As far as art forms go, music is arguably the most powerful of them all and above all, the most social. Music is able to be both a personal and private experience whilst allowing fans to share it and experience it with one another. Before the digital revolution, being a music fan meant that accessing and sharing music had to be done by buying physical copies or making compilation tapes to pass around your friendship group or going to live gigs and festivals. While music is powerful, it doesn’t quite compare to the power of the Internet and the birth of the digital age is probably the most important and influential invention of our time. The digital revolution changed everything. This meant that media industries across the board, especially the music industry, were thrown in a state of flux. Have the technological advancements of the digital age changed what it means to be a music fan in the 21st century for better, or for worse?
The music industry once had a very uncomplicated business model: artists recorded a song, the record label sold it and both made money. Fans would read the likes of NME or Rolling Stone cover to cover for news, as their writers would be their main source of information and reviews. Fans had to look to other people to articulate the aesthetic for them, as they had no means of expressing their own views other than through word of mouth. Without the elements of the media that we have today what it meant to be a music fan or even an artist was very different. Now through the digital age fans can express their opinions through social media to a global audience. Technology has made it easier to make and find music; social media platforms have put the power of discovery into the hands of the fans, and away from the gatekeepers of the industry.
Social Media and Music
Facebook and Twitter have enabled both esteemed and aspiring artists to self publish and promote themselves online, interacting directly with fans online and allowing them to target their audience accordingly.
Compilation tapes made no money for artists but they did make new fans that then bought the albums and went to the gigs. Nowadays social media finds the fans in the same way that compilation tapes once did. YouTube and Spotify allow fans to make playlists and share them much in the same way. For fans it means that they have immediate access to almost any music and any artist they choose. This gives them the power to dictate who they want to ‘follow’ on Twitter or ‘like’ on Facebook, and put together online compilations of music. With this in mind however, you do have to consider the authenticity of fans online today because nowadays you can put together a pretty good catalogue of artists on your social media page judging by what’s hot or not with very little effort!
Twitter is undoubtedly a huge success for the likes of teen favourites One Direction and Justin Bieber, whose fans use the social media sites as worshiping ground to their idols. Established bands that were around when Twitter first started also embraced the new social media to engage with their fans.
Its interesting to note, Radiohead adapting to the digital age by releasing their seventh album In Rainbows in 2007 as a pay-what-you-want download, meaning that fans could download the album for as much or as little as they wished. This came at time when CD sales were at an all time low and digital streaming was dominating the music world. Although it was a risk to take and Radiohead were both criticized and praised for it, their album ended up selling more than all of their previous albums put together just from online sales. This proved that in fact in some cases people did still want to buy, appreciate and value music, even when they could get it for free. NME looked at the aftermath of then revolutionary idea industry five years on. The online exposure and interaction with fans will have no doubt been a big factor.
Live Performance and Streaming Music
Before the digital media exposure that musicians have today, they had to sell their music by playing live and relying on fans to buy their records. Everything was much more physical. The band had to perform; the fans had to show up and then go out and purchase the album in a hard format. Today that’s not the case, YouTube and smart phones have meant a live performance can be uploaded and viewed by thousands of people online. Although people do still buy hard copies of CD and vinyl, most tend to download or stream music online, listen to it from an IPod or Mp3 player. That physical element has gone.
If you compare the experience of seeing your favourite band live, going home and playing a record with watching a performance on a computer screen and then listening to it on an iPod, they don’t compare.
Technology can’t duplicate the physical experience. Without the album sleeve and reality of a record (or a CD, I know not everyone likes vinyl) in your hands, do you ever really feel like it’s yours? It’s 12 inches across with the lyrics inside it and it’s about putting a tactile thing to the cerebral thing with the sound of a record that just doesn’t come with downloading a song and there is no substitute for actually seeing a band play live.
In times where good music depended solely on the song, and none of the trivia that comes with being a musician today, bands like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd were able to sell thousands of records worldwide with next to no help at all. In comparison to artists of today it makes you wonder how it was done without the exposure and media that there is now. Between the years 1968 and 1979, Led Zeppelin sold over 300 million albums worldwide which when you think about it, is an absolutely insane number of records. Then compare that to someone like Beyoncé, who is said to be one of the most important and biggest selling artists of the 21st century. She has sold 118 million records worldwide. When you compare the two, and consider how making, selling and marketing music has changed, its pretty mind blowing! Hats off to Led Zeppelin, right?
What about the commercial side of things?
Maybe it’s the fans that have changed the most in the music scene. Do people value music as much as they did perhaps in the Led Zeppelin day? Has the digital age created a generation that expects to get its music for nothing? What about the commercial side of things? If people aren’t willing to pay it, then how is the industry going to collect it? The problem today is that it is very easy to access live gigs and download singles without paying anything. The value of the music industry has dropped substantially in recent years, which means that now it is a case of making sure the companies can still collect money so that the artists can still make money. People are digesting more music now and digital technologies mean that they pick and chose tracks from various artists instead of downloading an entire album like you used to. Some companies are already tackling this problem through the use of better technology, one being Kobalt Music : “The most influential music startup you’ve ever heard of.” Sas Metcalfe, Kobalts’ global creative president, says
‘Streaming music is clearly the way forward, but the industry has to find ways of collecting money for the artists and writers from subscription services like Spotify and YouTube. The technology already exists today to clearly identify who’s songs are being played and how often and can therefore make sure that the money is attributed accordingly even though there may be less of it than there used to be.’
The money is out there but it’s just got to be collected more intelligently which Kobalts’ CEO Willard Ahdritz discusses further with Music Week.
Digital vs. Physical album Sales
While digital sales are up and beating CD sales according to IFPD’s digital music report. Vinyl, which was once the only way to listen to music, is now seen as a niche and alternative way to listen to music. That being said, sales of vinyl are on the up as people have become drawn to collecting both old and new albums on vinyl be it for pleasure or musical ‘kudos’ amongst their friends. Either way, what was once seen to be a dying trade of the music industry, is now rearing its head again in a big way.
In reality, it’s hard to compare the old and new worlds of the music industry; they’re too different for numerous reasons. Had the digital world been around in Led Zeppelin’s era then the music scene would no doubt have been a very different place. The fact is, it wasn’t, and industry has been forced to change direction effecting both music makers and music listeners. While on one hand we’ve lost some of the physical elements, which may have watered down the experience for fans, social media has enabled them to reach a much wider range of music and interact with other fans to a much greater degree. Artists have somuch more control over their music now. The brand behind the artist has become irrelevant and now the band is the brand, which is the way it should be. Who is to say that it has to be one or the other when it comes to listening to music, when really the two go hand in hand? People can still go to gigs, go home and put on a record if they choose but they can also follow bands online and stream music as well. Maybe it’s not either or when it comes to music anymore, maybe we can be digital and physical.