My very first Pop Conference presentation, given at the very first Pop Conference, and written at the suggestion of organizer Eric Weisbard, who sensed there might be something worth exploring in the whole dot-com-explosion-scoops-up-random-musicians-and-writers-of-previously-questionable-corporate-value dynamic. He was right enough that I kept going after the paper was finished — it became the title and the theme of Wonderlick’s second album, whose 16 songs attempted to analyze the same thing from a variety of different angles. The result was catchier than that might sound. What follows served as the liner notes to that album, and was also included in This Is Pop! (Oxford University Press), a compendium of papers from the conference, where it sits between contributions from Simon Reynolds and Carrie Brownstein. Good company, and a good example of the range of perspectives the conference has always attracted.
One night in April 2001 I jumped in a white stretch limousine with the CEO of Listen.com, the Vice President of Business Development, one of our Strategic Account Managers, and several cases of beer. We drove from San Francisco to the Arco Arena in Sacramento to see AC/DC in concert. In the middle of the show, while the band played “The Jack,” cameras connected to the giant TV screens panned the crowd of 20,000 rock fans wearing blinking devil horns emblazoned with the AC/DC logo, looking for a female willing to strip. While several ladies appeared ready to undo a button or two on their blouses, the cameras seemed able to tell they were poseurs, and finally settled on a young, exuberant blonde. As the band vamped, she began to remove her shirt, timing her moves perfectly so she could flash her breasts in diamond vision as the music climaxed and the crowd went wild.
A couple weeks later, that VP got laid off, the CEO stepped aside, and I was battling to save the handful of editorial positions that remained in a department that had once included fifty passionate music geeks. It wasn’t the first round of layoffs we’d experienced, and it wasn’t going to be the last. We were in the very early stages of a hangover that now seems like the inevitable result of the late-’90s dot-com binge, and as I popped aspirin and filled out spreadsheets designed to calculate how many Full Time Equivalents my department could afford to jettison, I kept thinking about the lady at the Arco Arena.
Even though I am a guy who writes about music for a living, hers was not the first pair of breasts I had ever seen. I will confess, however, that I had never seen a pair projected on such a giant screen, so they were quite literally the biggest. And I had never heard 20,000 screams unite in quite the same way when they finally appeared.
So the experience left me with a lot of questions for their owner. I wondered what she said the next day when friends asked her how the concert was. I wondered if she thought the crowd had been applauding her breasts or her daring. I wondered if maybe she was a plant, and had actually gotten paid for her performance. That last one was just a specific way of asking a more general question, I guess — mostly I was wondering exactly what she got out of it.
There’s a slight chance it was one of those transcendent moments rock and roll is supposed to be about – a joyous release of inhibitions when everything in the world and inside your head briefly hums in harmony, and the only way she had to express the ineffable power of that feeling was to yank off her shirt.
But see, Listen.com’s rock editor had warned me this was going to happen (that women would strip, I mean – not that I would obsess about its significance forever afterward). His exact words, when I told him I was going to an AC/DC concert, were, “Cool. You’re gonna see titties.” And some casual post-gig research on AC/DC websites revealed that, not only do AC/DC concerts regularly compel attractive, tipsy women to disrobe, but that they almost always do so at that exact moment in that precise song. It’s like a ritual. Which makes it harder to argue that it was a genuinely uninhibited moment – even in rock and roll, apparently, there is a proper time and place to remove one’s clothes.
So I don’t feel at all goofy when I insist that I felt a strange kinship with the naked woman, who for all I know went back to work in an office much like mine the following day. The little band of content providers I managed at Listen.com and was in the process of winnowing down to a more sustainable number had basically had the same experience in reverse. Many of us were in bands, and before the dot-com explosion had spent most of our time writing, playing or watching music being made. But the tech boom had brought us out of the world of nightclubs and concert halls and into the land of cubicles, and our adventures there proved just as heady, about as brief, and equally packed with contradictions. That’s what I really want to talk about, but before I do I need you to understand that, at the height of venture capital mania, we felt every bit as sexy and powerful as the topless lady.
