Stealing the limelight

Rhys Cater 9 February 2010

Music consumers have the real power in today’s market, argues Rhys Cater

“We’re the Arctic Monkeys. Don’t believe the ‘ype”. These are the words muttered by Alex Turner at the beginning of the 70s styled video to the ever crowd pleasing ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor.’ Despite the retro video, the Arctic Monkeys are definitely a product of a different time, a different world when it comes to discussing their rise to fame. Over the last ten years, advances in technology have put massive power at music consumers’ fingertips.

We’ve never had this many options before: iTunes, YouTube, torrents, and most recently (and most interestingly to cash-strapped students) free, legal alternatives – such as Spotify – have radically shifted the forces at work in the music industry.

Success stories like the Arctic Monkeys’ have proved that artists have many more routes open to them for self-promotion than ever before. The group’s MySpace hype and whirlwind UK tour ended up in a record deal which was well and truly led by the voices of consumers. In the midst of concerns over illegal downloading, bands were beginning to realise that the Internet is a very powerful tool for promotion. Nowadays, anybody with some recording equipment in their bedroom, a MySpace page and the ability to write appealing tunes has the potential to become the next big thing. This is not to say that it is easy for artists, but that they have a new freedom to interact directly with their audience, bypassing a record industry who would once decide which sounds were popular, who would get promoted, and when.

All this means that the way that we as listeners approach new music has radically changed. We expect a lot of quality content for little or no money. Time, not money, is now the limiting factor in accessing music. If people download one song and don’t like it, they’re not going to waste time downloading the album. We no longer have to say “Well I’ve bought this now; I should listen to it through.” We simply jump over to the next MySpace page or enter the next search in Spotify.

It’s heaven for music lovers. MP3 blogs keep the eternally fresh sound seekers hooked up to a supply of new artists, while a simple search lets the rest of us check out Vampire Weekend’s new release on the web. For many artists though, this new era of ephemeral tastes represents a deprecation of the effort that goes into producing a coherent work like an album. Hard-Fi’s ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ (2007), whose cover states simply “NO COVER ART”, demonstrates a rejection of tracks brought together under one title and artwork: the album. We live track to track, artist to artist.

In the fight for our time, artists must think of new ways to grab people’s attention. As early as 1999 Radiohead saw potential in the Internet and released a series of short, free promo videos named ‘Blips’ which fans could download. Almost ten years later, their release of ‘In Rainbows’ saw a controversial ‘choose-your-price’ payment model which experimented with consumers’ attitudes to paying for music and in turn generated fantastic amounts of publicity. The message is clear, TV ads and marketing campaigns managed by record companies are not enough in today’s market; it is up to the artist to take initiative and think of new and inventive ways of getting their music heard. With the ease with which listeners can jump from one thing to the next, the end product needs to be immediately appealing.

We, the consumers, are playing an increasingly important role within the market. This Christmas, people grew tired of Cowell’s yearly domination of the Christmas No.1 and took action. A message started on Facebook hit home with thousands of people resulting in a Christmas No. 1 that took the industry and analysts by surprise. Inevitably protests were raised: “Buying Rage against the Machine is not helping – it’s putting money in the pockets of the very people who are imposing X-Factor on us!” This isn’t important. It’s not just about the money; it’s about making the voices of music lovers heard and telling the industry what we want and what we won’t stand for.

When you’re next at your laptop watching a mainstream music video on YouTube or listening to an unknown artist on Spotify, bear in mind that all this free content is a consequence of the music market being completely turned on its head. Hype is the new big thing and we have unprecedented direct access to artists and their materials. We’re in the limelight and it’s up to us to, so even if you’re not going to buy that new Broken Bells track you really like, remember to pass it on to a friend so that we all benefit from this new and more open marketplace.

Rhys Cater