Killing Benji: Mark Kozelek and the Impact of a Creator’s Sins on Artistic Achievement

Note: This post contains strong language and references a graphic song title.

Under his Sun Kil Moon moniker, singer/songwriter Mark Kozelek released his latest studio album, Benji, last February. The album was met with rapturous praise for its brutal, poignant, and raw depiction of loss. In his review for Pitchfork, Ian Cohen wrote:

There are 11 songs on Sun Kil Moon’s astonishing sixth LP Benji, and in nearly all of them, somebody dies. And that’s not including the ones where someone’s on the verge of death or seriously headed towards it. Toddlers die, teenagers die, adults die, and the elderly die. They die of natural causes and in freak accidents. People die alone and people die by the dozens—handicapped children, single parents, grandmothers, serial killers. They die out of mercy and die long before they’re due. Rednecks die as respected men and white collar kids die in disgrace. But more importantly, Mark Kozelek wants us to know that they all lived, loved, fought, fucked up, and often did the best they could, before he sets out to “find some poetry to make some sense of this and give some deeper meaning” to their tragedies. Turns out he doesn’t have to dig very far. Here, Kozelek does away with the metaphor and verbal obfuscation often used to distract an audience from their own joy, sadness, crippling failures, and small triumphs. If listeners find themselves unable to make it through Benji in one piece, it’s because Kozelek all but forces us to recognize how the most emotionally moving art can be mapped directly on to our own lives.

Benji is a monumental exercise in empathy. We empathize with and mourn for the people Kozelek so brilliantly sketches – among them, a single-mother nurse working the late shift killed in a freak accident, a friend who suffers through a debilitating injury while playing guitar, and the children and teachers murdered in the massacre at Newtown:

So when Christmas comes and you’re out running around,
Take a moment to pause and think of the kids who died in Newtown.
They went so young, who gave their lives
To make us stop and think and try to get it right…
Were so young, a cloud so dark over them
And they left home, gave their mom and dad a kiss and a hug.

So when your birthday comes and you’re feeling pretty good,
Baking cakes and opening gifts and stuffing your mouth with food,
Take a moment for the children who lost their lives.
Think of their families and how they mourn and cry.

We empathize with Kozelek’s personal acquaintances who “map directly to our own lives,” particularly when Kozelek sings about his mother and father:

My mother is 75
One day she won’t be here to hear me cry.
When the day comes for her to let go,
I’ll die off like a lemon tree in the snow.
When the day comes for her to leave,
I won’t have the courage to sort through her things.
With my sisters and all our memories,
I cannot bear all the pain it will bring.

And we empathize with Kozelek himself, who frames these insights and tributes as reflections in the course of his life on the road, often juxtaposed with memories of his youth and fears of his own mortality.

Kozelek’s lyrics are the most important component of Benji’s resonance, and his unique verse structure contributes to their incisiveness. The intensity and deeply personal subject matter of the album is paired with a lyrical delivery that often comes across as Kozelek simply reading from a diary. His couplets often run a couple of beats too long beyond traditional verse rhythms, giving each song a spontaneous, informal, and intimate feeling. At first, this comes across as a curious technique that clashes with the serious subject matter; by the end of the album, it’s mesmerizing, showing just how confessional and raw Kozelek’s stories can be.

Benji’s power comes from a source that’s greater than the sum of its parts. To appreciate Benji is to place one’s faith in Kozelek- to develop a bond of solidarity, to rage and mourn and quietly reflect alongside him. Kozelek never characterizes himself as a perfect man in any of the songs on Benji; far from it, in a couple of cases. But he does position himself as a searcher of truth through so much chaos and pain and heartache, a man trying to make some sense and create order and meaning in a world of hurt. Benji’s resonance ultimately lies in the shared conviction that the listener develops with Kozelek over how music is a vehicle to preserve and make meaning out of things that will fade away.

It’s been odd, then, to read the news surrounding Mark Kozelek over the past month. Instead of being included on “album of the year” lists, Kozelek’s name has been floating around the pop music scene because of a bizarre, pointless fight he picked with The War on Drugs, an alternative rock band based out of Philadelphia led by Adam Granduciel. It’s the kind of thing that shouldn’t make the news and shouldn’t rise above the level of “forgettable beef.” Instead, Kozelek’s words and actions have begun to make critics reconsider the merits of Benji and spurred criticism about the use of language of male violence.

Which raises the ever-recurring question once again: to what extent should an artist’s personal views and actions impact how the audience views his/her work?

* * *

To briefly summarize what happened: Kozelek and The War on Drugs were playing concurrent sets at the Ottawa Folk Festival earlier this fall. Noise from The War on Drugs’ concert was bleeding into Kozelek’s venue, prompting Kozelek to make crass remarks about how the band was playing “beer commercial lead-guitar shit.” After that concert, Kozelek issued a “challenge” through the press for Granduciel to play with him onstage and continued to take shots at The War on Drugs. He then released a new seven-minute song for free called “War on Drugs: Suck My Cock.” After Granduciel criticized Kozelek in an October interview, Kozelek then recorded another new song (“Adam Granofsky Blues”) that featured him reading Granduciel’s interview comments… and laughing at them.

This entire sequence of events probably sounds intensely stupid and pointless. And it is! For reasons unknown, Kozelek decided to press on and parlay this pathetic war of words into actual songs for all to hear, sonic tokens for a PR spat that never should have happened in the first place.

And guess what? There are a lot of problems with both “War on Drugs: Suck My Cock” and “Adam Granofsky Blues.” Here’s Meredith Graves on how Kozelek is contributing to a culture that encourages male violence through language:

When Mark Kozelek chose to start and carry on a completely one-sided and extremely public feud with a band who genuinely did nothing wrong, who chose not to retaliate and even stated their position as fans of his work, who seem hurt and confused by Kozelek’s constant public attacks that persisted for weeks and how said attacks affected their year—that doesn’t seem like entertainment. It’s important to call it what it is: emotional abuse.

