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I’d like to write a post about the music industry in relation to independent music, jumping off of Langlois’ Participatory Culture and the New Governance of Communication: The Paradox of Participatory Media. Langlois writes, “In short, the displacement of the mass media model in favor of a networked model radically changes the configuration of power relations, and therefore how we should understand the notion of democratic communication” (Langlois 4). This applies quite a bit to how the internet has affected the music industry, the simultaneous decline of big labels and record stores (the last major record store in my neighborhood, Tower Records, closed in 2005). It’s easy to see the new “democracy” of music on the internet, but how that democracy is slanted is a bit harder to discern. I will first explain the former.

 

Websites like Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Facebook, and Myspace have made it possible for musicians to share their music without the support of a record label and big budgets to distribute physical copies of their music. New DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) are quite advanced and unbelievably cheaper than going to a recording studio. Essentially, the home studio is not a rare feat of ingenuity but a common occurrence. The costs of making and sharing music have changed, as well as the way in which people share music. If someone likes your band’s page on Facebook, others can see and check out your music. It’s an accelerated version of hear-say that requires no physical contact. So the music industry’s hold on music should be undercut and music democratic by now, right?

 

Unfortunately not. Popular success is still judged by the standards of the old music industry regime, so when a band blows up on a social media site, it can be misleading. Often it was just a minor viral burst, although the same burst in popularity would have indicated a promising career in years past. It may appear as if they are “making it,” but this concept only exists within the old record industry dynamic: if you have a deal, people will hear you. If not, almost nobody will. I’ll share a few anecdotes in support of my point. Chris Martin of Coldplay made a surprisingly insightful (for a pop star) comment about The Beatles, arguably the most successful band in history. Music journalists and fans are constantly searching for the next Beatles, the next cultural phenomenon, in the same way every basketball fan is searching for the next Jordan. Martin said something to this effect: there will never be a next Beatles, and not because there will never be musicians as talented. Rather, the conditions in which they rose to fame, in a time when they essentially could monopolize a few TV and radio stations, will never exist again. No one band will have that much attention devoted to it. Ever. While the music scene has been made more democratic, analyzing it through the old lens leaves us with an unfortunate (and false) conclusion: music is worse now than it was.

 

Another anecdote: last night I watched a documentary on Modest Mouse, one of the more successful independent bands of the late ’90s. After their second album, the band essentially blew up in the indie world, which then required them to drive around the country in a beat up van playing shows. Each member kept noting how there was no internet for them to share their music with, that without a major label they had to dedicate their lives (as opposed to just their free time) to making it. Now, independent music is an aesthetic more than an independent effort. A few bands with major label deals and songs on the Top 40 are described as having an “indie” sound, though they were always a commercial band. How did this happen? What does it say about the democracy of music making?

 

What we have now is trend aggregation and therefore sound aggregation. This conglomerate “indie” sound, which is absurd given the wide genre range of independent music before the internet, is a result of the way that popularity works on the internet. Things that people are paying attention to instantly get more exposure, so the artists people are listening to have less and less variety (they are one trend at this moment, one trend at the next). You can tag your music on bandcamp to direct people towards it through other bands, so vague styles like “indie” or “alternative can allow a band to receive a lot more exposure. Before, a band had to wow a record label, but now they need to impress the internet fans and the bloggers, who are not neutral distributors of music. A perfect example is the proliferation of EDM (electronic dance music), which relies on constant remixing and recirculation of tracks. Again, this appears democratic, but it is in fact subject to a snowball effect of trends that makes it so that even if it is cheaper to make music now, the playing field of popularity is not at all leveled.