As the world wide web turns 30, here are the ways that it transformed music, for better or worse
If you grew up during or before the early noughties, the words ‘dial-up’ will strike you with one of two emotions: either extreme dread or the rosy twang of nostalgia. Back then, going on the internet was a laborious undertaking. The agonising wait until after 6pm, when cheaper phone rates started for the evening. The brick-sized modem, with its ear-piercing onslaught of bleeps and bloops as the computer ‘dialled up’. And who can forget the unholy howl of your mum, screaming up the stairs: “GET OFF THE LINE, I NEED TO CALL SANDRA”.
Thirty years ago today, Tim Berners-Lee – then a fellow at the physics research centre CERN – put forward his plan for sharing and sending information between different computers. Though the vague concept of the internet had been talked about before, Berners-Lee’s basic framework for the World Wide Web is what really changed the game. By the time 2002 rolled around, 42 percent of UK households had internet access, and being able to readily access endless information from home revolutionised almost every aspect of living.
Seventeen years ago, as the full potential web was still taking hold, David Bowie put forward his prediction for what might happen next in the music industry, aided by the immediacy of the internet. “Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity,” he said. “The absolute transformation of everything that we ever thought about music will take place within 10 years, and nothing is going to be able to stop it. I see absolutely no point in pretending that it’s not going to happen.” And he was spot on.
So, here’s to the web – a pesky little double-edge conundrum which has transformed music forever – for better and worse.. Here’s how it went down…
Napster turned us into digital pirates
The first ever peer-to-peer file sharing service, Napster allowed users to send each other music in the form of MP3 files. Though it was only going for about three years, it had 80 million registered users at its peak, and first planted the idea that music could be accessed for free. It was, of course, theft, but without the risk of being caught shoplifting, it criminalised a generation.
Radiohead redefined the value of music
Napster contributed to the surprise success of some records, like Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’, parts of which leaked three months before release. The band eventually scored a Number One in the Billboard 200, partly thanks to the exposure, but mostly because Radiohead adopted a pioneering pay-what-you-want, ‘honesty jar’ sales model.
MSN Messenger’s status bar let us be emo with pride
Way back before social media was even a thing, MSN Messenger was the place to be. As well as teaching an entire generation invaluable text abbreviations – wuu2 and brb, anyone? – each user’s status bar also provided a place to show off their cutting edge music taste (and to swot up on what your latest crush listens to). Though popular choices ranged from angsty Panic! At The Disco picks to soppy Mariah Carey lyrics, there were two hard and fast rules. Firstly, ensure the lyric of choice is as dramatic as possible. And second: *aLwÅy$ TyP£ Ur $tAtUs L1ke tHiS *
LimeWire attacked the family computer with viruses
Back in the early days of illicit music downloading, LimeWire turned countless teenagers into aspiring hackers. Getting hold of a single track successfully was a minor miracle. You’d have to comb through hundreds of obscure file names searching for that perfect optimum speed, being watchful of fake files. Then, you’d simply cross your fingers, and hope that you’re not accidentally downloading porn, or riddling the family computer with viruses. And yet, despite the fact it was often useless, everyone used it anyway. LimeWire gifted us all with the ability to download a radio rip of Soulja Boy – it also meant that digging up older or more obscure tracks was suddenly much easier. But it also helped contribute to the pervasive idea that music should be free. In 2010, it shut down for good.
MySpace turned us all into indie kids
Arctic Monkeys, Late of the Pier, Jamie T, Lily Allen, Klaxons and The Kooks and are just a few of the bands who flourished on this social media site. With the ability to easily upload demos online without the help of a label or PR, the playing field suddenly levelled out for legions of unsigned artists. Myspace also carved out a new space for devoted indie fans to squabble over whether to rank Cajun Dance Party above Egyptian Hip-Hop and Good Shoes in the site’s infamous top friends list.
We spent too many evenings arguing with strangers on forums
While the ’80s and ’90s had painstakingly crafted fanzines to flick through, noughties fans descended onto online message boards and forums dedicated to almost every genre or artist. Despite the huge advance in social media over the last decade, forums have stuck around as a kind of community space. Whether it’s maligned pop acts finding snobbery-free appreciation on Popjustice’s forum or Frank Ocean super-fans trading grainy pictures of their idol hanging out at Lake Como on Reddit, the internet has made it easier to seek out fellow devotees around the world.
We got loads of amazingly silly new genres
Sub-genres existed way before the internet, sure, but how about ridiculously niche microgenres? From chillwave and witch-hous, to seapunk, shitgaze, and nu-rave, bloggers dreamed up hundreds of these near-nonsensical music tags, drumming up hype and setting apart the next new buzz band from the crowd.
