The internet is the culmination of telephone, radio, television, printing press, library, postal system, and cinema, taking functions from each and amalgamating them into this digital pandemonium. Consequently, it is an extremely internet focused time to have a career in entertainment media.
Five years ago it made sense to have a Twitter, Facebook and Instagram page to at least promote whatever your main content stream was. Now, any combination of Youtube channel, Patreon, Discord server, live stream, Subreddit, Podcast, merch store or Only Fans is commonly required to cultivate a full online identity. You could theoretically run an entire career through only the internet; so no wonder we are now at the stage of fictional TikTok influencer personalities that are in fact scripted, employed characters.
I wanted to be a musician because it seemed rebellious, it seemed subversive, it felt like one could affect change to a form. It was very hard to hear music when I was younger, you know? When I was really young, you had to tune into AFM radio to hear the American records. There was no MTV, it wasn’t sort of wall to wall blanket music.
As early as 1993 you could buy and download music files online, but like most of the pre-Google internet, this was just a new gimmicky proof of concept for a computer network. It wasn’t until widespread piracy that the internet was established as the global music distribution platform we know today.
Launched in 1999, Napster was the first peer-to-peer online file sharing platform, it was huge, and deeply changed the way we share music.
As well as putting pressure on major music labels to protect their sales, the culture surrounding the use of Napster was influential in and of itself. The analogue vs. digital debate was relatively young, and commonly thought that digital ‘handling’ of the music files shared on the platform compromised audio quality. Digital music was already well established in the form of CDs, and their formatting crossed over to file sharing relatively well; but with increased frequency of conversion, compression, uploading and downloading, it didn’t take long for artists to have to take this into account in producing and mastering music. Aside from the technical details, this consideration also came to affect the music on an artistic level; Björk being one of the first artists to embrace it. She composed and mastered the sound of her album Vespertine, with the headphone listening Napster user in mind, meticulously designing softer, already compressed sounds that she thought would be minimally impacted by the file sharing process. The result is quiet, experimental, and comfortable; with a kind of alien but intimate feel of file sharing built into the sound. Why travel to a loud, corporate music store, when you could just download and silently listen to Vespertine without leaving your bedroom? I often listen to it resting in bed, with headphones on and the volume turned down as low as possible. This is Vespertine at its most sublime, with no detail lost even as you drift to sleep.
This album endures as maybe the first example of ‘indie-net’. Artists like Wilco, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Microphones and The Strokes were all leading the ‘indie’ scene, and had all mastered the homemade sound. Some were ‘garage’, but with a little more attention to detail others shifted to ‘bedroom’; in the sense of that particular room’s increased role as the home of creating and listening to music compared to more communal household spaces. But no one managed to also capture the same shift in where and how we accessed the internet like Björk did on Vespertine in June 2001.
So therefore it had a kind of call to arms kind of feeling to it. Like ‘this is the thing that will change things, this is a dead, dodgy occupation to have. It still produced signs of horror from people if you said ‘Im in rock and roll’. Now it’s a career opportunity, and the internet, it carries the flag of being subversive and possibly rebellious, and chaotic, nihilistic.
File sharing of this type only lasted a few short years before the legal troubles got serious. Napster was shut down, acquired and diluted to make copyright owners happy. Of course there were replacements, beginning a cycle of platforms that would be taken down and have to decentralize further to continue operating, constantly reiterating and adapting through the likes of LimeWire, into the torrenting scene we still have today. Piracy of this type is hardly a concern to current music publishing; as the industry has finally produced a legal model that gives everyone affordable access to more music than they could ever listen to. Though it took ten years and a complete revolution in socialisation for major labels to make the streaming service ubiquitous.
From where I am, by virtue of the fact that I am a pop singer and writer, I embrace the idea that there’s a new demystification process between the artist and the audience. I think when we look back at say this last decade, there hasn’t really been one single entity, artist, or group that have personified, or become the brand name for the 90s. Like it was starting to fade a little in the 80s, and in the 70s there were definite artists, and in the 60s there were the beatles, and hendrix, and in the 50s there was Presley.
