Thursday, 13 January 2011

How the Internet Changed Music

Part 1 - Print Journalism

Now we’re here in 2011, the pre-Internet era seems rather quaint. It’s also frightening to look back and see how quickly the technology has progressed: Google started life as a research project fifteen years ago, Facebook celebrates its seventh birthday this year and Twitter is barely out of short trousers. For the music fan, the Internet is an invaluable resource in terms of listening, discovery and information. The days of waiting for a magazine to hit the shops so you could find out the latest news from your favourite band are long gone; nowadays you’d check their website, find out from a social network or search a blog. But is this an entirely good thing?

It would be easy to adopt a contrary viewpoint and fetishise physical magazines but so far in the 21st Century former big names, Melody Maker, The Face and Smash Hits fell by the wayside. This may not seem like big news, but Melody Maker alone indirectly led to the formation of Depeche Mode, Suede and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. It’s true that magazines used to go under in the pre-Internet era too, but magazine readership has been decreasing for a while now: last year, circulation of the NME fell by 17.3%.

Now the value of magazines as a source of news has all but disappeared, they’re more of a niche interest. David Hepworth founded Q, Mojo and The Word Magazine, and has observed a sea change in the role of the music magazine: “The economic basis of the music magazine used to be: readers who needed to buy them to keep up and advertisers who needed them to reach record buyers. Both groups have gone away. In their place you have: readers who like to read and advertisers who need to reach this valuable minority. It's not the same.”

So, how do music magazines buck that trend and get their readers to stay loyal? Why should people pay for writing when the Internet is full of music websites offering their content for free? One idea is that of the brand extension; you’re not just purchasing a magazine, but buying into something much bigger. For example, as well as a monthly magazine, The Word gives away cover mounted CDs with each issue, releases a weekly podcast and has a thriving online readers’ forum. These extras don’t bring in any money, but they make readers more likely to continue to buy the magazine and this in turn will hopefully lead to the holy grail for magazine publishers: subscription. David Hepworth explains: “We really value the site, the podcast, the Twitter feed and all the other means of interacting with the readership but the only one we can get any kind of revenue for at the moment is the magazine. I think they make people feel closer to the magazine, which is good.”

Another way to keep your readership loyal is to offer a consistently high standard of professional journalism which can’t be found anywhere else. It’s no accident that the biggest music magazines don’t make all their content freely available online. In a world where information is widely available for no cost, it’s going to be difficult to persuade people to part with their hard-earned cash for your work.

One area which seems to be in a state of flux is the newspaper industry. Most UK newspapers make all their content available for nothing on their websites while simultaneously expecting people to fork out for the physical edition too. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t look to be a sustainable business strategy, and advertising revenue isn’t filling in the gaps either. Add this to widespread music piracy and we’re in severe danger of future generations growing up believing that all recorded music and quality journalism should be free, not taking into account that people need to make a living and should be financially rewarded for their endeavours. Eamonn Forde is a freelance music journalist and is worried for a future where everyone expects everything gratis: “I think people need to know that it [art] has to be paid for, whether that’s by handing over money in a newsagent’s or a paywall payment every month. But the culture of free, where everything’s free and everything’s going to be paid for by advertising, what you’re going to get is that all culture’s going to be like Metro.” For the uninitiated, Metro is a free newspaper distributed throughout the UK, particularly in London where it’s typically found in train and underground stations. Thanks to the fact it’s free, it’s advert-heavy and tends to feature lots of lighter news items, rather than hard-hitting, factual reporting. We can assume Eamonn Forde isn’t a fan: “It’s going to be this say-nothing, kind-of-press-release, unquestioning, uncritical smug culture and that’s bad for culture overall. I think quality products should come with a quality price tag. I think Metro is like an early warning from history and there is the thought that we get the culture that we deserve. But if that’s culture, then creatives will go somewhere else because they have to make money.”

