In the mid-nineties when Napster and low-bit rate mp3s were flooding college campuses with their fancy fiber backbones, philosophical debate arose. Oh sure, the recording industry said that the Internet was trying to kill music, and that if you copied music you were no different than someone breaking into a Tower Records and sweeping piles of CDs into your backpack.
The counterargument was of course that piracy might not be right, and might be terrible for the music industry in the long run, but that copying was not stealing because loss of a hypothetical potential sale was not comparable to physically taking an item that the original owner no longer had. Both sides were right, both sides were wrong, and for the most part the arguments tapered off as consumers were willing to pay a buck a song on iTunes and the recording industry liked taking that money. A new equilibrium was reached in which all sides were more or less happy, without ever acknowledging that they weren’t correct in any way.
So it goes.
But there was a far more interesting debate that has only crept up in importance over the years, the black sheep bit of argument that was less important in the short term of quarterly sales but far more important in the long term of how we interact with art.
See, the recording industry’s first concern was that anyone could copy their product, thus invalidating their giant plants stamping out a billion discs every year. But the second concern, which they still have not come to terms with, was that the Internet destroyed the basis of their business model. I don’t mean the business model of selling music, I mean the underlying business model of finding the music to sell you.
Anyone can record an album these days. Your average laptop, hooked up to a bit of higher end gear still in the price range of an ambitious artist, and you’re in business. Oh, that doesn’t mean you have the talent to actually record anything worth listening to, but you can hit the record button anyway. And the advent of the Internet meant that you could distribute your music worldwide with no corporate backing of any kind.
The difference between the Internet and previous communications technologies, the thing that makes it a revolution instead of an incremental improvement, is that it is the first technology in human history that allows many-to-many communication. No need for a million dollars for a transmitting tower, or an industrial capacity printing press. Just a little box that we’ve tossed in every household for playing video games and typing letters. And we’ve seen some of the implications over the last decade: more pictures uploaded to Facebook every week than exist in human history prior to 1990 or wherever the impressive line is at. More text being written, more sound being recorded.
The Internet is the starkest nightmare of noise to signal yet devised.
And at face value, the music industry (and the book industry for that matter, with a very similar set of problems and solutions vis a vis the Internet and computers) could hold onto that business model even as the one of actually selling you music got a little lost. They were the gatekeepers.
The rise of the Internet meant infinite art could be produced. And this was dangerous we were warned, or at the very least an irrelevancy. Because of the exceptionally valuable service offered by record companies: screening out the shit so that we’d know what was worth consuming.
This isn’t as completely an unreasonable argument as I’m making it out to be. It’s a concept called “rational ignorance” and no matter how well informed we are, we all do it every single day. Did you support Obama’s health care initiative? Why? You didn’t read the damned thing. You decided it was good based on the opinions of other people who told you it was. You can’t afford the time to read thousand page congressional bills. You trust someone else to provide the info you need while being essentially ignorant yourself. This is not an insult, this is not blindness. This is how you make decisions in the presence of infinite data.
And before you say, ha, I’m the rational one here who didn’t trust dem libtards and was against the AMA from day one! Really? So you were against it because you read it? No. You trusted what someone else told you about, be it newspapers, analysts, or the guy who foams at the mouth on the old crackling AM.
The same thing applies to art. There aren’t enough hours in the day to listen to every single album released. And even if there was, you’re still not going into all the clubs and bars and listening to every single song by every single artist. You’re accepting that someone else screens music for you, finds the particular tracks worth listening to. Movies? Same thing. Television? Ha! You’d need a thousand lifetimes just to watch a single episode of everything that runs worldwide.
But a weird thing happened on the way to the Internet not mattering. People crowd sourced the entire critical process themselves. There’s always a friend of a friend who can tell you what you should buy. I think this is a huge part of the fractionalization of audiences over the last twenty years, in which the top shows on television have plummeted from dozens of millions of viewers to a mere ten or fifteen, when shows are considered successes with ratings so low they wouldn’t have made it three episodes ten years ago, let alone rumble through six seasons and a movie. This is not really just cable killing the networks, this is really a gorgeous process of critical thought becoming decentralized.
You no longer have to trust the network/publisher/studio as being the name brand that tells you something isn’t crap, in order to avoid the vacant buzz of a thousand terrible alternatives in hopes of finding the lone grain of wheat in the chaff. Now there’s a website you go to, aggregated opinions of people you’ve learned to trust, lining up the wheat for you categorized by color, texture, and taste. And yes, mocking the inedible fiber right out of that chaff that other people are still inexplicably chewing on.
That metaphor may have gone on too long, but that’s exactly what I think our purpose is here at Pajiba. In our own small way, we’re part of the death of old media.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.