How the Internet has Ruined Music
Or: Musicians, Get As Offline As Possible, And Do It Quickly
It has been an interesting thing to follow the ups and downs, tos and fros, ebbs and flows, and upside-the-head punches that the music industry has created for itself in the last decade or so. Recently, David Lowery of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker has been a vocal and especially scholarly voice of the working musician’s plight, and it all would be so much more fascinating if it weren’t so damn infuriating.
Cast your mind back, if you will, to 1994. The band I was in at the time, The Mudkats, was one of the first two bands on earth to have a website, along with another Santa Cruz band called The Ugly Mugs. It’s right here. In other words, not that it’s especially impressive, I am one of the first eight musicians on the planet to have an online presence. The reason for that is our bass dude, the affable wunderkind Jon Luini, and his Ugly Mug buddy founded the very first online music site, the Internet Underground Music Archive, or IUMA. I’ll never forget the day he sat me down in front of a giant CRT monitor and showed me this new thing he had designed, this thing he called our website.
“A web…site, huh? Inter…net? Looks pretty neat,” I thought. “But what does it do? How does it work? What’s it for? Who’s going to see this thing?” Luini’s idea, and indeed dream, was a grand one. The promise of a level playing field for all musicians the world over, was a beautiful and revolutionary scheme. Not revolutionary in a stupid Lyfty Ubery buzz-word douch-bag Mission District start-up disrupting-the-way-kale-and-dry-cleaning-gets-delivered kind of way, but a genuinely new tool for musicians to reach and build an audience. That promise became more and more exciting. Never mind that we weren’t a terribly wonderful band. We were good players with some good songs. I had friends tell me they wouldn’t come to any more of our shows simply because of the stupid blithering idiocy that would spew forth from our drummer’s mouth between songs, and by all means insert drummer joke here. But now suddenly we were visible to the entire world, just like The Rolling Stones, just like that. Wow. So…does this mean that we’ve “made it?” Are we famous now? We’d better hit the studio pronto!
Well, fellow slaves to that bitch Terpsichore, here we are well into the twenty-first century. The internet is, well, what it is, and we can see how the promise of a level playing field has manifested itself. One thing no one had figured out in those early days was how anyone was going to make money with a shiny new website, but here in the year 2016 some people clearly have, and they’re the wrong people. The current model of streaming via Spotify et al makes the pre-internet music industry look positively charitable. The business model these days has its very roots in the horrific reality of an entire generation having grown up thinking that music, art, smut, pictures of kittens, and everything else under the sun is supposed to be at best free, and at worst outright stolen and pirated.
If you love music, pay for it. You’ll get better music that way. If you like mine, and I’m delighted that you do, come buy it directly from me at a show. I’m all over town and I play regularly. If you don’t like mine, buy someone else’s. If you’re a musician, you poor bastard, take steps to prevent your music from being stolen online. It isn’t easy, but it isn’t too hard either, and it’s important. There aren’t many things more humiliating and stupefying than getting a $20 royalty check encompassing a period of two years of streaming on an online platform that doesn’t have your permission to do so. To the Spotifys and Apples of the world, along with all the thieving little wannabes, I am not your content provider. Those very words make me ill, they display perfectly just how backwards your relationship with the artist is, and you simply can’t have me for free unless I say so.
Musicians, you will no doubt have come up against the evil notion of ‘exposure’ by now, and what a great thing the club owner/promoter/internet radio dude says it is. We all know that translates not into “We can’t pay you,” but rather “We won’t pay you, never mind the years of experience, training, and education you bring to bear on your performance/recording.” Exposure is nothing more than artistic hypothermia. Musicians stagnate professionally because of it, and art dies from it. Stop falling for it. Technological leaps and bounds in, say, a recording studio context are fantastic, and it’s exciting to watch those advances. But the internet as a method to get your music in front of an audience is rapidly becoming your enemy, and the glorious promise of a level playing field is now riddled with ankle-smashing craters and gopher holes. Time to jump ship, or at least have those flotation devices handy.