Which is why, in all likelihood, Kozelek chose to say “suck my cock” instead of “I think your band is bad.” “Suck my cock” is a command heard most often in two places: heterosexual porn, and schoolyard taunts between presumably straight boys. In no way does Mark Kozelek actually want his cock sucked by the members of the War on Drugs. What he wants is to make them feel violated, to make them feel submissive. “Suck my cock” is an order, not a request. “Suck my cock” is, when used by the wrong person, the language of physical force, the language of rape.

Graves notes in her piece that the initial press response to the song was actually quite positive, with some major outlets labeling it as “goofy” and a lighthearted “dis track.” But even if you disagree with Graves’ own analysis of the song and find the track to be a bit of harmless fun, it is difficult to think Kozelek is just “playing around” after listening to “Adam Granofsky Blues.” Hearing Kozelek laugh and laugh and laugh at Granduciel’s comments comes across as vicious, mean-spirited, and slightly sadistic, especially in light of the fact that Granduciel is only just recovering from intense anxiety and depression that made it difficult to even leave his apartment.

Maybe Kozelek is unaware of Granduciel’s depression. Regardless, the aggregate effort Kozelek has put into perpetuating this fight, especially given that Granduciel and his band did literally nothing to deserve this, paints a picture of him not as cranky and curmudgeonly, but cruel, pathetic, and deeply wrong.

* * *

The events of the past few weeks have made it seem as if there are two Mark Kozeleks. The first is the creator of Benji, an imperfect, admirable chronicler of things that will fade away; the second is a guy who thinks “all you rednecks, shut the fuck up” is a witty chorus lyric. The former is trying to testify to people working their way through pain; the latter is someone who actively perpetuates pain.

This has not gone unnoticed. As noted earlier, part of Benji’s allure was its authenticity, both in terms of the people Kozelek pays tribute to and the beauty of his work in doing so. The recent War on Drugs incidents have framed Kozelek in a decidedly more negative light and, as a consequence, are casting doubt on his conviction in Benji. More broadly, Kozelek’s senseless spat with Granduciel raises the recurring question once again: to what extent should an artist’s personal sins affect how viewers interpret his/her art? Should an artist’s character bear influence on how their work is consumed and remembered?

The general answer to this question is no. An artist’s indiscreet or harmful actions outside the context of their art should not be taken into consideration when weighing their art’s merit. That Roman Polanski molested a child and fled the United States should not affect how we view the thematic quality of his films, even though we might vehemently condemn his actions and consciously refuse to view his work to refrain from financially supporting him. Of course, there are exceptions, especially when malignant beliefs and perspectives affect the thematic core of a piece of art or body of work. The debate about how Heidegger’s philosophy should be judged given his support of Nazism in the 1930s immediately comes to mind.

Kozelek’s indiscretions are obviously far less weighty than extreme sexual impropriety or support for genocidal fascism. But his words and continual mocking engagement of Granduciel have already begun to detract from the successes of his earlier work as well as his new projects. Kozelek released an album of Christmas songs during the first week of November, and in his review for Pitchfork, Mark Richardson couldn’t help but discuss both this album and Benji in the context of the War on Drugs incidents:

Timing is everything. We’ve known for a while that Mark Kozelek was going to be releasing a Christmas album before the end of the year, but for much of that time Kozelek was riding a wave of goodwill following the release of (the still very good, even if I’ve stopped bringing it up at parties) Benji. Now Sings Christmas Carols finally comes out and it feels like an unwanted present from the obnoxious uncle you try and avoid at family gatherings… Kozelek is looking pretty sad, not to mention that he’s probably alienating new fans he may have acquired since Benji’s release. And now we’re supposed to allow him into our homes and into Mom and Dad’s 5xCD changer, slotting his CD next to Dolly Parton and Nat King Cole and A Charlie Brown Christmas? If nothing else, we can be thankful that Kozelek finished this album some time ago, so he didn’t alter his version of “The Christmas Song” to include the line “Although it’s been said, many times, many ways, War on Drugs can…

The musical composition of “War on Drugs: Suck My Cock” also detracts from Benji’s positive reception. Benji’s music is sparse, plaintive, and repetitive; nearly every track is based on a simple lush melody that’s looped again and again, usually with minimal development, build, or change in form. It was a relatively low-fi approach, but the elegant simplicity of each song suggested a good amount of thought went into the planning of each piece. “War on Drugs” features almost identical production value- and Kozelek banged it out in a matter of days. Maybe there wasn’t actually that much work put into Benji, after all. Maybe that unique lyrical structure is just a lazy songwriting construct instead of a conscious attempt at intimacy.

Maybe, though, these allegations are unfair. Despite the many criticisms listed in this piece, Benji is still a gorgeous, haunting, often beautiful album. It may lack a certain authenticity that came with identifying with Kozelek through the course of the album, but even if all of his characters are fictitious and his personal struggles false, his lyrics and themes ring true. Perhaps his misdeeds may make us more hesitant to praise his work, but that doesn’t mean his work inherently lacks value and grace.

Yet there is something undeniably different when listening to Benji in light of all of Mark Kozelek’s recent adventures. Benji is no longer simply a moving testament to friends gone, family lost, strangers who deserve to be remembered. It stands now as a possible aberration created by a man who is one of the aggressors causing the pain Benji so poignantly tried to transfigure. No one is perfect, but the sheer pointlessness of Kozelek’s actions makes his decisions all the more bitter and confusing, hypocritical and tarnishing.

