How do social networking sites extend the possibilities of the music industry? Evaluate these possibilities in relation to the elimination of previous entry barriers and the establishment of new ones.
There is no denying the impact the Internet has had on the music industry. It has dramatically transformed the relationship between listeners and artists, and has massively restructured and decentralised an industry system previously rigid and carefully guarded. The massive reallocation of power amongst producers and consumers is transforming the way we view the music industry; as Gibson states, “web presence provides the opportunity to disregard the traditional route a record releases.” [Gibson, 2001]
The next wave to reshape the music industry is the online social networking phenomenon. Social networking sites are defined by Wikipedia as “software specifically focused on the building and verifying of online social networks for hooking up” [Wiki, Social Networking]. In recent years, this technology has peaked in popularity and is now more prevalent than ever. Social networking sites are also converging with cultural aspects to form more specific media-oriented networks, and music is arguably the most important example. Sites such as PureVolume, originally aimed at promoting artists, and Last.fm, aimed at networking like-minded listeners, are also in the process of expanding to cater for both musicians and listeners.
This essay, however, will focus on MySpace, which is at the moment by far the most popular and comprehensive social networking site, especially for its musical sector. I will analyse both sides in which MySpace is transforming the barriers to the music industry, and will then apply it to a case study where the new possibilities of social networking can transcend popularising individual bands but also offer aesthetic validation for developing genres and tighten their previously scattered communities.
For MySpace’s organic purpose as a social networking site between individuals, O’Leary offers this description:
“MySpace is based on individual profiles; each is a member’s personal web site and blog containing the member’s pictures, personal information, and bloglike ramblings. The profile is linked to the profiles of the member’s online friends that form a vast, intertwined network among MySpace’s enormous membership.” [O’Leary, 2006]
The recent phenomenon of allowing musicians to create similar but also specially catered profiles as a way for them to increase their exposure and promote their music, on top of the social networking aspect, has indeed synergistically evolved into a phenomenon of its own. At the moment, the vast majority of artists from every corner of every scene in every geographical location will have a MySpace profile. A lot of artists who ceased activity long before the advent of this technology also have profiles in the form of fan-created tributes.
Ideally, it is aimed to provide musicians with an outlet to promote themselves without compromising their artistic integrity (something the record industry is notorious for), but this comes with its own drawbacks. Independent musicians could potentially lose some of the appeal and exposure that refinement from the record industry could have helped secure. Although there will be a small population of musicians who deservedly reach MySpace’s massive audience, cited to be roughly 90 million unique worldwide during December 2006, one third of those originating outside the United States [Ben-Yehuda, 2007], the elimination of a refinement agent, or what I will refer to as a kind of “gatekeeper”, means that any subpar musical candidate who fancies themselves as an artist can upload inferior amateur recordings, reach the same massive audience and crowd a space that was ironically supposed to provide greater exposure.
One of the most crucial elements in an artist’s success is indeed exposure. Analogous to the film industry, Garnham emphasises the importance of distribution, as opposed to production, in an industry’s success and prosperity [Garnham cited in Kerr and Flynn, 2003:97]. Distribution is the one barrier that determines exposure in the market, which is why film corporations such as Paramount and Universal have since invested excessively in its distribution sectors. Likewise, record labels can coordinate production, manufacture, promotion, and copyright, but most importantly, they control distribution. Without a label, the distribution (and hence, exposure) independent musicians receive is grossly limited, which is why services such as MySpace are significant in providing a platform to counter this current situation: “…the focus is on small, little-known local and regional bands; it’s an energetic and vital platform for local music, which is quite a contrast to the commercial media, which only cover big-name acts.” [O’Leary, 2006]
It also extends possibilities in terms of the ‘networking’ aspect: like-minded bands can find each other, establish friendships, and allocate time to play gigs or perhaps even collaborate. There is also the ability to influence and shape one another aesthetically, which will be illustrated in the case study of post-rock later on. The networking aspect also extends to consumers—in this case, listeners and fans. New bands are discovered much more easily, and each band having a relatively standardised profile structure with general information such as news, information, gigs/events, music samples and release dates is advantageous for listeners because they can collectively ‘befriend’ them and subsequently organise their tastes.
