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Ever since I saw them at All Tomorrow's Parties in Los Angeles three years ago, I've been a Califone fan. Every record they put out, it seems, is consistently excellent, and unquestionably interesting. When I hear of a new one coming, I actually look forward to hearing what they've come up with next.
I wonder, though, about how many other people even know about Califone, let alone get excited about their music. A few thousand, maybe? Not that number of fans has correlation to the quality of music, but it's odd to me that a band that's known by so small a group of people can play such a huge role in my musical world.
Recently in the Salon.com music blog "Audiofile" Thomas Bartlett asked the question "which is the most important band in the world?"
He was clearly asking to both spark debate amongst his readers and to just get a sense of what people might write in - and it's definitely an interesting question to think about. In 2005, is there really a band that could claim that title of "most important?" Is there a band that everyone looks forward to, that everyone devours, and that everyone is inevitably influenced by? Does that "everyone" really include everyone?
As far as I'm concerned, the answer is no - there is no "most important band" in 2005.
Sure, many people could make convincing cases for several different bands. I could listen to someone argue for Outkast, or for Radiohead, or for Wilco or even for Dr. Dre. But I could not be persuaded that any of those artists would be considered "most important."
Do hip-hop kids really look forward to the next Radiohead release? Or, further, are hip-hop artists being influenced by what Radiohead, or Wilco, are doing? Does Thom Yorke care what the RZA just put out? Do Wilco fans dig on Andre 3000? Are indie rockers feeling Dre?
No, probably not. So to claim that any one of those bands is "most important" would be hyperbolic at best, mendacious at worst.
The debate would inevitably run into personal tastes and prejudices, and never really be resolved (not that they can't be fun.) What actually emerges as the more interesting issue, though, is why there are no "most important" bands in this day and age, and why that is in fact a good thing for everyone.
It's pretty simple why no one can really lay claim to "most important band" anymore. There are two basic reasons, and they are both tied to the dawning of the Digital Age. First, it's easier to record music now than ever before. Second, it's easier to distribute music to a wide range of people than ever before.
Even ten years ago, recording music was very cost prohibitive. Studio time, production time, and even the tape to record on were all much more expensive than the average band could afford. Ever since super-fast home computers and Pro Tools, though, pretty much anyone with a couple thousand dollars and some motivation can record songs without too much trouble, and as a result the number of bands recording their music has grown exponentially.
Before the Digital Age, the only way to distribute music was to get it recorded and then physically distributed to radio and to record stores. After the hurdles of recording it was still very hard, and also expensive, for a band to get their music to listeners. Now, with the Internet and downloadable MP3s, and the explosion of broadband internet access, it is absurdly fast and easy to hear relatively high-quality song samples from countless bands.
What that all means is that there are a lot more bands able to record their music, and it is exponentially easier for listeners to get their hands on it. This explosion in quantity and in access actually allows listeners to more easily cater to their own personal tastes, and fall into smaller niches.
Or, more simply, it just means that there are few, if any, bands that everyone listens to. Before there was this explosion in choice and expansion of access there was only a few bands you could really hear, and in only a few places. The radio, maybe one of the late night TV shows, the record store - that was about it. So, naturally, people gravitated towards the biggest things of the era.
Now, though, there is a wealth of choice, and ease of access. It is a glorious time for all music fans. Is what's currently popular and getting radio play not interesting to you? Go find any one of the hundreds of thousands of underground bands. Straight-ahead rock starting to bore you? Find out about new electronic artists, or start dabbling in hip-hop. And so on and so on.
This era of expanded choice and access clearly diminishes the importance of any one single band. Not that it's a bad thing - we don't need there to be one high and mighty "important" band. It is better that there are several all at once - it also allows us as music fans to create our own list of bands and artists that are important to us individually, and then look to share that with others. Our tastes then become varied, and since there is always something new to look forward to, whether through our own discovery or through what our friends or favorite writers and web sites tell us about, we barely have time to focus for too long on any one band.
I think we music fans haven't really fully grasped what a golden era we live in. Instead of focusing on the past, about how there's no one to take up the mantle of The Beatles or the Stones, we should be celebrating our present. For right now, we have the vast and multivariate collected work of several bands and musicians, and it is that entire body of artistic achievement that's really important.
Dan Filowitz is Toronto-born, New-Jersey-raised, Indiana-University-educated, and Chicago-residing. In addition to his Lost At Sea contributions, Dan is a senior staff writer for political humor site TalkStation.com and the president of ChicagoImprovAnarchy (The CIA) a Chicago-based improv theatre company. We are not mentioning the 9-5 corporate job. Apparently, Dan does not sleep much. Dan Filowitz is the perfect dinner party guest - fun, witty, intelligent, with wide-ranging interests, ecclectic tastes and a winning smile. Just make sure you have coffee available.
See other articles by Dan Filowitz.
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