One of the songs on Benji is titled “I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same.” A Stereogum reader posted the following lyrics from that song as commentary on Kozelek’s actions:

Though I kept to myself and for the most part was pretty coy
I once got baited and had to clock some undeserving boy
Out on the elementary school playground
I threw a punch that caught him off-guard and knocked him down.

And when I walked away the kids were cheering
And though I grinned, deep inside I was hurting
But not nearly as much as I’d hurt him
He stood up, his glasses broken and his face was red.

And I was never a schoolyard bully
It was only one incident and it has always eaten at me.

I was never the young schoolyard bully
And wherever you are, that poor kid, I’m so sorry.

He’s not sorry. And both Benji and innocent people are still hurting as a result.

Failed Connection: On Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor”

On September 9th of last year, Arcade Fire released an unusual music video to accompany the launch of the first single from their fourth album, Reflektor.  The plot of the video is not terribly noteworthy or unconventional – it features a young Haitian woman dancing in various locales, culminating with a wild street party in the dead of night.  Unique to the clip, however, is that the viewer is able to alter the images onscreen using a synced-up smartphone.  Waving the phone left to right, for example, might create a haze effect onscreen that mirrors the viewer’s gesture.  The viewer’s mobile device, in effect, becomes the eponymous “reflektor” that alters how they see the music video.

It’s an amusing piece of audiovisual wizardry that also comes across as a gimmick.  None of the effects amount to anything more than you would find in an equalizer.  But there is one slightly jarring moment at the end of the video that gives the viewer pause.  At this point, the computer screen approximates a cracked mirror through which the young woman is visible.  Suddenly, the woman disappears and the viewer’s face is imposed on the glass shards, thanks to the activation of the viewer’s webcam.  And lo and behold, the woman appears on the viewer’s phone or tablet, having made the virtual jump from big screen to small.

It’s a strange feeling to suddenly encounter your own face in those glass shards and even stranger to essentially hold the woman, previously an abstracted “other,” in the palm of your hand.  That feeling is what Arcade Fire wanted to elicit with this project – a prompted pulse to reconsider how the devices you use define your relationships with others, as well as your conception of yourself. 

This deep-seated introspection is at the core of what Arcade Fire tries to convey on Reflektor.  The album is framed as a mediating mechanism to break through the digital stupor that comes from prolonged electronic communication.  Reflektor has appeared on a host of 2013’s “Best Albums” lists, in large part because of its engagement with this theme.  Countless reviews of the album have praised its insightful look into how people communicate via technology and its illuminating commentary on avoiding the dangers of cold, abstracted interaction. 

I disagree with these positive reviews.  Arcade Fire has produced an album that has a host of catchy moments and individual triumphs but sags under the weight of lazily mashed-together lyrics and themes.  Why does this matter?  Reflektor underscores and calcifies a number of tendencies that Arcade Fire has been cultivating since their first album.  As the biggest independent band in the world and a shorthand for independent pop music as a whole, it bears discussing how and why they’ve gotten to this point and the ways their musical inclinations begin to falter on Reflektor.

Arcade Fire’s first three albums were solid affairs that, in retrospect, generated critical acclaim perhaps incommensurate with the quality of the final products.  Funeral is a simple but compelling reflection on death whose sound, unique in 2003, has not proved timeless.  Neon Bible is an overbearing critique of religion that features a mixed bag of beautiful and middling songs.  The Suburbs, in my opinion their best album, is a fully-realized look at suburban life that’s overly long but contains some of their most compelling work.  It is not a world-beating record and does not deserve the scores of accolades it earned in 2011, including the Grammy for Album of the Year, but it accomplishes its aims with consistency and nuance. 

In all three previous albums, lead singer Win Butler was able to milk the dichotomy of “us vs. them” to moderate, occasionally even great, success.  Funeral saw “us kids” confronting adult hypocrisy, Neon Bible featured outsider critiques of poisonous adherence to religious monocultures, and The Suburbs was a twenty-first century meditation on alienation (“us kids vs. society,” if you will).  Reflektor tries for a new variation on the same theme, but there’s no strong central narrative arc, no convincing foil, to hold any attempted contrasts together. 

The result is a weak appropriation of the “us vs. them” idea that’s far less incisive than anything Arcade Fire has produced in the past.  We’re treated to tepid, straw-man attacks on the “other” in songs like the mundane and cringe-worthy “Normal People,” which strips away the characterizations and differences (age, religion, social orientation) that make “us vs. them” a potentially fruitful concept.  Instead, we’re left with the most basic, torpid contrasts that lead to pointless musings on whether a “normal person” is “cool enough” or “cruel enough.”  “Normal people” is a loaded term that begs to be either avoided entirely or commented upon intelligently, and Butler provides no nuanced evaluation or lyrical meat for listeners to chew.  He’s content to employ it without qualification and we’re not better off for it.

This is a recurring problem throughout Reflektor.  On Arcade Fire’s previous albums, one of Butler’s strengths was his ability to link together impressionistic imagery and pointed motifs or themes around an overarching concept.  The summation of these motifs usually created depth and multiple angles from which the songs could be approached and appreciated.  In The Suburbs, for example, we see recurring automobile references that suggest an ability to navigate the suburban wasteland but never to escape it. 

While Butler is quite good at crafting imagery that gives his albums thematic consistency, his actual lyrical prowess (his ability to write sharp, insightful lines) has been inconsistent.  For every concise, intriguing idea or theme (see “My Body is a Cage” or “Half-Light II”), there is a lyric that is either repetitively simplistic, fails to evoke meaning, or comes across as heavy-handed and overly preachy (“Rebellion” or “Intervention”).  But for the most part, in the past, the tightness of each album’s thematic core has balanced the lack of specificity and categorical quality in his lyrics. 

