These pieces about the liberating impacts of technology always amuse me. Clay Shirky is an intelligent person, and his insight into the social character of humans is engaging. However, the sort of “creative destruction” these new modes of communication have unleashed–the ones he waxes poetically about–well, they’re occasionally off the mark. For instance, he mentions the demise of the music industry as being inevitable because now customers can handle distribution and reproduction of music for themselves. That’s great. Here’s the problem: being a recording artist now is worse than it was twenty years ago. And I’m not talking about acts on major labels–the sort of grassroots startups he idealizes–we’ve got an incredibly hard row to hoe. I’d argue (and I’m sure I’m not alone), that it’s harder to run a successful independent label in 2017 than in was in 1991; that these changes in the way people consume music has hurt bands, especially those on the margins. Why? People don’t buy music like they used to; revenue on all levels of the industry are way down. Specifically, they don’t buy CDs which, unlike vinyl records, had generous markups on wholesale and were much easier to get manufactured (vinyl pressing is fraught with delays and it’s a slow process); that the hopeful projections on streaming revenues aren’t there. I’m guessing Shirky’s contention is that getting a song out to the public is easier than ever. Of course, he’s right. Buy how many times have I heard from an artist, “Will you put my record out? I don’t want to be another band lost on Bandcamp.” Being on a record label is much more than just getting music out. It meant someone handling distribution of physical/digital product, assisting with touring, getting product out to college radio stations, helping bands with coverage/interviews and (hopefully) paying royalties promptly. It gave hardworking bands a profile, an association with other artists they considered their peers. Music isn’t created in a vacuum. Yes, you can release songs to the public at no cost. But playing music takes time and energy; it requires money. Before the collapse of the record business in the early ’00s, there were a whole host of distribution networks for independent labels, some owned by enterprising bands who released their own LPs/CDs and helped out their friends. These labels ran on shoestring budgets, some firmly in the red, but they loved music and put out amazing albums. They’re still around–my label is luckily picked up by arguably the best independent distributor in the United States–but many distros went out of business around the ’04 mark (and in the process took labels/underground rock mags down with them who were never able to collect on money owed). I’m convinced that the only people who relish the demise of the record business are people who have no idea what a record label does, and really have no clue as to how music is produced or the economics of it; what a band needs to function. And I loathe the record industry. (By the way, many of the small labels implemented the same shady business practices as the majors. Helpful tip: Never sign a contract that has the word “perpetuity” in it.) I don’t like running a small independent label. I lose money every year. I only put out vinyl. I have no contracts and I allow the bands to retain all of the rights to their music. I do it because I genuinely like music and I know people making vital music don’t have the resources or the time to both play music and release it (although some do). There’s no “creative destruction” there. It’s solidarity and camaraderie with musicians and fellow music fans.
Boyd and Ellison’s history on social network sites, although dated, was surprisingly a really great read. I had never heard of SixDegrees.com. I misread one of their statements; Boyd and Ellison mention that SNS organize around people and not interests (unlike message boards). At first, I thought they meant there was a change in SNS with the launch of Myspace and Facebook (mainstreaming effect). This got me thinking about a defunct social media site that they didn’t list; it was one of the first of its kind, launched in 1999. It was called makeoutclub.com. I’d actually argue that SNS site was about shared interests, as it was started by an individual who was part of an underground music scene. (On second thought, hooking up with different partners seemed to take priority. Perhaps interests came in a distant second.) I was never a member of the site–my musical interests were slightly different–but there was at least a peripheral overlap with some of the older groups that were hallmarks of the site (think Rites of Spring) and a few of my friends were on the site. Looking back, it was important. I’m sure there were a lot of ideas being spread and a much tighter community. I recall Calvin Johnson of K Records was on the site and I really liked his label. It was the first time you could interact with someone like Calvin in this manner. Undoubtedly, it wasn’t all good and I’m sure the pettiness of today’s interactions on the internet were ubiquitous there as well. Nevertheless, when I talk with older musicians, they often mention the novelty of early internet chat groups as being incredibly exciting (granted, not a SNS). It’s possible the early days of SNS shared that feeling of excitement and greater common interests. Possibly it was my loss that I wasn’t on them. A lot of this stuff was happening when I was young and I didn’t own a computer until college.
Boyd and Ellison’s article mentioned the rise of bands on Myspace, and its music-friendly interface. This was one of Myspace’s great features. There were a slew of amazing record labels coming out in the mid-’00s who picked up a ton of bands on Myspace. A lot of them were labels out of Europe, releasing mostly 45s on limited runs of 300: Yakisakana (France), SSLD (Italy), Goodbye Boozy (Italy), Zaxxon (Canada), and Perpetrator Records (New Zealand). Most of them are defunct; I doubt they made money on any of their releases (45s are a guaranteed money loser). Being hooked into that scene, I know that Myspace played a major part in the rise of these labels; it became easy to contact bands; there were likely no contracts; it was all built on trust. Amazingly, it worked out for several years. (My speculation is that the further gutting of the record industry and fatigue caused many of these labels to quit; ditto the artists. It’s rough out there.)
I think an important question would be to ask how Myspace assisted bands. The industry was in collapse at all levels, but that SNS really did help get some amazing music released and aided touring bands with promotion. As someone covering music (I had only released a couple 45s back in ’05), it also made contacting bands easier. And here perhaps Shirky’s argument holds up: you could speak to artists directly and make connections (be it to release records or conduct interviews for fanzines) without any middleman. We were all losing money and getting screwed. But we had a good time doing it.