There’s a great deal of discussion about music online in the mainstream press, and there are a couple of predominant threads to that coverage. Mostly, it’s not true.
It pays to be able to separate fact from fiction and hype from reality when it comes to the online music environment. Especially when your livelihood depends on it. Here are the two most important things to watch out for:
1) Technological determinism
There is a popular idea, particularly in the mainstream press, that technology drives history. According to this idea, changes to technology alter the rules that govern the ways in which we operate our lives, our businesses and our leisure. Usually this manifests itself around talk of either ‘progress’ or ‘decline': a brave new world of opportunity, or a loss of an older, more natural way of operating.
In the case of online music, we see these things very clearly: MySpace ‘gave us’ the Arctic Monkeys and Lily Allen. Home-spun web streaming led to the Sandi Thom success story. Technological determinism says that the new internet environment allowed for the traditional gatekeepers to be circumvented, and that a groundswell of public support grew up as a result of the sheer power of a great artist connected directly to the masses.
There is also the story about how the internet is ‘killing’ the record industry. Downloading, and the practice of burning CDs is single-handedly responsible for the impending demise of the major labels, causing the decline of high street retail and is undermining traditional, ‘natural’ models of music distribution and consumption — and consequently preventing rights holders from receiving their deserved reward for their part in the creative process.
In fact, technology does not ’cause’ these things. Technology changes and we choose our response. We have agency and can negotiate these shifts in media, as long as we understand them as they happen.
2) People tend to lie
Well, maybe ‘lie’ is too strong a word, but if you’re reading about music online, chances are you’re reading PR and marketing. Don’t be fooled — conservatively around 70% of what makes it to the media starts its life as a press release. Probably that figure is higher in reality.
Assuming that what you read began as a press release allows you to look for bias, spin and partiality. This should not be a new skill for you, but it seems that most people forget it when it comes to things they think they don’t quite understand — and technology is one of those areas.
So… if, for instance, you read that bands are making it big on MySpace, the first thing that should pop into your head is the question ‘who stands to gain if I think that’s true?’. Then you remember that what sells a band is a great story. The more that story is about them being genuinely great, rather than simply marketed, the more successful that sell becomes. You might even recall that the guy who owns Fox News is also the guy who owns MySpace.
So when you hear that Sandi Thom was signed to Sony because 100,000 people were tuning in to her nightly live webstream from her flat in London, you first remember that you only heard that story AFTER she had signed to Sony. The first thing you think of is the press release, and you wonder who might have sent that press release, bringing all those photographers to the ‘signing’.
Then you recall that bandwidth costs money, and that there are technical limitations on upstream internet bandwidth from home connections. If Sandi Thom had that many listeners / viewers without corporate support, she was pretty much running her own ISP, with outgoings in the thousands of pounds, and no income of which to speak.
Finally, you begin to realise that Sandi Thom had a publicist early on — and, most likely, was already signed to Sony when she started.
The groundswell of unsolicited support thing is a great story, and has the same impact as that story that everyone seemed to buy into about Norah Jones being a word-of-mouth phenomenon — when actually, there were billboards, tv ads and radio airplay all over the place.
The moral of the story here is that hype prevents us from understanding what’s really going on, and to what extent. If we don’t understand those processes, then navigating them ourselves becomes problematic.
If you want to make any headway in the music business in this day and age, you cannot be relying upon a magical MySpace success story, and nor can you fear the dangers of a hostile environment littered with thieves and ‘lost sales’.
Better to distrust the stories about online success and calamity, and simply view the new technologies as a range of tools that you can adopt, and a series of changes to the business environment to which you can adapt.