Luke Sharkey sets out to examine the ways in which the Internet has uniquely changed our attitudes toward listening to and buying music.

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SINCE the birth of music as a mass-produced commodity in the early twentieth century, recording artists have been limited by the inherent economical rules of supply and demand. The companies which control the means of production — recording studios, distribution lines — have usually only provided capital for music which they perceive there to be a demand for. While this system makes sense on an economical level, and has provided musicians with the money they need to survive for almost a century, the last 15 years have seen a huge fault develop within it. You guessed it: the internet.

“The commercial music industry operates on the principle that a certain sound becomes the predominant, most popular on the market.”

The commercial music industry operates on the principle that a certain sound becomes the predominant, most popular on the market and thus supplies music of that type for consumption and sale. This has been particularly effective since the mid-1950s, when the idea of pop culture first began to come to fruition in the Western World.

Every generation, since the original explosion of Rock’n’Roll, sees themselves in a different light to the one that came before. This means a new aesthetic with its own values and, of course, its own soundtracks. A good example of this is the difference between the hairstyles of the metal generation of the mid-1980s, and the grunge style of the early 1990s.

While this, of course, provides young adults the chance to branch out and express themselves it also provides recording labels with a chance to find the pioneers of the new sound and cash in on them. But where does the internet fit in with all this?

“The internet is, essentially, a massive database for almost all the information that is available in the world, from new memes to MIT’s free online math degrees.”

The internet is, essentially, a massive database for almost all the information that is available in the world, from new memes to MIT’s free online math degrees. It also operates on the principle of instant gratification. This means, however, that you don’t have to wait for next month’s edition of Melody Maker to find out what the coolest new band is. You don’t have to be in Seattle to witness the birth of the next big thing.  Everything is available to you, the consumer, instantaneously.

This is great news for the consumer. Not so good, though, for the labels. This is especially true when you consider that the ageing lines and methods of distribution, which they held the oligopoly on, are not relevant anymore. This is largely due to online album streaming and the advent of home recording software.

How, then, does this affect the recording artist? The answer is quite bittersweet. OTwo has already written about the hardships which the modern musician faces trying to make a career in music in the modern age, so let’s have some good news now.

People often use a mirror as a metaphor for art. They say it’s the artist’s role to hold the mirror up to society and reflect what he or she sees. From this perspective, the internet offers a golden age for artists on a puritan level. Artists are no longer restricted by labels pressuring them into making a sound that is marketable. In fact, they no longer have to be pressured by labels at all. There’s nothing a label can do that a good social media presence and a clever way to market yourself can’t. This allows recording artists to make the music they see most-fit as the reflection in the mirror. Total creative control.

For musicians who aren’t fully invested in the financial side of music, the story is better again. Online release platforms and easily downloadable home recording software means that artists can literally make whatever they want, even if they know no one will ever listen to it. There’s no real penalty for failing to make your music popular if it never cost you a penny to record in the first place.

“The internet is, essentially, a massive database for almost all the information that is available in the world, from new memes to MIT’s free online math degrees.”

This is why the world can listen to over a thousand different edits of Smash Mouth’s ‘All Star’, with the bass-line from Seinfeld spliced in whenever the lead singer says ‘Rockstar’, looped for 5 hours. People turn their nose up at that sort of thing, and it does get old after the first 20 minutes, but we live in an age where people can make and mass distribute music just for kicks. That’s nothing to be sniffed at.

It’s not all tunes from Shrek, though. Some recording artists have taken these online platforms and used them to make art of a genius calibre. OTwo would highly recommend you check out an artist called The Caretaker on Bandcamp and pay the £5 for access to the Everywhere At The End Of Time project.

The project’s artist, James Leyland Kirby, is setting out to release six albums under the one title, which shall chart his journey through early onset dementia. The first part of the project was released in September 2016 and the last part is due for release in March of 2019. Each part of the release will be the sonic representation of the relationship that the artist has with his own memory at the time of writing. Conceptually, this makes Dark Side of the Moon look like a bit of a laugh.

 

Needless to say, a release like that, or like many others wouldn’t have been possible without the advent of the Internet. So, is it better for musicians to have had limited creative control and a more certain pay cheque or to have complete creative expression coupled with financial uncertainty? The answer to that is for you to decide.