When it comes to rock music, there’s always been a very fine but very important line between being a fan and being a consumer. The great sin of the recording industry is that it failed to respect that line. The major labels came to convince themselves that, because the line is so fine, it could safely be ignored. The entire business turned into a dreary and self-defeating exercise in market segmentation and packaging. Bands turned into products, and the products went stale ever more quickly.
That’s why the internet, to rock fans, has seemed like such a godsend. It provides a way for good bands to reach big audiences directly, bypassing the gatekeepers and their straightjacketed radio playlists. As Joan Anderman writes, in an article about the Arctic Monkeys in the Boston Globe:
Today, thanks to the confluence of Internet file-sharing technology, online blogs, and social networking websites such as MySpace, the grassroots community has swelled, quite literally, to global proportions. Instead of talking up bands and handing out tapes to friends in your town, music enthusiasts send the word, and the MP3 files, to cyber-pals around the world …
This is good news in so many ways. After decades of being force-fed label-sanctioned product via corporate-approved radio, music consumers are more than ready to become programmers of their own playlists. And it’s nothing short of a revolution in terms of opportunities for independent artists … No packaging. No pitching. No payola. The notion of a band finding a fan without the machinations of middlemen inspires utopian visions of art uncorrupted, a power-to-the-people model of music making and consuming.
But as Anderman goes on to note, the internet-fueled hyper-hype surrounding the Arctic Monkeys and other recent bands should give us pause. Those visions of utopia may not be entirely reliable.
Where can Arctic Monkeys hope to go after this? What’s left to achieve after your musical baby steps have been pronounced the pinnacle of verse and chorus? The sophomore slump is a given; the prognosis is grim. This is the dark side of hype: Arctic Monkeys are doomed to fail because they’ve done so well, so fast.
We’re living in the age of disposability. The culture, the computer file, the tastes and trends move at hyper-speed in cyberspace. The beauty is that every band can have a MySpace page; every artist can potentially deliver her song to a fan. But that artist is competing with every other artist online, vying for the attentions of an audience – there are tens of millions of registered members on MySpace – fluent in the high-tech entertainment marketplace, where there’s always another band to discover, another song to be the first to tell your friends about.
The question that remains to be answered is whether fans will invest in long-term relationships with artists, or if – with a new song a keystroke away – they’re likely to be … as inclined, ironically, as the major labels to focus on whatever’s new.
Who knows? Maybe in the end the internet mob and the major labels will turn out to be natural allies rather than mortal enemies. “There’s only music,” sings Alex Turner at the end of the Arctic Monkeys album, “so that there’s new ringtones.”