In June 2010, The Times - a British newspaper founded in the 1700s and with a circulation of over half a million - put its website behind a “paywall”, meaning anyone wanting access to the online content would have to put their hands in their pockets first. The words, ‘stable door‘, ‘horse’ and ‘bolted’ probably spring to mind, and reports suggest the amount of traffic to The Times website has, unsurprisingly, plummeted. However, Sunday tabloid, News of the World has also announced plans to put its site behind a paywall, so maybe this is the future. However, it should be noted that The Times and News of the World have the same parent company, News International (proprietor: one Rupert Murdoch).

These newspapers and magazines have to make money to stay afloat, but they also want their stories to be read by as many people as possible. As a reader, what’s the incentive to pay the money, asks Eamonn Forde? “You might like the writers, but you can find all the information from The Guardian or The Independent.” It’s true, you may like particular writers, but many of them are freelance, and could end up in the peculiar situation where some of their work is available online for free and some isn’t. From a personal perspective, how do they feel about something on which they worked so hard being given away?

Jude Rogers is a freelance journalist who writes about music for The Word, The Guardian, The Times and pop culture website The Quietus. She recognises not everything can be free, but having your work widely available certainly has its advantages: “Everything can be linked on Twitter, which I do do, which is really helpful to spread your work around. I love the fact my stuff’s on The Guardian and people can read it and also, if you want to pitch your work, you can say, ‘Look, here’s my stuff on The Guardian‘.” She also has first-hand experience of The Times paywall: “I did an interview, for instance, this summer with a Tory MP called Louise Bagshawe who also writes trashy, holiday, chick-lit novels, and she came out with some really juicy stuff and I thought everyone would be talking about it, but it was behind the paywall. It’s frustrating when people can’t read my stuff; in a professional capacity I’m more than happy for people to read it online.”

It looks like it would be premature to read newspapers and magazines their last rites in 2011, but the facts remain that the current trend is alarming and needs to be addressed. Currently, a combination of professionalism, goodwill, advertising and innovation is helping the industry muddle along, but how long can that last? The answer could lie with the bloggers and ‘citizen journalists‘ who may give the industry a shot in the arm while simultaneously posing the most dangerous threat.

Part 2 - Blogging

If you’re ever in the locality, you really must visit No Ripcord Towers. Situated in London’s leafy and exclusive Kensington, the building is festooned with original Renaissance artwork and marble statues. Each writer has their own office with a view of the city, antique writing desk, butler and Jacuzzi. We hand out free gold discs to visitors on arrival, and if you don’t see us sauntering down the corridors flanked by swimwear models, we’re probably drinking Cristal and jamming in our state-of-the-art, underground recording studio.

Of course, you know that description couldn‘t be further from the truth. No Ripcord is basically a labour of love, dependent on the time, hunger and talent of its writers. We receive no money for our work; we do it because of our enthusiasm for the music we like and the enjoyment we get telling people about it. In the pre-Internet age, a collection of people coming together in the way the No Ripcord team has would have been impossible, but it’s now a common story. Anyone, from the most learned academic to the most reactionary imbecile has a worldwide platform from which to share their thoughts.

The fact anyone can start their own site and contact anyone they want is a fantastic thing, according to Guardian journalist Jude Rogers: “If I was 18 now and wanted to be a journalist, I’d start a blog, just to be able to write something and try and connect to an audience. There are 18 year olds who track me down and email me and I think it’s wonderful, I wish I’d been able to do that when I was that age.” It’s hard to disagree with that; it’s a fantastic form of democracy in action. Theoretically, the cream should rise to the top, but is that always the case? Jude Rogers continues: “I think the best thing to do when you’re writing a blog and want to be a writer is just to work really hard at it, read writers that you like, keep in touch with your subject, start speaking to editors but do it in a way that they’ll understand. Editors always want people who have great, new ideas. You’ve got to be prepared to work, you’ve got to be prepared to get rejections.”

