So the big questions are:
Why aren't people purchasing, listening to and discussing and debating every atmo-works, dataobscura/blue oasis, earth mantra, Hypnos secret sound, ect that has come out in the past two years?
Do they suck?
Are they not breaking any new ground?
Are they breaking too much ground and not sticking to the rules of the space music play book?
Are the caliber of artists that lack luster?
Are they too "musical" ?
Is it the economy?
Is it apathy on behalf of the listeners?
Has the fan base shrunk?
Do people no longer feel the need to evangelize this music?
Should artists stop being challenging?
Are they not as challenging as they think they are?
Do the labels not do enough to promote there wares any more?
Do the artists not do enough to promote themselves?
What do the fans listeners want out of this music?
What do they want or need from a label?
Lots of questions...
Interesting post, Paul. I would stop short of "blaming" listeners for not being passionate enough, but I do think it's worthwhile for all of us to spend some time thinking about why the passion about this genre has diminished. Why are people buying less music, and talking less about the music they do listen to?
I don't feel it's just a matter of the music being too drone/minimalism focused. Actually I'd say that kind of thing is less interesting to most people than more musical, rhythmic or dynamic ambient music. Among the better-selling Hypnos CDs ever, the only one that falls on the drone/minimalism side of things is Somnium, and people tend to get more enthused (measuring by listener comments, amount of radio airplay, quantity/quality of reviews of the CDs) about stuff like Jeff Pearce or Saul Stokes.
If the "problem" were something as clear-cut as "too musical" or "not glitchy enough" or "not drony enough," we would see clear differences in how a given artist's music would be received, when they released something in more one direction than another. I mean, let's say listeners simply wanted minimal drone music - - then Steve Roach would find the Immersion discs would sell double or triple the quantity of his more dynamic releases. That would be a sort of referendum that a certain type of music is less in favor, and I believe if that were the case, some artists and labels would consciously or unconsciously begin releasing more work in the more favored style, and the genre would stay popular, CD sales would remain high, and there would be lots of discussion about the new releases, plenty of new people popping up to say "I'm going to start a blog to review ambient music," and more posts on mailing lists and forums.
No, I think the problem is a number of things combined, which makes it hard to diagnose. It's like going to the doctor when you have three or four things wrong with you -- even Gregory House can't figure out what would cause all your weird symptoms!
I think we're looking at a bunch of issues in combination.
One, the economy sucks, and sales of CDs and downloads have dropped significantly due to that. People simply have less money to spend, and every business suffers a bit. I'm sure everyone reading this, whether they work at a steel plant or a grocery store or a car dealer, has seen business drop off a bit due to the economy.
Two, there are so many ways now to copy and share music conveniently, which cuts down a bit on the number of people who will buy it. It's cheap and easy to burn a CDR for a friend, or to email zipped mp3 files, or just find it for yourself on bittorrent or one of the rapidshare-linked pirate blogs. Many people won't get their music way, but enough do that it results in at least some decrease in the amount of music being purchased.
Three, all genres and styles have ups and downs in terms of audience involvement and interest, and while ambient music and related niches had a great "up" in the 90s, this seems to be a "down" recently. If it's just something cyclical, it could rebound for some cultural reason or some other thing unrelated to the music itself, the economy, or piracy.
Four, for various reasons (probably chiefly the cheap and accessible means of making and recording music in a home studio) the number of people making ambient music has increased massively. This has resulted in more CD and CDR releases and "for purchase" download releases, and even with that increase, some artists want to get their music out there and can't find any commercial outlet for it, so they have resorted to free giveaway release, generally download. So this is really two things... a higher quantity of music being sold by a larger number of artists, and if that weren't enough "competition," there's quite a bit of free stuff available, much of it of a quality not too different from the stuff for sale.
In my opinion, it's this last issue which has several effects, all of which decrease the sale of individual music releases and result in listeners having less enthusiasm or excitement for the releases they like best. In the 90s it was really easy to get into huge debates about Aphex Twin's SAWII on the ambient list because there were hundreds or even thousands of people online who had all heard the album. We had all heard the album because it was one of maybe a handful of significant, major releases of that year so virtually everyone bought it.
Now, even if a new album comes out that many people consider major and significant (say, the new Forrest Fang this year, or the new Parks) that album is not owned by everyone in the community, or even half the people, or even a quarter of the people. So if you have a mailing list or an online forum, even if the group has a thousand members, but only 30 or 50 of them have heard a new album, it's harder to generate enthusiastic discussion (since many people are always going to remain lurkers no matter what) than it was when a mailing list or forum had 500 or 2,000 people who owned the album.
I remember discussions flaring up where dozens of messages would come up regarding Rich & Lustmord's Stalker
by Paul Schutze. Though recordings of this quality are still being released, there are only rarely any discussions of a single release stimulating more than one or two mentions. Really it only seems to be Steve Roach generating this kind of debate, and that's partly because he's an important artist with possibly the biggest listener base of anyone currently releasing ambient music, and also partly because he's a controversial figure, a "love him or hate him" sort of artist.
In my opinion there is nothing artists can do differently in order to make a big difference in how the music is purchased, or discussed, any time soon. Labels and artists both probably promote their music a bit less, though this is not due to laziness, but to the fact that most promotional efforts have brought diminishing benefits. Everyone still sends CDs to Star's End or Echoes or Hearts of Space because airplay on these stations definitely result in more awareness of the album, and more CD sales. But sending CDs to every college radio station that used to report to New Age Voice, as in 1995? Not any more. If you're selling fewer CDs, you need to be more careful about how many promos you send out, and if you send out fewer promos, you reach fewer DJs (at least until digital promo distribution catches on more) and fewer people hear your music, so presumably fewer people buy it.
As others here have said, in commenting on the first message here, the problem isn't that ambient music has gone downhill, or that there are no more good artists or labels releasing music. Only someone not paying attention, though, would argue that things are as vital and energetic as they were ten or fifteen years ago.