something outside myself—maybe because I’m too aware of the fact of my subconscious—but I almost always start with a free association, a somewhat random connection of sounds, words, or images. Then I edit and revise and polish. Not all artists work this way. I know artists who start with ideas or a need to express a specific feeling, who are very conscious of their goal right from the start. I know artists who hate to revise or polish. I know artists who seem to have no chaotic spark visible in the finished work.

So much for fear and ignorance and cultural posturing (which is pretentious). Like an organism, all art must grow or die. All artists must go beyond what they did yesterday. I find it difficult to label any vital, active artist “pretentious”. To me it’s the consumer using art for social prestige and advancement, the nauseating connoisseur, who should face the accusation.

But what do I know? I’m supposed to be cleaning up someone else’s mess.