Of course, give everyone a voice and there’s a danger of it becoming a case of who can shout the loudest. Go to any YouTube video with a decent number of hits, read the comments below and you’ll find that your faith in human nature has likely evaporated. This is a trend that reaches far wider than videos of kittens; the comment sections of broadsheet newspaper sites and the BBC are overflowing with bile. “There’s a whole ream of people whose automatic start position is ‘whatever somebody has said, I fundamentally disagree with it and I will shout them down‘,” believes Music Week journalist Eamonn Forde. “It’s just unleashed people who’ve got no opinions but think they’re Charlie Brooker. It’s opened up the floodgates for people to jump up and say, ‘you’re a cunt‘, repeatedly at somebody.”

As extreme as that may seem, it’s easy to see why journalists might feel aggrieved by this sort of behaviour. Imagine someone comes into your place of work and begins to openly criticise everything you’re doing. You’d be annoyed, but what if you then discovered that this person has no knowledge or experience of the field in which you work? Moreover, it then turns out there are a group of upstarts trying to unseat you by doing exactly the same job as you, but in their spare time and for no wage.

Journalist Andrew Marr provoked outrage in 2010 at the Cheltenham Literary Festival with his comments on bloggers. “A lot of bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother’s basements and ranting”, he opined. “So-called citizen journalism is the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night.” Leaving aside the fact that Mr. Marr is employed by the BBC whose own website has many blogs and seems to constantly ask the public for its opinion on news matters, it smacked of someone horribly out of touch. “Andrew Marr is talking rubbish”, says Word Magazine founder David Hepworth, “And you and I are paying for the pulpit from which he says it. He should know better.” Eamonn Forde has a different view: “I think Andrew Marr has confused the comments sections on websites with blogs. That sounded like a man floundering in the 21st Century to understand communication, which is kind of bitterly ironic for somebody who’s a journalist and opinion-giver to, in broad brushstrokes, dismiss a whole generation of new writers and that whole way of communicating.”

It would appear that everyone - with the possible exception of Andrew Marr - would agree that blogging is very much a good thing. In fact, it seems that even established writers, keen to escape the constraints of editorial staff and deadlines, have got the blogging bug too. “Why do I blog? Because, in the words of Bob Dylan, ‘I've got a headful of ideas that are driving me insane’,” says David Hepworth, “And because in my blog I don't have to compromise with anyone but myself.” Towards the end of 2009, Jude Rogers began work on a blog with a twist, entitled 50 Songs, 10 Years. The premise was simple: as the decade drew to a close, she chose fifty songs that had shaped the previous ten years of her life, and wrote a short daily entry on her experience and why that song mattered to her. It was a huge success: “So many people responded to it. I get emails about things that I write for the Guardian, but I got such a response for this it was really exciting. Since then, a couple of writers have come up to me and asked if I want to do a book about it. I had a meeting with my editor at the Guardian after finishing my column, and she said it was the best writing I’d ever done, and I think it was because it wasn’t for a commissioning editor, but for myself, and I still think that’s the writing I enjoy the most.”

So, maybe the best journalism will come from people writing for themselves. Free from the pressures of an in-house style and appealing to the broadest market, bloggers are able to write exactly what they want, how they want. In fact, that’s where this article has come from; I wasn’t told to write it, I had the idea, I pitched it and now here we are.

One downside of the Internet’s unstoppable growth is the demise of the much-loved paper fanzine. The convenience of websites is impossible to beat, and they can be updated on a daily basis, but it’s hard not to miss the physical product: the cut, pasted and photocopied paper available at your local record shop (also probably not there any more - thanks, Internet). Jude Rogers started Smoke: A London Peculiar as a love letter to the city she adored. Despite this only being in 2003, it already sounds like a bygone age: “We saved up around £600, it took about a year. We printed a thousand up and we literally went round all the shops in London with copies in our rucksacks. It seemed like the right thing to do, we thought we’d give it a go. Luckily, some bookshops took it, it sold out quite quickly and it went from there”.

Maybe it’s quixotic to mourn the loss of the fanzine, but that story seems to have a romanticism and a determination to it that the setting up of a website could never possess. It seems that in 2011, it’s about making the Internet work for you. It’s too late to halt the march of the bloggers and the citizen journalists, so use it to your advantage. It’s never been easier to set up your own site, but at the same time it’s never been more difficult to stand out from the crowd. If you want to be a music journalist, just start writing! After all, as well as changing the way we write about music, the Internet is constantly changing the way we consume music too.