Not that our jobs were particularly glamorous. When I first joined Listen in the summer of 1999, the company was building a directory of all the legally downloadable music on the Net. Because most labels were being notoriously cautious about releasing songs online, the vast majority of that material was being posted by unknown acts on sites such as mp3.com, Riffage and Iuma. There were already tens of thousands of such acts, and our mission was simple: we were supposed to listen to every fucking one, rate them, assign them two to four musical styles from the more than 500 branches on Listen’s incredibly detailed genre tree, assign two to four similar artists (so that, when visitors to our site typed “Rolling Stones” in the search box, we could point them to the 536 Stones-like bands in our database, by way of an apology for not having any actual Rolling Stones tunes). Finally, we were supposed to type up a brief “review.”
I put quotation marks around that word because Nick Tangborn, Listen’s original editor in chief, had made the very wise decision to avoid explicit value judgments when we wrote up our 25 to 35 word blurbs about a particular act. The goal was to describe what the band sounded like, rather than to state whether the band sounded any good.
The reason for this decision became evident after just two or three days on the job: almost all the bands we listened to were abysmal. Actually, I sort of wished that were the case – after a week or two I came to crave finding a genuinely horrible act, because those were at least interesting, and usually worth sharing with coworkers in need of a laugh. Most of the groups were only boringly mediocre – competent musicians without a shred of imagination aping more successful bands who weren’t necessarily so thrilling themselves. Reviewing for Listen in 1999 was basically like watching an average bar band sound check. For eight hours. Our unofficial motto was: we listen to shit so you don’t have to.
But we loved it. I kid you not, every Sunday night I went to bed happy, eager to get to work the next day and slip on my headphones. Partly this was because I am one of those assholes who had muddled along just fine without a legitimate job for the first thirty-odd years of my life, so getting up from an actual desk to get a drink from an actual water cooler was still an exotic adventure for me. And partly this was because the editorial department comprised first fifteen, then twenty, and eventually fifty genuinely engaging, intriguing, hilarious individuals whom I will always consider it my great good fortune to have known. But mostly it was because every one of us, to some extent, cherished the strange combination of absurdity and good luck that had landed us full time jobs with health insurance and stock options and free beer every Friday at five for doing EXACTLY WHAT WE’D ALWAYS DONE WITH OUR FREE TIME, ANYWAYS. Namely, eat, drink, sleep and breathe music and then be insufferable wise-asses about it all.
That’s why the fact that we were listening to shitty music forty hours a week was beside the point. 99% of it sucked, but I’d been a freelance rock critic for the better part of a decade by that point, and this particular ratio of shit to shinola seemed no different than the one I found going through the stacks of CDs that wound up in my mailbox at home. Besides, it was much easier to forgive naked peasants than naked emperors – I would spend eternity with the worst crap I downloaded off mp3.com before I’d agree to buy back all the horrid Dreamworks CDs I’ve sold to Amoeba over the years. And of course, when you did stumble across a truly wonderful act, the pleasure was undiluted, and you felt obligated to share your discovery with the world.
But the real joy came from the sudden sense that a lifetime spent listening to records and going to shows and making friends with people just because they were wearing the right button was now weirdly valuable. Career paths for people with encyclopedic knowledge of popular music have always been limited. And the editorial department at Listen, again by the founding editor’s design, consisted almost exclusively of those misfits who hadn’t parlayed their strange obsessions into freelance or full time gigs at the handful of alternative weeklies or monthly magazines that the Bay Area supported. Half our writers were musicians, or DJs, or ran their own label, or some combination of all three, but almost none of us were accustomed to making any money from those pursuits.
Our rock editor, Mike McGuirk – the same reprobate who gave me the heads up about titties at AC/DC concerts – summed up the gut-punching wonder of this development best when he said, “I thought I was gonna be a cook forever.”
He didn’t say that to me, though. He said it to a legitimate journalist, who was writing a feature about Listen’s editorial department that eventually ran under the headline, “Revenge of the Music Geeks.” That writer was just one baton-twirling majorette in a seemingly endless parade of oddly bright-eyed reporters – from the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, CNN, ABC, and even a jovial documentary crew from the Czech republic – all of them using the newly-empowered music hounds at Listen the same way I’m using the topless lady at the Arco Arena – as framing metaphors, telling examples of a moment when the normal order of things has flipped and the meek, if they haven’t exactly inherited the earth, had at least been temporarily upgraded to first class.