In the mid 2000s, as internet connection speeds increased and computers made creating and publishing music more accessible to everyone, a shift was made from file sharing to actual hosting of streamable music files with no download required. Social media platforms did already exist, but Myspace was the first to also function as a music platform, a crucial aspect in making it the first truly popular, global internet social network. The ability to listen to music and instantly share it along neuron-like pathways around the world on one website was groundbreaking, and with this ability brought new sounds and new types of popularity.
The careers of Arctic Monkeys, Lily Allen, Calvin Harris, Adele, Soulja Boy, and Lil B all launched out of or in tandem with huge Myspace popularity. Some of them were already making music that was just what was popular among users at the time, while others recognised and pursued the unprecedented marketing opportunity before them. The highly influential but never mainstream popular rapper and producer Lil B preferred a high volume approach, using numerous accounts and the ‘follow for follow’ technique to build one of the biggest friendship networks on the platform, while publishing and promoting around 1,500 songs by 2010. Myspace only allowed you to display a selection of 8 friends to publicly display on your profile, which created an intense culture surrounding not only who had the most popular friends, but which select few got the coveted visibility of being displayed on your profile. Lil B still operates like this, but rather than a top 8 of Myspace friends, he juggles millions of Twitter followers with anti-spam rules, taking advantage of a similar ‘friend exclusivity’. At current count, Lil B has ‘follow-for-followed’ his way up to 1.2 million followers, meaning he himself follows 1.3 million accounts, having hit the upper limit set to minimise spam.
He continues to publish hundreds of tracks every year, and still sometimes launches a new campaign of unfollowing large quantities of accounts, allowing him to ‘follow back’ any newcomers to still reach as many fresh accounts as possible. Lil B may never have reached mainstream popularity, but he endures with a kind of ‘your favourite rapper’s favourite rapper’ underground appeal; whose strategy has proven highly influential in independent, internet based Hip-Hop Soundcloud culture.
This Myspace hangover promotional technique is quite dated, and the functionality of Twitter allows for much more effective strategies that are still forming careers today; but music appreciation and promotion runs back to the very beginning of this platform too.
Now its sub-groups and genres, its hip hop, its girl power; it’s a communal kind of thing. It’s about the community, it’s becoming more and more about the audience. Because the point of having somebody who led the forces, has disappeared.
In August 2006, the month before Myspace reached 100 million users, Twitter launched with little commotion. Six months later it had only gained a few thousand users. Its co-founders felt it seemed that many of them were heading to the South by Southwest conference in Austin, so it was decided to run a promotional campaign at the event; still one of the only ever promotions for the website.
The effect of SXSW on music culture as a whole is difficult to measure. Austin proudly calls itself ‘the live music capital of the world’, and SXSW is a crucial part of the scene, it is the largest upcoming-band showcase in the world, countless thousands of music acts owe their ‘discovery’ to this conference over the last 25 years.
Its impact on Twitter was a lot more measurable. Displays were mounted in the hallways of the 2007 conference showing Tweets relating to the event; combined with a simplified registration process for attendees, the volume of daily Tweets on the whole platform tripled by the end of the conference. Statistical analysis by Karsten Müller and Carlo Schwarz at The University of Warwick suggests that as of late 2020, 5% of all Twitter accounts are still directly related to the original influx during SXSW 2007; as such a large, rapid increase of users in one location dispersed after the event, and brought new ‘generations’ of adopters as they went, organically spreading Twitter around the world.
The vocabulary of rock has become too well known, it’s a currency thats not devoid of meaning anymore, but it’s certainly only a conveyor of information, it’s not a conveyor of rebellion, and the internet has taken on that … I find that a terribly exciting area, so from my standpoint, being an artist, I’d like to see what the new construction is between artist and audience.
Twitter is still an important core to online music appreciation culture, whether inherited from the SXSW crowd or not is hard to say; but nearly fifteen years later it plays the same role as it did at that original conference, only now for hundreds of millions. Six out of the ten most followed accounts on the platform are recording artists, and subsequently Twitter is well known as the home of ‘Stan’ culture; the obsessive fan armies named after Eminem’s 2000 song Stan about an unhinged superfan.