Part 3: Listening and Discovery

It’s easy to be blasé about it now, but the fact you can walk round with thousands of tracks stored on a miniature gizmo is an incredible thing. What would have seemed space age little over a decade ago has become commonplace. On top of this, the Internet has completely changed the way the public at large purchases and consumes music. The vast majority of single sales are now from digital stores such as iTunes and piracy is rife. It’s all too easy - not to mention an enormous temptation - to find a torrent of a new record, and although it’s difficult to visualise a direct link between your actions and an artist struggling to make ends meet, professionals need to be remunerated for their work. It’s a familiar theme, and one that’s already been discussed with regards to journalism.

But as well as changing the way we purchase and access music, has the Internet changed how we actually listen to music? Music Week’s digital editor Eamonn Forde certainly thinks so: “Things like iTunes have flipped it away from the idea of ‘a body of work’ to tracks. So, that’s almost thrown us back to the 1950s where it was all about singles. Album sales have struggled along but single sales are booming; digital has completely revived the singles market. Now, around 3 million singles are sold in the UK every week; it’s phenomenal.”

It appears that however you create a new product or technology, the public will utilise it as they see fit. Acts such as The Beatles may have resisted making their music available via iTunes for years (though that was also to do with a legal wrangle over the Apple name) but even they relented in late 2010. Though single sales are on the up, this doesn’t necessarily represent good news for record companies who make the most profit through album sales. Maybe this will make artists up their game though; in the future, perhaps they won’t be able to get away with two or three tracks of filler if they know buyers are going to cherry pick the songs they want.

The popularity of single track downloads is also bad news for traditionalists who see an album as a cohesive whole with a carefully chosen track order to be listened to in its entirety. Guardian and Word Magazine journalist Jude Rogers puts herself firmly in that camp: “I went through a huge period when I first had iTunes and an iPod of having your whole record collection on shuffle - it was so exciting. Something would come up that you hadn’t listened to for ages, but I’m getting a bit tired of that. Maybe it’s me getting older, I like to listen to records from beginning to end and remember what it’s like to know exactly what’s coming next from song to song.” As well as people conforming to this listening trend, the sheer ubiquity of music also reinforces the idea of it as a commodity of little value. It’s fantastic to be able to purchase an act’s entire back catalogue at the click of a button, but gone are the days of investing time in a record and coming to love it. If an album has no immediate impact, it’s likely to be consigned to the virtual scrapheap without even a cursory second listen. This pattern has worked its way into the industry, where an act is unlikely to be given money to make an album if their debut isn’t a huge smash. Artists need to develop, and it’s interesting to consider in today’s cutthroat climate whether Bob Dylan or The Beach Boys would have been given the time to reach the heights of Blonde on Blonde or Pet Sounds.

The Internet has revolutionised the music industry, and Apple in particular have been huge beneficiaries of this. But Apple don’t always get it spot on. Take Ping, a social networking application built into iTunes which came into our lives in 2010. Designed as a service for friends to recommend music to one another, Steve Jobs described Ping as “sort of like Facebook and Twitter meet iTunes.” Yet without Facebook integration, it’s difficult to see who’s going to want to go through the bother of setting up the new profiles and friends lists that a Ping account would require. In a world of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pandora and amongst others, do we really need Ping? Eamonn Forde is sceptical: “I think for Apple to have been the pioneer of hardware and software elegance and really brilliant user interfaces for ten years, to throw this weird, almost apologetic, so-called social network in iTunes, buried in this little link where you have to open it up and wait for it to load; it’s just so cumbersome and fiddly. It looks like a really, really poor version of Facebook. I tried to give it a go and I just really didn’t see the point and I don’t think Apple really know what it’s for. I think it’s symbolic of Apple’s arrogance and I think it’s symbolic of the fact that Apple have actually faltered for the first time.”

