I recently stumbled across an article naming the 30 best albums of 1969, an auspicious year for popular music if ever one was. How auspicious? Janis Joplin appears on the list — in last place. Career milestone albums by Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, Isaac Hayes that could be the best album of almost any year make the 1969 list, in the bottom half. Albums of breathless vision and originality don’t crack the top five: Dusty in Memphis places at 13; Nashville Skyline at 7. I am no fan of ranking things like music (Question: Is Kind of Blue better than Somethin’ Else? Answer: Damn, son, get a life...), but it’s hard not to drop one’s jaw at the cultural touchstones that showed up on record shelves that year.
In this light, it’s not surprising that I hear many folks in our little demographic — overwhelmingly male, relatively affluent, and alive in 1969 — carping, sometimes in shouts and sometimes in murmurs, about how nobody makes good music anymore. To be fair, if one compares today’s releases to those of 1969, the standard may be unreachable. (To be fair, if we’re all compared to George Clooney, it’s amazing any of us ever got a date.)
But to those who claim that music’s halcyon days are behind us, I call BS.
I call BS for two reasons. The first is what one critic has aptly called “the breakdown of genre provincialism.” Most of us gravitate to music in specific genres: folk, country, opera, symphonic, jazz, hip-hop. But there is a wave overtaking music today, spurred on by the realities of the music industry and by sociological forces that shape every art form.
Once, 50 years ago, a few giant records labels and a small number of household-name musicians hurled a few giant boulders each year. We listened to Carole King and Jackson Browne, or to Brahms and Beethoven, or to Sonny Rollins and Ella Fitzgerald, and we snatched up the important releases of the time. Today, however, music has pulverized, sending thousands of particles in all directions. At one time, a regular music fanatic could keep up with almost everything. Today, Jon Pareles of The New York Times and Bob Boilen of NPR, who have full-time jobs covering music, can’t hope even to scratch the surface of new releases.
At the same time, cultural shifts among young people have blurred lines between races, sexes, cultures, and traditions — all of which affect the music they make. As those lines become fuzzy, so too do the lines between the genres in which musicians ply their art.
Most musicians today defy simple categories. Twenty years ago, if you liked Led Zeppelin, you could find music that would appeal to you by looking for other guitar-metal bands. Ditto for Janis Ian — hey, what great female singer/songwriters have you heard lately? Today, however, most music made by Millennials is infinitely more varied, and young people — the same Millennials who are the targets of our generation’s tiresome sniping — have more tools, more genres, more instruments, and more skills available than ever before. The result, perhaps ironically, is that it’s harder to find music that fits our long-developed and long-defined preferences.
I was raised on country-inflected rock music, from Gram Parsons to Neil Young to Uncle Tupelo, and Americana-tinged albums still occupy more of my collection than any other genre. But I shot photos last year for a sold-out album-release show by Justin Trawick, a DC-area Americana standout. One of Justin’s friends, the gifted Flex Matthews, joined Justin’s band onstage for two songs, in which he delivered freestyle rhymes (you may know the concept as “rap”) over country songs. On its face, it makes no sense. And yet, in context it made perfect sense, obliterating lines between genres, and hatching new synergies on the spot, feeding the excitement of live music as the 300 or so in attendance cheered wildly at the new mashup hatching right there, in that very moment.
The excitement of the event aside, it’s clear that fewer artists today operate in a single genre, and it’s much harder to find music that fits our preconceived tastes than it was even 20 years ago. Most of us are not omnivorous, and the provincialism of our preferences works against new discoveries.
The second reason I call BS is that we spend too much time in front of our audio systems, running our wheels through the ruts already dug too deep. Paul McGowan repeated in a post a musing I sent to him several months ago: Some of us use our audio systems to listen to music. Others use music to listen to our audio systems.
Don’t mis-read me. I have no beef with the gear-heads. If you love industrial design, if the critical faculties engaged by audiophilia nervosa appeal to you, if you enjoy comparing cables and fuses, more power to you! Compare away, head high, chin up!
But don’t tell me you’re in it for the music.
If you were in it for the music, you’d be going to see music, instead of comparing $75 audiophile pressings of Kind of Blue. I am aware I’m creating a false dichotomy here (not to mention all that infernal pounding to build this soapbox). Of course it’s possible to be into both music and the equipment. But if you’re spending almost all of your free time with your electronics, maybe it’s time to consider the other side of that balance.
Remember Justin Trawick, above? He’s a fine guitar player and an excellent songwriter, and the antidote (figuratively, I mean) to the challenge of discovering new music. I didn’t know Justin two years ago, but I was assigned to photograph his band for an outfit called Sofar Sounds.
In 2009, three friends in London, about the same age as I am (54 at this writing), attended a concert at a local club. Irritated by the constant chatter, the noise from beer bottles, and the inattentive crowd peering continually into their phones, the friends arranged for one of the three, a guitarist, to play a living room concert. The rules were simple: Bring your own refreshments. Behave respectfully in somebody else’s space. Don’t talk over the music. If you’ve seen the royal concerts in the movie Amadeus, it kind of sounds like that.
Eight people came.
Undaunted, the friends scheduled another, and another, with more guests showing up each time. They named their new enterprise Sofar, a contraction of the title of Leonard Cohen’s album that made the 1969 list: Songs From a Room.
