For all intents and purposes, history is a collection of particular events that we commemorate because they altered the course of culture. We cite wars and assassinations and disasters as formative moments, events that pivoted the trajectory of the future and got us to where we are today. After this happened, everything changed, and for that we remember it. Music is much the same (albeit less violent). We remember epic performances, stylistic anomalies and the births of genres, and characters so striking that they transcended the noise and demanded that we pay attention.
In 2003, MOJO magazine conducted a readers poll that ranked music’s most pivotal moments. Elvis‘ 1954 Sun Records session and the resultant album That’s All Right—largely credited as the first instance of rock ‘n’ roll—was number one. Dylan going electric in 1965 and The Clash’s first single, “White Riot,” in 1977 filled out the top three. Now that it’s been over a decade and what feels like a lifetime of technological innovation since the poll, we decided to take a look at some of the pivotal moments of the past 13 years. Trends, rather than single instances, emerged as we examined our history since 2003, and they all have one thing in common: our ever increasing subjection to the internet.
The early aughts ushered in an era of internet ubiquity. The seemingly limitless possibility of a life online began to manifest, and one major consequence was the way we listen to and interact with music. From the ashes of Napster and illegal downloading rose music streaming, an ostensible compromise between the criminality of torrenting and the significant cost of physical albums. One of the first was Pandora Radio and its Music Genome Project. In 2004, after four years of floundering through investor money, the media company steadied and popularized the customized radio station, allowing people to curate music in a way terrestrial radio couldn’t allow.
At the same time, satellite radio was also pushing niche listening, giving radio listeners the opportunity for a more personal listening experience (e.g. entire channels devoted to The Grateful Dead and Bruce Springsteen). Then Spotify, SoundCloud, Bandcamp and a slew of other streaming services arrived. Streaming, when coupled with the increasing accessibility of DAWs (digital audio workstations) and other DIY recording technologies, led to a proliferation of musicians—people who had never before attempted to make music because the industry’s entry point was simply too high. Today, everyone can share a song with an audience, and, dilution of quality music aside (a giant can of worms I’m not going to get in to), that’s a beautiful thing.
Also changing at this time was the way we interact with music. It became personalized in an entirely new way. Alongside online radio were devices that helped us port thousands of songs in our pockets. The iPod quickly usurped the antiquated Walkman as the listening device, allowing us to carry our entire musical identity on our bodies instead of a disc or two. Soon after, companies like the MIT-born Echo Nest (mentioned in last week’s Audio Rewind) responded to a growing industry priority to personalize taste profiles. Niche marketing became everything when it came to targeting listeners. But what if the people, those music laymen without musical proficiency, wanted to do more than listen? What if they actually wanted to participate in the music?
Guitar Hero arrived in 2005. The interactive video game needs no introduction; it put a guitar in the hands of even the non-musical and turned us all into virtual rockstars. The phenomenon spawned competitions, the more comprehensive Rock Band, and, most importantly, a renewed interest in music education. It reminded people that learning need not be dusty and dull; fun need not be the antithesis to education. We even discovered that people learn better when they’re having fun, and today there are numerous apps and pedagogical Guitar Hero spinoffs (like Rocksmith, which is the same concept except with an actual guitar) that continue to help people learn, grow, and participate through music.
As technology became more and more sophisticated through the first decade of the new millennium, we grew ever closer to that music. It was always just a click away, and it could be experienced in myriad ways, from the guitar joystick to the headphones jack on your 160GB iPod to the niche music blog started by your high school friend’s third cousin. As the distance between performer and listener decreased, and as the threshold to create and disseminate music decreased, so too did the aesthetics that defined them.
Indie, for instance, was an idea before it was a sound. Grown in the ’90s out of college radio and small independent labels, the indie ideology became a semi-viable path for musicians to attract an audience even when there was little to no hope for mainstream success (and if you were a true indie artist, you had no hope for mainstream success anyway). It was about the music. A modern, more subdued take on the punk mentality. But as accessibility grew, so did our awareness of these bands, as well as the awareness of major labels. Indie could be lucrative, it turned out, and the new millennium gradually carried indie music from modest side dish to main fare.
In 2011, Arcade Fire, the vaunted Canadian band and one-time indie hero, won the Grammy for Album of the Year. The win symbolically legitimized indie music as a mainstream force, but it was also the dagger that killed the indie aesthetic as a form of art separate from the mainstream. Like ‘Alternative’ before it, the term ‘Indie’ was stripped of meaning, because it no longer reflected the ideology that necessitated its birth in the first place.
I don’t hold anything against Arcade Fire for their success. The indie death stroke is but one example of a much greater shift in our zeitgeist. In this Internet era, the idea of history is veering from a series of pivotal moments to a swathe of assimilation. Everything borrows from everything. Everything is changing and adapting, always. There is too much music and too much information to pay attention to mere moments. Sure, we’ll get our occasional Kanye VMA outburst, but those will quickly disappear in the flow of our online stream of consciousness. Gone are the days when rock ‘n’ roll can be invented, or when an electric guitar can offend an entire generation. Even the “pivotal” moments I’ve mentioned above are much less distinct than those found on MOJO’s list; they are examples of an era’s shift rather than the shifts themselves. To examine history pre-2003 as a series of pivots could be facile, too, but it’s inarguable that the internet has changed things. The entire world has joined this stream and we’re all along for the ride, floating down serpentine networks of fiber optic cables on our way to… somewhere. To a collective consciousness? The singularity? Whatever may lie ahead, rest easy knowing that more people are making music than ever before, and that’s a good thing.
Image: Wikimedia Commons