Myspace and Youtube started plenty of music careers in their times, but it takes the more modern ubiquity of a platform like Twitter for it to launch fame from just a single post; what we might now call a ‘viral’ meme. Back in 2007, song-memes like Chocolate Rain were unprecedented in popularity, but Youtube was still too fresh and experimental to truly give Tay Zonday a career or even enduring fame out of his hit. More recent networks like Vine and now TikTok are developed for this type of reach, but the phenomenon of careers made by meme might have actually come from Twitter.
A prime example is the explosion of popularity for Carly Rae Jepsen and her song Call Me Maybe, originally published by Nickelback vocalist Chad Kroeger’s independent label 604 Records. This wasn’t the first song to gain mainstream popularity through the internet; but the song didn’t go viral only because Twitter users liked it. It wasn’t until fellow Canadian pop star Justin Bieber (Currently 2nd most followed on the platform) posted about how catchy it was that it instantly landed on charts. A couple of months later he made a video lip syncing to it with his girlfriend Selena Gomez, Ashley Tisdale, and their friends, that ended up making it the best selling song of the year, as well as a trend to film yourself lip syncing to the song. Scooter Braun (Bieber’s manager) wasted no time signing Carly Rae Jepsen, jointly to his own label and major subsidiary Interscope. To what degree this process was orchestrated, at the very least shows how big music business was beginning to realise the future of A&R, promotion, and distribution.
The viral lip-syncing/dubbing phenomenon is a classic internet meme, and once it was clearly effective enough to provide a career for the likes of Carly Rae Jepsen, it ended up as the concept behind Music.aly.
Released in 2014, the app was centralised around the idea of short lip syncing ‘challenges’, with the functionality to take available audio and record and publish video of yourself to it in seconds, with no more than the phone in your pocket. In 2018 Music.aly was merged with and became TikTok, bringing the China-only app global, finding a home for the scattered short video culture of the defunct app Vine, and now reaching an audience of over a billion people.
There is a breakdown, personified I think by the rave culture of the last few years, where the audience is at least as important as whoever is playing at the rave. It’s almost like the artist is to accompany the audience and what the audience is doing, and that feeling is very much permeating music, and permeating the internet.
There is often a divide between having a ‘real’ music career and being an ‘internet personality’; similarly to the crossover between musician and movie star, there are few masters of both. So one of the more compelling stories of interchange between internet personality and music career is that of Joji. Real name George Miller, was first famous as the Youtube personality Filthy Frank, but his first known piece of content is the 2008 YouTube video Lil Jon falls off a table. From the beginning he was focused on music, though at this stage was clearly just a group of adolescent friends filming themselves doing stupid stuff simply for the comedy of it, CKY style. Things started getting interesting around 2011, when the concept of Filthy Frank was realized, and this happened:
Filthy Frank, Pink Guy, and the spectrum of other characters played by George, were really starting to draw some decent views when in 2013 one of his videos started the Harlem Shake video trend. From this intense growth he made music and Youtube content in tandem, often linking the two. On the back burner was Joji, the ‘’real music’ lo-fi cloud-rapper who in 2016 shelved the mixtape Chloe Burbank Volume 1 in order to fully pursue Youtube. As his content got more depraved, the channel hit unprecedented growth, until the Youtube ‘adpocalypse’ beginning around 2017 saw many major advertisers pull away from the platform to distance themselves from edgier adult oriented content of the type that George was already pushing the boundaries of. With a strict, but vaguely defined and constantly changing set of rules to abide by to stay eligible for ad money, and a stress induced neurological disorder to cope with, he pulled away from Youtube and fell back on the Joji idea; as a much more serious, ‘legitimate’ recording artist. Many fans jumped ship, but Joji was carefully distinct in not leveraging his Youtube base, taking the opportunity to start fresh with his music career. With all his practice, there has been no trouble once again rising to even higher levels of popularity, possibly the most successful career pivot from a popular Youtuber ever.
But the internet changes, appearing not only to accelerate, but to grow more dense, and with that comes faster and bigger rises to fame and chart positions.
And because I think we at a time, up until at least the mid seventies, really felt that we were still living in the guise of a single and absolute created society. Where there were known truths, and known lies, and there was no kind of duplicity or pluralism about the things we believed in.
