It's a strange time to be a musician, to be working on the creative end when the business model that has sustained your industry for so long has spent the past several years in the midst of a nosedive. What do you do when people continuously ponder, talk and write on how to save the music machine without ever finding answers? What do you do when even past success can't guarantee that your new album will move units?
If you're Moby, you distance yourself from the commercial electronic pop that made you a multi-platinum recording artist. On his latest album, Wait for Me, the New York-based producer eschews the glitzy electro sound of the charts for a subdued mix of mournful guitars and the soulful ambience of a '90s rave chillout room and ditches the superstar guest vocalists in favor of friends, singers he met at burlesque reviews and karaoke parties. For the album's lead single, he selected “Shot in the Back of the Head,” an instrumental track with little chance of acquiring commercial radio play, and commissioned friend David Lynch to direct the accompanying video, a beautifully disturbing animated clip that's probably too interesting for TV. For Moby, who now operates as a “free agent,” these were all conscious decisions, which he discussed with the LA Weekly.
Moby “Shot in the Back of the Head” directed by David Lynch
Your first big hit was “Go,” which sampled Twin Peaks, and now David Lynch has done your video. Are you coming full circle?
I guess it is, unintentionally so. I've loved him and his work since I first saw The Grandmother, which was one of his student films. My friends, when we were in high school, watched Eraserhead over and over again. I love almost everything he has ever done. I especially love the darker, more experimental films. I love Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire and Lost Highway. I think those are probably my favorites.
A couple of years ago, we met and slowly became friends. The way that the video came about was that I sent him “Shot in the Back of the Head” and I asked if he had any footage lying around because he's constantly shooting stuff. Maybe he had some footage lying around and I could borrow the footage. Five days later, I had this video completely animated. I was very flattered.
I was originally signed to Mute Records, small, independent Mute Records. Then Mute got bought by EMI, so I almost accidentally found myself an EMI artist for most of the world. Now, after a lot of wrangling, I'm a free agent. I'm still on Mute for America, but for the rest of the world I'm an independent, a true independent artist, meaning that I'm not really signed, I'm just signed to my own record label. So, putting out a first single that can't get played on commercial radio and having a video that's made by David Lynch that can't really get played on TV, it's definitely not something that EMI would let me do. It's nice to not be constrained under the major label yolk anymore.
Why release something as a single that has no vocals?
I guess it was a two-fold decision. One, it was a piece of music on the record that I liked. The people around me seemed to like it. I know a lot of people will do extensive focus group testing and market research, my market research was that it was a piece of music I liked and my friends seemed to like it as well. Also, after a few years of getting pressure from a big, major label, it was nice to do something sort of spontaneous, not even uncommercial, but anti-commercial.
As the record business falls apart, I see record labels making a lot of bad decisions, but I also see musicians making a lot of bad decisions. Far be it for me to judge, because I've made more bad decisions in my career than most people have, but I see a lot of musicians unwilling to accept the fact that things have changed. There are a lot of musicians who are still desperately trying to pretend that it's 1998 and by having a huge marketing campaign, they somehow believe that they can sell 10 million records. That's delusional. No one sells 10 million records. The days of musicians getting rich off of selling records are done. People can make a living, but the profit motive has been so diminished that now it seems that the only way to approach making music is for the love of it. Anyone who wants to start a band in 2009 because they want to get rich is, quite simply, an idiot. The only people who are getting rich are like Elton John, who go on tour and sell tickets for $500 a pop. The older, established artists can get rich, but new artists have to make music for the love of it because there is no real financial incentive, which I think is actually a really healthy thing.
It seems like there is this inverse relationship, the more profitable music became, the less interesting the music was. As music became more profitable in the 1990s, it seemed like it attracted a lot of people who were just interested in the financial aspect of it, which is depressing.
When people were focused on just the financial aspect, did it change how you made music?
If it did, it did so inadvertently, almost through osmosis. Living in New York, and LA to an extent, a lot of times in New York or LA, the way creative expression is judged is how profitable it is. Being surrounded by that, you can't help but be affected by it. Even if you are going to underground clubs or listening to underground, indie music, when you live in a city like New York, where everything is expensive and the only worth that seems to be attributed to things is how much money they can generate for people, it's hard not to be affected by that. That's why I think now it's nice that profitability isn't really an option, it leads people to make better decisions for more honest reasons.
How do you approach distribution if profitability isn't a motive anymore?
For me, it makes it more simple. You make a record. In my case, I made this record and I really like it, so I go out and talk about it and hope that people will listen to it. That's the sole goal. There's nothing else going on, whereas, in the past, people would go out to promote something because they could make a lot of money or increase their fame quotient. It makes it a lot simpler now. For me, it's almost emancipating. Because I came from such a weird, underground music background, whenever I had any success, it was equal measures accidental and confusing. The success of the album Play baffled me because, when I put it out, I didn't think that anyone was going to like it. I didn't think it was going to sell. Then it became successful and, I'm ashamed to admit, I found myself enjoying the success. I found myself enjoying a little extra money, going to red carpet events. I was drinking too much and I was taking drugs and I was going out all the time and I got caught up in it.
There's a quote from Oscar Wilde where he says– I'm paraphrasing– there are two tragedies, not getting what you want and getting what you want. Was that sort of the situation?
Yeah because we live in a culture where almost everyone almost unquestionably accepts that fame and money are worth pursuing. So many people buy into this idea– and I know I sound like a fifteen-year-old anarchist– that if you have more fame, you'll be happy. If you have more money, you'll be happy. Empirically, there's no evidence to support that. The people who get more fame, who get more money, more often than not they are miserable, insecure and on anti-depressants. It's strange that everyone keeps buying into this idea that more success is good, that more fame is good, that more money is good. Yet, we look at the people who have more success, more fame, more money and they're miserable.
And it's purely judging your success based on how much money you have and how many people know who you are when, really, you could base it on how interesting is this product, did it instill some sort of joy in the people who listened to it?
Exactly. The criteria for evaluating creative output shouldn't be how much money has it made and how many people know about it, but how do people care about it? If you make a record, you should ask yourself, did it make someone cry, in a good way, not a bad way. There should almost be subjective emotional criteria for evaluating work, instead of just profitability.
I know that talking about this potentially sounds disingenuous or like I'm a naive 19-year-old taking a semiotics class at Brown talking about bourgeois society and phony values, but it's based on my experience. I'm not whining about fame, because there are few things more annoying than a public figure whining about how hard it is to be a public figure. All I'm saying is that, empirically speaking, fame has never made me happy or satisfied in a sustainable way. Hanging out with my friends playing Scrabble, that makes me happy. Also, it's more real and more sustainable.
Wait for Me is out on June 30. Also, check out Moby Gratis, his free music licensing service for non-profit and student filmmakers. Films featuring this music can be found on the Moby Gratis YouTube channel.