We weren’t special; we were simply a convenient symbol for the rambunctious energy that characterized the dot-com explosion. Just as giddy women were pulling off their blouses in every city AC/DC visited on their North American tour, our experience was being shared by newly-employed misfits across the country. And, just as the naked ladies made the show seem that much more exciting, every newspaper article about the pierced and tattooed dot commies at companies such as mine made the “new economy” seem that much more unstoppable.
We all know how this story ended – eventually, time-honored business realities reasserted their incontrovertibility, and the summer camp atmosphere dissipated seemingly overnight. But for a good long while that outcome seemed anything but inevitable, as otherwise reasonable commentators were yammering on about paradigm shifts, and each day we met the business world head on and watched it get a contact high from our boozy breath.
Some examples: one of the first business decisions I made after getting promoted to managing editor was that, given all the parties our company kept throwing, we could save a lot of money by purchasing our own DJ coffin and PA system rather than renting them every other week. During a helpful lecture by the financial firm that was handling our stock option packages, the lady in charge of teaching us about strike prices and vesting periods chose to illustrate our potential windfall by repeatedly proclaiming, “And that’s when you’ll be able to buy that brand new SUV.” The fifth time she said this, our country editor politely raised his hand and asked her if she could please start using a different example – he suggested a Fender Twin Deluxe. And at SXSW 2000, the gap between my old life and my new one was thrown into particularly sharp relief. I’d only ever come to music conferences like that one as another guy in another band, pulling into town in a beat up van and sleeping four to a room or crashing on some kind soul’s couch. This time I had my own room at the Four Seasons and a sweet little case to hold my brand new business cards.
My favorite memory, however, is of a pep talk given by one of the venture capitalists who’d invested ungodly sums of his own and other people’s money in Listen.com. The entire company – about sixty of us, by this point – was gathered amid the sawhorses and stacks of uninstalled pipes in the old sheet metal factory that was halfway through its transmogrification into Listen.com’s corporate headquarters. The VC told us that the #1 band on mp3.com that week had over half a million downloads. Granted, they were all free downloads, but everyone recognized there was some kind of value there. The VC confessed he wasn’t yet sure how we were going to monetize that, but he was sure that we would. “Because the ultimate goal,” he said, “is to monetize everything.”
If I were a courageous dwarf in a fantasy novel, that would have been the moment I espied a raven or some other dark omen on a nearby branch. It was the first time I felt – and I mean felt as opposed to understood in an abstract way – that people were paying my new friends and I semi-decent wages and buying us lots of drinks and letting us keep odd hours and wear whatever the hell we wanted to work because they expected something bigger and better in return.
My moment of disquiet passed, naturally, and I went right back to enjoying the party. And, like any good rock and roll show, we got carried away and took things too far. The editorial department grew, partly because building The Leading Directory Of Legally Downloadable Music On The Internet required an ever-growing number of hamsters on an ever-accelerating array of exercise wheels – even at 150 bands reviewed per writer per week, musicians were uploading more songs than we could ever hope to catalog – but mostly because spending money was briefly considered just as good as actually earning any. Rapid growth was a sign of good health and greater prospects, and the VC’s wanted to see us expand. The number of employees tripled, and our days got progressively weirder. We launched a co-venture in Tokyo called Listen Japan. I started interviewing editor in chief candidates for the bureaus we were planning to open in London and Latin America. The company flew in a friend of mine to pitch ideas for the Listen.com TV show a cable network had proposed.
It all sounds so stupid in retrospect, but it’s too easy to gaze back from a distance and laugh at the foolish things we do when we drink too much and decide we’re invincible. Listen’s PR guy and I both used to boast to reporters that we had the biggest full time editorial department of any music publication in the United States, and while we might have benefited from asking ourselves if maybe there was a reason no other business tried to maintain such a large contingent of staff writers, once the spotlight finds you it becomes nearly impossible to think about consequences. You’re frozen in an ecstatic present, and just about anything you do while you’re there seems perfect and natural and right. Of course we should have our own TV show. Of course the 100,000 casual dismissals of amateur acts that we’d written (“Militant Christian Contemporary with sweeping rock guitars and drums that make you want to go burn down an abortion clinic”) should be translated into twenty different languages. We’d been chosen. Our breasts were beautiful, the world wanted to see them, and we were gonna give the world anything it asked for.
