If I can’t track down a song I want to hear within three minutes of deciding I want to hear it, I get annoyed. I will cycle through Youtube, Spotify, Hype Machine, Tumblr, and anything else Google will dish up for me, but if I can’t find what I desire as part of the Facebook generation, I tend to get a bit stroppy. And so it is summed up by Anthony Fantano: “The younger generation wants what it wants and wants it now, and the internet gives them that”; sweetly setting the tone for my interview with The Needle Drop founder and general music nerd, as I talk to him about the current state of music and its multiplying methods of distribution.
Sounding more like a cheesy industry salesman by the minute, he describes the “consumer paradise” the internet provides as “at your pace and at your place”; something which has been the case now for the past 10 years, whether the outlets have been legal or illegal. These days the internet is king, and the music industry has until very recently been struggling to keep up. Spotify has been the best attempt recently to marry legality and consumer demand, but even that suffers from piss-poor artist payment due in part to itself barely making enough money to keep going. However, one site seems to consistently be used for music, and it’s the site Anthony knows best: “you could combine all an artist’s plays on Spotify, on every legal or semi-legal stream, and it would still be dwarfed by the number of plays a band gets on YouTube”. But whether this is a good thing for us, or for music in general, is what I’ll end up discussing the most.
Anthony is familiar with YouTube as it’s the place he’s received the most attention. The Needle Drop is “part blog, vlog and public radio show”, but best known in its YouTube form, where it has almost 70,000 subscribers and over 18 million video views. Not bad for a channel which is basically a guy sitting in front of a camera talking about a different album several times a week. I ask him what his success is down to. His modesty gets in the way of a decent answer. But what he does say is that not knowing what he’s going to review next a lot of the time (he picks suggestions from YouTube comments) is what keeps him interested. And when you run the show, that’s probably the most important thing to keep the channel going.
For me at least, TND is special in two ways. Firstly, it has an opinion that seems genuinely attached to the person speaking it, which is one better than most music press. Secondly, a real live person talking to you about an album for five minutes is much more interesting than reading something like this, or a written album review, or pretty much anything music related in text. But back to the first quote on us wanting stuff. One side effect of having everything from iPlayer to iTunes at our fingers is that we don’t have the same attention span that our older counterparts did. Not only this, but instead of having to put in a bit of effort to buy and listen to music, you can now do it whilst doing six other things. “What’s interesting now is with all the music on the net is you don’t need to hang out at the ‘underground music store’; the younger generation, getting the majority of their music from the internet, has less of a bold divide between those two worlds… that of music and of everything else.” Rewind 50 years, and picture a Boat That Rocked-esque utopia of music culture – the pirate radio-based film depicts a younger generation’s love of crowding round a radio to catch the latest hits. Or look at High Fidelity’s picturesque music hipstardom – there’s no one-click purchase to be seen. It was genuinely harder to listen to what you wanted; it might mean walking to a store, waiting for it on the radio or buying a physical copy. Even looking back just 10 years, music on the internet was in a state of flux. The industry hadn’t really been ready for the capabilities that the internet brought. Illegal sharing site (now turned legal) Napster’s fame peaked in 2001 with a global usage of over 25 million clients, before being shut down later in that year. The iTunes store didn’t exist until 2003, and it wasn’t until Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’ topped the UK charts through downloads alone in 2006 that the industry really started taking notes on the internet’s purchasing power.
But are they really up to speed now? Fantano says that whilst the consumer and the labels are pretty much there in terms of what they
need, the artists are still struggling to get paid. Sites like Spotify pay bands a pittance for plays, meaning “the best way for a band to make money is by sticking their song on YouTube with an advert”. Sometimes this can work wonders. Success stories regularly appear concerning some poor webcam singer turned rising star, or as Anthony says, “who’s popular and who’s underground can shift in a matter of weeks due to a viral video or an image or some clever marketing”. But whilst that might work for the odd lucky talent, or established bands that can get views in the millions, what about smaller artists? Aren’t they drowned under the colossal number of videos on YouTube? The reality then is that bands still need support from outside the internet, and that support obviously still exists. But what I’m worried about is the fairly steady decline of this. Places like HMV are turning to clubs and downloads, and independent stores to the vinyl resurgence and to people just making an effort to support them. But when competing with the ease of getting what is essentially the same product a lot cheaper and a lot quicker on the internet, you can see why physical merchants are struggling.
Anthony is quick to remind me that, however bad it may seem, it’s not all doom and gloom: “As long as there are people out there who value the physical side of music, people looking to experience an album on a deeper level than just on their laptop, who want to literally put life on hold and listen to a record all the way through. In the digital music age music has been taken away from that. Vinyl’s a format which reminds us that things have been different and can be that way again. Will I be sad to see [the decline in physical music]… yeah… but there’ll still be music!” In that fact alone we can rest easy.