So it’s 1979, you just bought The Wall on LP (paying double for the four sides). About twenty minutes in, you’re wondering why Pink Floyd’s latest record is such a buzz-kill, what the hell all the liner-note is supposed to be representing and why all the songs seem to be about some kid. About three listens later you begin to understand the narrative, about some kid whose dad dies, mother is repressive and ends up becoming an unsatisfied rock star. Three months later you’ll read some magazine expose and be wondering how the listener was supposed to understand that Pink becomes a fascist dictator, let alone how is it relevant plot-wise. The moral of this story being that life sucked before Wikipedia.

The Context

Indeed, life before the internet is unimaginable to me.  I’ve heard tales from Baby Boomers and Gen X that seem ludicrous today; having to wait months to order particular albums from your local CD store (at significant expense) when all it requires now to acquire the one and only release of obscure prog rock band “Mirkwood” is about $20 on Amazon (including shipping) and two weeks’ patience. Even better, I can look the tracks up on YouTube so I know what I’m buying. Like the drumming on John Coltrane albums? Look up Elvin Jones, discover Larry Young and proceed to download all of his albums from The Pirate Bay and have some Grant Green thrown in for free (oh wait, it’s all free!). Don’t understand how to play a reggae groove? One of YouTube’s dozens of ‘drum cover’ stars or tutors will teach you how within five minutes.

None of this is new to you; to adulate the revolutionary effects of the internet was getting old ten years ago. But for all the hype and truisms about Web 2.0, only a fool would discredit its huge ramifications for life as we know it. However, its real consequences for the music scene in particular have yet to be truly documented, or even properly visualised. More importantly, it seems unsure that we’re really making use of the potential that this medium offers us.

Okay, I get it. Kids make videos now of the cool shit they can do;  some guy can fretboard tap two guitars at the same time to the Mario Theme Song;  people have overlaid drum tracks onto drum-less songs, and some weird-looking adolescent was picked out from YouTube by a rapper to become a new international heart-throb to 12 year olds (and tasteless 18 year olds) everywhere. The internet hasn’t been lost on us. But how much has it really revolutionised the way music works?

So What’s New?

To be fair, the internet to a large degree has simply replaced magazines and fanzines. Rolling Stone and NME and the like are all still fixtures of the music industry, and relative newcomers like Pitchfork are now fully entrenched in the public consciousness, but much independent media has fallen by the wayside. After all, who needs to read a Led Zeppelin fanzine when you can read every review of all their albums, thousands of archived interviews and a simple glance at their website, Facebook or Wiki page will tell you that John Paul Jones is planning to release a second Them Crooked Vultures album. And did I forget to mention you can get their entire discography in about an hour given enough seeders?

In short, these musical trends parallel the general economic trends of the last thirty years – from what once was a very centralised (Fordist) system with rather limited choice often based on physical circumstances, into a decentralised (post-Fordist) system in which things come in any colour you like and it’ll be at your doorstep within the week. More pertinently for those uninterested in anthropological economics, the same pattern is evident within music. Previously, the cultural zeitgeist was not only completely pervasive but frequently overhauled by new trends;  skiffle begat rock n’ roll, rock n’ roll begat blues rock, which begat psychedelia, heavy metal, and so on. One need only witness the massive impact of the very short punk phase to understand how music evolved in often explosive trends. But then it stopped. Barring retro-trends and the ambiguous title of “Indie”, rock and pop music has essentially stopped progressing in the collective consciousness.

It’s not that music has stopped developing; a quick look at a few Facebook band pages (and even better; a list of genres on Wikipedia) will quickly inform you how much music has changed. Which is true, there’s an incredible amount of music out there. With the easy spread of software and music this is hardly unexpected; any two-bit guitarist with a Macbook can add record several guitar and vocal parts, detune to record the bass, add in software-based drum loops and voila; there’s your demo. Which isn’t to say there aren’t any established bands that don’t conform to the mainstream; the metal scene alone has thrived in the last twenty years even without widespread recognition. The problem is that this hasn’t occurred in the mainstream. With the transition from centralised music media to decentralised music media, people are no longer engaged with the mainstream but rather within their own niche, of which there are thousands. And if people aren’t engaged, then as with democracy, the system stops working properly.

Sure you can have fifty different kinds of death metal, but none of them will ever become popular enough to reach people who don’t know what a death growl is. It’s not like we haven’t seen confronting genres rise to popularity before; psychedelia in the late 60s epitomised everything legendary about the era, which not coincidentally is everything conservatives railed against; sexual promiscuity, frequent drug taking and music that was seriously loud. Contextually, death metal is mild in comparison.

I’ll elaborate more about the social and musical consequences in part two.