Music

Brian Ahnmark
“When the whole world’s singing your songs… Just remember: What was yours is everyone’s from now on.”

~ Jeff Tweedy, “What Light”

How’s this for a study of contradiction: I was weaned on classic rock, I'm a staunch ally of the album format, increasingly obsessed with vinyl, disillusioned with the lion’s share of modern bands…

And I love how the digital sea change is systematically dismantling the music industry.
It feels strange to admit, especially since I’m prone to hearken back to the halcyon days of compact discs and stereos. But I can certainly get behind any movement that puts power back into the hands of the individuals responsible for making the music. If you have the gift to create music, then you deserve to have control of your creation.

The major label machine does not create music. It corrupts the creators. To be fair, record companies are in the music industry, and it is indeed a business. Of course they have to look out for the bottom line. There is danger, however, in applying business practices to creativity.
Consider the saga of Wilco and their 2001 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Upon submitting the record to Reprise, the band was informed that its creation was unmarketable with no single potential for radio. Reprise demanded changes to the album, and when the band refused, they were unceremoniously dumped from the label. Rather than roll over, the band fueled the fire by streaming the album for free on the Wilco website; the band was picked up by Nonesuch, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot went on to become the band’s best-selling album and make virtually every “Top Albums of the 2000s” list.

The light bulb moment of this story was the band’s decision to essentially release the album for free in the turbulent time between labels. The message was clear: To Wilco, it was more important to get the songs to listeners than to make money off the music. This is what music should be: a unifying gift. It was just a happy ending when the record went on to be a commercial and critical success.

I was blessed enough to be a college freshman when Napster exploded. As a music lover, I suddenly had at my disposal a dream combination: new friends with varying taste in tunes, and a file-sharing community that allowed me to sample music (not to mention a superb collegiate internet connection, especially for someone who grew up on AOL dial-up).

The freedom was overwhelming. No longer did I have to gauge an artist based on a radio single; I could explore popular songs and back catalog alike, research new bands, delve into classic artists without purchasing entire albums sound unheard. I expanded my musical taste several fold in about a month.

I know a lot of folks used Napster and continue to take advantage of digital music simply as a way around spending money, but it wasn’t like that for me. I discovered music that changed my life, bought the CDs, attended the concerts, shared my bountiful loot with friends, re-bought the albums on vinyl. I discovered Neil Young thanks to Napster. I discovered Jeff Buckley thanks to Napster.

And I got booted from Napster thanks to Jeff Buckley’s mom, who felt that the free trade of her son’s music was “tarnishing his legacy” by releasing “sub-standard” and unauthorized recordings. Even though she herself authorized the release of his unfinished second album, “Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk” and a set of demos that Buckley himself described as “garbage.” Apparently, unauthorized recordings are fine so long as someone’s making money off of them.

Not to harp on a dead songwriter’s mother, but that “legacy” argument has always rankled me. The “legacy” of an artist is the music they craft, not the number of albums sold or the amount of money they made for a major label. In the case of an artist like Buckley who dies young, that music – those “unauthorized” hidden gems – are all that fans have to cling to over time.

But as hard as the major labels and Jeff Buckley’s mom and Metallica huffed and puffed, they never could blow down the digital music house, and now it’s a mansion – hell, it’s a village. It’s true that music is now more disposable than ever, what with MySpace and free downloads and the like. But it’s also true that music is more accessible than ever, for the exact same reasons. A band no longer needs a suffocating contract with a major label to produce music and get it heard; it’s easy to self-record, self-produce and self-release music to the masses. Bands are adapting and becoming increasingly adept at handling their own merchandising and grassroots marketing.

As far as finances are concerned, of course it is challenging for an autonomous artist to make a living off of music. But I’m convinced this is a major factor in making the music great, as well. Music created for the sake of music is born of a pure place. Music created for the sake of profit is not. Is it any wonder that the vast majority of musicians create their finest work early in their careers, when the motivation behind the creativity is simple and unadorned? The artist is hungry and focused.

Over time, that recipe changes. Add a major label; add major label expectations; add major label A&R reps who judge marketability and control the creative process; add the pressure to repeat and exceed prior success. It’s enough to eat a band alive, and it usually does. The rare bands that manage to persevere and create lasting work late in their careers – such as Pearl Jam and R.E.M. – only do so after losing the comfort of success. People don’t call them great anymore. They’re ignored, just like in the beginning. They get the hunger back.

The digital revolution has spread that hunger by giving more songwriters the opportunity to share their gift. So tonight I raise my glass to digital music, for returning clout to the musicians and listeners. May you continue to inspire budding artists to record music in their basements and post videos on YouTube; may you continue to allow listeners to indulge their curiosity; may you continue to make major labels sweat as they realize what was once theirs is everyone’s from now on.