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A thousand points of blah

Josh sent me this little parable about how the internet is changing the distribution system for music, and it dovetailed into something i'd been thinking about. We had a little debate about whether or not this is a good thing. He thinks it is because it allows musicians to bypass the corporations that own the record labels and radio stations and reach an audience directly. As a musician who posts his stuff on the internet i love the idea (although i clearly know my stuff is "not there yet"), but i don't think it'll work. The first problem i see is that it's only a matter of time before the corporations move in and dominate the internet space as much as they do everything else.

The second problem is i think we will be drowned in mediocrity. You go and myspace.com or the like, and you'll hear tons and tons of average stuff. The theory is that the good stuff will bubble to the top, but i don't see how it can happen. You're essentially relying on word of mouth. How many of you clicked on the links i've put up in the past to bands like Evan's Groove or Mixed Meteor? (I'm not saying you had to like these bands, but i'd suspect most people don't even check out bands that other people recommend.) Compare it to the number of times you did hear a song on MTV or the radio that turned out to be by a good band.

Julia can probably correct me on this, but i think that before Bach, you essentially had a situation which is a lot like proponents of a myspace-like distribution system. Music was local. It was probably very diverse, but the fantastic things that could have been going on in one place never had any effect on music as a whole. I don't have my timelines matched up perfectly, but i'd bet a part of what made Bach the first rock star was a combination ofthe promotion of the Church and the arrival of a printing press that allowed people all over Europe to get Bach's sheet music and play and hear the music. After Bach, you have Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, etc... and each time there was a major paradigm shift in how music was approached. As the distribution system got more efficient, the changes happened more quickly with Chuck Berry, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the Sex Pistols, U2, Nirvana, Public Enemy... but each time, the changes were widespread. All of those bands, and many others had a huge postive effect on music, and they did it because of two things: first, just by being good bands, but second by being prominent throughout the western world so that the next generation of musicians could hear their ideas and expand on them or reject them. (There is also the fact that during these same time periods there were other bands that should have come to greater prominence. The Velvet Underground is probably the best example, but we all probably have our favorites. It's true that the biggest bands were usually also those that found a way to break musical boundries while still having mass appeal, while bands that pushed harder and were probably 'better' at least to us music lovers' ears got were relatively ignored. But even bands like Can or the Raincoats, or whoever you like - they were part of the same distribution system and they were well known enough to influence others.)

Corporations definitely played a part in bringing these bands to prominence. Their ultimate goal of course is to make money, but if in the process they are making all this good music available, that means the system is working. The problem is along the way the discovered that they can make more money by distributing music that is safe and unchallenging, (and as corporations grew and merged, it helped to not have to carry artists who challenged the way corporations operate) and over the years the balance has shifted to the point where the great majority of the music that is played is pap. So i acknowledge that there's a problem... i just don't think that going totally internet-indie is the solution. You need a national/global distribution system so that the good bands have somewhere to bubble up to. It doesn't have to be mega-corporations. In fact, i can't believe i'm arguing for an essentially capitalist system against a system where little indie musicians doing home recordings (hi!) would be on a level playing field. I just don't see a solution where we don't wind up with a thousand points of blah.

By fnord12 | May 9, 2006, 4:09 PM | Music


How do the good bands bubble up now? They still do it outside the mainstream music machine, at least to start. Nirvana didn't end up on MTV the day after Bleach was released. They put out an album, gained a local following, that garnered them some attention, a bigger record deal for their second album which allowed them to gain national attention. I don't see why that has to be any different using the internet as a distribution medium. The only thing that changes, imo, is the "local" aspect of it. Rather than gaining attention in your local geographic area, you gain attention in you local webosphere, for lack of a real word. Be it myspace, or a mailing list, or what not. It starts to snowball. First it's just you and your friends listening to your band, then, if you're good enough, your friends play it for their friends. Etc, etc. I think the Dresden Dolls are a prime example of this. They played around Boston for a year or two slowly building a reputation. They put out their first album themselves, toured their asses off, now their signed to a bigger label, doing press tours, and the whole shpiel. I don't know if they'll be the Next Big Thing (at least not here, I hear they're superstars in Europe already), but a lot of their fan base grew from online promotion, Amanda blogs, they have a very active community at their message board. Bloggers, mailing lists, message boards, what have you, these are the equivalent of radio stations and DJs.

From my perspective it's hard to say how internet distribution will change the music industry in the future, because how it affects us is mostly irrelevant. We're already past the point where traditional distribution channels matter. It's how it affects the kids that's important. I'll go back to Nirvana, because that's when I realized that music didn't have to be so boring. Until I heard Nirvana, music was cool and all, but I wasn't that interested. But Nirvana was like a gateway into a whole huge world of bands I'd never imagined, way beyond the tiny grunge scene they spawned from. So the question for me, is, if I was in highschool today, how would my I hear about their modern equivalent; the band that opens the eyes (or ears as the case may be) of that small (but growing) percentage of listeners who are looking for something more. I doubt it's from traditional radio play or MTV. MTV doesn't even play videos anymore. It's the internet, it's a great equalizer. You don't have to trade your artistic integrity for a shot at the big time. And even if you never make that big time, you have a much better chance of making a living off of your music than you did 10 years ago, you just have to know how to interface with your audience in a new way.

I understand that this is where your problem lies, you think we'll end up with a sea of mediocre bands, obscuring the truly exceptional ones, but like the Dresden Dolls, I think the cream will still rise to the top. I just don't see a difference between the cool kid in high school today who downloads an mp3 he heard on some music blog, and then coming in and sharing it with his friends at school the next day, and the cool kid in high school 10 years ago, who heard a song on the alternative radio station and telling his friends about it. In fact, I think it's even easier. You don't have to wait until school, you can send that mp3 link out right away. You might argue that the links are easier to ignore, but that's a social consideration more than anything else, an enthusiastic enough fan makes sure his friends hear the music.

I guess it's just that Nirvana (everyone's going to think we're like the hugest Nirvana fans ever, but we're just using them as an example) didn't become big and influence the next generation of musicians because friends at school passed around copies of their album. They became that influential, after years of working their ass off, because they got picked up by the national media. Even in your example of the Dresden Dolls, they started off working indie, and now they got picked up by a bigger label who is promoting them in the traditional ways. I could see that the internet may supplement or replace the local scenes where bands grow up before they are picked up by the mainstream, but i don't see it replacing the mainstream the way a lot of internet utopians do. I hope i'm wrong - i'm no fan of the music industry and i'd love to see it replaced by something better, but i don't want to rely on what is essentially word-of-mouth to find out what's happening.

bach was a relatively unknown composer during his time(he's known for his organ skills but outside of church setting.. not that much), not until a more prominent composer(mendelssohn) revived his music in the 19th century.. so if you compare mendelssohn to the big companys.. i guess that works..

Wow. For some reason i thought Bach was hugely influential in his time. I guess that makes Bach closer to a Velvet Underground than a Beatles.

when i said relatively unknown i meant that he's not known all over the world... hmm.. i don't think i'm making much sense..

i really should stop pretending that i know anything about music..