“This essay idea sounds interesting. Maybe from the first person perspective of an artist who creates and posts at mp3.com his own mediocre music. Your personal insight into this phenomenon may inspire other musicians of your caliber to hang it up and your first revolutionary gesture of goodwill could be removing your own songs from the site in the name of maintaining a standard of radio-ready professionalism. Free up the bandwidth? I believe this is better for everyone in the long run.” (Reviewer feedback on 5/24/01 to review of Randal Lee Crowley’s song Outskirts of Town by Chris K.)
As a professional music critic for the past couple of decades I am not used to the kind of feedback we often receive concerning our reviews here at Gods of Music. A few days ago I wrote a review in which I said I’d been considering writing a review called “The Art of Mediocrity – The MP3.com Challenge.” Actually, I already had the first draft of the article completed and sitting in file, and was only waiting for a chance to do some editing on it. However, I wrote the original article from the perspective of a radio programmer seeking to find the best radio-ready material available on MP3.com. This idea of writing it from the perspective of “an artist who creates and posts at mp3.com his own mediocre music,” is intriguing. I have been known to be a harsh music critic, and as such I’ve often wondered how “publishing” my music online weighs out against my standards as a critic.
As a radio programmer I do not program my own music. For proof of that, all one has to do is go to Pro Critic Radio, the MP3.com station page I maintain. As a radio programmer, I consider my own music to fall well within the basic definition of “The Art of Mediocrity.” My life’s work has been in the field of radio programming and music review and critique. (Note: as of the writing of this editorial, I have pulled down my own mediocre work from MP3.com and other sites – c.k.)
Just what is mediocrity? According to numerous searches of online dictionaries, the word means: of average or common quality, neither good nor bad, barely adequate. In more recent times, and especially when used in the context of “Internet-indie music,” it appears that the word has taken on a severely negative or undesirable connotation. If fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The problem may actually exist more in the reality that with nearly one million songs on MP3.com alone, there are far greater numbers of commonplace songs than those which are worthy of the intense scrutiny required to be considered for more professional endeavors, such as film or radio airplay. The commonplace, or mediocre, has become the standard against which Internet-indie music is compared, as opposed to the higher “radio ready” standard traditionally used to base comparisons on.
When attempting to define what elements constitute the art of mediocrity, the following characteristics must, by nature, come into play:
- vocal work that is not on pitch,
- instrumentalists performing out of meter to one another,
- instrumentalists performing out of tune
- vocalists and / or instrumentalists performing in such a manner as to clearly show a lack of skill,
- recordings done using commonplace recording technologies.
The Internet is rife with this sort of material. Peer to peer artist reviews, when used as a filter to determine the quality of such work, has proved to be of little or no help in determining the exceptional from the mediocre. The mainstay methodology for many artists seeking chart and financial pay for play success has been to promote and reciprocate in the downloading and reviewing of one another’s music, further exacerbating the problem. Consequently, mediocrity has become a more acceptable pattern of behavior and accomplishment within the Internet-indie music world.
Frank Lloyd Wright (1868 – 1959) wrote that “Mechanization best serves mediocrity .” The independent music industry, represented by the mechanical beast known as the Internet, is bloated beyond conceivable measure. Just on MP3.com alone there are nearly one million songs. ONE MILLION. That is a mind staggering number. Mediocrity has become the norm if for no other reason than the massive numbers behind the mechanization of Internet-indie music distribution. This vast commonness therefore dictates that the exceptional is indeed the exception, so when one does hear an exceptional piece of work it’s easily recognized. To find the exceptional among the immense volume of mediocre work represented requires diligence and perseverance, if for no other reason than the exceptional is so often buried amidst the ever growing and burgeoning legions of those whose music could be considered mediocre. However, for those inclined to search, such exceptional music can be found. When found, music of such quality is to be marveled at for its gemlike brilliance in the midst of the surrounding coal.
Someone told me recently, in either an email or in a bulletin board post somewhere, that the Beatles were once considered mediocre, yet they shook the world. Perhaps starting out they were average and commonplace. Afterall, they did begin as a cover band. Perhaps the Rolling Stones were also once considered commonplace or mediocre, until they had something to say other than the blues covers they began with. But, somewhere along the way these world changing bands ceased to be average and became extraordinary, influencing legions of songwriters, guitarists, singers, bass players, drummers, producers, and recordings. When these bands began, rocknroll was in the toddler stages of its growth and development. In 1964, according to the RIAA Website , there were approximately forty-five songs certified as gold. In the year 2000, there are over one thousand entries certified as gold, platinum or multi-platinum. Today, as compared to 1964, there are tens of thousands more bands, and hundred of thousands more releases. Counting independent label releases, there were over thirty eight thousand records released to retail in 2000. Factor in Internet-indie music across the omds, and that number is magnified many times over.
The art of mediocrity is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It is, simply stated, the middle ground, that which is unexceptional in its presentation, whether because of average recording production, average songwriting skill, average singing, or average playing. There is no abating or mediating the situation as long as people are willing to trade positive reviews for reciprocal downloads. There is no reducing the degree to which mechanization plays a part in the art of mediocrity, unless Internet radio stations and music distributors begin to differentiate between the professionally produced and performed work and that which is not. Essentially, we have reached a point where all music, regardless of quality, has a place online. Essentially we have reached the level where we are accepting of the art of mediocrity.
Chris K. is a retired radio programmer and broadcaster, with over 25 years experience. He is also a published music and industry critic, with articles and reviews appearing in both local and national trade publications. Currently he is the Director of Pro Critic Radio on MP3.com,V.P. of marketing for CMAP Music International, an active member of Colorado Musicians Association, a forum moderator for the Independent Musicians Cooperative in radio, and a manager and editor for Godsofmusic.com. This work is protected under all applicable copyright laws as may exist on the Internet or elsewhere in the physical world. It may not be duplicated and distributed in any manner without the express written permission of the copyright holder.. Copyright 2001, Chris “K” Kresge.