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J. David Dark

Rock's New Rebellion

Net music and the backlash against commodification.

Sonic Boom

Sonic Boom

Sonic Boom: Napster, MP3, and the New Pioneers of Music
by John Alderman
Perseus Press, 2001
224 pp.; $24

In Sonic Boom, cyberjournalist John Alderman recalls a crucial moment in rock history when a band of young upstarts called the Rolling Stones first set foot in the Chicago studio of Chess Records, the label home of various blues legends who helped form the Stones' sound. To their amazement, they found themselves in the formidable presence of bluesman Muddy Waters. But he wasn't there as a creative consultant, a CEO, or a musical impresario. It just so happened that the Stones' visit coincided with the day a decidedly unwealthy Muddy Waters showed up to paint the studio roof. Keith Richards summed up the irony effectively: "Welcome to the music business!"

To be fair, Muddy Waters would gain an income through his music, not least from those record buyers who would begin with the Stones and work their way back to the Delta. And without the promotion, distribution, and recording facilities of Chess Records, his music might have never made its way across the Atlantic to the impressionable ears of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in the first place. Nevertheless, the history of recorded music is a boulevard of broken dreams. Many artists struggle to make ends meet and die broke, even as royalties from their music enrich the canny copyright-holders. As Herbie Hancock puts it in the preface to Sonic Boom, "For the hard work involved in being a middleman, the label is certainly entitled to a decent profit. But not a killing. To make huge amounts of money on the backs of artists who are not fairly compensated sours the relationship and creates bad will that lasts a long time."

With the discussion generated by the Napster phenomenon and the efforts of the Recording Industry Association of America to protect what is now a $15 billion-a-year enterprise, a new awareness is gradually developing among the listening/buying public concerning the small percentage allotted the artist in the sale of a compact disc as well as the millions spent in anticipating and, to a large degree, manipulating the desires of the buyer. This allows progressive young people to feel righteous even as they download thousands of dollars' worth of music for free. (Nonprogressive kids couldn't care less who is or isn't making money on the deal.) By doing so, you see, they're punishing the exploitative conglomerates who dominate the recording industry.

The irony isn't lost on the artists, but they are by no means of one mind when they contemplate what Napster hath wrought. Some see the change as ultimately for the best, despite the immediate loss of royalties. With the increasing availability of music on the Internet, the listener is now peculiarly free to cultivate category-defying listening habits while discovering and, ideally, supporting artists whose work and sales owe nothing to corporate market research.

A service like Napster (and sites like Morpheus, Aimster, and KaZaa, which have quickly formed to take its place) affords music seekers a selection of unprecedented eclecticism, while sites dedicated to particular artists and genres provide avenues of conversation, recommendations, and issues which only have a tangential relation to the music itself. Cynics might suggest that this blessed situation can only continue until the Internet meets the fate of commercial radio and degenerates into a pure marketing tool, but a visit to any number of message boards, sustained by nothing so much as the committed enthusiasms of various subcultures, suggests that something a little more hopeful is going on.

In the case of the Smashing Pumpkins, for instance, we have a band who officially ended their career together by making their final album available only on the Internet. While their retirement occurred more than a year ago, their Web forum contains, at a recent glance, nearly 64,000 messages. This is the section devoted exclusively to the band. The "Non-Smashing Pumpkins" portion of the message board is nearing 100,000 messages with discussion devoted primarily to religious issues. The Pumpkins' lead singer/songwriter, Billy Corgan, recently penned a message of encouragement and gratitude to his audience, whose interest in maintaining the conversation and energy generated by his music is, in his view, an ongoing inspiration to keep on keeping on. He was reluctant to speak too specifically concerning what some listeners had identified in his work as a summons to revolution, but he did note the presence of a kindred spirit in Radiohead's Kid A while mentioning that some might find much of worth, as he has, in the novels of Philip K. Dick.