This isn’t the case for Reflektor.  Butler says that the album was inspired by the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, the film Black Orpheus, Søren Kierkegaard’s essay “The Present Age,” and his and wife Régine Chassagne’s time in Haiti.  Unfortunately, these themes never quite mesh into a convincing narrative as in The Suburbs.  We’re left with scattershot reflections on death OR isolation OR the link between the two in the Orpheus and Eurydice myth.  This lack of cohesion isn’t necessarily a fatal flaw, but it’s more glaring and grating because Arcade Fire have already made albums that explored these themes.  We really don’t need another analysis of how “we’re so connected, but are we even friends?”  It’s a question they addressed at length in The Suburbs, and by now it’s a stale prompt that any Facebook user already asked in the preceding five years. 

The thematic looseness of the album makes the lyrical insufficiencies more noticeable than those of any previous Arcade Fire record.  And they are problematic indeed – this is far and away Butler’s weakest set of lyrics.  Repetition is the order of the day; “You Already Know” features the title phrase repeated 16 times throughout the song, and other tracks suffer the same lyrical stagnancy that precludes the presence of meaningful color, plot, and poetry on the album.  Tired love tropes that add little to the Orpheus / Eurydice myth are employed over and over again.  Here’s a sample lyric from “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)”:

You came home from school

And knew you had to run

Please stop running now

Just let me be the one

Goodness gracious.  Other lines in the album, probably meant to be amusing or pseudo-profound (or both), fall equally flat.  “Oh man / Do you like Rock and Roll music? / ‘Cause I don’t know if I do,” Butler sings on “Normal Person.”  (IRONY!)  “What if the camera / really do / steal your soul?” he breathes on “Flashbulb Eyes.”  (INTRIGUE!)  These lines, and others throughout the album, do not convey the sense of sly amusement Butler was probably aiming for.  They sound ridiculous.

Again, it’s a shame that so much of Reflektor is comprised of this dreck.  The motifs that Butler employs throughout the album are actually well thought-out and complement each other nicely.  Much has been said about how Reflektor is thematically similar to U2’s Achtung Baby, which is loosely centered on the idea of losing oneself in a hazy electro-Joycean Nighttown.  Arcade Fire drills even deeper with this idea, conceiving this journey as one that explores the dividing lines between authenticity and life, illusion and afterlife.  References to and dichotomies involving mirrors, prisms, cameras/lenses, (super)symmetry, and invisible dividing lines provide a promising vehicle for realizing these contrasts.  But the total lack of connective tissue between these ideas and consistently meaningful lyrics to convey them means the concepts are never fully developed.  Instead, we’re left with musings about “reflektors” and “resurrectors” that provide few memorable moments of cohesion or insight.

Also problematic is the near-total disconnect between the style of music and the album’s themes.  The Suburbs is a well-crafted album because its musical and lyrical content align almost perfectly; Arcade Fire’s tendency to create simple, lush, hook-laden songs provided a lockstep complement to their commentary on the circuitous helicon of suburban life.  The music reflected the album’s themes of being trapped and going “around and around and around and around” while simultaneously serving as the primary vehicle for escaping that rut.  There’s a reason why “Sprawl II” sounds as glorious as it does when the album is coming to a close. 

Reflektor posits an attitude of looseness and partying inspired by the Haitian street festivals that Butler and Chassagne participated in while visiting Haiti.  The interplay between this kind of partying and the album’s focus on death isn’t unusual, as many cultures mark funerals or mourning periods with celebrations.  But the record’s other emphasis on alienation is a strange bedfellow for music ostensibly made to have a good time.  There is evident jubilation on “Afterlife” and “Here Comes the Night Time,” but it’s a moody jubilation tinged with the fear of isolation.  Many of Arcade Fire’s earlier albums featured juxtapositions of uplifting anthems and soaring chords with gloomy, introspective (some might say self-indulgent) tracks that drove the thematic basis for their albums.  But here, Reflektor’s similarly introspective bent is severely at odds with the near-uninterrupted stream of upbeat rhythms and melodies that the band deploys.  In particular, Butler’s singing frequently comes across as almost too faint to embody the energy and excitement these songs would seem to demand. 

Talking Heads have been a constant comparison for Arcade Fire’s target of loose, slick dance-pop-rock with Reflektor.  I guess this makes sense to the extent that they’re white people making supposedly rhythmic-centric music, but I don’t think this appraisal is particularly apt, at least when the supposed connections are analyzed in greater detail.  Most critics have drawn analogies to Talking Heads’ incorporation of African beats and employment of Brian Eno as producer for Remain in Light, in that Arcade Fire added some Haitian flourishes and consulted James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem for Reflektor.  But save for “Here Comes the Night Time,” only a couple of the tracks on Reflektor have any appreciable world music influence, and only a handful deliver on the supposed dance promise that the record has made.  “Joan of Arc,” “Normal People,” and “You Already Know” are all straightforward rock pieces.  “We Exist,” “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice),” and “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)” only have slight dance or rhythmic influences, including hooky bass grooves and some funky drum loops.  Over half of the album has no appreciable world or dance influence at all.

More importantly, I’d argue that the musical concepts that underpin Remain in Light are almost totally absent from Reflektor, which reduces the number of meaningful comparisons in virtuosity or even basic intent that can be made between the two records.  Here’s David Byrne discussing the methodology behind the “modular music” of Remain in Light:

While the groove usually remained constant, different combinations of instruments would be switched on and off simultaneously at different given times.  One group of instruments that produced a certain texture and groove might eventually be nominated as a “verse” section, and another group – often larger-sounding – would be nominated as the “chorus.”  Often in these songs there was no real key change.  The bass line tended to remain constant, but one could still imply key modulations, illusory chord changes, which were very useful for building excitement while maintaining the trance-like feel of constant root notes.