Scenes now defy geography
In the past scenes have often sprung up from distinct areas: the US state of Washington became a melting pot for grunge bands, while the late ’80s brought us Madchester’s acid house and indie rock scene. If a bunch of bands are operating in a similar part of of the world, constantly trading ideas and spurring each other on, it figures that distinct kinds of music will begin to pop up around the same place.
The internet changed all that, by speeding up the transmission of new ideas. And while some local scenes still flourish – the constant stream of music coming out of South East London, for example – they tend to have very little in common sonically. And where a wave of acts do wind up making similarly woozy music – take Schmaltzcore, for example – they tend to have sound in common, rather than geography,
It’s easier to find new music
In a pre-internet age, stumbling across your next new favourite band took a lot of legwork (not to mention luck). After scouring NME with a highlighter in hand, picking out a name alone just wasn’t enough – in order to actually listen, you’d have to buy their single at a record shop, or track down their next live show in a listings paper. And while it’s still fun to accidentally find a new fave at a support slot, or to take a punt on a band’s record off the back of glowing reviews without listening beforehand, you also have to admit that being able to Google a band is quite convenient.
Scrobbling showed us the way towards custom playlists
The internet has also made the whole process of ‘discovering’ music much easier. Particularly massive during the era of the iPod, music site Last.FM uses something called an ’Audioscrobbler’ to track listens from a user’s various devices. It then suggests a bunch of similar artists based on what somebody is already into. It’s a recommending formula that has been replicated by almost every streaming platform going forward; Spotify’s Discovery playlist works on pretty much the same principle to this day.
Still, though, nothing can beat the rush of checking you and your crush’s musical compatibility on Last.FM.
Anybody can be a producer
Thanks to online tutorials and instructional videos, there are now far fewer barriers when it comes to learning new skills. It’s now entirely possible for artists to teach themselves production at home, for instance; armed with a bit of free time, and a low-cost piece of production software, anything is possible.
Soundcloud boosted the underground
Another playing field leveller, Soundcloud is a bit like Myspace, but without the amateur html and garish backgrounds. Hosting demos from chart-topping artists, bedroom recordings from scrappy garage bands, and star producers in waiting alike, the no-frills site gives musicians a place to put out music in all states of completion – instantly.
Bandcamp gave some power back to the musicians
After taking multiple hits from illegal downloading and the rise of streaming, lord knows artists needed a new sustainable way to get people paying for their music again. On Bandcamp musicians can sell music and merch at whatever price they choose, and can also offer fans the chance to pay more (40 percent of the time fans decide to pay more than asking price). It’s also become a treasure trove of unusual and eclectic music, and a go-to spot for experimental music.
We got the gift of pop memes?
Look, the internet has done a lot of damage to the music industry, but it’s also gifted us hundreds and billions of memes. Without the world wide web, would there be an entire library of images showing Rihanna nicking wine glasses from a bar? No. Would there be an entire compilation video of Lady Gaga repeatedly declaring that “there can be 99 people in a room….”? No. Even if the internet leads us into a tech-driven dystopia, the threat of impending apocalypse tarnishing every carefree moment, at least we’ll still have memes.
Streaming gave us all of music on a plate, and changed the way that artists make pop hits
Spotify popped up around the time illegal music downloading began to decline as a glossier, above-the-law alternative. In exchange for a monthly subscription fee, it’s possible to listen to virtually any song or album in the world thanks to streaming; and there are now loads of platforms to pick from.
Removing the need for people to own music completely has done wonders for wallets and phone storage; but on the flip side there’s the issue of artists getting fair payment in return for people streaming their music. The dominance of streaming has also led to artists releasing ridiculous 30 track albums in the hope of racking up more precious plays, and the popularity of playlists is directly influencing the way that many major artists are now approaching hit-making.
There are no surprises anymore
If you don’t like surprises, the popularity of fans sharing setlists from recent shows on Setlist FM will appeal to you immensely; it’s also quite a useful resource for retracing your steps on a drunken night out. On the other hand, it’s harder for Robbie Williams to surprise his crowd with a swing cover of ‘Creep’.
It’s impossible to keep a secret
Being able to film and upload fairly decent-quality footage of a gig using nothing but a phone also means that keeping things under wraps is harder now. Back in the day, if an artist tumbled dramatically off the stage mid-way through a chord change it would be a story for music folklore; now, it’s immortalised on YouTube forever. And if you want to air a new song without it leaking online almost immediately, forget it – unless you’re prepared to go fully Jack White and confiscate everyone’s phones, it just ain’t happenin’.
We form an orderly queue online. And the touts are there too.
Forget about ringing up a venue’s booking office or heading down the nearest ticket shop to snap up gig and festival tickets. These days you don’t even need to bother speaking to anyone. Most people buy gig tickets online. On the other hand, there are now rich pickings for ticket touts to swoop in on general sales en masse, using bots and other dubious methods to harvest and upsell hundreds of tickets for profit.