While talk of revolution might be premature, it surely isn't too much to say that there is a spirit of resistance taking root within the music-buying public, especially among young people. And Corgan's reference to Philip K. Dick is particularly telling. For many, the most convincing metanarratives of our age are films like The Matrix and The Truman Show, whose protagonists discover themselves in carefully scripted, immersive environments which create the illusion of freedom while using inhabitants to fuel their own death-dealing machinery. Dick perfected such parables of intense paranoia in the sixties and seventies, but he might have had trouble overestimating the power of MTV to create demand and move product.

As the music business becomes more connected to the online community, it's probably not overly hopeful to predict that the painstakingly manufactured pop of Eminem, Britney Spears, and the Backstreet Boys will appear more contrived to more people. The disenchanted may even begin to see through the disguise of a band like Limp Bizkit, whose sedulously cultivated image of authentic rage against the machine is the brainchild of lead singer Fred Durst, a 30-year-old vice president of Interscope Records. He could just as easily be directing a campaign to re-brand Ford trucks.

For the time being, it's true, downloads of bands like Limp Bizkit and 'NSYNC are proportional to their CD sales, but this owes more to their easy perpetuation through radio and television (especially via MTV) than to any Internet-specific momentum. Their image-driven success will doubtless continue for some time to come, but in the long run the Internet won't lend itself to those tried and true marketing strategies. A message board dedicated to Christina Aguilera can't indefinitely sustain discussion of her clothing, her hair style, and who she's dating.

But the Internet will reward the artist whose music embodies a movement that makes of the listener more than a consumer. As Alderman points out, it's no accident that it was Grateful Dead fans who first saw the potential of the Internet as a site for a music-centered community. And the most recent Internet success story is certainly Radiohead, whose aforementioned Kid A reached number one on the Billboard charts without providing any pre-releases to news organizations or music magazines. They simply made sure it was available on Napster long before its official release, and their Internet fans took care of the rest.

Appropriately enough, Radiohead's music describes (among other things) the terror of waking up in a purely commercial reality where your imagination has been hijacked and the consequences of your spending and the forces that guide your consumption are hidden from view. It should come as no surprise that many of the band's fans are the type of people who protest G8 summits. As a visit to their Website makes clear, they assume that their listeners are at least as intelligent as they are. And by answering their fans' questions themselves, they supplement their appearances in the media with their own means which can bypass the hype altogether. It's also interesting to note that Radiohead's last two albums have been available in the slightly more expensive format of ornately illustrated books (one hardcover) that also include the actual CD. It could be that they're anticipating a time when, in order to make a profit, they'll be forced to offer a product that can't be downloaded.

The larger movement of which I suspect Radiohead would happily consider themselves a part is the emergence (or rather the re-emergence) of the mindful consumer. Readers of Naomi Wolf's No Logo and Adbusters magazine would certainly be included in the ranks, but in a broader sense, there's an increased public awareness that our spending supports certain endeavors while contributing to the degradation of others. Musicians whose success is dependent upon their Websites will have an enhanced appreciation for the fans who make their livelihood possible, and the fans, likewise, come to understand that they're participants in a relationship. A record store that feels like an unceasing advertisement fast becomes less appealing than an independently owned, new & used record store or even an active Website that offers limited interaction with other aficianados and occasionally the artists themselves. Mindful affection resists commodification.

Whether big record companies (whose role as middlemen is becoming increasingly obsolete) have anything to gain from mindful affection remains doubtful, especially when, in survival mode, they blindly foist upon the listening public whatever hateful and hollow sounds they've successfully manipulated a teen culture into buying. While the Internet may signal a new day, it should also be noted that, even now, employees of major record labels fulfill their job description by posing as disinterested fans on message boards while praising their employers' latest releases in an effort to direct traffic toward their site. Perhaps the mindful online consumer can develop the skills to know when this is happening. Or maybe genuine affection, like genuine art, will prevail in time despite the efforts at heavy-handed market coercion. We can assume that it will; that, in fact, everything that rises must converge, and we can act and spend accordingly.

J. David Dark is a high school English teacher residing in Nashville with his wife, singer-songwriter Sarah Masen, and their daughter, Dorothy Day Dark. His essays have appeared in PRISM magazine, and he is at work on a collection of essays on popular culture called Everyday Apocalyptic.

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