On Black & White, On Mumford & Avett

Last week was an uncomfortable one for anyone who is both a fan of Jack White and The Black Keys, which I happen to be. Jack White has little more than disdain for The Black Keys, and even after apologizing for telling Rolling Stone they were just a “watered down” version of his band The White Stripes, it’s hard not to think he firmly still believes that. His apology was one of those special non-apologies:

“I wish the band the Black Keys all the success that they can get,” he says. “I hope the best for their record label Nonesuch who has such a proud history in music, and in their efforts to bring the Black Keys songs to the world. I hope for massive success also for their producer and songwriter Danger Mouse and for the other musicians that their band employs. Lord knows that I can tell you myself how hard it is to get people to pay attention to a two piece band with a plastic guitar, so any attention that the Black Keys can get in this world I wish it for them, and I hope their record stays in the top ten for many months and they have many more successful albums in their career.” (USA Today)

And, look, it is lame to get hung up on someone else’s words that weren’t even meant for me, but it’s hard for me not to read these sarcastically. He wishes them financial success and fame, but he isn’t getting near granting them any ink for artistic integrity. Even in this apology, he goes out of his way to point out he’s already done the “two piece band with a plastic guitar.”

While his comments about himself and Amy Winehouse appear to be him wanting attention given to the fact that some acts pave the way, and others just glide by on their success, it’s nothing new that hasn’t been said a million times before. And to even try to cast himself and Winehouse as visionary when they clearly are copying tons of acts that came before them is hypocritical beyond measure. The can of worms he exposed himself to there isn’t for this girl to write about, but it reeks for sure.

I recently watched 20 Feet From Stardom (which is amazing), but one thing that struck me was the note that the incredibly talented Tata Vega (and many of the other amazing background singers of that era) never got a solo career off the ground because there could only be “one Aretha.” Franklin had the market monopolized for soul singers with huge voices.

Is that the case today? I don’t think so. The music industry is crowded with lots of acts similar to one another. I don’t know the economics behind it, but I can’t help but wonder if the saturation of albums is part of the problem. Look, I don’t want to buy all of the albums from the indie rock bands I like. I would go broke. I will definitely pick and choose their songs to download. Maybe if there were only one band making bluesy rock, I would own all of their albums. So, it is fair to say that White has a point. It has to be frustrating to clamor for attention in this age because music has become so democratized, both to create and to consume.

But, White fails to make the point in a gracious or logical manner. Jack White was born in 1975 in Detroit. Dan Auerbach was born in 1979 in Akron, Ohio. Is it so beyond belief that two white boys growing up in industrial midwest cities found the same influences and grew the same talents at the same time? Why does the act that comes behind you have to necessarily be copying you, and capitalizing on your success? The ego that pushes forward that belief is one that needs checked.

So much is going on in all of these discussions, it’s exhausting but fascinating. There’s ego at play over artistic vision, there’s ego on the fans’ part, there are cultural contexts, there are racial elements (the history of rock and roll is the history of how white sold better than black), but to me the most compelling and disgusting part of it is the economics. The music industry marries capitalism to art, and when supply and demand become the biggest player in what we hear, I can understand why some artists stay on edge about getting pushed out of their own sound.

I struggled through the success of Mumford and Sons a few years back. I side-eyed people who preferred them to The Avett Brothers because I think we all know who I feel is the superior act. And blogs and forums and reviews were full of pot stirring and ongoing debates that resolved nothing.

Scott takes a break from signing to stare at one of the posters, self- designed pop-art prints depicting a magpie over a bright-pink background. “Avett Brothers? Really?” he deadpans. “What are they, a Mumford & Sons wanna-be band?”

The rest of the bus roars with laughter. He’s referring to a recent Canadian review that called the Avetts “Mumford-esque.” If there is one footnote to the Avetts’ success, it’s this comparison, which keeps coming back: At an airport in Ireland this year, a girl called them “Mumford wanna-be’s” to their faces. “I was like, ‘We don’t even look like them!'” says Scott. In fact, Mumford probably wouldn’t exist without the Avetts. While recording its 2009 debut, Sigh No More, the English band listened to the Avetts’ 2006 independent LP Four Thieves Gone “three, four times a day,” Mumford banjo player Winston Marshall said. “I still can’t get over it.” (Rolling Stone)

The Avett Brothers never fed into any of it. They graciously handled the comparisons and tried to point out that the similarities between the bands were only skin-deep anyway. And Mumford and Sons were usually pretty clear about The Avett Brothers influencing them. As exhausting as the discussion around who was better could be, as stumped as I found myself about Mumford’s success, the two acts never got down in the mud with each other about it.

While researching this piece, it was much harder to find what the bands said about each other than what everyone else said. And there are more than just the Team Avett and Team Mumford camps. There’s also Team Both and Team Neither, and lots of people pointing out that both are stealing from acts previous to them. In the end, it’s all subjective, and we’re all right, and we’re all wrong. It’s music, and we take it too seriously. But there’s something comforting about the fact that in this case, none of the band members were whining about it publicly. There’s a lack of entitlement there that I respect.

I think that’s why it’s so sour to see Jack White take the road he takes when it comes to The Black Keys. Even if I think there’s room for everyone, even if I think it’s short-sighted to not admit you are both influenced by others before you, even if I think that their similarities aren’t that striking, I do empathize with the fact this is both his livelihood and his soul, and that he feels both are being encroached upon by copycats. But what good does it do your fans and their fans to be so bent out of shape about it? When we sell our art, this is what happens. You create a good, and competition will inevitably arise. I am a consumer with limited resources in an ever-crowding marketplace. Stand out with your work and not your drama.

When any brand makes a misstep, we become less interested in buying it. Is that a gross fact? Yeah. Is it a fact? Yeah.

Read more from Amanda here and on Twitter: @aaahmanda.