This article originally appeared on Soundfly.
How to start an article about how the internet has changed everything when everybody already knows that?
Since this humble publication is written and read by musicians, I imagine you probably have your fair share of music-related podcasts that you listen to on a more-than-occasional basis. I know I do. And in listening to podcasts about gear and tech, the publishing side of the industry, and especially personal conversations with artists about how they got into music or what recording their recent album was like, I've begun to notice a common thread that has weaved itself into these conversations. Without specifically mentioning it, they all add a bit of commentary to the endless discussion of how the internet has changed how we make music.
It's not a new conversation, but it is a conversation that continues to evolve over time. We all know that the internet has made things much easier for musicians. In fact, it’s made pretty much everything easier and continues to do so rapidly.
It’s not all roses, of course, and we’ll get to that later, but for now, let's take a step back to consider how much things can potentially change for emerging bands and artists in the near future with the help of technology.
In 2011, I went on my first tour, and I was extremely grateful that my father had let me borrow his GPS to get from place to place. (Also, we lost it.) At the time, I marveled at bands who had done this for years before me, especially in the '80s and '90s, with a physical map and without a cellular phone. I recall Todd Bell (of Braid) telling a story on the Washed Up Emo Podcast about a time the band drove to Boise, only to have to stop and call the promoter from a payphone to tell him that they'd be late due to snowy conditions.
On the contrary, when our van broke down on that first tour, I had the luxury of texting the promoter from the middle of nowhere. In this day and age, I probably could have just sent him a Facebook message.
In 2017, I use my smartphone to navigate my way to the next town. When I’m not driving, my bandmates and I use our smartphones to get caught up on the band's social media, further conversations about touring or with our record label, listen to music via streaming platforms, and stay connected to our personal lives. We don't need to compromise our routines just because we're on the road.
Mobile devices are just one of tools that allow accessible internet to reshape and recontextualize every dark corner of our lives. Don’t get me wrong — we still bring physical maps along with us, as you should whenever you travel — but I've still been lucky enough to have never had to use one. With smartphones, I rarely have the experience of driving the wrong direction for too long or incorrectly estimating how long it takes to get someplace because my phone checks those things for me.
Flyering the town can be fun. It works sometimes, but other times, it feels like a chore that I’m doing for nothing. The latter feeling comes from knowing that I can inform people about an event via Facebook and Instagram more effectively and with much less effort. It’s less expensive, too, even though flyering is already pretty cheap. With the click of a button, I can “invite all” of the people in different Facebook groups to an event at once. That’s hundreds of notifications sent out at the same time for free. And if I want to target new audiences, I just have to boost a post tagged with the specific location where my show is happening!
Additionally, Instagram, Twitter, and mailing lists are ways to remind people of these events, and you don’t have to call anyone, you can just message them. Organizing the event can even be done by putting all the band members, promoters, sound guys, and volunteers into a group chat. If there’s anything the internet has done here, it’s put everything in one place so you don’t have to go out of your way for people to hear about your next show.
If video killed the radio star, then streaming services continued to beat the corpse. I do think there’s still a place for terrestrial radio in this day and age, and I don’t ever want it to go away. But the actual radio is not how I typically find new music, and it’s not how most of my friends do either. With the internet, that role is additionally filled by tools like Spotify, Pandora, and Bandcamp to help music lovers find new artists.
A lot of the formats are the same. For instance, Pandora is similar to what you may hear on your car radio, and record labels still put out compilations like the good ol’ days, though typically on Bandcamp. It just reaches across different platforms, and everything is more targeted and digitized. It’s all available in one place. I used to have to go to shows to get compilations then play them in my car later. Now, I can do that all on a computer.
This idea of new independent music being at your fingertips is a stark contrast to stories of mail-order catalogs and people going to record stores in the middle of nowhere to find 7" singles of bands they hadn't heard yet. Whereas independent music used to require work to find, now it only requires a Google search for “related artists.” You don’t even have to pay to listen — you can stream it for free, and if an artist doesn’t let you stream their music for free, well, you’ll never hear them again.
Because why would you pay for music you know nothing about when you don’t have to do that for any other artist?
Two words: social media. Three more words: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. There are so many avenues and functions through social media that make the world a much smaller place. I have friends from all around the country that I’ve met through touring, and I interact with them on a weekly basis digitally, whether that’s through Snapchat, liking and commenting on each other’s posts, or responding by text or messenger privately to things we see on social media. I’ve booked my last two or three tours through social media as well, each one using it more than the last.
While some people choose to add everyone and anyone on Facebook (this is a pet peeve of mine), my more recent experience has people — particularly those who are in bands or run businesses catering to musicians — wanting to connect on Instagram more so than Facebook. Studies seem to back this up, though I’m not sure why. It’s possible that the vulnerability of Facebook has caused people to rethink who they let see it and who they don’t. Or maybe it's just that Instagram pictures are better at cutting through the clutter.
In several years, I’m sure people on tour will be asking me to connect with them on a different platform. These things keep changing, but the idea of networking and keeping in touch does not, and it’s increasingly easier as time continues.
The cost of convenience
With every 100 steps forward, we have to take a few steps back. The metaphorical cables with which the internet ties us together put a strain on our psyches, I think. If the problem can be summed up in one word, it is “excess.” The convenience of being able to put your art in everyone’s face (or, in this case, ears) at the click of a button comes with the same option for everyone else. I (very literally) don’t have the time to listen to every new band that comes out, even if they apparently cater to the kind of music I normally listen to.
Additionally, I can’t book every artist who asks me to set them up with a show in my hometown. Touring and promotion have become so in-the-moment that I, and many of you, are being hit up several times a week minimum to set up shows for friends of friends. With my own music, label, and day job, I don’t have the time to do all that.
There's a lot of drama that comes with social media, and the music scene is one of the worst places for it. This happens in general, and, when operating on social media, users have to be aware of their own mental health. It’s easy to feel biased toward a band or promoter when your entire Facebook feed is an echo chamber. The cases of dishonest and manipulative people aside, I believe this to be bad for a music scene, especially as a group of independent artists who need support in expressing ourselves.
Lastly, I think the internet has created an excuse for some people not to work as hard. Being an artist will always require a little sacrifice, and sometimes, people expect to build careers off of what they can do on their computers. And because (in rare cases) this actually has worked, a plethora of talented musicians either give up on themselves or don’t want to put in the extra work to get their music to the people who would enjoy it the most after just a small taste of failure.
Weighing the facts
Obviously, though, the internet has still been widely beneficial for DIY artists. Like I said, even with a couple steps backward, we’re still taking hundreds of steps forward. Yeah, the world is oversaturated with unoriginal cookie-cutter bands right now, but that doesn’t make anything impossible. In fact, you can learn basically anything you want on the internet! You’re creative; figure out how to set yourself apart from other artists.
Whether it’s getting onto the perfect compilation or working with the right labels, making your music go viral on Reddit, or even going as far as the band PUP and turning your music video into a choose-your-own-ending video game, the online music scene is a code to crack, and all of the right tools are at your disposal.
How has the internet helped or hurt your band? How have you managed or not managed to navigate through the over-saturation of mediocre music? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter @Robolitious.
Rob Lanterman is a writer, musician, and record label owner from Boise, ID. He enjoys writing about how aspects of punk rock and DIY have informed all areas of his life, as well as his own experience touring, writing, recording, and being a label owner.