In two recently-released music books, Jeff Chang's Can't Stop, Won't Stop, and Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up and Start It Again, the authors describe a music culture in the 70s and 80s where aficionados tirelessly sought out obscure records to increase their sonic palate.
In England, there was Rough Trade, a record store that served as much as lounge as retailer. Shop clerks were portrayed as music curators, helping promote new genre movements like post-punk, ska, and hip-hop. In America, hip-hop street DJs built up their cred with record collections filled with obscure nuggets.
In the mid-80s the mixed tape culture created a new decentralized system where individuals acted as their own DJs, marketing, and distribution systems by sharing simply sharing music with friends. During these times, getting into new music was a complicated process. You either needed to be tuned into music trades and the scene, or know someone who was. You either had to send away for records or fortuitously live near a record shop.
But the way music is found, traded, and consumed today has eroded that difficulty, and, in many respects, underscored how new communications technologies have enabled a more connected world.
Internet as big brother
Not that "Big Brother." Rather, the big brother who turned you onto music. It's virtually impossible to buy, browse, or bump into music online these days without getting recommendations. HTML code and thirty-second MP3 snippets have replaced battered mixed tapes and hand-me-down CDs.
And this reveals a paradox that pervades throughout the web community. Some lament the old days where only those who tirelessly sought out new music could, through perseverance, find a new band to support.
Enter Pandora, a Web site that asks you to name a band you like, and subsequently builds a free radio station that suggests other songs you might like. Within minutes (and seconds if you've fast forwarded), you can be armed with 20 new bands to try out.
Jon Cohen, co-president of Cornerstone Promotion, says that while the new environment has enabled neophytes to discover music more easily, the thrill of the hunt has diminished for collectors.
"[Tapes] required so much more care and time," Cohen says. "When someone e-mails your playlist, it doesn't have the same meaning of handwriting and recording a mixtape."
But he adds that today's consumer marketing phenomenon that companies are beginning to try to figure out has its bases in mix tape swapping.
Cohen says that the Internet now represents what MTV did before it turned into a reality-television channel where bands ascend to popularity overnight. In the music industry, perhaps more than others, blogs are leading the media charge for breaking new bands. Tastemaker websites like Pitchforkmedia.com are reviewing demos and leaked track as soon as they enter the internet.
Smart labels and PR companies are pitching amateur bloggers whose history of discerning music criticism can help propel a band from unknown to buzzworthy in days time. By the time New York Times or Rolling Stone gets to profile them months later, the blog-reading community has already moved onto the next band, whose hype originated from one track on one post.
Matt Wishnow, president of Insound, LLC which operates a street marketing team and music eTailer Insound.com, said, via e-mail, "Blogs are unquestionably the new music intelligentsia. The days of respected Rolling Stone or Spin critics is gone for avid fans looking to discover new music. Blogs scoop reporters 100 times out of 100."