Apple may have been the leaders in online music throughout the 21st Century, but as well as the relative failure of Ping, they also have to keep their eye on the new kid on the block: Spotify. Though currently unavailable outside of Europe, the online music streaming service has around ten million users and approximately the same number of tracks. It’s the equivalent of having the world’s largest iTunes library and what‘s more, it’s free! So, as it’s all legal and above board, that must mean that artists are paid royalties for streams of tracks, so how does Spotify make money? Through a subscription model, where for a monthly fee, users get unlimited access, no adverts and premium features such as Android/iPhone integration. Eamonn Forde shares his take on it: “The issue with Spotify is that it can only go so frequent with the advertising otherwise it drives people away. It’s a very, very tricky balance because they’re going for the subscription model but learning it’s a very slow build. They’ve got a 6.5% conversion rate, they’re very much heading in the right direction, but whether or not the business model can sustain it while it rises up until that time when they get double digit [percentage] subscribers; it’s debateable whether they’ve got enough capital to ride that through, because they’re losing money at the minute.” It’s clearly an incredible application and you have to wonder if Apple could keep their stronghold were Spotify to go global. It’s difficult to see why anyone would use iTunes for anything other than syncing their iPod or iPhone if there’s a practically infinite amount of music available through Spotify. Bad news for Ping and for Apple, but more good news for the consumer.

Yet again it comes back to the question of the value of music (which could probably be extended to include art in general). It sounds obvious, but someone who has saved up to buy a record will treasure it more than someone who can listen to it for free whenever and wherever they want. Consumers are unlikely to worry about the finances of record companies and the long-term sustainability of the business in the here and now. When so much is instantly available, the main issue the music fan of 2011 is likely to face is being overwhelmed by choice. Word of mouth is still the most effective form of recommendation, and this links back to the numerous bloggers evangelising about their favourite tracks online.

The epitome of this sharing and recommending attitude is the Hype Machine: an mp3 blog aggregator set up in 2005. The Hype Machine collates recommendations and posts from the ‘blogosphere’ so users have an up-to-the-minute snapshot of what people are talking about and listening to. In theory, it’s a fantastic tool; in reality, it’s so bleeding-edge it will make you feel depressingly out of touch within minutes. That said, it’s still an invaluable resource and another example of the collective power the Internet wields. As with the bloggers themselves, if all music is equally available, the cream should rise to the top and true innovation will be rewarded.

The Internet has changed the way we listen to and acquire music to such an extent that the musical landscape is now completely unrecognisable to that of two decades ago. The collaborative spirit of the Internet (embodied nowhere better than on Wikipedia) and almost universal access in the Western world mean that consumers are now just kids in a giant virtual playground. Right now, we’re making hay while the sun shines, and that hides something altogether more worrying lurking just beneath the surface - just how long can we go on like this? People will always listen to and make music, regardless of financial constraints, but what about the artists on the bottom rung of the ladder, those who are now embarking on a potential career in popular music? Has the Internet helped or hindered their chances?

Part 4: New Artists

In his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell makes reference to what he calls the ‘10,000 hour rule.’ That is, to truly succeed in your chosen field, at least 10,000 hours of practice are required. Gladwell mentions The Beatles in his argument, citing their residences in both Liverpool and Hamburg as the period during which they perfected their craft. Although less well-trodden, the path to the top was much more rigid in The Beatles’ day: relentless touring and a canny choice of cover versions would build you a fan base, then release records as often as possible and tour some more. Of course, The Beatles broke the glass ceiling that had restricted all those that came before, and ended up re-writing the popular music rulebook, but their initial route to fame was still fairly conventional.

