By Doug Sheppard
In a recent issue of The Guardian, David Byrne lamented that the Internet “will suck all the creative content out of the world”—pointing to the meager pittance musicians get from streaming services and the way a large portion of books and movies are now delivered electronically.
I agree with some of Byrne’s points. Musicians (and all artists, for that matter) should get paid better (including from streaming services), streaming for free or a small fee may lead to a lack of appreciation for music, and the blockbuster culture portended by all of the above is indeed a concern.
But then again, we’re already there. Almost everything worthwhile in the last three decades was on independent labels—or by artists who started on an indie. Take away the early ’90s grunge era (which wasn’t all that great, but that’s another article) and a few notable exceptions, and what you have on major labels during that span is utterly worthless: AOR, hair metal, trendy dance music, tuneless (yet “critically acclaimed”) alternative rock, nu metal, rap/hip hop, boy bands and divas.
So assuming we’re not worried about the majors, should we worry about the indies? Yes and no. I’d hate to think that the indie scene would be eaten up by streaming, reducing us to a world where -- similar to the way individual franchises like Google, Amazon and Facebook dominate the Internet—there are only large entities. But it goes back to the same question: What would we be losing?
The double-edged sword that is the Internet has enabled me to check out many cool bands that I would otherwise never have heard. But it’s also given everyone with access to a computer a means to make music—complicating an already unfiltered world. With majors and radio long having abandoned their place in the filter, it’s left to the consumer to separate the wheat from the chaff.
And what a load of chaff there is. On club bills featuring multiple bands, one or more is guaranteed to be lackluster or worse. Thanks to the ability of independent labels to go straight to the Internet and skip the previous distribution channels, a morass of mediocrity has been unleashed with catch phrases like “in the tradition of the Stooges,” “hooks like Cheap Trick,” “savage garage a la the Sonics,” and so on—mostly just signaling that the band sounds nothing like what they’re being compared to.
In the vast majority of cases an artist that’s truly great—or even very good—will get recognized in some way, be it a hit record, a local following, a major label deal resulting from that local following, or at least some acclaim at some point (occasionally even after the band breaks up). (That’s not to say that every artist who achieves one of those things is worthwhile, but you get what I mean.) So I don’t share Byrne’s worry about great music going unheard.
In fact, I think that if Byrne is even partially correct about the Internet sucking creative content out—it’s a potential cause for optimism. It may mean being exposed to fewer soundalike bands that have been praised by their friends in blog posts. It may mean that I don’t have to sit through another shitty Clash/Ramones/Black Flag wannabe on a punk bill, another crummy New York Dolls knockoff that’s all clothes and no music, or the “psychedelic” band that’s merely aimless jamming without songs. Maybe if the Internet makes it impossible for such frauds to make music, it will be the beginning of a new filter that the world has lacked for quite some time.