Revolution #9: The Digital Transformation of the Music Industry

I wish to write about music and its transformation in the digital age. Not just about the fact we can now download songs, but more importantly: musical criticism has been turned on its head. Music blogs have incredible critical power now, rivaling publications (like Rolling Stone) that have been around for decades. Websites like Pitchfork or Stereogum can make or break up-start bands. Underneath these larger websites are swarms of smaller music blogs like i guess im floating, that also carry quite a few readers.
How influential are these websites? Lets look at few examples:

Vampire Weekend, a band from New York, released their debut self-titled album last year. They

pretty much came out of no where, but following a high 8.8/10 rating from pitchfork, their

popularity sky

rocketed, resulting in over 340,000 album sales in 2008 alone.

You probably have seen their album at Starbucks, or on Time magazine’s year-end list (#5 album of the year). And many would say this success is a direct result of pitchfork.

Or how about Fleet Foxes? The local Seattle band was picked up by the blogosphere in the winter of 2007, and by spring of 2008 were on display, once again, at your local Starbucks. How does this happen so quickly? Well, we could start with Pitchfork’s review of their Sun Giant EP, or their full length. Fleet Foxes went from no-name to peaking at number 3 in

the UK and number 36 in the US. By the end of the year, Fleet Foxes were at the top of most album-of-the-year lists (#1 on Pitchfork, Billboard.com, Under the Radar, No Ripcord, Mojo, and The Times).


Or Grizzly Bear (one of my favorite bands), whose 2009 album, Veckatimest garnered huge hype on the blogs, getting a 9.0/10 on pitchfork and debuting at #8 on U.S. charts. What is even more incredible is that their album leaked 3 months prior to its official release. Despite all the inevitable illegal album downloads, it still did remarkably well for an indie band.

Or Animal Collective? Their 2009 album, Merriweather Post Pavillion, had incredible popularity on the blogs, and received an (incredible!) 9.6/10 on Pitchfork. The album went on to peak at #13 on the U.S. charts.

So what does all this mean, exactly? Well. A bunch of people sitting around typing on their laptops are determining the course of the music industry. With the dawn of the digital age, the record companies have failed to adjust, attempting to pursue lawsuits instead of adapting to the new internet culture. But us young’ns have adapted quite well. And what is interesting is the fact is starting to leak into the mainstream culture/media:

  • Pitchfork now has a regular segment with Charles Gibson on ABC where they discuss the new up and coming bands.
  • Pitchfork has also teamed up with NPR to bring online Video/Audio content from live concerts.
  • Large companies, like Apple, heavily advertise on Pitchfork and even smaller home-grown music blogs.
  • Bands that have little to no fame outside of the blogosphere are beginning to chart high around the world.

So is this a musical revolution? For sure. At this rate, record companies will become all but irrelevant (if they aren’t already), and GOOD/CREATIVE music will return to mainstream success–which we arguably haven’t seen since The Beatles.
But what is most fascinating to me is the fact that the musical laymen, not record company executives or dumbass magazines (Rolling Stone, cough) are determining what is popular. It is the music of the people, so to speak.
So much so that there is somewhat of an internal policing when these blogs start to become too popular. There is resentment among the smaller blogs towards Pitchfork, who they see as power-hungry and purposefully controversial (in order to gain more readers). One can merely look at a blog like “i guess im floating” who place the link to pitchfork under “The Machine” category, along with a bunch of websites the average person has never heard of. And this alone is your clue that this music blog culture is consistently rolling over on itself in order to remain invulnerable to any sort of hyper-capitalist structure. This is socialism, folks. Money is dead in the blogosphere. The only mention of any sort of transaction is when they encourage readers to purchase albums from loved bands. And when a site like Pitchfork becomes a brand, and begins to market itself, there is a backlash.
So will this sort of digital anti-capitalist model be limited to the music industry, or could we see other industries embrace a people-centered web (get it?) of ideas that are no longer deluded by money-grubbing executives?

To conclude, I would like to describe this “blogosphere” as, in the words of literary theorists Deleuze and Guattari, a rhizomatic book, in the sense that it is an endless plauteau without beginning or end. They write, “the rhizome is an acentered, nonhierarchical, nonsignifying system without a General and without an organizing memory or central automaton, defined soley by a circulation of states” (from the essay “A Thousand Plateaus” [1980]). What I take this to mean, in application here, is that the nature of the internet provides the means for millions of voices and ideas, unhindered by the traditional power-structures of our society/media (more money=louder voice), resulting in a “book”, so to speak, without a cover–a book that can forever be edited, adjusted, disputed, etc. It is a dynamic system that makes no attempt to close itself off to dialogue (think wikipedia?). It will be interesting to see the results/consequences of such a system on the music industry (and surely other industries) in the near future. Hopefully it will be a change for the better, as it has been so far.

Either way, it is exciting to follow this underworld of art and creativity (for the sake of art and creativity…finally)

EDIT: Here is a link to a good article from WIRED about the Pitchfork’s influence on the music industry (circa 2006)

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Revolution #9: The Digital Transformation of the Music Industry

  1. Scott,You should be getting paid to do this. I found it very interesting. I gave up on popular music (at least temporarily) in the late 1990s, when the scene seemed to be increasingly distributed among ToriA/SarahMc wannabees and bands of young men who seemed just too weary for their tender years and afraid of melody. I'd love to know what you like, in particular, musically or lyrically, about some of the bands you champion, how you differentiate them from the seething mass of their fellows in the biz. I enjoyed this. Please post more often. 🙂

  2. Well I thoroughly enjoy all the bands in this post, especially Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear. Both of them hark back to the 60's/70's folk rock slash Brian Wilson sound–It's really fantastic music. I could burn it for you and pass it on at the next family gathering if you like.

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