By Dan Brooks
October 17, 2014
It’s hard to imagine now, but there once was a time when you could not play any song ever recorded, instantly, from your phone. I call this period adolescence. It lasted approximately 30 years, and it was galvanized by conflict.
At that time, music had to be melted onto plastic discs and shipped across the country in trucks. In order to keep this system running smoothly, a handful of major labels coordinated with broadcasters and retailers to encourage everyone to like the same thing, e.g. Third Eye Blind. This approach divided music into two broad categories: “popular” and what I liked.
Lest history remember industry versus indie as a distinction without difference, I should point out that mainstream rock was genuinely awful in the two decades before Napster. Classic rock gave way to glam metal, which was vanquished by Nirvana and grunge, whose promise quickly curdled into the cynical marketing strategy known as “alternative.” From Journey to Smash Mouth, the major-label system peddled an enormous quantity of objectively hideous music in its waning years.
In a now-famous 1993 essay for The Baffler, the musician and recording engineer Steve Albini described how this system pauperized bands to enrich a series of middlemen. The structure of most contracts meant that artists paid back almost all their royalties in managers’ and recording fees. The occasional hits profited the artists far less than they did the labels, whose marketing departments ignored most of their catalogs to focus on the hits. For a majority of bands, signing with a major label was the first step toward going out of business. Albini called it “the problem with music”: the major-label system acted as an anticurator by making good music harder to find. For me, adopting an indie-snob identity (subset punk) didn’t just solve this problem and provide me with a lifetime of sound-as-art, it also gave me something to talk about with other pointy-haired youngsters I ran across.
Then a different subset of nerds invented MP3 encoding, and everything changed. The good news is that digital distribution neatly solved Albini’s problem with music: Now that nearly every piece of recorded sound is as easy to find as any other, everyone can finally listen to what we snobs wanted them to hear all along. (Also on the plus side, labels have joined bands in not making any money.) The bad news is that we have lost what was once a robust system for identifying kindred spirits. Now that we all share the same record collection, music snobs have no means to recognize one another. We cannot flip through a binder of CDs and see a new friend, a potential date. By making it perfectly easy to find new music, we’ve made it a little more difficult to find new people.
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