Lil Nas X is the latest, and so far most successful example. He was able to manifest the highest level of pop music success essentially by being so connected to online music fandom culture, plugging in at all levels enough to understand exactly how to create his own career. He had put out a mixtape worth of singles that never really went anywhere, but his biggest experiment in the lead up to chart success was his Nicki Minaj Stan Twitter account @nasmaraj. Where he developed an equally strong following and pattern of self promotion, to the point of account suspension for tweetdecking (A spamming technique using arrays of users directing likes and retweets at once to manipulate the feed algorithm). He was now ready to do the same with music, poised with Old Town Road, made out of a $30 beat he bought online and perfectly designed to take off as a TikTok challenge trend. It was helped along with calculated Reddit posts, and once again, a post from Justin Bieber.
Once it took hold he had no problem picking up a major label deal with Columbia (chosen because of the CEO’s Instagram presence), who within a month had it at the Top of Billboard Hot 100, though apparently even radio stations were playing the mp3 ripped from Youtube first. This position allowed him to take any points of contention or even controversies in his stride, playing off them expertly to stick to the top of Billboard 100, generously breaking the all time record for most weeks at number 1 with nineteen. This rise to me represents the complete fizzling out of the term ’industry plant’, if there ever really were ‘real’ industry plants, Lil Nas X’s nearly instant launch to the top of the charts needed no pretense to do so.
The ascent of Lil Nas X on the internet may be exceptionally large and rapid, but he marks a huge paradigm shift by not really being an exception otherwise; you would be hard pressed to find any chart topping act of the last several years that didn’t incorporate some form of meme-like internet popularity.
That started to break down rapidly in the 70s, and the idea of a duality in the way that we live, in there are always two, three, four, five sides to every question, that the singularity disappeared, and that I believe has produced such a medium as the internet. Which absolutely establishes and shows us that we are living in total fragmentation.
We have seen how popular music has played out on the internet, but what can subversive music culture look like post social media?
Forming around 2010 in California, Death Grips began as an experimental, conceptual art group. Their primary medium is music, composed ‘found object’ style with a punk ethos, out of glitchy industrial electronic production paired with extremely harsh, raw Hip-Hop vocals. The group released a groundbreaking mixtape, Exmilitary, that gained a cult following on 4chan’s /mu/ board after getting a favourable review by Anthony Fantano of TheNeedleDrop.
This circumstance landed them their first major label deal with Epic, who backed the highly anticipated and incredibly well received debut album The Money Store. Tension between the label and the group arrived just as fast when Death Grips found Epic uncooperative to push forward the completion and release of a follow up album No Love Deep Web. They had pulled out of a half completed tour and moved into Chateau Marmont with their advance money, using it as a base to ‘infiltrate’ Los Angeles and plot how to implode their contract. Immediately after announcing the new album via Pitchfork, an Alternate Reality Game hosted on 4chan and the deep web Tor Network was launched. Over the course of a week, a string of hidden messages and encrypted files revealed the release date for No Love Deep Web and granted downloads for unmastered and instrumental versions of The Money Store. A stalemate formed as the release date approached, with Epic unwilling to publish, the group broke even their own date and uploaded the album to their website and direct to file sharing services. Their website was shut down, and with responsibility denied by both the group and the label, the deal didn’t last much longer. The end came once the group posted confidential label emails to their Facebook page.
They had got what they needed by going major, and as soon as the label faltered with backing their vision, Death Grips were able to leave the industry behind and take up residence online, among the tens of millions who were most comfortable receiving their music via torrent.
Hip-Hop’s mixtape culture is prime for the internet, and while Death Grips are not the first to leak their own music and subvert a label, their strategy to get full independence back remains as a particularly creative, infamous, and successful breakaway. Their darknet type status meant the stunt was really only a proof of concept still to be used much more publicly, and even legally.
