Computers evolved into personal computers, and eventually came the internet. Among the bazillion changes this wealth of information (and misinformation) has brought to our lives, the music industry is far from untouched; in fact, it's among the most changed industries of all. I used to listen to the radio for my music education and then once a week, sometimes more, trundle on down to my favorite record store with my saved up dollars and memories of the new stuff I'd heard that week. Picking the two or three albums (and eventually ten or twelve) I would buy took hours; I spent so much time in my favorite store that, when browsing through the racks, it got to the point where I could tell what had been sold in the past week because of what was missing compared to last week.
Now, I learn about my new music from internet radio or streaming services. I still spend plenty of time in music chat rooms yabbering at fans from across the globe, learning and discovering what I can. When I buy music, no car is necessary... just a solid, high speed connection. When I review a new release, as often as not I check my email for my courtesy download code from the artist or record company. From my point of view, radical changes like that always contain some gains, some losses and some draws... so what have we, as music fans, won and lost with an internet-based music industry?
What We Gained
Buying music over the internet offers a lot of advantages. For me, the first benefit that comes to mind is immediacy. How many times in my life as a kid or young adult did I hear a new song or artist I wanted to know more about and forgot the name by the time I got to a record store? How many times did I hear a new song on the radio and love it so much that I wanted to hear it again (and sometimes again and again and again), but had to wait until the radio played it again or until I got to the store? Being a lifelong night owl, how many times did I hear something interesting or obscure in the wee hours and had no CHOICE but to wait until a new day to explore it further? I'm not a patient human being, and especially when it comes to my voracious appetite for music, when I want something, I want it now. For those of us who are fanatic and impatient, music over the internet is a huge plus.
For someone like myself who isn't going to find most of what I enjoy listening to at Wal-Mart, the 'net offers another huge plus - I can actually find the music I want without having to "special order it" from my local store... and then wait (see impatience above). There's really no economically viable way even the superstores of the era could stock everything I loved to hear and wanted to buy. I was well known enough at my favorite store to have gotten into a routine during my frequent visits; greeting, special orders that had come in since my last visit, check the stock and make my selections, place this visit's special orders, farewell. For fans of music that is outside of the mainstream or on obscure little labels or can only be gotten from Ireland or Thailand or what have you, again... music over the internet is a huge plus.
Those two points, to me, are the strongest positives on 'net music. There's a couple of other relevant points worth considering - portability and economy. I survived and found relief in the conversion of music from vinyl to CD; I don't know if you've ever had the "pleasure," but when moving, having to deal with a vinyl collection approaching ten thousand pieces was less than fun. They were heavy. They were bulky... and, of course, storage was a constant problem, both in finding the room for them and in constantly building shelves to store and support the heavy mess (though I must admit - my carpentry skills soared for all those years of having to build more and stronger storage shelves). CDs were a huge improvement... they took about a quarter of the space, which made storing and moving easier (though I had to redesign my shelves... yeesh...), and you could play them in your car! The cash I saved on blank tape alone made CDs very, very welcome in my life. For me, music going digital is an even greater improvement. My music collection has gone from transporting and storing ten to fifteen thousand still somewhat bulky CDs to a dozen hard drives and a few hundred DVDs (stored in paper sleeves) for backup, a hundred or so albums to a disc. Convenience? When I want to hear something, I check my little cross-reference on my desktop, find what I want and drop a folder into iTunes. My entire friggin' collection is available to me at home, walking, driving, riding a bike, in my room, on a highway, in a forest... anywhere, any time. Economy comes from a couple of angles; if you're a "careful computer person," you buy the digital files once and have it forever. It won't scratch, it won't melt in the sun, it won't chip, it sounds as good after a thousand plays as it did the first time... in short, you buy it once and that's it, and I'd much rather buy new music than replace a beat up copy of an old favorite. The fact that you can use the same format anywhere you go is huge for me; as I already mentioned, blank tape used to make a serious dent into my new music budget. Finally, even from a very, very dedicated "albums" person like myself, it's nice every now and then to just buy the one song off an album I like without having to spend my cash on the rest of a disc I find to be essentially worthless.
What We Lost
The biggest thing gone from internet buying is the personal touch, the influence of trusted humans on learning about music. I've experienced this from both sides of the counter. When I was learning about music and well into my "experienced" years, I always chose my favorite stores on two criteria - the selection and the store clerks. There was a huge advantage to getting yourself known at your favorite store. How many times growing up did I walk into "my store" on weekly trips, see an interesting album cover, hold it up to a clerk who knew my buying habits and tastes and counted on a yea or nay opinion? How many times did a complete stranger come to me in a store and say, "I heard you asking about such-and-such. I'm familiar with that... if you like this and that, you'll probably enjoy it a lot... and if you like that, try these." I made a lot of friends that way, both by being on the receiving and giving end of such kindnesses. At the time in my life when I owned a record store for a dozen years, I learned from the other side how much I was counted on by a lot of folks to guide them along their musical journey. It was gratifying to learn that I really wasn't the only one with fondnesses for certain artists, and even more gratifying to learn that others, so many others, were hungry for something they've never heard before. I made friends as a music buyer, and as a merchant, I made friends and sometimes even formed lifetime relationships. That's pretty much gone now, and it's a big minus for the 'net.
