In the 80s, video killed the radio star and music lovers became glued to MTV around the clock. Cable TV and the music video revolutionized how music reached people. Music fans were excited and satisfied, completely naïve to the impact that technology would have on the creation, delivery and live experience of music in the future.
More than three decades later, technology has exploded and changed the face of the music industry on all fronts. Musicians no longer need big record labels to reach the masses — they have social media and YouTube for that. Getting “discovered” can literally happen overnight with viral videos that spread like wildfire across the globe. As Dylan sang, “the times, they are a-changing’.”
Today, fans are bombarded by musical options — band status updates, tweets, live-streaming concerts, crowdfunding campaigns, Instagram concert photos, digital downloads, satellite radio, music apps, wireless headphones and more. The opportunities to connect to music seem endless and ever expanding, which allows fans to pick their poison, but also leaves plenty of room for overload and pitfalls.
The ability to record and mix an album no longer sits in the hands of big name studios as it once did. Home recording studios have popped up across the states as artists gain access to affordable digital audio workstation programs like Avid Pro Tools and Apple GarageBand or Logic Pro X. While engineering an album still requires a trained ear, these tools have opened doors to musicians who may have never dreamed of the chance to lay down tracks.
Ask independent touring musicians about income and they will likely tell you they are broke — this is no lie. After gas, hotels, meals, and bills, there is little left for recording costs. Without backing from a label, recording an album in today’s climate often requires the support of fans. This is where crowdfunding comes in handy. Online platforms like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and PledgeMusic have changed the way musicians raise money to support their craft. Successful campaigns from artists like Langhorne Slim, Joe Fletcher and Holy Ghost Tent Revival have turned out solid albums that may have otherwise never been created. This virtual tip jar allows fans to be a part of the process, and in return receive “prizes” that are often handmade by the artists themselves.
For some, smartphone technology has ruined the live music experience. Watching an entire concert through the bright screen of someone’s iPhone or tablet is certainly not ideal and can create frustration among concert-goers. This frustration can also be felt by the musician, who can look out into a sea of phones, rather than faces, often creating a disconnect.
On the flip side, jam band Umphrey’s McGee has chosen a different approach to use technology to increase engagement and unity among its fans. At selective shows, including the band’s annual UMBowl, fans are asked to live tweet song requests and improv ideas to the band or vote for specific songs to guide the set list.
“It’s really fun and the fans just went nuts for it,” band member Joel Cummins said. “It’s a really great experience to be creative with the fan base and come up with new things … it turns improv on its head and treats it like composition. Over the course of three years, we’ve come up with nine to 10 new songs from it.”
Surprisingly, Cummins and the band have found that the live tweeting and voting have not distracted from the show itself.
“I don’t see (overuse of phones) as much of a problem at our shows,” Cummins said. “We aren’t big stars. (The fans) are there in the moment, for the music. People aren’t into us as people. They are more into us as a group, so if they want to take a picture that is fine with me. You really have to pay attention (at our shows). It’s not going to be the same thing every night.”
Umphrey’s McGee also offers a selective number of wireless headphone packs at most shows, allowing fans to experience the concert through the soundboard, just as the band does through ear monitors. Currently they have 40-50 packs that fans can rent for $40, which also includes a digital download of the evening’s performance. What started as an idea to bring fans a unique listening experience, has grown into more than the band could have ever expected — spawning new friendships and headphone sharing.
“Our biggest fear was that it would create a strange social stigma at shows, but the opposite has happened,” Cummins said. “It brings out people’s curiosity and most of our fans are nice, intelligent people. They want to accommodate and spread the word about the goodness of this. We’ve had about five to 10 negative comments and 500 positive comments — that it is a game changer.”
Social media has done wonders for the independent musician, not only through spreading information and new music, but also through networking and tour planning. Many smaller music venues now handle booking through Facebook, and keep patrons informed by creating event pages. Websites like Bandsintown and Artistdata can be linked to Facebook and Twitter by musicians, keeping fans informed of nearby shows.
However, the amount of accessible music may be nearing a threshold. Wood Robinson, bassist for the Chapel Hill-based group Mipso, has observed a shift in music accessibility on the internet and thinks that musicians need to use these resources wisely in order to be successful.
“The webs are all but saturated with music of all kinds and of all aesthetics and all abilities,” Robinson said. “It gives a little more of an even platform for everyone, but it also means that the listener has to plow through a lot to find that yet-to-be-discovered group that they’re going to fall in love with. It’s like taking all the fruit trees in the world and putting them in one grove. All those fruits are a lot more reachable, but so are the fruits that you don’t want to eat.
