The past decade has brought about many changes to the way we obtain music. Beginning with Napster in the early part of the decade, and ending in a diverse range of legal & illegal formats for obtaining music. But how has the digital revolution affected the value of music, and the way it affects society?
There’s no doubt about it – music is more accessible, affordable, and disposable than ever, and this has resulted in both positive and negative consequences. However I can’t help but feel that each preceding decade was somehow more vibrant and exciting. So what’s changed?
Arguably the last real music scenes to exist were Brit Pop in the UK, and Grunge in the US. However towards the later part of the 90’s both of these genres died quite suddenly, only to be replaced by a wave of bland manufactured pop acts, and some questionable hybrid genres such as Nu-Metal, and UK Garage. This brings us to the turn of the millennium, and most decades throughout history have always taken time to morph into their own identity. However, the noughties had one key difference, the digital revolution.
With the new millennium came the arrival of file sharing programmes. This triggered a crisis within the music industry, with declining record sales; forcing them to act upon the illegal sites such as Napster. Inevitably this resulted in a split into two categories: legal and illegal downloads, as there is always a new group of music pirates ready to replace the latest illegal file sharing programme. For example Kazaa followed Napster, and Lime Wire followed Kazaa.
I-tunes is arguably the most recognised platform for legal downloads, and sells single tracks for as little as 99p each. This naturally encourages people to pick & mix tracks, which in-turn discourages people from listening to whole albums. The I-pod as a format makes switching from track to track, and from one album to another quicker than ever before. Gone are the days when one would commute with a walkman loaded with one album, or commit time to listening to a whole album in one sitting.
Our increasingly fickle listening habits would also appear to compliment our 21st century obsession with celebrity and 15-minutes of fame. Programmes such as Pop Idol & X-Factor have provided us with manufactured music in its purist form – a world where the focus is 100% on fame, image, and celebrity status rather than creativity.
It could be argued that programmes like X-Factor and Pop Idol have replaced Top Of The Pops. Families would gather around the TV on a Thursday night to catch a glimpse of the latest chart toppers. However, I believe that by the time of its demise in 2006, the demand for such a program had diminished. This was quite possibly due to an increasing amount of choice in musical entertainment such as MTV, and the Internet. People no longer had to wait until Thursday night to catch the latest hits.
So arguably, this increased availability of music has devalued music’s societal role significantly. If people can get something for free, there will always be a portion of the population who will take advantage of that. However, it isn’t all bad news. The decline in album sales has created more competition in the CD sales market, and created a situation where you can buy albums online for as little as £3. (Great for lovers of physical product such as myself.) However, this only perpetuates the devaluation of music, and combined with the ability to mix and match tracks on I-Tunes – encourages listeners to flip around from artists to artist, and genre to genre. Thus, consumers are less careful about what they buy, and have less investment into a band or their product.
But what does this mean for our initial question? Essentially, changing listening habits and the dominance of TV based instant fame make it hard for any act to develop longevity, and therefore a dominant pop culture is unlikely to develop. Instead, what we end up with is lots of much smaller segregated music scenes on the fringes, and the mass market dominated by manufactured artists. So with this considered, does this mean the dominant pop culture of the last decade has been Simon Cowell? What image will we associate with the noughties in 20 years time? Perhaps only time will tell, but as things stand I struggle to put my finger on it.