The fact that MySpace artists are capable of instantaneously reaching an audience that vastly outnumbers those seen by any sort of media prior to the internet means that artists who strike a chord with these audiences will be in a position to increase their popularity dramatically. Lara says “bands that have been extremely popular and have done big venues only through MySpace promotion,” and predicts that artists “can start using MySpace as a real driver for sales” [Lara cited in Ben-Yehuda, 2007]. Four-piece Britpop outfit, the Arctic Monkeys, US pop-punk group, Panic! at the Disco and English pop singer, Lily Allen, have all experienced major hikes in their popularity as a result of MySpace. The catalytic effect that MySpace has for artists already destined to be popular (the Arctic Monkeys claiming that they had no idea what MySpace was at the time and that their profile was set up by fans) renders the need for timing, overexposure and longevity redundant.
Elimination of barriers:
In the past, gaining exposure was difficult. Without a record deal, bands could only self-release their material which meant limited circulation, and pub gigs and local radio stations were as far as they could go to find an audience. MySpace has eliminated this barrier—a band’s existence can be made evident to wide, global audience almost instantaneously. Hart says that “on the Internet, you can reach out to the consumer, at virtually no cost, and market your products, services, your art, anyway you wish”, [Hart, 2000], very much encapsulating the facilities provided to musicians by a network such as MySpace.
Negus notes the “greater levels of investment [had] been required to record, market, and promote artists” in the 1980s, averaging “between £250,000 – £330,000 over the first 12-18 months of an average [recording] deal for a new act”, £80,000 of which were for “basic promotional expenses”. [Negus, 1992]. Obviously, these exorbitant sums were well out of reach for most aspiring artists, so handing out fliers or putting up posters was as far as they could go. Now, MySpace sees these promotion expenses dwindle to almost negligible, given the only thing necessary is access to the Internet.
Pfahl states that “contractual arrangements between record labels and artists have historically formed a major barrier to entry in the music industry.” [Fox, 2002] This would only just be the first barrier. The second came in the form of artistic control. Being able to sustain a relationship with a label had ‘barrier’ implications of its own, in that “these arrangements, in essence, provide labels with monopoly rights to the artistic output of individual artists from which the labels can then generate revenues.” [Fox, 2002]
The Internet has provided musicians with the opportunity to challenge the industry’s ‘monopoly rights’. As Pfahl contends, “[musicians] have constantly asked for more control over their work, but realise that they cannot live without the benefits provided by record labels, that is until the Internet arrived on the scene.” [Pfahl, 2001] Artists such as the Arctic Monkeys have adamantly refused to change their music to suit the industry, and this act of rebellion has rounded them a loyal fan base built and sustained vastly through MySpace. Pfahl says that “musicians believe that they know how to find and produce the kinds of music that the listening public wants.” [Pfahl, 2001] In October 2005, the Arctic Monkeys sold out a show at the enormous and historic London Astoria, proving they did not need a record label to help boost their popularity.
Of course, promotion targeted at the wrong audience is done to no avail. Finding the right audience is another barrier which MySpace has helped eliminate. Pfahl says that “the independent musician will no longer have to search for an audience; instead the audience will search for music that meets their preferences, thanks to new technologies that will be increasingly efficient.” [Pfahl, 2001] MySpace epitomises this ‘efficient’ matching between musicians and listeners in that artists can aim their music specifically at the right groups, meanwhile also being sought out by their respective potential fans. This efficiency in the allocation of music over MySpace also works to strengthened styles and genres that were originally dispersed (see post-rock case study).
Establishment of new barriers:
Because of the ease of entry, there is a far greater influx of new and emerging artists. The fact that the only necessary resource required is an internet connection exponentially increases the number entrants who want to have a shot at fame. This has implications for the quality, creativity and accessibility of music created and also the degree to which the artists creating it are painted into obscurity. The fact that it is so easy to create a MySpace can work as much against its musicians as it does in favour. To illustrate this catch-22 situation, Lonero invokes Internet labels:
“Internet labels never promise what they offer. Sometimes, they say things like “send your material to them and they’ll put it in the top ten on their site”. The problem with that is, if 100 people send in the press kit, how can 100 people be in the top ten?” [Lonero, 2001]
On MySpace, the ‘top ten’ can be considered the band profiles that actually get circulated amongst users, and given the limitation of an individual’s time, it is obviously not realistic for them to browse all the profiles. At least a record deal could keep out this undesirable competition for the comparatively fewer musicians who managed to get signed.
