Out there, the Web is humming and the sound pours through the digital window I've just thrown open, like insect hum in high summer. One click brings me to Washington, D.C., where R.E.M. performs on the Mall for 100,000 people. Another click places me in a coffee shop in Idyllwild, where a bongo-guitar-standup-bass ensemble interprets Nirvana's "All Apologies" in Dead-language, somehow transforming that song's bitter self-castigation into country-standard self-pity. "Got a request for that last week," the bandleader says. He could be talking to his cyber-audience, or maybe he's telling the people in the coffee shop. "On e-mail. From Sweden."
On thousands of personalized Web sites in locations throughout the world, home DJs spin discs from their private collections 24 hours a day. Legal and illegal recordings, compressed into easily downloadable chunks, float on the information trade winds like spores, waiting only to be clicked on to blossom into glorious, perfectly transferred sound. The complete digitization of the music industry has begun in earnest.
"There really is going to be a great music jukebox in the sky," says Scott Becker, publisher of the outside-the-mainstream music journal Option. "That's where people are going to get their music." And to the joy of many, the proliferation of not just Web-centered music, but also inexpensive recording equipment and new, Net-based distribution alternatives, seems to be serving consumers and artists at the expense of the major labels that have dominated the industry for so long.
From their home in the Mojave Desert, former Jayhawks vocalist Marc Olson and wife Victoria Williams can market their Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers project on their own, with no label help whatsoever. This month, Goodnoise.com, purportedly the world's first exclusively Net-based label, has released Frank Black's new album in downloadable MP3 format (MP3 is a virtual CD player; free MP3 players can be downloaded from http://www.mp3.com) for about $4 less than the retail price of a store-bought CD. Meanwhile, anyone who wants to can load MP3 versions of their own songs onto the MP3.com site for around $30, providing potential consumers with both an opportunity to sample the music and easy links to home pages where full-length recordings can be obtained.
Ironically, the technological revolution seems to have provided the generation that grew up with stripped-down, no-synthesizers, DIY punk rock with the most viable landscape in which to create its long-imagined brave new world. "The whole punk philosophy really changed the way everything worked," Becker says. The goal became not to listen to what the people around you listened to, but to "make a record, start a band, be a fan of something unpopular." In cyberspace, anyone with 10 minutes and a search engine can locate an all-but-unknown music to devote oneself to.
Lou Russell, owner of Encinitas-based Lou's Records, the top independent record store in the San Diego area for nearly 20 years, also sees enormous possibilities in the digital future of music. "People who have no chance of selling anything or even reaching anyone can target an audience on the Web," he says. And the audience can find and hear them. But this summer, in the midst of a solidly successful year, Lou opened one of his monthly staff meetings by asking his employees for ideas about how the store could survive the next 10 years. Meanwhile, in Santa Monica, Becker came to the realization that his magazine, long a refuge for restless listeners who crave exposure to quality non-mainstream music, can no longer fulfill its stated purpose and remain viable in its current format. Becker has announced that Option will suspend publication, and he's not putting any date on its return. "It was time to get off the merry-go-round and actually see what the ride looks like," he told me. "This magazine was built for the '80s. I want to build a magazine for the year 2020."
And so, in the space of a week, the directors of both of the primary sources from which I have drawn virtually all of the music that I care about confronted the possibility of their own extinction, or at least radical transformation. Almost from the day I moved to Southern California in the spring of 1980, Lou's has been my corner store, the place with the irreproachably knowledgeable clerks who steered me to hidden treasures in the bins, and the quietly communal scene that seemed to swirl so naturally through and around it. One of my high school dreams was working at Lou's, which I finally did during the summer of 1986. And it was one of Lou's oldest workers who introduced me to Option and the 50 or so pages of smartly descriptive reviews in the back of every issue. Now, the thought of a world without either has me asking questions about the relentless digital current, even as it sweeps me up. The Web has done considerably more than increase access to both product and the means of production, more than fundamentally alter the face of a struggling, aging industry. It has begun to change the way people listen to and pursue music, and, quite possibly, the nature of artistic expression and discourse as well.
Some of Becker's concerns mirror those facing virtually all the world's print publications. If Option becomes an electronic magazine, he notes, "I can deliver without almost any manufacturing costs. Right now, I pay for ink and staples, and I'm asking myself why." Also, much of the magazine's core audience seems certain to be among the ever-swelling millions drawing most of their news, information and entertainment from their computers.
