story by Billy Kenefick
image by Bethany Vogelsberg
“The world is hearing the voice of freedom from the center of the Middle East…The Iraqis have taken rightful control of their country’s destiny.” — President George W. Bush, January 30, 2005.
President Bush said the above quote during a press conference on January 30, 2005 — the day of Iraqi legislative elections. A similar phenomena has befallen the world of independent and mainstream music, except without the multi-billion dollar price tag, physical and political division of the world’s countries and rising death toll. Yes, our capitalist music industry appears to be crumbling to an insurgent threat of, well, what exactly? Poor artists? Or wait, maybe it’s the other way around, and the cultural capital of music is being democratized. The good news is that the voice of freedom from thousands of musicians across the world is not being heard because of IEDs and M1 Abrams battle tanks. Instead, music seems to be making a safe transition to democracy — with a more peaceful arsenal of digital cameras, mp3s and Macbooks leading the charge.
Like any democracy or political structure, there are of course downsides. For example, even though at the time everyone thought Lars Ulrich was an ass for complaining about Napster and mp3 downloads, I’m starting to see his point of view. I don’t really support his argument that people shouldn’t illegally download Metallica, but I am beginning to recognize that the digital/Internet renaissance is indeed a double-edged sword. On one hand you have the death of the record store (R.I.P., Tower Records) because people are buying fewer and fewer CDs. On the other hand, wonderful things are happening thanks to the Internet, with the primary and George Washington-esque veteran example of the cause being the increasingly influential Myspace Music.
Put all of the Forbes success stories, emo-kids, molesters and stripper crap aside and what is Myspace? A (currently still) free website template and database for bands. It hosts files for download, shares a concert calendar, displays photos, and publishes rants and ravings while being managed for free. Because it started in Los Angeles, Myspace truly hit the L.A. scene by storm.
“Myspace has had a huge impact on how we promote our music. We are literally able to reach thousands of people across the world and turn them into true fans. Some of our most hardcore fans live in Germany, the U.K., middle America, and the South,” said Parker Stevenson, guitarist and vocalist for the L.A. band Wetbrain. “We’ve never been on tour, so how would we reach these people without Myspace? It also allows us to communicate with these fans and make them feel a part of the band.” Thanks to the bankroll from Myspace owners/international media conglomerate News Corp (owners of, oddly enough, the often undemocratic Fox News, among others), bands like Wetbrain can finally put a website on their posters and let the people speak for themselves. Why wait for corporate radio to play their song once a day when Wetbrain could have 150 plays this afternoon alone?
This budding democracy has matured rapidly. The pubescent progression of the Internet began with words, moved on to colors, pictures and sounds, and has since begun to ‘peak’ with high-speed, streaming video. In the digital society of music, video hasn’t killed the radio star — it has made him stronger. To be seen, spending thousands of dollars to make a video for MTV to play once or twice at midnight is now happily considered a pipe dream. Bands are now opting to use a DV cam, editing software and their drummer’s girlfriend’s computer to upload their home-made footage to the glorious YouTube, while saving money for beer in the process. No longer do they need pioneers like Spike Jonze or high-speed yachts and champagne in order to attract attention, when a garage and a few treadmills will do quite nicely. Thanks to a democratic approach to video, one of the most coveted avenues of human attention, television, has been bypassed by the local alley shortcut. It’s been great for bands like OK Go, and it’s an interesting sign when heavy hitters like Beck record a new album and say:
“We filmed a series of very low-budget, homemade videos for all the songs on [new record The Information]. We got a bunch of cameras and a $100 video mixer off eBay and shot 15 silly, impromptu videos against a green screen…We’re putting all the videos together right now with the idea of having a visual version of the record that we’ll put on the Internet. I’m totally curious to see how the videos will add to the experience of listening to the album.” (Beck, Wired, September 2006.)
So our new digital democracy can help both poor musicians get started and rich musicians try to retain their credibility, but how has it affected those embedded in the indie business? According to Aaron Rogers of Chicago’s Fresh Produce Records and Ice Factory loft space, it has made marketing easier on the wallet but hasn’t necessarily increased revenue.
“I don’t think production sounds too different from five years ago due to any advances in technology,” says Rogers. “But as collecting money for recordings might be a little harder due to file sharing, recording has become significantly cheaper, and therefore, more egalitarian. It seems like the biggest difference is less money changes hands, but music still gets made — and made well.”
As for the overall ups and downs of this new democratic philosophy? “The Internet doesn’t level the playing field, but it gives more artists than ever a chance to win people over,” Rogers explains. “More people can create and display their work. One result is that there is more content than ever for people to sift through, but the flip side is the Internet provides an increased opportunity for exposure to people they never had access to before.”
Let’s take some more advice from our local expert on freedom:
“The failure of Iraqi democracy would embolden terrorist around the world, increase dangers to the American people, and extinguish the hopes of millions of people.” — President George W. Bush, November 6, 2003.
In the context of our independent musical future, I think the Decider is dead on. If this budding musical democracy fails to take root, bands like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and that one noise trio your roommate likes may lose the hearts and minds of millions of people who listened, watched and loved them unconditionally. They earned these fans without the help of major record chains, ad sales or MTV. Failure is not an option and we must stay the course; it would leave a veritable breeding ground for the out-of-touch media moguls, who would come out of their caves while plotting to take the battle to our own turf. Wait! It may already be happening (Google buys YouTube…), so we need to adapt to win!
Spin or no spin, if our music loses its democracy in this powerful age of the Internet, we may never get it back.
CI Special Report #014