As with almost everything that connects to technology in one way or another, the music scene has changed rapidly these last years. Going online in the mid 90’s made a huge difference in music diffusion with file sharing and streaming services. But how has the technology changed the artform? What impacts has participatory culture had on the music scene?
When digital audio workstations, more often known as music production softwares or virtual studios, came around in the mid-90‘s, only the proffesional sound technichians could afford or manouveur them. They were expensive, had to be connected to heaps of hardware such as equalizers, effects and sound cards, which were not only quite pricy in themselves, but also took up considerable amounts of space. But as computers got more affordable, and hardware could be incorporated more and more into software, we started seing huge amounts of unsigned artists distributing professional content. (I know ‘professional’ is word that is not to be used lightly, but let’s just say that in this case, it means good enough not to be judged negatively for bad quality) The electronic music scene with genres such as House, Trance, Dubstep and Dance was overflowed with new, innovative artists that became famous through online distribution. This helped push the genres into mainstream media, and for it to grow rapidly toghether with the already involved club scene in the big cities around the world. Examples of artists that became famous this way are Skrillex, Swedish House Mafia and Psy. There is a long list of people who became famous using their youtube channels, many of them performers of some kind. Some we have loved. Some we have wished for a chance to meet in person and tell them exactly how we feel. But in the beginning of these artists careers, they were dependant on the sharing, liking and commenting of the internet audience, in order to acchieve fame in mainstream media. Some of them got recommendations from influential contacts, but some have the consumption of anonymous peers to thank for their rise to glory. Hence, we can consider ourselves as one giant gatekeeper, that democratically decides who should get our attention (read money).
Spotify has been a groundbreaking platform for some undiscovered artists, but it has not yet implemented any streamlined way for unknowing users to discover new music. Sponsored on the home screen of the app, are only the artists signed with record companies that can pay for an ad. The other discovery tool, ‘Spotify radio’, that allows you to set up a random playlist inspired by a selected track, album, playlist or artist, favours the tracks that have already been played a considerable amount of times. An unknown group took advantage of this and launched a project called ‘Listen to Help‘. They uploaded a track to Spotify, that only runs for 30 seconds, and features a voice telling you that the money now earned through Spotify, will be donated to a foundation for hearing impared. Even though anyone can pay for their track to be uploaded to Spotify via a third-part agency, there is a gatekeeper-software that checks that the quality of the recording is at a certain level. It works as a quality control, and assures that if you’re on spotify, you are more likely to be a ‘serious’ artist.
Another thing that participatory culture has changed is the importance of the ‘Album release’.
If you are not a mass-producing industry artist, or you want a reason to update your audience more often than once a year, it can be more convenient to release your music as singles, rather than in albums. This way the time between inspiration and release is shortened and that has benefits for both artist and audience. One could argue that this shift is more a result of the accelerating pace of the market, but as it is in line with the prosumers needs, it is surely a result of this as well. Frank Woodworth, music industry pro, writes that Nielsen Soundscan made a survey in 2011, claiming that only 1 out of 14 purchases on the music market was an album. This is a number that has fallen ever since music has been around online with file sharing softwares like DC++, Kazaa, Limewire and Napster around 2000.
I think we all thrive from having different platforms for prosumer-made content, so that everyone, in every category, finds a place where they can distribute their creativity. One could never argue that artforms have been destroyed by participatory culture. The more the merrier, or as we say in Sweden: The more cooks, the better the soup. And we have yet to taste the dessert.