A Decade In Music – Did The Internet Save The Industry, Or Kill It?

If you can’t remember life as a music fan in 1999, you’ll have to imagine it. No iTunes. No iPods. No Spotify. No bottomless quarry of music clips on YouTube. A new album cost £16.

Fred Durst was the biggest rock star on earth, Campag Velocet were on the cover of NME, and about the most fun you could have online was clicking around a Compuserve chatroom at 3am, wishing you were dead. Or maybe that was just me.

Now look: a torrent of music, never more than a keystroke away, much of it free. Music surrounds us as never before. Meanwhile, the process of making it has been democratised.

Artists no longer need record labels. For those willing to exploit it, the web represents, in Thom Yorke’s words, “the most amazing broadcasting network ever built”. Lucky us, right?

Not exactly. We may listen to more music than ever, but our connection with it is shallower, more fleeting. The past ten years of online free exchange have created a paradise for consumers of music, and meant catastrophe for the people who make and sell it.

Indeed, at the risk of sounding like a Jan Moir editorial, you could build a strong case for the internet being the worst thing that ever happened to music.

Some figures. Global sales of recorded music have halved, from a historic peak of $37 billion in 2000, to $18 billion in 2008. The videogame industry overtook the music business in 2007, and is projected to utterly dwarf it by 2011.

So what happened? Just as iPod culture boosted the importance of single tracks at the expense of albums, piracy caused the market value of those songs to plummet to near-zero.

Consequently, the CD – the magic format that kept the industry’s profit margin at a blockbusting 30% throughout the ’80s and early ’90s – has been steadily displaced, first by the MP3, and then by the death of ownership itself. In the next decade we won’t download, we’ll stream, mostly on our mobile phones.

Social media has played a part in this – though not in the way you might think. In 2005, the press decided en masse that Lily Allen and Arctic Monkeys owed their success to Myspace. This was largely a fantasy.

Lily Allen had the benefit of Parlophone’s marketing budget before she ever posted a blog – and Arctic Monkeys were hardly social media gurus: according to Alex Turner they had “no idea” what Myspace was, leaving it to fans to create the page and upload the songs.

What was radical and prescient about the band’s early rise was the simple fact they gave their music away for free.

But they were critical in other ways, too. Arctic Monkeys were the last new band to have an explosive, full-spectrum impact, uniting musical tribes, thrilling critics and record-buyers alike.

Increasingly, the net has eroded such universalities, replacing broad consensus with an infinite number of competing viewpoints. That’s why it’s impossible to pin down precisely what the noughties have meant, musically.

In the 80s there was post-punk, synth-pop, rave; in the ’90s there was Britpop. How would you symbolise the past decade? A skinny tie? A Spotify logo?

When Taio Cruz hit Number 1, did you even hear the song? The web makes a mockery of the ‘mainstream’, sheltering us within our own chosen niche. Yet, curiously, this atomisation has led to a narrowing of diversity. Hype Machine aggregates thousands of blogs, yet somehow Radiohead are always at the top.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rOg_IHwXWsk

After a while, recipients of ‘blog buzz’ all start to sound alike – vaguely Flaming Lips-y, wonkily eclectic, a bit short on tunes. There’s even a genre, ‘pitchfolk’, to describe the kind of earnest acoustic acts championed by indier-than-thou US bloggers.

More dangerously, blog culture has led to an acceleration in the turnover of new bands. It’s an old criticism that NME builds them up to knock ’em down – but our supposed fickleness is nothing compared to the startling speed and ruthlessness with which the blogosphere hypes new acts only to discard them weeks later.

Pity the poor members of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, or Annuals, or Cold War Kids, trying to book a tour once the buzz has dissipated, wondering forlornly where all the good reviews have gone.

Recorded music is no longer profitable. To plug the gap, artists are forced into corporate tie-ins which rob them of their dignity.

When Gallows are tacitly sponsored by Relentless Energy Drink, and Blur and Iggy Pop star in Lego Rock Band, it’s hard not to feel that rock and roll’s status as an outsider discourse – a release-valve for youthful passions – has been undermined.

Meanwhile, the shift in power from record labels to giant promoters such as Live Nation means the industry is increasingly dominated by a narrow clique of super-league heritage acts.

How to sum up an entire decade? Let’s attempt a crude evaluation. Things we’ve lost: fans queuing at midnight to buy a new album; mixtapes that took an entire Saturday to compile; labels with the budget to take a punt on endless new bands.

What we’ve gained: instant access to a limitless universe of cheap music.

Which is healthier? I know what I think. In 2002, David Bowie predicted music would become a utility, like running water. He was right. The trouble with water is, it has a habit of slipping through your fingers.