This kind of recording process simply doesn’t seem to be present in Reflektor, save for a couple of instances on tracks like “Porno.”  There is a greater emphasis on bass grooves and more complex rhythm work than in Arcade Fire’s three previous albums, but it’s not a wholesale change or reordering of what they did in the past.  So I don’t really understand criticisms like this from Steven Hyden: “Instead of the orchestral sweep of the first three records, Arcade Fire has rebooted as a rhythm-oriented outfit. This requires an entirely new skill set that this band simply does not have.”  I don’t have a background in musical arrangement, but to my ears, this isn’t even an issue that crops up on Reflektor.  Arcade Fire isn’t doing anything structurally different this time around.  They’re tweaking the emphasis on a few songs – often with mixed success.

How much you get out of the individual songs and general musicianship on Reflektor will vary depending on your musical background and preferences.  I don’t know enough about technical music criticism to say whether each song is performed poorly or not, and I find it foolish to engage in criticism of timbre and texture.  (I don’t particularly like the guitar tone on “Joan of Arc” but many reviewers find this to be one of the album’s stronger tracks.)  That said, there are a few general trends on Reflektor worth identifying.

“We Exist,” “Normal Person,” “You Already Know,” “Joan of Arc,” “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice),” and “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)” can essentially be reduced to individual hooks – the slick “Billie Jean”-esque rhythm on “We Exist,” the chorus on “Joan of Arc,” the roiling bass on “It’s Never Over.”  The Orpheus-Eurydice pair, in particular, are unnecessarily long.  These songs provide immediate gratification and little else. 

“Afterlife” and “Porno” are similar to the aforementioned hook-defined songs but feature additional depth or characteristics worthy of further consideration.  In “Afterlife,” Chassagne’s vocals shine, and the driving drums and the irregular synth pulses add a Haitian rhythm that gives the song a unique sound on the record.  Butler’s lyrics are also probably at their most affecting as he sings about what happens “after all the breath and the dirt and the fires are burnt… after the hangers-on are done hanging on to the dead lights / of the afterglow.”   “Porno” actually lacks a hook like the other songs mentioned earlier, but it combines the wonky synth of Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” with a chorus melody that echoes Kanye West’s “Runaways.”  It’s a deeply repetitive track and most closely hits at the Talking Heads comparison, but it’s also saddled with embarrassingly sterile lyrics. 

The title track is a seven-minute muted disco banger that develops nicely into an extended groove at the end.  But it’s mixed very quietly and Butler’s faint vocals sap the song of energy at the beginning.

“Here Comes the Night Time II” and “Supersymmetry” are short, lush, beautiful pieces that fit well as the opener and closer to the second disc but are let down by the one-trick ponies saddled in between.

“We Exist” is straight dub with horns.  I found it to be one of the more successful tracks on the album because it’s short (the only track under three minutes) and doesn’t even attempt for profundity, as most of the other songs on this album do.  The ridiculous camera lyrics don’t matter much because the overdubbed, washed-out bass and congas are blowing up your headphones or stereo.  One can imagine a scenario where Arcade Fire trimmed most of the cuts on this album to fit this kind of self-contained, self-justifying format: sub-3:00 songs that provide a fun hook and don’t shoot for philosophical depth (and miss). 

The best track on the album, in my opinion, is “Here Comes the Night Time,” which is also one of the best songs Arcade Fire has recorded.  It’s a mess in the best possible way- a frenzied, pulsing mariachi opening eventually transitions into a simple bass-loop-driven slow-burner.  Twinkling pianos and synths along with Butler’s lyrics about nightfall paint a refreshingly vivid picture of dancing on a warm summer evening.  As opposed to the majority of tracks on Reflektor, “Here Comes the Night Time” also employs form changes and instrumental variation throughout.  This was the most compelling recording on Reflektor by a significant margin, though the lyrics veer into preachy clichés as the album comes to a close.

If you’re a fan of Arcade Fire songs like “Month of May” and “Wake Up,” you’ll probably enjoy this album as most of the songs feature similar rock riffs and heavy punchiness.  If you prefer airier, melodious tracks like “Keep the Car Running” or “Une Annee Sans Lumiere,” the music on Reflektor is more of a mixed bag and might get old quickly. 

In the end, though, the quality of the music doesn’t make up for the album’s lyrical insufficiencies, especially given Arcade Fire’s penchant for thematic depth.  Reflektor simply doesn’t have the cohesiveness to convey anything more than semi-interlocked ruminations on technological interaction.  More damning is the band’s reticence to move beyond criticism of ideologies and trends.  Through all four of their records, Arcade Fire has taken an almost clinical approach to their subject matter, trying to tease out revelations under a probing artistic microscope.  Increasingly this lends their work a sort of coldness and abstraction that I’ve found to be off-putting.  Reflektor is no different, with an excessive number of tracks lamenting the difficulty in making connections between people.  Creating a prescriptive analysis of such problems only goes so far in prompting the listener to forge an emotional link with the music itself. 

Perhaps that’s the core problem with Arcade Fire in the wake of their fourth album.  They focus so much on the difficulty of making connections across oceans of artifice and differences (age, religion, geography, occupation) that, eventually, it becomes tough to connect with the band about anything outside their criticisms.  What do Arcade Fire stand for?  Fans of the band will no doubt point to the deep connection between Chassagne and Butler, the band’s hymns to youthful vigor, and their powerful and energetic live shows- all things that emphasize just how amazing connection can be.  But the bulk of their discography, especially when examined after the release of Reflektor, subordinates this emphasis on connection to the damned difficulty of actually making it happen.  (Literally damned – in the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, Orpheus retrieves Eurydice from hell but loses her forever before she exits the underworld.)  It’s not exactly galling or infuriating that Reflektor maintains an upbeat attitude while pounding the same drum, but the tune has become stale.  And relationships defined by their shared mistrust and disaffectation lack the substance for extended longevity and passion.  One has to wonder if this will be a problem the band will face with casual fans going forward. 

