Making a mark in music

(August 29, 2015)

Finding your musical feet was at one time a process built on word of mouth and flogging your way round the clubs and open mic spots hoping to spread the word. Artists built a following, those that followed eventually told their mates and so on. The process was organic and because of the way it built, it became enduring. The irresistible rise of the web and that eternal oxymoron ‘social media’ changed all that. There’s now hardly any conversations that begin: “Have you heard such and such a band? You should, they’re playing at (insert venue) tomorrow you should go along.” Now, that approach has largely gone, now you simply ‘do a search’ or lean across, wave your smart device and reveal an entire album or concert. The rise, fall and longevity of bands or solo artists doesn’t rely on the steadily increasing following, now it’s ‘zero to hero’ in as long as it takes for the online virus to spread.

The advantages of the spreading virus

Technology allows artists to access a wider audience, probably world-wide, potentially infinite (assuming digital access) and instantly accessible. The chances for artists to ‘get their work out there’ are better than they’ve ever been. Technology also enables artists to produce everything from singles to albums without recourse to anything resembling a studio, and it’s not down to the home-grown tape or CD anymore, downloads ‘spread the word’ quicker than an offer of free money.

The same applies to audiences. No need these days to scan music press for gigs, no going to clubs to ‘kiss a lot of frogs’ before you find a prince, all that’s needed now is to look up a band on the Internet and you can download everything you need to hear or know. Which means you can in theory ‘become a follower’ without ever having been to a gig or purchased an album, and increasingly there’s no need to pay either through fair or foul means. So far so good but is there a problem?

The problem is that every time technology gives with one hand it takes with another. “No need to pay”, “Free downloads.” Now that’s criminal, how does anyone expect artists to make a living? Yes, I know that the ‘gods of marketing’ can make a plastic pop artist a hero overnight and ensure that adverts announcing their ‘latest breakthrough album’ appear online and on television. However, those truly talented artists that flog away at their profession find any revenue stream they might have expected remains constantly under threat.

Music used to be simple

Does the digital age carrying some or all of the blame? Probably, because there’s simply so much of it. It’s all pervasive, and not always the purveyor of the best.

Music, is increasingly complicated in ways that it never used to be. Reaching a wider audience is fine but having to fight your way through the swamp of crap that pervades the ether is not so good. Technology, social media and every aspect of the online world has made everything easier to spread. It has also clogged up that very same system with so much dross that finding the gold is increasingly difficult.

Before angry technophiles beat a path to my door, this is not a Luddite-driven rant against the digital world, far from it, it’s simply a view that despite the fact we belong to the most over-communicated society that has ever occupied this planet, getting your music across does not necessarily become easier. Finding the audience that’s going to latch on to your work and appreciate what you do depends on who listens and what inspires them to listen to you. And what’s more, while on the subject, the digital age doesn’t necessarily make it easier for artists to find good venues.

A two-edged sword that cuts both ways

First, of course it appears to be technically easier to get your music ‘out there’, but listen to the volume of mindless crap that good music has to cut through and getting to that audience is not so easy. Also, stop to consider the rampant categorisation of music that the digital world has created. The factions that breed the classifications come and go like the snows of spring but along the way appear to create definitions that remain forever. And once your music is defined as ‘such and such’ see how hard it is to break free of those chains, which leads in turn to the venues deciding on whether or not your music fits with their audience without having taken the time to really listen.

And where to from here?

There is of course no solution, the genie is emphatically ‘out of the bottle’ and has now reached gargantuan proportions. The blessings in equal volume to the curses are rampant. And the more artists I speak to the more obvious it becomes that making a mark in music is as hard as it ever was and getting harder.

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