Well, eventually the world asked for its money back. The day we had our first round of layoffs, half of our writers were let go, along with the VP who’d built the department in the first place. Everybody – those who were staying and those who’d been given 90 minutes to put their personal effects in boxes — walked to the bar across the street and had what amounted to a wake for our dead illusions. We’d lost something much harder to replace than our jobs — we’d lost the belief that our moment of glory had been necessary or real.
Now, I obviously have no idea how the lady who flashed the crowd at the Arco Arena felt the next day. But I think it’s possible she experienced the same mix of emotions that I’ve still got today – a combination of embarrassment and glee. Part of me thinks the lady was ill used, that she sacrificed something personal for the aggrandizement of the four millionaires on stage, and that the freedom she presumably felt was a lie, since her moves were preordained. But the rest of me realizes none of that changes the way it felt at the time.
AC/DC needed a likely lass to flash the crowd at that particular moment in their set, and experience had taught them there was at least one in every arena. Nonetheless, the woman who obliged them got something of her own, something ephemeral, but real just the same. For a few seconds, she was the show. 40,000 eyes swiveled away from the stage and drank her in. In my memory, even Angus turns around to watch her breasts sway on the giant screen, although that part might not actually have happened.
Do I think this was a fair exchange? Not really. But a couple years at a dot-com teaches you that equity is overrated. It’s possible to be complicit in your own exploitation, and it’s easy not to mind. Tempting as it is to repress the rush and promise yourself you won’t ever fall for that again, doing so might mean you lose the only tangible thing you received in the transaction.
Despite all the attention I continue to pay to those breasts, I don’t think the thrill of their unveiling had any more to do with sex than my own adventures in the new economy had to do with money. Tits, cash — those are just the sparks that fly out of the magician’s wand while he’s pulling the shit that’s really gonna wow you out of a pocket.
Back when the roller coaster was still heading up, up, up, our original indie rock writer decided to take a three-month leave of absence, at the end of which he informed us he wouldn’t be returning to his desk after all. When we asked him why, his response was, “I guess I’m just not down with commerce.”
Me, I got down with commerce. I still work at Listen, and while the rush of anticipation I used to feel on Sunday nights has been replaced by a punier but far more common relief when Friday finally rolls around, I still dig my job. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m a legitimate businessman, but like everyone left in the editorial department I’m a lot more realistic about the odds of our eventual success, and the bursting of our bubble has forced us to come up with more useful ways to utilize our musical expertise.
I suppose the writer who opted out early would say the forces of commerce prevailed in their struggle with the musicians and writers who stayed behind, and shaped us the way they required. But I’m not convinced it’s that simple, cause I’m not so sure it was the folks like us who were really acting crazy. After all, we were just doing what we’d always done, only now we didn’t have to tend bar to support our habits.
It was the folks my old band-mates and I used to refer to as civilians who got dangerously distracted by the tits and the cash: the commentators on CNBC, the analysts at Merrill Lynch, the VC’s who assumed you could monetize anything. They became hypnotized by all the pretty sparks coming out of the magician’s wand. And when the sparks sputtered out they decided the show must be over.
Maybe I’m kidding myself, but I like to think that the naked lady and I knew better, that we kept our eyes on the magician’s other hand.
So…what’d he finally pull out of that pocket?
Well, it’s nothing you can quantify. That’s why the accountants all went home, muttering that the whole thing had been a trick and there wasn’t any such thing as magic. It’s more like an idea, a suggestion of something that isn’t there, but could be. Try to imagine a handkerchief that looks like a bird that flaps its wings and flies out the window, and then pretend there wasn’t any handkerchief to begin with.
Promise is too strong a word, and reeks of lawyers, so I’m going to settle on possibility. That’s what the naked lady breathed in, that’s what the crowd sniffed, that’s what I tasted, that’s what a lot of people in this country briefly felt. Possibility. The possibility that the naked lady would remain more interesting than the band for the rest of the evening. The chance that a gigantic record collection could substitute for an MBA. The understanding that if anyone can be a millionaire, nobody should. The feeling, always fleeting so never scary, that someone new is in charge.
The takeaway (as I’ve learned to call important nuggets of information) is not that the new boss is the same as the old boss, or that the old boss always returns, although both things are equally true. The thing to remember is just how important and powerful the moments in between can be.
Sometimes the audience plays the band. And sometimes the band plays with the audience. And every once in a while, nobody’s really in charge.