Over the course of the last two decades, music, as a whole, hasn’t changed very much. Certainly, what is interesting to sing about and what isn’t has changed somewhat, as musicians like Eddie Vedder get older, and musicians like Gareth Campesinos! make it okay to be an awkward teenager again, but really, the sound hasn’t changed that much. And how could it? Some bands may be more original than the other, but those bands are original because they pull influences from that which already exists. Take indie darlings Vampire Weekend, as an example. Using the blogging community as their jumping point, they made a name for themselves combining Afro-beats and reggae, creating a pop melange that you just can’t help but enjoy. But is it really original to combine these things? Maybe it is, but only because few (if any) bands before them did so in the same way.
The 90s gave birth to more things than grunge and truly mainstream hip-hop. It gave birth to the availability of the internet, without which, it’s not unreasonable to say, that a great many bands who have gained mainstream popularity wouldn’t have done so without the many, the proud, the internet blogger.
Vampire Weekend are certainly one of the more recent success stories, but by no means the only one in recent years. Their rise to pop stardom was nothing short of meteoric, and it can all be attributed to word of mouth by, for the lack of a better term, music nerds. Take a band like Blitzen Trapper as well. The band self-produced three albums, the last of which, 2007’s Wild Mountain Nation, caught the ears of the staff of famed music critique site Pitchfork. Pitchfork gave the record an 8.5 and the tag of Best New Music. Shortly thereafter, the band was signed to legendary label Sub Pop, and the rest is history. It might be unfair to say that the band (and others like it) would have gone absoutely nowhere if not for the subtle nudges of hipster culture, but is it untrue?
The same success story has happened for countless bands over the last three years alone. Los Campesinos! posted a number of demos on Drowned in Sound in 2006, and the word spread, to the point where thousands of Japanese fans were chanting every last word of “Broken Heartbeats Sound Like Breakbeats” at Summersonic. Robin Pecknold went from harmonizing Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” with his family in Seattle, to performing it live with Wilco, and his folk rocket Fleet Foxes. The duo known as MGMT found themselves suing the president of France for using the song “Kids” as a campaign song.
Word of mouth, combined with the popularity of file sharing, has made it impossibly easy to get people to listen to new music. People may not be buying records at the same rate anymore, but who’s to say that it hurts the musicians themselves? When you have two thousand fans singing every word as though it were gospel, does it really matter if you’ve gone platinum?
At the end of September of 2007, Radiohead made the announcement that, in 10 days, the would be releasing their brand new album, for the price of the listener’s choosing, even if it was nothing. Though most people opted to pay nothing for the album, it out-sold its predecessor, 2003s Hail to the Theif, not even counting sales two months later, when the physical version of the album was released by the band’s own TBD Records. Months later, Trent Reznor followed the same path, releasing his instrumental album, Ghosts, and his last full-length album, The Slip, completely free of charge. Two months later, it was reported that The Slip had been downloaded from the Nine Inch Nails website 1.6 million times, proving that sometimes, the best way to get people to listen is to just allow them to take is.
While this is not the best option for all musicians, and it was most certainly not an unwise decision for the two bands. While the era of Nine Inch Nails may have come to a close this year (if Reznor has told the truth, at least), it wouldn’t be too far off to imagine Radiohead doing the same thing again, with how much attention and success it brought about.
At this point, it must be stated that I’ve been a little unfair. The Noughties as a whole belong almost solely to the MP3 and file sharing, and as such, it’s easy to forget that other formats are by no means dead. With the wide availability of digital music comes the search for the best sound possible, and for some people, that means going back to black wax. As I myself have begun to demonstrate, vinyl collecting has gained more speed than it ever did in the 90s, which can be partially attributed to a surge in nostalgia. In addition, most audiophiles find that the sound of vinyl to be more true to the intended sound of the recording, as nothing is lost to the format. I could easily write a separate article on the people’s history of vinyl in the new millennium, but I’ll spare you the boring subject.
The last decade has re-defined exactly what we consider a buzz band, and has breathed new life into long dead sounds because of it. Blogging has likewise changed how we listen and hear about music, which is a gift and a curse. Today’s favorite son always runs the risk of being forgotten about in a month’s time, and being left out in the cold after being toured into the ground and promoted to death. Because of this, it makes it difficult to know what band is going to last to the next year, and which album people will give to Goodwill when they move. It’s tragic, but it almost seems like a challenge to new and old bands: keep moving, keep talking, keep doing things, or you’ll be tomorrow’s punchline. Should this be how it’s done? Oh, by no means. That said, internet bloggers are the journalists of the future, and it’s rough to please them, but if you manage to, who knows? You could be the next Super Furry Animals, or the next Strokes, or the next Death Cab For Cutie. Or, you could end up like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and be forgotten about without an ounce of sympathy. It’s a harsh reality, but it’s the way of the future. Don’t like it? The decade is nearly over: take your window to change it. I know I won’t stop you.