The final installment in my review of December readings.
Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music – Greg Kot. For months I’ve been mentally drafting an essay about how music changed over the last decade. As I thought about it, I’ve read numerous articles, columns, and now a book about the same subject. So I’ll try to share my thoughts without plagiarizing too much.
Kot’s book is a fine jumping off point. While it’s not intended to be a decade-end review, it serves as one. He examines how technology, business decisions, and the changing relationships between consumer and artist have turned the music industry upside down. He focuses on how bands, from the biggest selling to the unsigned, have leveraged the power of emerging technologies to distribute their music.
The impression that is left from Kot’s book, and the other decade-end examinations of the music world, is that the Aughts were the most revolutionary and destructive decade in the history of recorded music.
It began with file sharing and the emergence of high speed internet access. Suddenly nearly every song ever recoded was available through a variety of services for fast and free download. While some people dabbled, others amassed massive libraries of music without passing any money back to the record companies or artists.
The next major change was the iPod. While there were many digital music players before the iPod, it wasn’t until the iPod’s small size, simple interface, and sexy design appeared that the MP3 player became a must-have device. Those collections of music that people downloaded or ripped were no longer stuck in their living rooms. Listeners could now carry every song they owned in their pocket.
The final major shift in music was the embrace of technology by artists, and to a much lesser extent, the record labels. Wilco got around a label that wasn’t interested in releasing their album by streaming it for free from their website. Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails offered their albums for whatever price their fans wanted to pay. Smaller artists learned that creating a community for their fans was often the easiest path towards making a living off of their music. And by the end of the decade, there wasn’t a major label that didn’t make its music available for digital purchase through the iTunes Music Store, Amazon, or other digital music outlet.
For the most part this has been a very cool thing. At the most basic level, music listeners are empowered as never before. If you love music, there are nearly limitless ways for finding interesting music. Most important, you don’t have to rely on the corporate gatekeepers to direct you to the new, exciting stuff. It’s not what MTV is playing, what the record companies are “encouraging” radio stations to play, who gets the prime rack space at Best Buy, and what artists have massive ad campaigns behind their releases that matters. It’s music bloggers, online magazines, streaming independent radio stations, and indie labels that allow customers to sample their music that drive listeners’ choices.
There is a price, of course, for all of this progress. While many artists are seizing control of their careers, countless mid- and entry-level artists have been lost in the shuffle as record companies struggle to understand the new economics of their industry. There is the suggestion that the value of music has been cheapened as more-and-more people expect it to be free. The album as a work of art is disappearing.* The reduced space between artist and listener have destroyed the classic Top 40 format, dividing us into limitless audiences of sub-genres.
(You can argue this is a good thing, as consumers are able to focus on the best music artists create and not have to listen to the extras used to fill the capacity of a CD.)
Looking at my own listening habits, I can sum up the changes in one relationship: Back vs. Next. I was always a person who listened to songs I liked repeatedly. When I was really feeling a song, I might listen to it four, five, ten times in a row, hitting the Back button each time it ended. Now, with more music to select from, I find myself more interested in what’s next. My periods of music bliss are based on extended sets of related or complimentary music rather than the repetition of a single song. Even when a song connects with me, it’s far less likely I will listen to it on repeat than I would have ten years ago.
Is that good or bad? I honestly don’t know. If you take my favorite songs from the 90s and compare them to my favorite songs of the 00s, I’m sure I listened to the songs of the 90s far more often. Even as we approach the 20 year anniversary of the grunge explosion and alternative music revolution, I am more familiar with many of the songs of that era than songs from the last five years. As I sift through the mountains of new music, I think my relationship with songs I like is less intense, less personal than it was in the days of CDs. But I like a lot more music than I did back in the day.
I suppose the summary is that we still don’t know where this revolution in music technology is going to lead us. Artists, content providers, and listeners are still trying to make sense of the options that are available. Maybe in five years we’ll have a new normal that we can compare to the glory days of Top 40 radio. Or perhaps technology is going to keep the music industry in constant flux, and consumers will always be rethinking their listening habits.