The other huge loss is artwork, and it followed a similar progression during the transition from vinyl to CD to digital. The first album I ever bought as a boy was King Crimson's debut, In The Court Of The Crimson King, and a huge factor to a fourteen-year-old boy was the WAY kewl artwork! At the time, part of my allowance was one new album a week when I went to the mall store with my mom (TALK about agonizing decisions!); as as often as not, artwork played a huge part in my buying decisions. While that can have disadvantages - there are clunkers with cool covers - it also didn't take me long to master the art of "credit reading." I discovered Roxy Music because Peter Sinfield produced the first album; likewise, I discovered unlimited music because a favored guitarist contributed, or because somebody I admire produced an album or contributed songs, or because there was a mellotron on a recording. As time went on, seeing the album artwork for an anticipated new release in all its 12" x 12" glory was a huge part of the experience. We lost a lot when it changed to CD; many of the years my record store was open were during the transition, and once I had beaten down sonic and convenience objections, the last stand from diehards was often, "Well... I like the bigger and better artwork." I had no comeback for that, still don't. I very much miss the days of the peel-off banana album cover from the Velvet Underground; I miss the zipper on the cover of the Stones Sticky Fingers album; I miss gatefolds, I miss the subtleties and intricacies of Roger Dean and Hipgnosis. Even worse with digital... I miss having artwork at all! As a consumer, I feel like I lost a huge part of the album creation process when there's no artwork involved... and reading text files for credits somehow just doesn't feel the same (and as a reviewer, that's if I get credits at all... I hate having to beg and plead for recording information...). Artwork? We lost bigtime from that point of view.
What We Gained
The biggest assets we get from internet based radio/streaming are diversity and MUCH easier access to obscure music. Traditional radio pretty much had to have a format; you had to be classic rock, country, top 40, jazz, whatever - you were, for financial reasons, targeting a specific audience and as such had to build your entire personna and presentation around a single, sometimes narrow genre of music. Putting an old school radio station on the air was an expensive and complicated process, and the financial, technical and legal commitments it took demanded that radio programming be targeting to generate some ad revenue. This hurt diversity in a couple of ways; first, it was more difficult for unusual and/or obscure music to get airplay. It happened; Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart got played and admired, but it was an exception and hardly a rule. Speaking strictly about my first radio love, classic and album-oriented rock, if you enjoyed Frank Zappa, you were NOT going to be led to The Residents by the radio; the former had earned grudging respect, the latter was just WAY to weird to risk losing a precious listener to a dial-out. That's understandable; again, radio stations were expensive businesses to launch and then maintain, and listeners were more than listeners - they were the entire basis of ad revenue and thus survival. Internet radio is a lot easier and a lot cheaper to get started; if you want to pursue it as something of a part time hobby, you can get a station up and running in a couple of afternoons worth of research and typing, literally. That's not saying it will be done professionally or even moderately well, but it can be done. The reduction in difficulty and start-up costs allows for a HUGE increase in the diversity you can find when you explore internet radio; using an already cited example, if somebody out there is a huge Residents fan, they can put together a Residents based internet stream for almost nothing. If I want to hear odd music, new music, fringes and alleyways, I can npw do so far more easily than I ever could before. Nothing gets me to shake my head more than those who say, "There's no good music out there any more." Hogwash! Not only is there more good music than ever before, the abilities we have to find it are essentially unlimited, and that's due to the accessibility and ease of both use and setup of the internet. Massive plus.
Portability and discretion are certainly strong points as well. While radio was indeed pretty much everywhere back in the day, we have our phones with us 31 or 32 hours a day, and as such we have access to all that wonderfulness all the time. Discretion? It's a LOT easier to get away with having your music at work now than it ever was before! From the heart of a music junkie, these are both plusses.
What We Lost
There are disadvantages to the ease of setting up an internet station... just because you can do it certainly doesn't mean you're going to be good at it. Not only am I an old radio listener, I again had the pleasure of experiencing it from both sides of the mic, having spent about eight years working on the radio as a deejay. To get on the air back then, I actually had to know something about music. I was given some voice training, I was taught the value of pronouncing my words correctly, I was taught how to breathe while I was announcing. I still feel there's an art to presenting music effectively; the segue, the flow, the feel, the mood. It's much easier to introduce people to new music when you make them feel comfortable, and it's much easier to discover new music as a listener when you're made to feel comfortable by the person offering it. I listen to a lot of internet radio, and while there are certainly incredible exceptions to this, I hear a LOT of bad radio, a lot of bad presentation. Not everybody has what it takes to be a "radio personality," and I find myself more often than not getting annoyed and in extreme cases angered at what is being passed off as radio. Misinformation about the music, opinions being presented as fact, choppy and inconsistent presentation and scheduling; all are factors that indicate to me that 'net radio is very much in its infancy yet and has a long, long, long way to go.
