Fame vs Fortune

PigeonFor such a creative and progressive place the internet has an awful lot of blood on its hands. If we are to believe the popular music press the internet has so far destroyed the album, the guitar band and indeed the music industry as a whole.
I am Internet, destroyer of worlds.

But amidst the din of recycled and regurgitated whinging there is one question lying quietly dormant, cocooned in the chrysalis of a tale formed in the early days of social media. It is a question almost as old as this year’s Song Of The Year Grammy winner Lorde.
“Who will be the first act launched to a classic level of recognisable superstardom solely via the internet?”
There have been many pretenders to this throne but all have sooner or later been outed as products of old industry promotional tactics thinly veiled as democratic viral phenomena.

I mention Lorde not only to appear topical but because with the release of her debut single “Royals” last year the New Zealand singer-songwriter prompted a lot of industry pundits to drop their cynicism and admit that any song able to garner such mind-boggling viewing figures with a fully-clothed and seemingly gimmickless youtube video featuring an unknown adolescent with no famous relatives must surely mean that Web 2.0 had finally come good on its promises.

Of course, it’s never as simple as that. It’s no secret that Lorde’s been on a Universal contract since she was fourteen and, though one could argue major labels have forgotten how to shift units in the digital world, they still know how to massage youtube algorithms. The interesting part isn’t in the Hows and Whats and Whether-Or-Nots, but in the very familiarity of the discussion. Internet users are obsessed with virality and Youtube has for years been at the epicentre of our expectations, much the same as Myspace was in 2005. Myths are conjured around the mysteries of the modern to such an extent that these platforms themselves take up much of the spotlight (newness often being the brightest pigment in the marketing paintbox). After all, new bands often look and sound very much like old bands – new trends, however… well there‘s a story.

Internet folklore tells the tale of Arctic Monkeys and Lilly Allen constructing the foundations of their careers on the fairy tale of Myspace – talented yet naive individuals, diamonds in the rough, blessed by the internet gods and plucked from the throng of clamoring hopefuls. That was the sales pitch. Of course the latter had already had a pop career singing songs co-written by her famous dad Keith and the former had built up a formidable fanbase through the old fashioned method of relentless touring before securing a savvy manager with an eye for a fresh PR angle. But it was a good story, a snug fit for a world that had birthed the X-Factor the previous year. It was no longer enough to simply discover a new artist, there had to be a Rags-To-Riches story attached, peppered with a dose of “Next time it could be you.”

And so the myth swelled in size and spread in influence, sprouting tentacles and multiple heads (with two faces on each). Every musician on every burgeoning social networking platform nurtured within their hearts the same simple conceit: if one person shares this song with one other person the chain may go on unbroken and eventually circle the world. No labels, no corporate tie-ins, no selling out. Just natural talent rewarded for existing. Such purity of stardom was unprecedented. It would be the DIY equivalent of the Philosopher’s Stone. No… bigger than that: Musical celebrity as immaculate conception.

And then along came the crowd-funding craze with Amanda Palmer cast in the role of a kimono-wearing Indie Moses. Who needs labels when we have networks? Your audience is not a consumer base – it’s an army marching to the beat of art. Then the inevitable backlash: Palmer is the product of a major label system. The name and success predates this coup. Of course she can reach enough people to raise a million dollars, but what about those starting from scratch? Can they wield the power of the network? Can they Frankenstein together a fortune from the flotsam and jetsam of work colleagues, old school mates and fellow struggling artists? In her hands crowd-sourcing is a creative marketing tool, in others’ it can look suspiciously like a begging bowl.
So that same question remains: Will there ever be a true success story owed entirely to the internet?

But we’re missing something here. The question should not be “How will this platform make an artist huge?” or “What will be the next service to capitalise on said hugeness?”
Being huge in the music industry is pretty old fashioned. If everything else about this business is changing then surely that particularly caustic expectation should not be exempt from the metamorphosis. People have been making it big for decades. Why not now make it small instead?

There’s a reason rock stars needed to be big in the seventies. The indiscriminate scatter-gun approach to music marketing was the only option when trying to effectively distribute an artist in multiple territories. Getting music out there was expensive and unfocused, there was a lot of waste and multiple misses for every hit. But there are more filters in place now, dams and locks that stem and guide the flow of hype down endlessly zigzagging and criss-crossing streams. A small artist can reach their handful of fans using the same tools with which they block out the hysteria of a major artists’ audience in the genre next door. It’s the most sophisticated soundproofing setup ever created. Now the biggest bands in the world are completely silent if you’re simply looking the other way. I don’t know about you but I can’t sing any One Direction songs. Or Justin Bieber songs. I know what they look like. Their marketing people have that covered. But I simply do not cross over with their sound. And yet I can instantly recall the riff from “The Right Stuff” by New Kids On The Block. I don’t like that song but it was completely unavoidable twenty five years ago. Contrast that with today – everything is accessible but nothing is unavoidable. Sure Bieber can get in my face, but he can’t get in my ears.

Why be the biggest artist on the planet when everything you earn gets siphoned off to feed the insatiable PR machine? Miley Cyrus is big business for linkbait sites like Buzzfeed but she’s not selling out stadiums. She’s probably already peaked (Lady Gaga is already yesterday’s news and she actually had talent as well as a provocative wardrobe – Cyrus hasn’t even got a wardrobe). Big isn’t working for her, she’s working for it.

Big is expensive, relentless, paranoid. Big is the fear of returning to small. Too many see fame as a barometer of success. What they don’t notice is the barometer has a face that stares back at them with its tongue out. Fame is a temperature gauge leaking mercury on your pets. For the artist (rather than the celebrity) fame is a byproduct, a toxic fall-out.

Too many artists have their hearts set on being the last of the old way rather than the first of the new. The internet doesn’t have to be a game with winners and losers. Nor need it be some great groaning homogeniser systematically spewing out newly unveiled photos of Miley Cyrus bodyparts for everyone to tut-tut over. It is a complex network of tiny pockets within which multiple micro-scenes can flourish, like the minute coral landscapes of intricate holes and secret trenches making up the Great Barrier Reef.

We need to forget the tired old ambition of hitting the big time.
Big is so twentieth century.

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