But Becker is more unsettled by what he sees as the ongoing "atomization of audience that has been taking place for a long, long time, not just in music but in the culture itself." The Web, he says, isn't really the issue, but simply "the next step in the evolution" of fragmentation. In this, his perspective seems to mirror that of critic Paul Williams, who started the first serious American music magazine, Crawdaddy!, in the mid-'60s simply so that he'd have a forum to share his experiences listening to Bob Dylan. Not long ago, Williams told me that the only difference between music now and music then is that "then, there was a community of people talking about the same stuff."
"There was a time," Becker says, "when the bands that sold were the counterculture. Even into the 1980s, you could say, 'Hey, I found a great band,' and everybody kind of knew what that meant." But with the relentless deluge of new releases from every conceivable source - major labels, indies, Web-only labels, homemade and distributed product - swamping industry and consumer alike, even what has traditionally been referred to as "mainstream" pop music has fragmented. "Audiences for Snoop Doggy Dogg and Shania Twain don't tend to overlap," says Becker.
And therein lies the key to the difficulties Option faces. In striving to cross genre boundaries and educate listeners about exciting releases in many different styles, Becker believes, his publication is a "horizontal magazine in an increasingly vertical world." For a while, Option's refusal to wave stylistic flags helped it survive, because it never relied on a single base of advertising or readership. But as more and more specialized print and electronic publications and catalog/review services appear to serve each new subcategory of music and music fan, the demand for magazines - and labels, and stores - aimed at a more general audience has begun to wane dangerously, because the general audience may no longer exist. Says Becker, "The last two years have been bad for the indie labels, for the majors, for retailers, even as the number of new releases continues to rise."
And that has begun to bleed some of the joy out of record retailing for Russell, though he says it's hard to quantify how much it has hurt his business at this point. As more and more new releases appear - some available only on the Internet, many more only distributed that way - he and his buyers have found it increasingly impossible to keep up with their clientele. "What's fun for Lou's," Russell says, "is being on the edge, getting new and unusual products to consumers first. If we don't have access to the product, or we don't know about it, our job becomes less important. And less interesting." Russell likes the way the Web has cleared a path for thousands of tiny labels to release and distribute product inexpensively, but he also says that "all that cottage distribution is tough to stay on top of." Mark Olson's Harmony Ridge Creekdippers CD, for example, would seem a natural for the determinedly alternative Lou's Records market, but Russell didn't hear about the CD until six to eight months after it came out.
Russell says that, ironically, the glut of new releases has him "thinking more regionally than ever before." Because he has no way of knowing which of the hundreds of new bands he has the opportunity to purchase CDs from every month will hit home with at least some portion of his clientele, he tends to focus initially on artists from Southern California who may create a local buzz.
Both Russell and Becker believe that there will be many fewer record stores in a very short time, and Russell is particularly grim about the future of independent stores like his own. "People will always want to shop, because that's an experience people want. But the product is already digitized, so it's perfect for the Web. People can get their music faster and cheaper that way. And that gives them one less reason to go to the store that day, or that week."
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Russell believes that his store and others will survive in some form, perhaps as Web sites where people come for recommendations. "But a lot of the fun is dealing with the people, and with the product itself," he says. "Handling, pricing, putting it in the right spot so that people will come in one day and be stoked because they found something they'd been looking for." If the record store as we now know it ceases to exist, or becomes a place for product fetishists, "then the music industry will lose yet another large chunk of its connective tissue," says Russell, "and I don't want to be the old crotchety guy in the little junky used store, selling records to crotchety customers."
As startling as such prognostications may seem, the actual impact of the Web - not just on music but on the creation and discussion of art in general - may be even more profound. Rock critic Lester Bangs, in discussing the death of Elvis Presley in 1977, wrote, "Solipsism holds all the cards at present. We will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won't bother saying goodbye to his corpse. I will say goodbye to you."
Twenty years later, his words seem more prophetic than even he could have imagined. What we have gained already in what are still the first days of the completely Webbed world is the elimination of a clear perimeter to our quest for music (or art, or conversation, or another person) that moves and defines us. What we are in danger of losing is the experience of common reference points. Because it is increasingly easy for each of us to access exactly the music we want without having to listen to other music on the radio or have contact with other listeners with different tastes in a shop or while reading a magazine, we no longer get exposed to as much of what's out there. It seems not only possible but likely that the next generation of listeners will share not any particular music, but only the experience of revering a personally significant music at least in part because no one else knows about it.
In providing people with the means to more easily access and create art, the digital revolution may prove to be the most liberating phenomenon in modern cultural history. Yet, as Ashley Dunn reported recently in the Los Angeles Times, a new Carnegie Mellon study suggests that for every hour people spend online, they experience a commensurate "increase in their level of depression and loneliness." That cyber-hum you hear could well be the sound of other people retreating into their own worlds and drawing digital drawbridges up behind them.