We've certainly lost a sense of cohesive familiarity. I was born in Rochester, NY, which is where my earliest fascinations with music began. Quickly, I latched on to the local album rock/old hippie station; I furthered my knowledge about The Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival, and I learned about Santana and The Dead and Savoy Brown and It's A Beautiful Day. When I was fifteen, my family relocated to Orlando, Florida; that's a serious uproot for a boy in the summer between his sophomore and junior years of high school. SO many adjustments to be made in culture and weather and trying desperately to find a new set of friends... BUT! I quickly found the album rock/old hippie station in the area, and while they had their own style and flair, they made shifting my life from Point A to Point B a much smoother and easier transition. Why? I had a focus point. I still got to learn about San Francisco bands and Woodstock bands, AND I still heard the foundations of my musical past. That was a time when, as rock and roll kids, there were only two distinctions - were you AM or FM? It was an important distinction... if you were AM, you were a bopper and it was an early indicator that you probably weren't going to be on my "A": list for making pals. If you were FM, we had a lot more common ground and at least one important thing to talk about and bond us - our music. Losing that is a huge minus.
With new technology always comes new ways to cheat the artists that make it possible, and the internet has provided more than it's share of new cheats that hurt musicians. Everyone knows the artistic horrors of pirated downloads, from the early days of Napster to file sharing services and beyond - never has it been easier to swipe music and make it even more difficult for artists to pay their bills. The extension of that comes from 'net radio. Part of the difficulty of establishing and running a station back in the day was the paying of royalties for the music you were playing; airplay was heavily regulated and monitored by the FCC and you really pretty much HAD to make your royalty payments to survive. With the ease of getting something going now, as you would expect, such is not the case. There's little guys and big guys who are skirting the system; it bothers me as a fan, and has to be infuriating as an artist. At the very least, radio used to be the rock that paid their bills and got at least a little cash to the artists. It's not there yet, not to the extent that it was. Another big minus.
We'll Call These Even
Some changes bring good and bad from the same point of view. One of those, to me, is the ability of radio to foster trends in music. Using an easy example - when Southern Rock began to emerge, I was kind of in the heart of it all. Florida gave birth to Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers, among others. Obviously, it was a popular music in my part of the world long before it was in many other places, but with the power and cohesion of the radio, first a few artists and then a genre gained credibility and acceptability. I have to view this as being a very positive thing, the ability for a united radio front to offer valid new music to a wide audience. The backside of this, of course, is the ability of radio to manipulate as well. There were times when the right amount of money spent in the right places (both above board and not) bought the attention of radio and mass media; just as a unified front can do a lot of good for worthy artists, so can it also cheapen itself and the music for presenting what was bought and diluting the entire product. That's a push between good and bad.
The other "tie" I can think of is simply human nature. There's two ways that I can see where people would become very attached to streaming services. First, you can look up something you enjoy and explore all the "similar artist" recommendations (some of which are accurate, some of which aren't, of course, but that's a throwback to forever). I've found some really good music that way, and it easily reminds me of the days spent browsing the bins in the record store looking for something "kind of like last week's favorite album." However, streaming services also provide those "pre-selected" menus - listen to OUR choice of the best Rolling Stones tunes, listen to OUR choice of the best old skool funk. That's not necessarily a horrible thing, but it slides very easily into the worst of old radio (and what a lot of horrible new radio has become). I don't WANT The Stones to be reduced to a catalog of twenty songs, I don't WANT to be reminded of only the "greatest hits" of British blues or Southern Rock... and I certainly don't necessarily want somebody else's opinion about it. But... it's easy, and as time goes on, it gets easier and easier for me to take the easy way out. Human nature. Call it a draw.
On the overall, for me, the ability to discover and own more diverse and more new music than ever before makes the "win or lose" decision about internet music easy - I call it a win, usually a huge win. Yes, there are disadvantages, but there were serious disadvantages to the old ways as well. Nothing is perfect; we take what's made available to us and use it to our best ends, and these days, technology has made it easier than ever for me, personally, to feed my eternal new music jones.
So yeah... I win!
I wrote this darned post three times before posting it, that coming on the heels of thinking this would be a really easy article to write. The first two times I chucked the results because I felt I did a poor job of being a journalist; my purpose was to try and make this an exploration of what the collective "we" gained and lost, and I found that I had way too much "I" in there the first time. It was difficult, because as I mentioned - in both retail and radio, I experienced it from both sides of the coin. It's impossible for me to completely discount my experiences in the industry when I consider plusses and minuses... but I have to say, if I factor in all the astonishing experiences and memories that came as a result of being on the air AND a record store owner, well... I, personally, have lost a lot. "We" win, and in a lot of ways, "I" win... but it does make me a little sad to think of some of the things that are probably lost to me forever.
I also had to do a re-write on this because of an emerging idea for another post. Originally, I had worked a lot of thoughts into this one as to how the internet has completely changed the music business model from an artist's point of view as well as a fan's. It got to be too much for one post... so I've begun working on an entirely new post regarding the change in the industry from the artist's view. I'm contacting some of the people I know in the industry to sample their thoughts and opinions; I think it will be a good read when it's done, and you know I'm not shy... I'll let you know when it's ready!