Spotify has made us all into amateur DJs
Becoming an amateur DJ in the back of an Uber has never been easier. Armed with nothing but a Spotify subscription, and an AUX cable, it’s possible to ‘drop’ any song, at any time. Yes, even ‘Y.M.C.A’ for the tenth time in an hour.
It’s harder for musicians to stay out of politics
Billions of people have a space to air their leanings online thanks to Twitter and Facebook. As the political climate grows increasingly fractured and divided, artists who choose to stay silent about their own leanings – possibly in order to maximise sales by not alienating potential fans – frequently come under criticism. On the upside, the internet also makes it easier to avoid an artist who happens to be a raving tory.
It’s easier for musicians to cancel themselves
The thing with the internet is that everything stays on there forever. Next time you think about tweeting a bitchy comment about how you think vegans are really annoying, be careful to weigh up whether you might become a moderately acclaimed musician in the distant future. It will come back to bite you.
We can @ everyone
Thanks to social media, gaining access to some of the most famous stars in the world might not necessarily be any easier, but it certainly seems it when there’s a direct channel of communication. Mega-stars, even of Ariana Grande level, occasionally reply to fans’ tweets, and thanks to Instagram, it takes seconds to see what an artist is up to at the moment. Having that direct line to an artist feels more personal, somehow – but there are downsides…
Stanning is more intense than ever
It’s often easy to seek out like-minded super fans online, and almost every well-known artist has a devoted community of fans around the world. Most of the time, it’s a huge benefit, and evidence of how the internet has transformed and intensified fandom.
Then again, being able to freely slate rival artists and even other fans – protected by the anonymity of a keyboard – means that stanning for an artist can sometimes turn very nasty.
Artists can collaborate across continents
Writing songs over email, bouncing ideas back and forth over skype, and coming across new potential collaborators online all the time, the internet has changed the way that many artists link up to make music together. It’s now possible for two artists in different countries to work together on the same project without ever meeting in person; something that would’ve been an impossible faff just 30 years ago.
We’ll never be left wondering about a mystery song – or mishearing lyrics – again
Up until recently, if you found yourself bobbing along to an unknown banger in a pub, you’d have to pluck up the nerve to ask someone behind the bar for the track name and hope that they actually knew the answer. These days, it’s just a case of Googling a few lyrics or holding your phone aloft by the nearest speaker – Shazam has been used to identify 15 billion songs so far. Lyrics sites are also handy for clearing up misheard missives. Excuse me, while I kiss this guy…
Vinyl hunting is much easier
Say you’re still a loyal fan of physical records and want to bag your latest Shazam discovery on vinyl? Well, that’s a lot easier these days. No need to dig around in dusty boxes, in search of an incredibly rare album – just pop onto eBay or discogs and have it posted to your door in three to five days. Not quite as fun, is it.
So, I know we said earlier that nothing stays secret online thanks to nosy so-and-sos waving their mobile phones around, but that’s not entirely true – on the rare occasions where everyone involved manages to keep things quiet, the internet has also gifted music with the ideal environment for a surprise album drop. From Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ to James Blake’s ‘The Colour In Anything’ countless artists have pulled this stunt in recent years. Without advance promo CDs going out to radio stations, and without the need to send records to stores ahead of time, there’s far less scope for albums to get out early. Any digital leaks these days tend to stem from insiders.
Snap verdicts are everywhere
When albums drop out of thin air, there’s often a frantic rush to get in there first with a spicy hot take; when Ariana Grande put out her latest record ‘Thank U, Next’ Instagram stories were awash with screenshotted favourite tracks, and early verdicts all day. It’s exciting to see the whole world chatting excitedly about a new release; but the damning mind of the collective internet can be quick to cast aside slow-burners.
Multimedia albums are officially a thing, and music videos aren’t on telly
Armed with the endless possibilities of tech, there’s really no reason why an album needs to be purely audio-based – other than budget constraints. Just look at the visually spectacular recent efforts from Janelle Monae, Solange, Beyonce, and Years & Years – they’ve practically created and starred in their own feature films. YouTube, in particular, has given the music video a new lease of life. No longer must you sit glued to MTV for four hours waiting for that N*Sync video to roll around.
Shows are tailored to look pretty on the ‘gram
Some artists take the stance of discouraging fans from taking photos during gigs, but increasingly, we’re also seeing a wave of bands who are actively tailoring their shows to visual platforms like Instagram. There’s something incredibly meta about seeing The 1975’s aesthetically incredible stage set plastered across the timelines when their album deals in exploring all facets of our sheer dependence on the internet.