Nowadays, there are numerous ways of making it big, from televised talent shows to bedroom experimentalism. What all breaking acts will have in common though, is that the Internet will have somehow shaped their ascent to fame. Any artist worth their salt will now have, as a bare minimum, a MySpace page, and on top of that, depending on their tech-savvy, any or all of a blog, Facebook fan page, Twitter account, YouTube channel and dedicated website. Plus, thanks to sites such as SoundCloud and Divshare, it’s never been easier to share and distribute your music. Add to this the fact that sound creation and manipulation software is now readily available to all and we’re back to the common theme: the Internet has levelled the playing field and given everyone the same opportunities. Music Week writer and industry commentator Eamonn Forde has his reservations: “There’s just so much stuff out there, it’s impossible to actually hear all that because it used to be limited by resources. People had to find time to go to the studio or press up a demo CD, the cost barrier automatically weeded out the number of acts but now with GarageBand and ProTools and whatever else, people can record pretty decent sounding music for next to no money and distribute it free through SoundCloud or through MySpace or whatever else, so the overall amount of new music out there is doubling or tripling every year”.

All this must simply make it more difficult to stand out from the crowd. A few months back, I shared a lunchtime drink with rising London folk duo, The Momeraths. Comprised of friends Claire Heywood and Paolo Ruiu who met at Kingston University, The Momeraths have released EPs on indie labels, toured throughout England and seen some of their contemporaries go on to record full-length albums, but they’re finding out that the industry isn’t exactly forgiving. The pressures and commitments of band life mean they recently downsized from a quintet to the two-piece they are today, as Claire explains: “It’s easy for me and Paolo because of the way we live - we have very cheap rent. I work two days and Paolo does some teaching, and that leaves us the whole week to do whatever: rehearse, or record, or more band stuff. They were working full-time and had girlfriends so if they want to, say, go out for the evening and we have rehearsals it pulls on that as well. It’s just people wanting different things - you’re not the same at 25 as you are at 21.”

It sounds as though if you’re really committed to being an artist, sacrifices have to be made and you have to go the extra mile to set yourself apart from everyone else out there. The Momeraths are acutely aware of this, going so far as to hand-knit individual covers for the release of their first single, Crayon Colours. The recent boom in reissues has shown that there is a market for high-end physical products, normally purchased by die-hard fans of an established artist, but it’s a bold move for an up-and-coming artist. “[Because] you can hear music without buying it, you want to make that product special - like a knitted cover - hopefully that’ll be that extra little thing that makes it special to have that record. Whenever I buy a record, I like the personalisation of it,” explains Paolo.

So where does the Internet fit into all of this? In the 90s, it seemed you couldn’t buy a CD that didn’t contain a cardboard insert with pre-paid postage and a PO Box number promising regular updates about the act in question. For bigger artists, there may have even been a fan club and you could potentially meet other people who liked the band - imagine that! In 2011, any self-respecting artist is just the click of a button away. The Momeraths are regular users of the Internet: “[After] we do the busking, it’s the next port of call for people if they see you in the street”, explains Claire. “The next thing is to go on the website, download things, go onto MySpace and find out more. I used to blog a lot and then I didn’t for around five months and soon as I wrote one again, you see the stats of who’s looking at it, and on the first day there were around 90 people looking at it; you realise how important it is.”

In an age where we’re hungry for information on-demand, we expect our favourite bands to update us, to let us know when and where they’re touring, and give us previews of upcoming releases. The Internet can be a blessing and a curse for artists; it’s a fantastic way to interact with fans but those same fans have come to expect more. The artist who gives away the most for free in an attempt to connect is the winner in the short-term, but converting that into money in the bank down the road is still the principal aim. While services such as Spotify may extend an artist’s reach, the rates paid for a stream are minimal.

Whether it’s magazines, writing, listening or creating, it seems the Internet has changed the world of music completely. Its ethos means that the consumer is put first, and that’s a welcome shift in power after decades of the industry being in charge. But, as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility, and there is a danger that we, the public, are gorging ourselves silly without stopping to consider the long-term consequences. What’s simultaneously thrilling and terrifying is that no-one knows what’s going to happen and nobody has the answers. It’s likely that more magazines will fold, most blogs will come to nothing, physical music sales will dwindle and countless bands will toil to no avail. Those aren’t bold predictions, just a continuation of current trends, but as we head into 2011, the world of music is buzzing with possibility. The only thing we can be sure of is that whatever happens, good or bad, the Internet will be at the heart of it.

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