Def Jam is another major label subsidiary who made the mistake of underestimating the power of an internet release, fully taken advantage of by Frank Ocean when he orchestrated a huge split from them in 2016. Frank had signed a contract in 2009, but was essentially ignored and used as a songwriter. To get his own label’s attention he put out the mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra in 2011 with no promotion, its easy success forcing Def Jam to acknowledge him as an artist of his own volition. They quickly gave in and provided a large advance to create his debut album Channel Orange, which arrived within months to universal critical acclaim and new heights of popularity. Frank had proved himself and learned his lesson about signing his life away, but the contract still required delivery of another album; so he began a long waiting game, devising an unheard of plan to not just walk away, but to one up Def Jam and keep his master recordings too.
He spent the next few years in typical silence, and in late 2015 started teasing a new project, noting that it had ‘two versions’. Expected dates came and went until a mysterious Apple Music live stream began, showing Frank building a spiral staircase. The project materialised as the visual album Endless, with Def Jam happy after selling exclusive streaming rights to Apple Music. The world was still taking it all in when to everyone’s shock, Frank independently dropped the ‘real’ album the next day. Blonde was a little more divisive than Channel Orange, but it’s incredibly personal, experimental form made it an instant fan favourite, persisting as one of the most loved albums of the 2010s. Frank not only fully, independently owned and published his best album, but had switched lawyers and arranged the end of his contract as to allow him to repay advance money and take ownership of his other projects with him. His self publication and seizure of all his masters reportedly netted around $20 million that would otherwise have gone to the label.
This event has since prompted Def Jam owner Universal Music Group to no longer pursue any exclusive streaming platform deals across their entire business structure; the cutting edge competition between Tidal, Apple Music, and the faultless legal standpoint of Frank Ocean proving too much to handle for the worlds largest and most valuable music business.
And so now into the 2020s, the world’s biggest artists regularly leak or release their work as meme material for market research, and major labels are once again comfortably milking artists for every last dollar of profit as they could before the internet. This has come in the form of streaming services, viral marketing and abuse of automatic copyright detection to control who can play what and where they play it.
But now there is a bonus, in that there has never been a more accessible platform for independent music and for artists to make their own way. The artist can be right there behind everything, just on the other end, sometimes more reachable than our friends or family. This does not only expedite our access to the music, but also the direct connection between artist and listener. Sometimes this can feel a bit sterile, as with Genius and their Verified video series where artists come on to explicitly break down and explain their lyrics. But as the rapper Saweetie puts it, she is just a normal person who talks about relatable things on TikTok, the music itself is just one path on a network.
The president at the time when [the telephone] was first invented, he was outrageous. He said he foresaw the day in the future when every town in America would have a telephone. I mean how dare he claim that? No, I don’t agree, I think the internet, I don’t think we’ve even seen the tip of the iceberg. I think the potential of what the internet is going to do to society both good and bad is unimaginable. I think we are actually on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying.
The ubiquity of the internet goes without saying; now to the point where even much older generations of artists have to either find a way to connect, or be left behind.
Nick Cave’s late career is overwhelmingly influenced by the death of his 16 year old son Arthur in 2016. Rather than face press to promote the album he had nearly finished at the time, he made a behind the scenes documentary about its completion, also serving a stark, personal look at the grieving process. This brought out such a strong, mutual, emotional response from his fans that he felt his only way forward was to build on it. He decided to start The Red Hand Files, an email newsletter answering fan questions with no topic off limits. Nick still reads every email, and laboriously types out amazingly genuine responses to the ones he feels he can do justice, for nearly 200 issues to date. He has since started using The Red Hand Files to handle all major communication and announcements, including the title and release dates of his latest two albums Ghosteen and Carnage, exclusively by email to fan’s inboxes.
Naturally this concept has expanded further into a live show, consisting of Nick solo at a piano with only a stack of sheet music and a microphone; often for more than two and a half hours switching free form between discussion with the crowd and various musical pieces. The rendition I saw at the Sydney Opera house was among the most engaging live performances I have ever seen. With tours now rendered inoperable, Nick turned it into a career defining solo performance at London’s Alexandra Palace to no crowd, instead making it one of the first, biggest music performances to be exclusively live streamed post-pandemic.
Oh yeah, I’m talking about the actual context and the state of content is going to be so different to anything that we can really envisage at the moment. Where the interplay between the user and the provider, will be so in sympatico, it’s going to crash our idea of what mediums are all about. But it’s happening in every form.
