Do you remember the last time an artist or a song that really captured your mind and your heart? What was that experience like? Was it a mind-blowing, soul-affirming moment that left you a changed person? Did it soothe you? Did it totally rock, man?
For many of us who came of age in the days before the internet – when the closest thing to streaming was Napster and Limewire, and many of us found out that download of Linkin Park’s “In the End” was loaded with viruses – we often turned to the local rock or pop station to get our fix of cool tunes. If we grew up in a big enough city, there was more than likely also a hip-hop/R’n’B station.
I grew up in the nineties/early 2000s, so my experience with internet radio was pretty much limited to those obscure stations you would find in Windows Media Player. There were indie, acoustic, and pop stations from places like Italy, Germany, Spain, and other locations across the globe. It was a peculiar time in history. We slowly transitioned from physical media over to what we have now.
What really did the industry in, many people believe, was price-gouging on CDs by the record industry. Major labels would charge exorbitant prices for a ten- or eleven-song disc, packaged in those gaudy plastic jewel cases. Once downloads became more “the thing,” folks began illegally downloading them to their computers and MP3 players.
The industry then targeted young children and teenagers, the most common music consumer. This is why so much music still focuses on themes they can relate to. It’s all marketing, really. This backfired big-time, and further painted a picture of record companies as evil, greedy, and money-hungry.
What has changed?
For one thing, it’s not the same industry by a long shot. There are more ways in which to enjoy music. We are getting away from digital downloads. There is a vinyl resurgence, which has been going on the past few years – and according to many, media is shifting once more, this time to physical copies. If record executives have learned anything, only time will tell.
There are also more ways than ever to release music. While we’ve seen many – if not most – record stores closing their doors, sites such as Amazon and Discogs still exist if you wish to purchase a CD or vinyl record (and even cassette tapes in some instances, which are still a popular format in the black metal and indie scenes).
Self-releasing has also become a more ubiquitous method of putting your art out, and sites like Bandcamp and SoundCloud allow anyone with recording gear and an internet connection to host their art. It’s led to what is easily the most diverse era of music in history.
The era of the gatekeeper is over. Artists no longer need to worry about auditioning for label heads or sending demo recordings out to labels, more than likely to get told they aren’t good enough or the right fit.
This has its pros and cons. One of the best things about it is that it has bestowed creators with newfound freedom they just didn’t have in the old days. They can define their sound the way they want, rather than having to tailor it to the expectations of the mainstream. This artistic freedom is worth so much more than a nice paycheck, especially to younger acts who are still finding a footing in their chosen medium.
But with this vast well of innovative sounds comes a trade-off. Since there has been an influx of edgy, quirky, or just downright bizarre sounds and easier availability of music, it has become harder for artists to find a footing. There’s almost too much art happening, in a way.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (art without restriction is always a positive), but it does make it harder to find a widespread audience. People who want to make it in music may not reach anything more mainstream than cult fame. Even regional popularity might be a thing of the past. Many of the acts I’ve seen in the places I’ve lived seem to be stuck, clustered in what amounts to little more than a glorified clique.
But, when you think about it, is this really any different from avant-garde scenes in the past? Even when the record industry had more of a stronghold than it does nowadays, you still didn’t hear any of the more innovative sounds – unless you were a tastemaker or somebody somehow in-the-know. Nothing has really changed when you think about it.
It isn’t clear where the industry will be, the farther along the path of history we go. It’s a very exciting time to be a music fan, these days. While mainstream music continues to stick with its increasingly outdated formula, times continue to evolve and change.
Until the label executives realize that people want more diverse, interesting sounds than what they’ve been hand-fed for decades (and made more available on a wider basis than before), the labels will suffer – and those artists pushing the envelope will suffer more. Even as they find greater freedom and acknowledgement than their influences.