“I think that the biggest thing for artists is to figure out how to use that accessibility to their advantage. The constant connectivity is great but not if used poorly. Reverbnation has a lot of great tools for unsigned artists, but a ‘like’ doesn’t necessarily translate to a butt in a seat at a concert. It can be a good proxy for estimating growth, but it isn’t the end-all-be-all for measuring success.”
Music delivery through websites like Pandora and Spotify has also drastically increased mobile accessibility to music, while also somewhat stealing from the mouths of artists. This conundrum equates to the proverbial double-edged sword. While fans can listen to any type of music they want for free or a small monthly fee and it gives the artist exposure, in the end most artists literally earn pennies for the web-play their songs receive.
This drastic decrease in pay-out is also evident when fans choose to purchase a digital download over a physical copy of an album. Local musician Rebekah Todd has concerns about the impact technology has on not only the livelihood of the artist, but also how people are connecting to music today.
“Things have changed dramatically with the digital age and the introduction of things like Rhapsody, Spotify, iTunes, Amazon and so many more,” Todd said. “The act of obtaining music has been cheapened. Thirty years ago, you had to walk into a record store and thumb through physical copies of albums. You picked the album up and you examined its artwork. You might have even read about who played on the album and where it was recorded. Today, we don’t have to have any physical contact to have a song delivered to us immediately.
“Not only have digital sites stolen the personal act of buying music from us, it has stolen a large portion of how musicians make their living. What people don’t realize is that musicians make a fraction of a penny for every time that their song is listened to, digitally, as opposed to the days when people had to spend at least an entire dollar on a song that a musician poured their soul into for months on end.
“I believe that music is not something you hear. It is something that you feel. If you aren’t feeling music, you might as well stop listening. To fully experience music, you have to stand in a room with someone who has written a song about the highest and lowest points of their life and you have to meet that person in their song — in their experience. That is where the connection is made. It isn’t made on an iPod. It isn’t made on XM radio. It is made at the live performance. I fear that a large percentage of the kids being raised today have never even been to a live show. They have never felt the bass pumping so loudly that they can feel it in their chest. They’ve never seen someone pour out all of their emotion with every bead of sweat that lands on the stage.”
Over the past decade, vinyl has made a significant comeback, giving listeners a higher quality recording when compared to a digital MP3 file. According to Pitchfork, 2013 vinyl sales topped out at 6.1 million units in the US alone. While this still only accounts for two percent of all album sales, it represents a 33% increase in vinyl sales from 2012.
To stay up with the times, most newly-pressed vinyl comes with a digital download code for those who want the experience of spinning a record, while also being able to take the music on the go. For audiophiles this is the best of both worlds.
Independent record stores, like Greenville’s East Coast Music and Video, have had to adapt to the digital world in order to survive. Store owner, Jon Hughes’ has gladly embraced the new demand for vinyl by stocking his store with new and used records, in addition to CDs, offering music lovers a wide array of options while trying to stay current.
“I think the resurgence in vinyl interest is awesome,” Hughes said. “The fact that vinyl sales are up throughout the world’s retail markets is evidence that people are starting to come full circle when it comes to listening and buying music. A lot of people have become slaves to their gadgets over the years and they have lost touch with the pure enjoyment of owning and collecting physical pieces of music. Many folks in the younger generations do not know what it’s like to really want their favorite band’s new album and having to wait for it to come out. They’ve never experienced the genuine excitement of going to their local record store and finally getting their hands on it for the first time.
“Opening up the record, admiring the artwork and photographs, reading the liner notes and song lyrics while listening to a beautiful piece of vinyl can be a surreal experience on many levels. A band’s music should be more than just background noise to fill the room while you’re scanning the internet. Let’s face it, music is art and it should be enjoyed that way. MP3s are flat pieces of digital noise but, vinyl records have warmth, depth, texture and soul. Nothing sounds better than analog and I believe more people are reconnecting with that fact.”
The increase in demand for current bands to release vinyl versions of albums comes with a disclaimer — fans must be patient. Currently, there are only about a dozen pressing plants in the US, which means turnaround time has gone from about four weeks to three months. Perhaps vinyl’s comeback will offset the need for instant gratification that comes with immediate downloads or streaming, and bring music lovers back to a time when great music was worth the wait.