One qualification: many music commentators have bitterly criticized Arcade Fire over the tangential controversies that arose during the marketing and touring of Reflektor, including the album’s excessive and annoying advertising and the “pretentious” dress code request the band put out for show attendance.  The supposed narrative here is that Arcade Fire is becoming overly haughty and selling out, reinforcing a holier-than-thou attitude that speaks to the lack of connection I described in the previous paragraph.  I don’t agree with these criticisms.  The ads were kind of annoying and the dress code request is a little quirky, but neither decision can meaningfully contribute to an indictment of the band’s authenticity.  I also disagree with any arguments that the band is willingly false and smarmy for propagating material about exclusion and loneliness while achieving superstar status and playing to millions of people.  The marketing and performance of the album do not mandate that the band’s outlook must change, nor do they render the themes of the album hypocritical and false.  I find the album’s lyrical insufficiencies to be a far more valid target of criticism than side issues related to its dissemination.

I appreciate many of Arcade Fire’s songs and some of their work on Reflektor will no doubt become hallmarks of their music.  At the same time, I hope the band shifts gears for their next album and tackles subject matter that expands beyond criticism of alienation and ostracism.  Reflektor suggested a tentative move away that wasn’t enough, and the thematic messiness made these concepts more central than they probably should have been.  They have the talent and skill to make a transcendent pop record rather than a mere description of what’s wrong with the status quo. 

In other words, let’s hope that our next encounter with Arcade Fire sees them focusing on who that mysterious dancing Haitian girl from the “Reflektor” video is and why she matters, rather than the fact that she jumps from screen to screen.  

Reconciling the Consumer and Producer Markets for Spotify & Streaming Music Services

Last week, musician David Byrne penned an extensive op-ed critique of streaming music providers in The Guardian. Byrne argues that subscription services like Spotify and Rdio will ruin the creative sustainability of young musicians due to their low compensation rates. He writes:

The amounts these services pay per stream is miniscule – their idea being that if enough people use the service those tiny grains of sand will pile up. Domination and ubiquity are therefore to be encouraged. We should readjust our values because in the web-based world we are told that monopoly is good for us… In the future, if artists have to rely almost exclusively on the income from these services, they’ll be out of work within a year.

Byrne cites examples of other artists who have voiced criticism of Spotify’s business practice, including Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich, the latter of whom released another argument against streaming music on the same day Byrne’s editorial was published. In addition to quoting other musicians unhappy with Spotify’s compensation rates, Byrne provides examples of artists who have been paid pittance for their music:

The major record labels usually siphon off most of this income, and then they dribble about 15-20% of what’s left down to their artists. Indie labels are often a lot fairer – sometimes sharing the income 50/50. Damon Krukowski (Galaxie 500, Damon & Naomi) has published abysmal data on payouts from Pandora and Spotify for his song “Tugboat” and [David] Lowery even wrote a piece entitled “My Song Got Played on Pandora 1 Million Times and All I Got Was $16.89, Less Than What I Make from a Single T-shirt Sale!”

That Byrne and other artists are voicing their displeasure with Spotify is understandable given the low royalty rates that Spotify pays out. According to The Cynical Musician, artists earn a mere $0.00029 per stream through Spotify, and other subscription services pay similar rates. This seems grossly unfair and borderline ludicrous for artists like Krukowski and Lowerey, especially when Spotify’s net worth is currently estimated at around $3 billion and it pays out $500 million to the major labels for use of their catalogs.

These numbers, however, belie a much more complicated financial reality that streaming services must negotiate. The arguments against Spotify that Byrne, Godrich, and others make also extend beyond propositions for fair financial compensation and into normative assumptions on what new music businesses should encourage or provide. Accordingly, the backlash against streaming music adheres to a music production model that has different base assumptions than those of music consumers. A more comprehensive look into how the producer understanding of the market differs from the consumer understanding of the market shows areas where all parties involved – artists, consumers, labels, and streaming services – can adjust their expectations and practices for the long-term sustainability of commercial success in music.

Bryne, Yorke, and Godrich argue that more effective revenue sources need to be tapped in order to fairly compensate artists for digital music purchases. They suggest that the growing demand for streaming music requires equitable increases in how much artists are paid for providing their music on these services. Both Byrne and Godrich also tilt this argument to particularly focus on new artists who don’t have income from merchandise or touring that more established musicians might. Byrne: “What’s at stake is not so much the survival of artists like me, but that of emerging artists and those who have only a few records under their belts (such as St Vincent, my current touring partner, who is not exactly an unknown). Many musicians like her, who seem to be well established, well known and very talented, will eventually have to find employment elsewhere or change what they do to make more money.”

While Byrne’s intentions are admirable, his singular focus on new musicians leads to a muddied conception of exactly how streaming services should compensate artists. Why should an “emerging” artist without other income sources be treated differently than any other established artist with low streams or digital sales? When Byrne talks about “musicians” in his piece, shouldn’t we assume that every artist on Spotify deserves to enjoy the ability to earn a living wage from making music? He quotes the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney: “For unknown bands and smaller bands, it’s a really good thing to get yourself out there. But for a band that makes a living selling music,” streaming royalties are “not at a point yet to be feasible for us.” Is Byrne arguing that even artists who generate almost no activity or interest deserve to earn money from streaming that, at a minimum, supports basic “feasibility” or subsistence?

The implications of this question are an extrapolation from Byrne’s thesis, but they do call into question how Byrne divides budding artists and the rest of the lower-profile musicians on Spotify. Byrne, Godrich, and Carney believe that promising artists require better support to compose new, creative music, but by their own logic, all artists on Spotify should be entitled to similar levels of fair compensation.