The COVID-19 pandemic has given us the biggest ever indication of the music industry’s dependence on the internet. Artists worldwide are lucky to have something to cling on to; had an event of this type taken place earlier, there would quite literally be no industry to come back to. Instead, we have a global network available to instantly take on the load of nearly every aspect that used to rely on face to face contact.
While artists were severely jolted by release delays and live music touring being wiped out, lockdowns around the world have spurred an immediate wave of pandemic music. Charli XCX for example was one of many artists already hyper-connected enough to suddenly operate entirely through the internet. Crowd sourcing ideas, decisions, and motivation on Twitter to create and release an album in two weeks from her bedroom, how i’m feeling now was among the first and most popular releases after March 2020.
Nearly two years in, global tours and festivals as we knew them are still not viable, and so the relation between music and the internet is only going to continue developing.
The idea that the piece of work is not finished until the audience come to it and add their own interpretation, and what that piece of art is about is the grey space in the middle. That grey space in the middle is what the 21st century is going to be about.
Hence, we reach the incredible predictions made by David Bowie in 1999. The block quotes I have interpolated through this essay come from a BBC interview he gave. Prompted with a recent comment saying he didn’t think he would have got into creating music as a 19 year old starting out in that period, he explains the original rebellious appeal of making Rock and Roll, quickly naming the internet as the new platform serving the role of counterculture music of the 50s and 60s. As the conversation continues on to the evolving nature of the internet, and then its role in challenging the perception and interpretation of media itself; the visionary predictions keep coming.
Music and the internet are the quintessential pair; as we have seen, sharing music is the core concept behind many of the most influential social media platforms. In 15 short years we have seen the shift from creators uploading some aspect of their passion and getting swept along for the ride, to kids who grew up on it, now intrinsically at home on the internet. This perfectly represents Bowie’s discourse on the breakdown between artist and audience, and the dissipation of conceptual distinctions into more rapid, more dynamic, and more fractal sub categories. Websites used to make songs popular, now a single post on an app can bring fame and make millions; this is the same breakdown from societal ideological singularities into glittery, disintegrated notions.
The Internet cannot be overstated, aside from the profound influence on music, it has become intertwined with every aspect of our lives. A self-aware, terrifying and exhilarating alien life form that has replaced integral aspects of our socialisation to the point of leading social movements and deciding elections.
Is this so surprising when we all know how easy it is to let esoteric forces such as trending topics on Twitter, or most up-voted Reddit posts lead our perception of the world around us?
David Bowie spent his whole life connected to art and immersed in fresh ideas, progressing by a constant reinvention of sound and image. While music was always central to his career success, his taste for visual art and fashion were always inseparable from his earlier background focusing on the writing and acting elements of theatre; where he found comfortability on stage being able to play a character rather than present his self.
He famously released a final album, Blackstar, on his 69th birthday; having stopped treatment after a private battle with liver cancer, he passed on from his body just two days later. This spectacle, foreshadowed in the lyrics of the album, made his material death as devoted to art as his life was, proving his permanent capability to channel new and exciting ideas. Always inspired of course by younger generations, collaborators have since named Kendrick Lamar and Death Grips as strong influences for David Bowie during the Blackstar sessions.
With the internet now being roughly the same age as Rock and Roll was when Bowie started out, the question rises, what is the future of the internet and will there be anyone to lead it?
Facebook and their Metaverse? Decentralised block chain technology and Web3? Or will the aerospace and internet savvy financial institutions of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos finally give us life on Mars?
Or will the wars of the future be fought over control of the World Wide Web and data privacy, by a generation of kids who found a ‘call to arms’ in spreading information on TikTok?
Perhaps it is too late. The internet appears to accelerate much more than mid 20th century social movements such as Rock and Roll. Of course it is futile to ascribe any type of ideological singularity to it, always more abstract cloud than singular algorithm. This is a recursive network of networks, not a legislated piece of intellectual property. It cannot be owned and can always form a new node for a new person with a new idea to connect, adding a few more packets of data to conglomerate with the digital spectral kaleidoscope that is the internet.