8 April, 2005

Back in 2003, after the end of the war part of the Iraq war (don't worry, this is a post about music, not politics), Seymour Hersh wrote an article in the New Yorker titled, The Stovepipe. Hersh defines "stovepiping" as taking a request for action arising from intelligence "directly to higher authorities without the information on which it is based having been subjected to rigorous scrutiny." In other words, stovepiping results in intelligence failures when conclusions are allowed to pass rapidly from the lowest levels of the intelligence gathering apparatus, the ones with their hands directly on new information as it comes in at ground level, up to the decision making authorities many levels above without passing through the normal many-layered time-intensive vetting and checking processes inbetween.

In the case of military intelligence and decision making stovepiping can cause failures of caution and diligence resulting, as in the Iraq war weapons of mass destruction problem, in calamitous mistakes in judgement on globally important matters. But what about in fields where the stakes are much lower?

Sometimes, being a band in the music industry can feel a whole lot like being a piece of intelligence in the intelligence apparatus. There are endless and endlessly picky levels of gatekeepers through which you have to pass before the real decision makers -- the audience -- can even hear you in the first place: club bookers, music label reps, radio station programmers, and music journalists of many stripes and levels of influence just to name a few. And each of these gatekeepers has different, and often contradictory, criteria for what music they'll put their weight behind. Whereas the process for vetting intelligence is, at least theoretically, based on objective methods for verifying facts, the process for deciding which bands get attention from all of the musical gatekeepers is random and corrupt: tastes differ, favoritism is rampant. I don't think it would be too controversial to say that if the music industry was in charge of our intelligence gathering and vetting they'd do an even worse job than the actual military and intelligence communities.

The thing is they do an equally bad job with identifying and promoting good music. Mediocre artists filter up because of coincidences of the social network and their location, great bands that could be widely loved are inexplicably ignored. Just look at the parade of small overlooked bands from the eighties and nineties that are currently having their day in a much brighter sun: Mission of Burma, Slint, The Pixies, etc. So, where stovepiping is a disaster when it comes to military intelligence, it could just be the savior of the music industry, or at least its audience. In musical terms stovepiping would be any opportunity for an individual or a small group to choose one or more bands that are not widely known but that the group feels are excellent and expose them to a much wider audience without having to go through all of the normal industry filters.

With the PDXPOP Now compilation selection process, I've been lucky enough to be involved with exactly such a process. In addition to seeking out tracks from some of the best of Portland's many successful bands, we also openly solicited CDs from anyone who wanted to send them to us. We listened to music from something between 300 and 400 different bands, most of which none of us had ever heard. All of us were amazed at the high level of quality amongst these entries. Each of us found five or ten bands that we really liked that we didn't know before. And the best part of it is that now we get to put songs by these bands on a CD that thousands of people will buy and listen to. I'm sure that some of the bands that will end up making onto the comp (the process is not quite one hundred percent finished) will end up having success far beyond what would otherwise have been possible for them. It's been exciting to see bands that were in this exact situation before last year's festival and compilation, like Wet Confetti and talkdemonic, have so much success in the wake of the CD and festival.

One last, hopefully larger, point here. With the intervention of the computer and the internet into the creation and distribution of music the barriers to making music and puttting it where anyone can get it are falling away. However, this does not necessarily mean that the cream will necessarily rise to the top and the best music will suddenly be freed from the constraints of the music industry's gatekeepers. If anything, these gatekeepers, albeit in a new form, will become even more powerful as listeners fight not to drown in the rising tide of available music. The more music is available to listeners the more they will rely on filters to limit the pool of what they're exposed to, and while some of these filters may end up being electronic or social (Music For Dozens, for example, is going to offer both), there will still be individual people and entities with a tight hold on what people listen to. In this environment the kind of musical stovepiping that PDXPOP offers will become even more important than it is now since the potential for really great music going unknown will be so high. And that is something that neither listeners nor artists want.

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