This model, of course, is unworkable, and it’s why Spotify compensates artists based on stream counts. While it might be ideal for an innovative, lower-profile band to earn a healthy income despite only generating a slim number of streams, it’s not a sustainable business model. There are 80 million songs and tens of thousands of artists on Spotify, and the vast majority of traffic focuses on the same top-40 tracks that populate the Billboard and iTunes charts. To guarantee every single artist a basic guaranteed income (to guarantee fairness across the board) requires fixing a high base royalty rate to the lowest common denominator- say, a band that generates only 1,000 streams of their album in a year. Spotify is already operating at a quarterly loss with their current royalty rates; this increase would put the company out of business faster than the quashing of a Smiths reunion rumor.

This isn’t to say that the rate Spotify pays is fair. “Daft Punk’s song of the summer, “Get Lucky”, reached 104,760,000 Spotify streams by the end of August: the two Daft Punk guys stand to make somewhere around $13,000 each,” Byrne reports. That’s not a terrible number, but as it’s one of the top songs on Spotify, it doesn’t speak well for the vast majority of artists who don’t generate that kind of reception.

Perhaps an even better way to quantify the unfairness of Spotify’s rate is to compare the “per-stream” profit of Spotify vs. a paid music download. Most songs retail for $0.99 as individual downloads, and we might think of this retail price as the right to stream a given song in perpetuity or for life. Let’s assume a person buys a song at age 20 and will play that song an average 20 times each year for the next 60 years. That’s effectively 1200 streams, which theoretically generate revenue of $0.00083 / stream. Even if the artist only gets a fraction of that total as a royalty (the label probably takes a pretty good chunk of the $0.99 retail price), this amount is still substantially higher than Spotify’s $0.00029 / stream- and most people will only play a select few tracks this frequently over the course of their life. Based on this conception of what “purchasing music” entails, Byrne and co. are correct that Spotify’s royalty rate should be higher.

The problem is that roundly criticizing streaming services for low rates alone is not enough; a rising base royalty tide inherently raises all artistic ships, but too high of a tide washes everything away. The missing piece in Byrne’s argument is the presence of a discretionary mechanism for more effectively compensating artists who need that extra funding to support otherwise-unworkable projects. Without this mechanism, there isn’t a good way to fairly distinguish who deserves an even higher rate.

Godrich alluded to this issue in one of his earlier posts about Spotify:

Catalogue and new music cannot be lumped in together. The model massively favours the larger companies with big catalogues. They need the new artists to be on the system to guarantee new subscribers and lock down the “new landscape.” This is how they figure they’ll make money in the future. But the model pays pittance to the new artist right now. An inconvenient fact which will keep coming up. I feel a responsibility to speak up when I see something going on which I think is unfair. I’m not bitching about not getting paid. It’s about standing up for other artists’ rights. It’s up to streaming providers to come back with a better way of supporting new music producers. It’s not for us to think up how it could work. That’s your department.

In addition to the aforementioned issue of qualifying how to meter higher royalty rates, there are two problems with the argument Byrne and Godrich are making here. First: why are they placing agency on Spotify for low royalty rates and not music labels for trying to negotiate better deals? Godrich: “The big labels did secret deals with Spotify and the like in return for favourable royalty rates. The massive amount of catalogue being streamed guarantees that they get the big massive slice of the pie (that $500 million [which Spotify pays out to labels]) and the smaller producers and labels get pittance for their comparatively few streams.” This isn’t a just a problem on Spotify’s end; it sounds like oligopolistic behavior by major labels has resulted in a failure to consider their clients’ best interests (or, conversely, it’s creating crowding-out effects that give less leverage to smaller independent labels). Byrne and Godrich should continue to advocate for higher rates from Spotify, but to an equal or even greater degree, the target of their discontent should be labels for mortgaging artistic development for pure profit.

The other, more underlying problem with Godrich and Byrne’s arguments is their fundamentally different conception of individual artists’ value versus that of most music consumers. Byrne and Godrich recognize the unique creative potential of each individual artist and advocate financial support for these artists to encourage their development. In contrast, I hypothesize that most music consumers, influenced by the ongoing devaluation of digital music, view artists as producers of interchangeable products who have minimal unique value.

Let’s break this hypothesis down by first looking at the consumption trends of digital music purveyors. The Top 100 tracks on iTunes, Spotify, and other online music providers generally reflect the same broad consumption patterns, in that the same songs (usually pop radio hits) account for the highest of sales and traffic. This suggests the majority of music consumers use streaming music providers to primarily access the songs of the moment. Beyond hot tracks, consumers then find value in the back-catalog that contains their favorite artists- a small group of bands or singers that they follow closely and would support beyond casual streaming (going to concerts, buying albums, etc). The remaining value of streaming services comes from the long tail, or the extensive back-catalog that allows listeners to quickly and easily access a huge bank of tracks that fit a specific moment or immediate need. Soundtracks for parties, seeking out new artists, and other “one-off” listens fall into this category.

Herein lies a substantial difference from Byrne’s arguments. “A culture of blockbusters is sad, and ultimately it’s bad for business,” he says, but based on the listening patterns exhibited on major music services, this culture is currently the main driver of industry profit, with “new” artists often acting as simply a bonus for a sizable number of people.

In theory, many music listeners would agree Bryne’s assertion that “a culture of blockbusters is sad.” The problem, however, is that it’s not a culture of blockbusters that is crowding out new musicians, but a larger-than-ever supply of these new musicians. In Byrne’s excellent book How Music Works, he describes a number of changes in how record companies have operated since the mid-twentieth century. Two of those changes stand out in terms of how artists now make music:

1) Recording costs currently approach zero for many projects. “Now an album can be made on the same laptop you use to check email,” Byrne writes.

