Let's review: Last week, famed Fleetwood Mac front-woman Stevie Nicks said a few provocative statements about the impact of the Internet on rock music and expressed her concern about how the proliferation of digital technologies has robbed our children of their social graces and driven them to no longer hang out. As we found out, even under minor scrutiny, her statements failed to hold any validly and, for the most part, proved to be quite ill-founded.
No surprise there. Now, I would take to the task of contacting Nicks about these viewpoints and try to gain some clarity into her thinking, but the trouble is that, according to The Huffington Post, she doesn't even own a computer or a cell phone. In fact, she proudly identifies herself as a technophobe. Clearly, the sort of view we should consult next time we want to hear about how computers have taken over the world or that all those “damn kids” do today is sit around and text and have no concept of manners. But, we're not done yet, as we have take into consideration her perspectives on all those young artists today trying to make it in the record and music industries, whom with the advent of the big bad Internet, are now unable to do so. As Nicks puts it, "If you're not an established band, if you don't have a hit single, they're gonna drop you." No one is denying that the climate of the record and music industries is difficult, rapidly changing, and unlike the decades that Nicks is imaginably fond of. Though a good number of us try to highlight the more positive side of things and try to point out the many opportunities that artists still have; it would be a great disservice to try and convince you that everything is peachy, when really, it is not.
Burn Your Computer
First things first, let's just try to imagine the world Nicks is pining for. To do so, you basically need to take your computer and your beloved Blackberry and burn them. Next, you need to cancel your Internet and forget ever buying books from Amazon or getting DVDs from Netflix again. In this world, I am out of a job, because without the web and a computer, I no longer have access to any means through which I can self-publish my perspective and build an audience outside of traditional institutions. Bruce is out-of-luck too. Everything he's learned over the last twenty-four years as President of Skyline Music can now only be expressed in letters and phone calls. So, Hypebot and Music Think Tank are gone, along with every other niche publication, therefore, you all better think about subscribing to Billboard or Rolling Stone. Don't forget though, without the bottom-up participatory culture of the web, they aren't going to offer you any insight into how to make it as an indie artist. After all, there is now only one way to hope to ever reach the masses with your music and last time I checked, record executives still could care less about your music or artistic vision.
I believe that places you and your five delinquent friends back in your parent's garage, wherein you will practice for few hours until they come home and yell at you for playing your crappy music so loud. God forbid you live anywhere other than Nashville or LA, because you've drastically decreased your chances that anyone other than the neighbors will hear that new song that you've been working on. What else? Even if you manage to overcome the impoverished state of the middle of nowhere and somehow are able to find yourself in that one bar, with that one hipster A&R representative, whose likely high on coke and hitting on sluts; he probably isn't going to sign you. Even in the event that he does, I hope you'd like to forfeit all of the rights to your music for the rest of your life and have a 90% chance of never recouping the money that you now owe your label, who may just throw your album in a vault and never release it, ever, just because they can.
Okay, that's a little cynical of me to paint the traditional record industry in that light, but let's now look at the little magical wonderland known as the Internet. As industry pundit Bruce Warila argued back in 2008, who I should note, now has a perspective to share with you again, since he now has a computer, the web basically gave the struggling artists of the world everything that they ever asked for and continues to do so every day. Let's start with my favorite addition to the heap of desperate pleas, which is, as you might have guessed, the blog that you are reading now. Over the course of five years and one month, Hypebot has published 7,080 posts and Bruce has done his best to write about all the happenings in the industry that relate to indie artists and the many, many emerging companies and smart people that have tried to make the social ecology of music culture online more than just another centralized, top-down distribution channel for major label acts and a place for the Backstreet Boys fan club to chatter on about Nick Carter's hair.
Now, about those companies, what have they done? Even the ones that Nicks is most livid about, those nasty file-sharers and founders of The Pirate Bay; they have given you an unfiltered global distribution network and means through which anyone can download and gain access to your digital music. MySpace and Facebook let you connect directly with your fans; you can find gigs without a booking agent; you can sell your music and not go through Wal-Mart; you can find ways for fans to fund your music and not sign to a major label; bypass MTV and upload videos to YouTube; compete for live show opportunities on OurStage; use website management platforms; collaborate with other musicians across the world; record all your music in your basement; and even promote your music using one-hundred different websites that put the tools in your hands, among others. The catch is that, because of all this, there's hypercompetition, an oversaturated market, and many people are less willing to buy music. Let's say, you and I, and Doc Brown and Marty McFly, travel back to the late 80's and see how much those starving artists would be willing kill to have access to even half of the things Nicks marginalizes.
