Rebellion of the Masses


Creativity and Music on the Internet

The Internet’s growth has had a dramatic impact on the music industry.  As it became more accessible, services like Napster were introduced, sparking piracy.  Now, artists are forced to derive new value from their music in a struggle to encourage their fans to continue paying for their craft.  As streaming platforms become the standard listening medium, artists are struggling to make ends meet on the sub-1% per play royalties given by these services.  In an attempt to gain the attention of fans to increase sales, artists have turned to social media, making numerous posts to Facebook and Twitter on a daily —even hourly— basis.  But with the high volume of posts coming from virtually every musician on the web, such mediums have become a thunderous cloud of white noise.

Skeptical Views on Internet Exposure

During the Future of Music Coalition’s Policy Summit in October 2010, producer T. Bone Burnett advised that artists do not put their music on the Internet at all.  He reasoned that an artist’s involvement with social media makes them only one in a million. As he said, “if you’re a musician today, and you want to record music, and you want to circulate that recorded music, don’t put it on the Internet, because you’re degrading the thing that you’re doing to such a low point that its value goes to zero.” Prince has also been vocal about his aversion to the Internet. Due to frustrations with piracy, he announced that he has no plans to release another album. For Prince,  “the Internet’s completely over; all of these computers and digital gadgets are no good.”

Although such examples are extreme (it should be noted that both Prince and T. Bone Burnett are not your average music professionals), their argument that music should be removed from the Internet suggests that a serious issue is at hand. The Internet has fed into the industry’s number game of measuring an artist’s success – views on YouTube, plays on MySpace, friends on Facebook, followers on Twitter. From there, it becomes a struggle of how to convert these vast numbers without context into meaningful sales.

The Internet’s Creative Feed

The picture is clearer, however, when we consider the Internet’s effect on culture and the overall perception of music. Here, the need for greater connectivity, as well as more interactivity with fans, is changing the creative landscape. For instance, classical composer and conductor Eric Whitacre utilized the Internet to create a virtual choir. He first had the idea to gather fifty people to each sing a part to one of his compositions, wherever they were in the world, and then post their video to YouTube. He pieced each individual video together into the full choral arrangement, thus creating the first virtual choir in April 2010.  To follow up this project the next year, he set out to involve 900 people, and by April 2011, he released a new virtual choir of over 2,000 participants from fifty-eight countries. At the premiere, he shared testimonials of the fans that were involved. One wrote: “My sister and I used to sing in choirs together constantly; now [that] she is an airman in the air force traveling, [it’s] so wonderful to sing together again!” “Aside from the beautiful music”, said someone else, “it’s great just to know I’m part of a worldwide community of people I never met before, but who are connected anyway.”

Another example of a creative use of the Internet comes from visual artist Aaron Koblin. Koblin assembled an innovative music video for Johnny Cash. Cash’s final album was called Ain’t No Grave. The lyrics to the leading track were “Ain’t no grave can hold my body down”, and Koblin used these words as inspiration to build a collaborative memorial and virtual resurrection of Cash.  He had fans draw each individual frame of the music video using a flash-based drawing website, and then asked them to upload their unique work to the server. The final result was a full-length music video comprised of frame contributions from thousands of individuals.  As a fan that shared a stake in Cash’s final work reflected, “it really allows this last recording of his to be a living, breathing memorial.”

Today’s Cultural Imperatives

Indeed, technology is reshaping the meaning creativity, bringing it more and more into the collective realm. This is seen to be the case as well outside the music industry. J.K. Rowling, author of the wildly successful Harry Potter series, announced the coming of Pottermore, to be launched in October 2011. The website will be a platform that provides fans with interactive e-Books. The chapters of each book will feature moments where the reader can become a direct part of the story and participate in mini-games to further the story along. Readers will also be able to connect with their friends and other users of the site as they progress through the storyline.

Pottermore will be released in a beta version on July 31 (Harry Potter’s birthday) to one million fans. The beta users will be able to give feedback to Rowling and the developers of Pottermore, and so help craft the final version of the website. Pottermore provides a truly interactive and collaborative experience between Rowling and her fans. At its core, they are exchanging views about Rowling’s work. But the way in which the literature is digested, read, and communicated is much less private—and the urgency of this exchange, unlike the past, seems no longer as neutral to the artist’s own frame of reference.

For musicians, the implication is that an artist’s time should be spent as well trying to involve their fans directly in the creation of their craft, i.e. not just trying to involve their fans in sharing their mundane life through social media. Passive listening to a body of artistic work may no longer be the end-all of a musical experience, and artists would do well to consider, at least in part, fan input and fan remixes. This seems to be a growing interest.

A good example is Bjork’s upcoming album, Biophilia, which will have a conventional album release but will also appear as the first-ever “app album.” It will include ten separate iPad apps, one for each song, all housed within one “mother” app. Each track app will allow listeners to interact with the song and its themes, and in some cases, alter the song completely. For one song, Virus, the app will feature a love story between a virus and a cell, where the virus loves the cell so much that it destroys it. If the listener chooses, they can use the interactive app to stop the virus from attacking the cell, which in effect, alters the content of the song and causes it to stop playing. To hear the full song, a listener must watch the cell take its inevitable course with the virus. Bjork views the apps as an integral part of the entire project, not a rival to the music.

The Internet, in short, could make for a colorful music canvas. For an established creative artist to open up and take inspiration from his fan base will take time and require a somewhat new and socio-interactive mind-set.  The gulf between an artist’s public and private persona would in this case shrink, shortening the gulf between a larger than life image and an ordinary existence. In particular, the penchant for glamour and excess in popular music could be checked by the Internet’s need for familiarity.



One Reply to “Rebellion of the Masses”

  1. Although some of what has been said in the article is true to fact, when cannot stop innovation. It is the result of progress adapting to our worlds needs. Yes there are good and bad sides, but if we don’t move forward we stagnate and other countries become the worldwide leader in innovations.
    The internet is not going anywhere, the world is ran on the internet.
    If you are a musician wanting to make it in the new digital music industry, you are going to have to learn the ways of social media and all that it entails.

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