Monday, June 16, 2008

This Is the Industry, But For How Long?: Thoughts on the State of Music Today

It's undeniable that the world of music is changing, and along with it, the industry that has accompanied it ever since the music publishing boom and the likes of Tin Pan Alley. The twentieth century made music more of a commodity than it had ever been before, and now the twenty-first century is seemingly tearing all of that down. I feel like discussing all of these thoughts here, so it can serve as a bit of a brain dump for the ideas that have been floating around my head ever since I started my MA thesis on music blogging and music journalism. As sustained arguments and their attendant research tend to do, this thesis has led me well beyond my original hypotheses and topics. And all this expansion into other areas is about to tear my brain into its separate hemispheres.

With the advances of digital technology, the world has seemingly both exploded and imploded in a McLuhanesque way. Privacy and publicity have morphed into "publicy" and the alternative has effectively blurred into the mainstream. So many people have more access to ideas and commodities, and at the same time, many people are putting more of their ideas and products out there. I consciously use "commodity" and "product" differently - to me, commodities are primarily there to be bought and sold for financial gain while products can be creative results produced for the sake of those producing them with or without financial gain. This distinction is significant for me because I feel as though music is moving from being a commodity back into being a product, and those who depend on it being a commodity, are the ones most upset about this shift.

Due to the emergence of the MP3 file and fast Internet connections, music now freely circulates the globe, both legally and illegally. The music industry itself was slow to realize and anticipate this fact, and will probably forever pay the price. As I mentioned in an earlier essay on digital music, the medium does transform the message, and in the case of the Internet and music, the medium is multiplying and fragmenting the message. Because making, promoting and distributing music has become so democratic (technology and software in combination with the Internet has made it quite possible for anyone to create and promote their own music), there is a proliferation of music, bands, and artists out there in cyberspace. So many, in fact, that it would likely cause you brain damage if you tried to listen to them all. You also can't possibly know about them all. One look at MySpace and you can hear them all screaming for your attention, for their fifteen minutes. MySpace has made Warhol Nostradamus.

With the glut of music, worthy or not, the market for music has both exploded into fragmentation and imploded into solipsistic subcultures and subgenres solidified by the smaller communities who support them. Musicians used to depend on a major label deal to gain global publicity and popularity - even the bastions of DIY, the punks, all ended up selling out to the majors. Now musicians are able to promote themselves globally, but often within a sliver of society - definitely not to the heights of bloated stadium pomposity.

The danger of having so many people claiming to be musicians and claiming that their music is worth listening to and/or buying is that people become overloaded and apathetic. This has already happened in the realm of politics and news. If there's too much music out there, most people cannot be bothered to care and take the time to figure out which artists they actually like. Mainstream media serves a purpose for those people who are casual music fans by literally telling them who to adore and whose music they should purchase. Mainstream media, which includes television, advertising, and regular Top 40 radio, selects the reality these fans see and hear. In the latter half of the twentieth century, music journalists came into the music scene to help influence those who weren't as likely to be convinced by mainstream media and the popular music it was flouting. They became more discerning selecters of music reality and those music fans who were more than casual looked to these journalists as their tastemakers.

Now here we are in the twenty-first century, the irony and skepticism of the 1990's still fresh in our minds, and the big media pundits have only gotten bigger and swallowed up smaller ones, while consumer markets have shattered into thousands of slivers. Casual music fans are being influenced by media conglomerates, passively consuming the next bland music act, while true music fans are being smothered by the choices offered by the Internet. These people who are truly passionate about new, innovative music, have largely abandoned traditional music fan publications. The NME, which used to be the tastemaker for rabid music fans, is now the most maligned piece of music press out there. Because music publications like the NME cannot and/or will not keep up with the explosion of new music that anyone with an Internet connection can find for themselves, they are becoming increasingly obsolete for those who are passionate about music. But even these truly passionate music fans need help in this sea of undiscovered music talent, and so step in music bloggers.

Music bloggers, or MP3 bloggers as they are also known, are the new tastemakers with a word-of-mouth style rather than the official, paid stance of a journalist. These disparate voices in the wilderness of cyberspace have now also been united by music blog aggregators like The Hype Machine and Elbows, making the disparate seem unified. These aggregators can generate little waves of hype for artists as they crawl the Internet for new music blog posts and reveal who has been blogged about the most at that particular moment. Is this hype having an impact in today's fragmented market? It can be difficult to gauge. In looking at some traditional music publications, it seems music bloggers can have an effect on the music press that they are slowly and quietly subverting. Spin featured Vampire Weekend on their cover before the band even had an album out - instead, their popularity and worth was based primarily on the hype generated by music bloggers. At the same time, I know for a fact that most people I know do not even know what a music blog is, let alone religiously check aggregators and music blogs for information. In effect, music bloggers often seem to be preaching to the converted, and the ostensible unity shown via aggregators is an illusion of solidarity, where music blogs serve various fragments of music fan audiences. If there is a soldiarity amongst all these blogs, it comes from being a solid genre with tacit rules and conventions. And perhaps this sort of solidarity will eventually change the face of music journalism.