Another thing that startles me about this blind devotion to the traditional music consumption system and Nicks' concern about these young artists today, who would've had opportunities afforded to them, had it not been for the moral empty and corrupt digital kids is that it's sloppy scenario planning at its best. Of course a number of new artists would have extra financial backing, touring support, and be pushed down the throats of sixteen-year-olds everywhere, but what about actual indie artists? Like, you know, the kind that I would imagine read this blog and are out and hustling to get their music heard and innovating—how would their circumstances change in a world where file-sharing never happened and the record industry skyrocketed to $30-billion-a-year juggernaut? Now, I should note that this will be a slight exaggeration and that I'm aware there's many nice and talented people who care about art and lost their jobs because the decline in profits. Again, I’m not trying to demonize the industry anymore than Nicks hates kids who text on their cell phone instead of listening to Rumors on their iPod.
Let's think about this, through and through, what the world might look like for the indie musician if the record industry got all of its money, market share, and leverage back. I promise that a number of you still lose out. The obvious thing that happens in this wonderland is that basically there is no such thing as iTunes and you'd be lucky if you could buy a single that doesn't cost 3-4$. This means that there is no iPod because I don't need a three-hundred dollar device to store my $15-18 full-length albums on. The single revolution never happened and MTV, not YouTube, dominates the video market. Why? Because if I'm an executive, and I have a full-on video department again, I am not going to tolerate some schmuck in his basement stealing my eyeballs. I'm going to call up my good buddy James Cameron and we're going to dress up Rihanna as a damn half-Avatar, half-Smurf monkey and she will have sex with Jason DeRulo, with her tail, in 3D, on TRL and viewers will eat it up like a bowl of Blast O Butter® popcorn. Meanwhile, you're sitting there with your Flip Cam and iMovie produced video bitching about how you can't compete with major label produced music videos. Let alone, once Lady Gaga went Michael Jackson with her money and created an entire whacked out feature film with sex robots and talking tiger people—located on Mars—that rivals HBO soft-core porn; your still going to have a hell of a time getting anyone to watch yours online.
I'm sorry, but I have a hard time believing that with $30-billion-in-profits that the record industry would suddenly scrape all the young and up-and-coming artists out of obscurity when they would have much better luck taking Nickelback to Canada, funding cloning research, and start popping out singles like 'Photograph' and 'Something In Your Mouth' like Dolly the sheep's bastard children. You thought it was pure insanity back in that late nineties when record labels were being publically traded and beholden to their investors, doing their best to meet quarterly projects and sell 15 million of Mariah Carey's latest songs, by Christmas. Or, wind up replaced by the next Wharton MBA to step off the assembly line, in hopes of making it rich in the record industry.
Wait until that next swath of Wall Street's finest stepped in and starting seeing the record industry as the next banking or housing bust, get rich and leave quick scheme; things would be wonderful. Meanwhile, instead of having an open and free Internet, what we're blessed with is the most centralized, top-down push marketing engine that the world has ever seen. Pitchfork.com might still see review artists and promote music, but in order to find out your going to have find a way to close out of the Britney Spears video that swallows your browser whole like a Great White Shark and loads it full next-gen flash cookies, similar to the way you handled your childhood Easy-Bake Oven. Suddenly, you're on your computer, searching on Google for a cover for your Walkman—iPods and Pads don't exist, because Apple drown out and didn't make a comeback—and you spell it "Talkmen" and Google goes, "Did you mean: Katy Perry's Teenage Dream is now available. Top two results shown." And you think to yourself, "Silly EMI, they're tracking all of my online activity again and they're just curious which record they might be able to market to my children."
Anyways, I hope we can put this issue to rest and maybe realize that I'm not trying to propagate hype, terrorize older acts and the record industry, or blindly lead you off the cliff like a herd of buffalo to believe that the web is some kind of magical thing that's going to make artists rich and get their song placed in the next episode of 30 Rock. That's simply not true.
If you remember though, I did do an entire case-study about artists like Fleetwood Mac and the predominance of experimental artists in today's climate with Chris DeLine of Culture Bully and we came to some interesting conclusions. Are bands being given ten albums to come out with Rumors like Nicks was? No. Are "experimental artists" of that nature having a harder time finding the financial backing needed to incubate their careers and let them develop creatively by putting in 10,000 hours of practice and being able to fail spectacularly along the way without getting dropped from their label? Yes. But, no, the Internet has not destroyed rock, children still have their social graces and still hang out, and bands don't need to sell over 50 million records before they get to called themselves "financially stable" and worry about up-and-coming artists.
A good majority of artists don't need to establish themselves through hit single or worry about getting dropped from their label, not because they don’t need to, some do, but because things are different now. There have always been artists as talented as Fleetwood Mac, even before the web, who never got their break, not because they didn't deserve it or because the industry had lost all its money. More likely, they never got their break because some A&R guy somewhere decided not to risk his career on them. Most people from shoe box nowhere could never sustain being a rock band without success. So let's stop pretending things would be different if the record industry had $30-billion-in-profits, because most young artists would still be broke and I, along with the rest of you, would be able to watch Rihanna get her freak on, in 3D, in the comfort of our own homes.