The comments thread on yesterday's "Duran Duran and Art in the Age of Internet Reproduction" is full of good stuff, but I was particularly taken by an e-mail from Zach Carter, a blogger at The Media Consortium and guitarist for the Charlottesville Va. band Drunk Tigers.
As a musician myself, I think about this stuff a lot, and I think Taylor is onto something -- sort of -- but has fingered the wrong technological issue. If I have his argument right, it goes something like this: The Internet makes it easier to get music, which makes us live in the cultural past, since we can get our hands on lots of old music very easily.
I just don't see how that's the issue. Recorded music has been easy to access for decades. Riding your bike to the record store was fun, but let's face it -- it really wasn't that hard. And once you were there, you could have listened to or purchased thousands of records that you didn't. TV appearances and record label marketing departments essentially narrowed your choices and made contemporary music more accessible than older music. The Internet hasn't so much radically altered access, in my view, as it has radically diminished the influence of major label marketing.
But I still think he's right to say that something about contemporary music is actually less compelling, although like Taylor, I can offer no quantifiable standard by which to measure the cultural slump I perceive. I don't think the Internet is responsible for this, I think it's the cost of recording music. Digital recording technology has made it much, much less expensive for bands to make reasonably high-quality recordings in much less time than it took, say 15 years ago. That has meant it is a hell of a lot more feasible for broke bands to make a record, which combined with the Internet, puts more music in circulation. When the recording landscape was changing really fast in the late '90s, I remember a lot of people predicting a major musical flowering -- all of this creativity would no longer be constrained by money, and more new and exciting musical ideas would soon be available.
I don't think that has happenned at all. Instead, we've got something of a boring rock band bubble. To be sure, there have been some great new artists in the past decade, but we've also heard lots and lots and lots of pleasant melodies and chimey guitars. Part of this is just the nature of digital recording -- the recording software is largely standardized across the industry, and it's very easy to do certain fixes to sound recordings now that you couldn't really do before 1995. Everybody uses the same equipment and deploys the same tricks, and everybody's records have a similar sound. But a huge part is just mediocrity. Access to recording has mostly enabled a lot of middle-of-the road music to be made that otherwise would never have surfaced. This isn't to say that record label A&R judgement was ever very reliable, but rather to say that record labels couldn't possibly sign as many artists who are making recordings on their own dime today. Again, I have no statistics to reference, but judging by the anecdotes of rock critics from the '70s and '80s, I don't think there were nearly as many bands a few decades back than there are now. When you have literally thousands of bands doing roughly the same thing, listening to older music can seem much more interesting.