As more of the mainstream public become aware of music blogs, maybe they will serve a larger purpose than they currently do. In a world wary of advertising and continual corporatization of the Internet's freedom, music blogs provide a way for music to exist outside of a commodity-driven framework. Most music bloggers use a distinct discourse about music, a discourse which puts love and passion about music above all other goals. They want to share music that has touched them or meant something to them with their friends, and because of the blog medium they use, they also end up sharing that music with the world.

And they do literally share this music with their audiences. Music blogs feature a few tracks for free download with every post, allowing their audiences to sample music before making a decision to purchase and/or support live gigs. This practice points to a new way of consuming music - it is no longer the commodity it once was. Because of the onslaught of new music available, much of it not terribly good, true music fans have become more selective than before, they have had to become more selective in this current explosion of bands and artists. This provision of free music, legal and often not, has been one of the contentious issues surrounding the music blogosphere, but in light of other filesharing issues like torrents, they are hardly worth the RIAA's batting of an eyelash.

The fuss about illegal sharing of music and copyright violations just leads me to another question about whether music should even be the commodity it once was. It isn't a coincidence that the first law about copyright and intellectual property came about in the eighteenth century when capitalism was moving into full swing. Music itself, whether it is an intangible file stored on a computer or a groove on a record, has rarely been particularly lucrative for the artists themselves. Most of the money made on album sales is sucked up by the record label. If a musician was going to make any significant amount of money, touring live shows would be the most effective way of doing so. Of course the arguments put forth by music labels and the RIAA always conveniently sidestep these facts.

It has also been pointed out before that many artists, including writers and visual artists, cannot support themselves by their art alone, so any musicians who believe millionaire stardom is their birthright need to re-think things. Perhaps music itself shouldn't be viewed as a commodity anymore. Perhaps it needs to be seen as art once again in order for it to make sense in this brave new world. I, myself, am a firm believer in abolishing the whole middleman music industry. Those musical artists who can grasp and hold onto fans' attention will continue to do so without interference from bottom-lines and media blitzes.

Music blogs are just an increasingly more visible portion of a seachange in the way music is created, promoted and consumed. There are so many other Web sites and platforms out there that are promoting a democratization of music tastemaking. Sites like MOG,, muxtape, and The Sixty-One, are all ways to share your impeccable music taste with the world, and in cases like The Sixty-One, the concept of choosing who the best artists are becomes entertainment itself. Ordinary fans are increasingly taking the place of A&R people, and even festival promoters are taking note of this.

With the proliferation of music-makers, corporate-sponsored events are becoming just as ubiquitous and overwhelming as the waves of new bands on MySpace. It seems every mobile phone provider hosts a music festival, and looking at many of the line-ups, very few of them deviate from the same roster. However, more and more are attempting to get fans involved in choosing those bands who get to participate, including the Green Man Music Festival and their Green Poll ( and Benicassim Festival and their contest via Supajam (, yet another music social networking site. Whether all this A&R frenzy at being the first to discover a new band is actually productive or not, time will tell. Yet another danger of music blogs and their online offshoots is the hyper-speed of music discovery, where finding obscure music and being the first to post about it becomes the sole goal, barring any actual commentary or connection to the music being promoted. And in the end, posts like these disrupt the music discourse set up by music bloggers in the firstplace, making them less of an alternative to and subversion of the traditional music press.

Where is all this heading? I don't have a clue. And that's probably why I find it so fascinating and chose it all as a topic for my thesis. For the most part, music bloggers don't promote music for money, nor do they do it at the behest of record labels (unless they feel the music warrants it), and they don't have editors to please and/or contend with. These facts about music blogs can very likely change in the future as each new medium topples the next, and for some music blogs maybe these facts have already changed. But as it currently stands, music blogs are at the frontlines of music, wading through the mind-boggling masses of music out there and separating the wheat from the chaff for the benefit of those who have otherwise grown completely apathetic in the face of such choice. Too much choice can end up eroding any interest at all and weakening people's passions. Music blogs will hopefully continue to make sure this doesn't happen. Music is a special, affective art form (the most affective one for me, personally), and it deserves a promotional medium that matches that. Not another commodity-driven "industry."

Glamorous Indie Rock & Roll - The Killers

This is Industry - Calvin Harris

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