Eventually gigs settled into a format: Concerts run from 8:00 to 10:00. There are three acts per night, each playing about 25 minutes, with short breaks between sets. Unless the concert is in a bar or restaurant, it’s BYO. (Venues with bars often provide reduced-price drinks.) Consume respectfully. Clean up after yourself. And please don’t spend the time on your phone or chat with your friends during the sets.
The ascendancy of Sofar Sounds can be found online, but briefly: In the past ten years the group has grown to over 425 cities around the globe, from Beirut to Bangalore, Shanghai to Chicago, Porto to Porto Alegre to Port of Spain to Portland to…Portland. (That’s Portugal, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, and both Maine and Oregon, for those who weren’t geography majors.) There are over 85 “chapters” in the U.S. alone, from New York to Chico, California. Many smaller cities host one gig each month; the biggest (New York, London, Los Angeles) host upwards of 80. In Washington, DC, where I live, we host about 30 each month, making us the eighth-largest chapter in the world. In September 2017, Sofar teamed up with Amnesty International and hosted 300 benefit concerts around the world on a single day. I chatted with Amnesty’s Secretary General in between sets.
Perhaps Sofar’s success is unlikely. Sofars (as gigs are often called) are announced about a month in advance (an email mid-March announces April dates), and the only information available is a date and a neighborhood. The actual address is emailed to concert-goers the day before the gig, lending an air of secrecy and anticipation to the enterprise. There are no tickets — guests give their names at the door — and, most astonishingly, guests receive zero information (by which I mean zero) about the three acts playing on the date they’ve chosen to attend. Ticket prices vary by city; here in Washington they’re $20, meaning you could attend three for the cost of a 45-rpm Mofi double LP.
Sofar has been wildly successful based on a number of factors, but surely one is a desire for people to connect with music in a community of like-minded adventurers. The pop-up nature of the process builds excitement and a sense of exclusivity. The risk is low (if you don’t like an act, they’ll be done in 20 minutes) and the reward is high (I can’t even begin to tell you how many amazing musicians I’ve seen). I have covered about 100 shows over the past three-plus years, and I have never seen a single act of “rowdiness.”
The crowd is overwhelmingly young; I am twice the average age in many rooms. But young people perform enthusiastically, and are nothing but welcoming of an old fart hanging around. Between sets, they talk intelligently about their altruism, their respect and admiration for those different from themselves, the state of the world we are leaving them. If you think 20-somethings are indolent and selfish, you should meet the ones I know. They are the opposite of that lazy stereotype. And, if we’re being honest, people under 30 have always been the engines of change in popular music and art and culture. (Doubt that? The oldest Beatle was 31 when they split. Dylan released his tenth album at age 27.)
Besides the value of live music, and the value of small community in our increasingly impersonal world, I am amazed by the diversity of the acts I’ve seen. I’ve seen women who loop vocals, women who loop guitars, and women who loop violins (classical) and fiddles (bluegrass). I’ve shot pictures of the second-place finisher on “The Voice” (UK) — Anna McLuckie, who covered Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” ON A HARP. I’ve seen the next big things (New York’s Bailen in a coffeehouse with 40 people, and Connecticut’s Overcoats in a basement with 35), and the current big thing (Ed Sheeran, a lucky break, admittedly) in a living room with 90. I’ve shot folkies and jazz quintets, hip-hop artists covering Rihanna and soul bands covering Chris Stapleton. I’ve become friends with a young Korean-American man who dropped out of an Ivy League medical school after his second cancer diagnosis, because that kind of thing really makes a person ask what he wants to do with his life, and he wants to play music. He had the huevos to attempt Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” He left several in the audience in tears.
I would never have gone to see a single one of these acts if I just peeked at the paper to see who was playing. But openness to new ideas and ways of doing things is invigorating, rejuvenating, and, most of all, joyful.
I’m not saying you can’t be exposed to new, unfamiliar, passionately crafted music sitting in front of your stereo, especially in the age of Tidal. But you probably won’t be. I’m not saying you can’t enjoy your favorite single-malt and your favorite singer in the peace of your favorite chair. Nobody goes out every night. I’m not saying you can’t derive from a stereo system the kind of joy you can get from live music. I’m just saying I never have.
This is the answer to “There’s no good music anymore.” Yes, in fact, there is. You just gotta take some chances that even the very best pressing of Kind of Blue doesn’t require you to take.
Find a Sofar in your town and sign up. If Sofar isn’t near you, search online for “house concerts.” If you still get nothing, find a friend and put one on yourselves. Young musicians are everywhere and dying to play for live, breathing crowds. You may only get eight people, but you’ll actually get far more than an audience. You’ll get music, real music, the kind people have been making and listening to for millennia. It doesn’t have to replace your stereo system. And it probably won’t make the 30 best list of 2019. But I bet you’ll enjoy it anyway.
If you think nobody is making good music these days…Sorry, you’re just wrong. There is amazing new music released every day in this world. Go see some. Happy listening!
Photographs were taken between 2016 and 2019 at various venues in the Washington, DC area. All artists can be sampled at Spotify and iTunes. If you like what you hear, please buy their music. Artists earn about the same amount by selling a CD as they do from 5000 Spotify or Apple Music streams.
Photographs copyright 2019 Peter Braverman. Please do not reproduce or use elsewhere without written agreement.