The quality of the material being put up by the majority of these aspiring musicians is another issue. Bands that are able to demonstrate genuine, noticeable talent and appeal but would’ve previously remained unnoticed due to a lack of resources are now, justifiably, thrown into the limelight to be popularised. This means that the comparatively mediocre artists who previously acted as the imperfect substitute for listener are now forced to compete with superior competitors who also now share the publicity advantage of MySpace.
The lack of gatekeeping also means that any music uploaded does not have to exhibit quality or appeal in order to penetrate the audience. Anyone with a recording device and a belief (or delusion) that he or she possesses musical ability have just as much potential to reach as wide an audience as any other artist utilising the medium of MySpace. This creates a conflict between genuine undiscovered talent and attention seekers, and the increasing dominance of mediocrity implies an overall decline in quality. Over time, this could diminish the credibility of MySpace as a source for quality unsigned music, potentially forming another barrier for artists trying to promote themselves over MySpace.
In the past, the record label had control over a signed artist’s presence on the web. Artists were allowed to “do specific things on their own site, but [they] had to state in contract what they wanted to do”. [New Media Music Rose 2000, p. 4] Although MySpace provides them with control over their own profiles, artists are still in fact limited to the template provided by the site. This is obviously necessary to maintain the networking aspects, but nevertheless still deprives the artist of complete liberation to the extent where we could consider the barriers ‘eliminated’. Artists are also limited to uploading four songs. Some bands are able to put albums in their entirety, an understated privilege not widely publicised and requiring a fee. We are also witnessing challenges against these policies: some bands employ complex coding to revamp the default template and third-party stand-alone players to circumvent the limitations on song uploads.
MySpace has also begun to face new competition amongst other social networking sites. Bebo, a competitor, recently introduced its own musical sector which generally retains all of the features of MySpace’s typical profile but improves upon certain aspects, such as allowing the artist to upload an unlimited number of songs. However, considering the ubiquity of MySpace at the moment, this is not likely to be an imminent threat.
Cast study: post-rock
Melbourne band, All India Radio, was recently on tour in the US as a result of the connections they made with US band, Signal Hill. Their news section after the tour read:
“Thanks to everyone who helped with our US tour, all the bands we played with, the fans and myspace friends who came along and all the people we met along the way…it would not have happened without you!”
Through grassroots MySpace networking, bands such as this have established connections which have allowed them to travel overseas to perform to enthusiastic albeit modestly sized audiences, all of whom familiarised themselves through MySpace. Previously unpopular music that had only limited appeal within small localised circles are now given an outlet to expand their popularity, and the example I will analyse here is the vernal but emerging scene of the post-rock genre. MySpace has helped strengthened and popularise this genre that would’ve not been able to otherwise expand at this rate in any other way, “harness[ing] the connectivity and distribution potential of the Internet to support their live appearance and promote their music to people all around the world who may never be able to see them live.” [Pfahl, 2001]
Inaccessibility and lack of commercial appeal were the original barriers that kept post-rock from breaking into the mainstream, but the networking aspect of MySpace has allowed for the tightening of this previously scattered community; “a move to communities of interest and action rather than an individual personalized customer market focus.” [Henshall, 2000] Geographical distance and an inability to share music and shape one another aesthetically is a barrier that met dissolution after the emergence of MySpace. Sumpton says that “the benefits of a musician having direct contact with their audience extend further than sales” [Sumpton, 2001:14], and Pfahl adds that “the alignment of interests will enhance this relationship far beyond today’s industry-imposed barriers.” [Pfahl, 2001] The development of the relationships within this community and ultimately the genre as a whole prove how the possibilities of MySpace can surpass the interests of the individuals.
Conclusion: where from now?
With MySpace eliminating entry barriers and providing an easy access route for musicians into their respective music scenes, we will observe a dramatic increase in the rate at which the broader global music scene will expand. However, the truly phenomenal aspect of this networking in the music scene is that the ideology behind music itself is given a much greater canvas to evolve. Stylistically, music has steadily grown on a generational basis due to the limited entry of artists from the past. Despite the drawbacks of the eliminated barriers (considered barriers themselves), the almost exponential bombardment of new artists we’re witnessing today through social networking sites and the many other possibilities facilitated by new media means that what we know of musicwill rapidly reach even more profound depths, and sooner.
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