2) Manufacturing and distribution costs are also approaching zero. “Digital distribution is pretty close to being free. Digitally, it’s no more expensive to distribute a million copies than a hundred,” he says.

If there are minimal costs to both create music and disseminate it to potential listeners, basic economics dictates that the supply of music is going to increase since more people now have the ability to make and share it. And supply has increased, greased by improving technological standards that allow people to download and stream music in almost no time at all. We may be living in a “culture of blockbusters” as Byrne asserts, but we’re simultaneously living in an era of unprecedented musical flourishing spurred by the collapse of a hierarchical structure for getting music to the public. Anyone can make music and earn a following with greater ease than ever before.

Ironically, though, the increasingly horizontal nature of music creation is spurring the deleterious effects that Byrne discusses in his op-ed. When the supply of artists increases, I argue that consumers begin to place less value in a given individual artist because there are so many alternate songs or albums that can act as effective supplements. This problem is exacerbated by a service like Spotify, which people use primarily to find hits and see the long-tail artist catalog as a cherry on top. If there is a fixed percentage of long-tail streams (versus hot 100 or radio hit streams), and more artists continue to enter this fixed pool, the average individual attention for each artist is going to drop. More artists results in a devaluation of individual musicians since there’s simply more potential music to choose from.

The technology that has allowed more people to create music is also shaping how we conceive of the value of music and individual songs. That music is now so easily accessible on YouTube and via piracy suggests it is being assigned an inherently lower value than other forms of art. I believe that our modern conception of media value is increasingly a positive function of two factors: file size and length. The larger an object’s file size and the longer its length, the higher the price we’re willing to pay for it (notwithstanding the actual unit costs that are associated with each object). I’d maintain this is partly why people are willing to pay $50-60 for video games (large file size, 40+ hours) and $15 for films (medium file size, 2-3 hours). This isn’t to say every piece of media is inherently valued at these levels across the board, but it suggests a trend for what people expect a given media product should be worth.

Not surprisingly, music comes off pretty poorly in this equation. Low file sizes make it the easiest form of media to pirate and upload to YouTube, and short track lengths (usually 3-4 minutes) suggest a commodity that is exchangeable and transient. This is especially the case when there is no corresponding physical packaging.

The increase in music supply further affects the purchase of full albums beyond individual songs. The greater the quantity of available music to listen to, the less likely it is that a consumer will go all-in and splurge on only one album, especially if he/she is on a limited budget. The purchase of an album reflects a greater willingness to put more time into the music. It’s a deeper investment in the artist’s work. For most people, though, there is very little reason to pick up a random album on a whim. Even a $7 sticker price is asking too much for an unknown value. We put money into things that last longer because we have reason to think this length provides justifiable return. Most people only buy a select few games or watch a limited number of movies because they pick and choose based on subject material that’s likely to appeal to them. The other element is that the supply of available movies and games is much more limited than music today. Byrne’s rationale for cheaper music production extends to why people don’t value individual albums as much – more artists are around to make more music. When so many supplementary items are available, it’s unlikely a consumer will put his financial and temporal eggs in one basket to purchase a single album when others could fill a similar need.

All of this is to say that a fundamental shift has already occurred in how people consume music, and there’s no going back to the status quo of twenty or even ten years ago. We’re at a nexus where musicians fear they won’t be able to make sufficient profit to sustain their work and where consumers are placing less value on individual units of music, be they songs or albums. What can be done to have these trends coexist?

I’m no expert in music making or the music business, and many people smarter than me are trying to tackle this question. But a few potential avenues stand out:

1) People are more risk-averse when buying full albums due to the high cost associated with them. Record prices need to be lowered or additional physical content needs to be added to CD sets to further entice buyers to move beyond digital streaming. LPs that throw in extra photos and a free digital download of the record are a step in the right direction, for example.

2) Streaming rates need to be higher, as discussed above. Though services like Spotify are operating at a loss, discontent will continue to mount if rates are not increased. Artists should try to negotiate more equitable deals with record labels, too. Label revenue per stream on Spotify is $0.0016, according to The Cynical Musician, which is nearly five times as much as the average artist rate.

3) Creative marketing is imperative; bands are now, more than ever, responsible for their own financial destiny. Godrich’s admonishment to record labels of how finding new profit avenues is “your department” for finding a solution to low streaming rates doesn’t hold any water at all; this isn’t some problem that artists can offload and expect to be solved. While labels might bear the brunt of trying to find more profitable avenues, artists now exert greater control in getting their music to people in new ways.

I would imagine that Byrne would be pessimistic about these three suggestions, and I don’t think he’d be incorrect- they’re not enough to spark a sea change in how musicians are compensated. “Musicians might, for now, challenge the major labels and get a fairer deal than 15% of a pittance, but it seems to me that the whole model is unsustainable as a means of supporting creative work of any kind. Not just music,” he says.

But Byrne’s pessimism about the future of artistic innovation in music and other spheres of culture seems, on the whole, too pervasive. He suggests in How Music Works that many, if not most, musicians would make music without any incentive for profit because it’s something they love to do. The ubiquity of great music today suggests that even if making music becomes increasingly less of a career-sustaining activity, the impulse to create something completely new will still exist. And the technology is there to get people to hear it. Perhaps record labels will become an institution that, in addition to marketing the biggest pop starts, fund projects that require a prohibitive up-front investment that couldn’t be accomplished on a DIY level.

So yes, streaming music is having negative effects for a number of musicians, and that needs to change. But the problem isn’t so cut-and-dry as to say that providers like Spotify are the problem and a culture of hits is an inevitable outcome. The underlying changes in how people create and value music need to be more thoroughly considered in order to find new best practices to solve this problem. Rectifying these differing consumer and producer views of the market is the first step to a more nuanced understanding of digital music consumption and finding ways to equitably satisfy artists, consumers, labels, and providers.