By JON PARELES
MY 21st century started in 1998, when I got a new toy. It was the Diamond Rio PMP300, a flimsy plastic gadget the size of a cigarette pack. PMP stood for Portable Music Player. It had a headphone jack, and it played a recently invented digital file format: MPEG-1 Audio Layer Three, or MP3.
The Rio’s 32 megabytes of storage held a dozen songs at passable fidelity. Its sound was clearly inferior to a portable CD player; its capacity was comparable to a cassette or two. But the beauty of it was that it didn’t need any CD or cassette inserted, just digital files — copies of songs — loaded from a computer, to be changed at whim. They might come from albums people owned or borrowed; they might come, even back then, from strangers online. The Recording Industry Association of America sued to have the PMP300 taken off the market and failed — the prelude to a decade of lawsuits trying to corral online music.
It was already too late. For those who were willing to be geeky — learning new software, slowly downloading via dial-up — music had forever escaped its plastic containers to travel the Web. The old distribution system was on its way to becoming irrelevant. “You really think you’re in control? Well, I think you’re crazy,” Cee-Lo Green of Gnarls Barkley sang in 2006.
Because songs are small chunks of information that many people want, music was the canary in the digital coal mine, presaging what would happen to other art forms as Internet connections spread and sped up. For the old recording business everything went wrong. Sales of CDs have dropped by nearly half since 2000, while digital sales of individual songs haven’t come close to compensating. Movies and television (and journalism too) are now scrambling not to become the next victims of an omnivorous but tight-fisted Internet.
By now, in 2010, we’re all geeks, conversant with file formats and software players. Our cellphone/camera/music player/Web browser gadgets fit in a pocket, with their little LCD screens beckoning. Their tiny memory chips hold collections of music equivalent to backpacks full of CDs. The 2000s were the broadband decade, the disintermediation decade, the file-sharing decade, the digital recording (and image) decade, the iPod decade, the long-tail decade, the blog decade, the user-generated decade, the on-demand decade, the all-access decade. Inaugurating the new millennium, the Internet swallowed culture whole and delivered it back — cheaper, faster and smaller — to everyone who can get online.
For artists of all kinds (with musicians on the front lines) a 21st-century habitat of possibilities and pressures is taking shape — one that demands skills their predecessors forgot or never needed. The art they make can be created, as well as disseminated, faster and more cheaply. But it will also face exponentially more rivals for attention, and many more temptations toward superficiality and sellouts.
Through much of the 2000s delivery systems threatened to upstage the content. The iPod — a smarter, sleeker, roomier Rio PMP300 — arrived in 2001, prompting the creation of the iTunes Music Store in 2003. Five years later iTunes was the top music retailer in the United States, as its competition in the physical universe dwindled.
But the arrival of iTunes itself was playing catch-up, since MP3 files had long been available free through Napster (started in 1999) and other file-sharing services. Copyright owners’ prosecutions and shutdowns of Napster and Grokster only sent file-sharing elsewhere, and despite continuing efforts to enforce copyright laws, files now circulate everywhere. For sellers of recordings, it’s what Jay-Z rightly calls “a hole in the universe.”
Yet for audiences the decade has been both a sheer paradise and an overwhelming glut. Like countless other music fans, I spent the 2000s wallowing in abundance and drowning in it. Napster and its siblings opened up the music collections of multitudes, at first to be downloaded song by song, and that alone was overwhelming. Now music blogs post links to entire albums via a click or two.
Rare is the cultural artifact — hit single, out-of-print imported album, old or new live performance (and for that matter, cult movie or TV show or fine-art masterpiece) — that isn’t accessible somewhere online, legally or not. Google a song, and you can probably listen to it whole within seconds. Perhaps that sacrifices the thrill of the hunt. But I’m not turning down instant gratification.
Our era of immediate distribution and bottomless archives is in some ways a utopia for artists — who are, after all, among the most dedicated fans of others’ works. Musicians can study and sample a world of source material. There’s no need to leave your desktop to hear (or watch) Sierra Leonean bubu music or Flemish Renaissance polyphony. Recording technology always strove to make music portable; the 2000s were its culmination and it might get even easier when everything recorded is available in what computer buffs call “the cloud” of universally accessible information.
Ease of consumption is paralleled by ease of production. The computer is the definitive 21st-century studio, now that do-it-yourself musicians can record professional-sounding tracks onto a laptop in a bedroom. The ubiquitous software ProTools offers endless overdubbing and can put errant musicians back on the beat or tune them up, though it’s not always an improvement when dull robot precision replaces individual quirks.
The cut-and-mix, mashup procedures of hip-hop and disc-jockey culture have only accelerated. Beats from old vinyl discs were foundations of hip-hop back in the 1970s. Now no one needs to track down the physical disc because some aggregator or collector has probably put it online. And if Timbaland wants to grab a Bollywood flourish, or M.I.A. wants to study Brazilian baile funk, they don’t need subway fare, much less a plane ticket.
Even the acoustics of beloved concert halls and studios, which were once the definition of site-specific (and expensive) workspaces, have been digitally sampled, modeled and simulated, to be offered as effects within recording software. Many of the large studios themselves are gone for lack of business. Paradoxically, as digital fidelity continues to improve (and video moves toward high definition), many listeners just don’t care.
The tolerable-quality files (128 kilobits per second) that seemed like a good compromise when MP3s arrived via dial-up, and storage was measured in mere megabytes, still fill portable players, stripping away the depth and nuance that were in the original recordings. Now, like 1950’s producers who mixed their singles for the era’s car radios, certain musicians go directly for the crisp, hollow textures that will survive a digital squeeze. Maybe they’re practical, as their music gets played back through dinky earbuds or itty-bitty computer speakers anyway.
As the music whizzes around, artists can get a reaction to new work as soon as they want. Introduce a song in concert, and it might be on YouTube the same night; create a demo, and fans will snap it up, to get passed along forever. The same channels are open to every other artist (using the term loosely) with a MySpace page or a YouTube account. Local bands may not be local for long. But the flip side of disintermediation — not having to rely on any middleman for approval or distribution — is a near-infinite slush pile. All the filtering that used to take place out of earshot, in A&R and club bookers’ offices, can be bypassed.
With the artifacts come the arguments: the online magazines, blogs, forums, fan pages and celebrity news sites where rumors spread, reputations bloom, backlashes seethe and associations multiply. Radio (itself struggling against online alternatives) and television can still advance careers — hello, “American Idol” — but so can considerably less corporate tastemakers.
For indie-rock bands like Arcade Fire, or for a rapper like Wale building a reputation on mixtapes, a mention in the right places online — accompanied, likely enough, by a free MP3 or a link to a YouTube clip — can be the makings of a national and perhaps international tour circuit: a star is blogged. And what once was a post-gig discussion among a handful of friends can now be a worldwide colloquy, complete with photos and video as documentary evidence. Less and less takes place behind the scenes, even if it belongs there.
The blockbuster mentality that settled over popular music in the 1980s has not disappeared. The 2000s still had multi-platinum pop stars, some who got a running start in the ’90s (like Eminem, Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake) and some who made their way through the debacle (Kanye West, Alicia Keys, Rihanna, Norah Jones, Lil Wayne, Taylor Swift). But as disc sales fell, the Top 10 was repeatedly breached by acts with cult followings — the Mars Volta, for instance — rather than mass-market consensus. It was a good time for indie-rockers and for older musicians who weren’t going to get played on contemporary hit radio.
And without being able to depend on album sales, musicians’ job descriptions changed. Increasingly it was up to the performers — not their struggling major label if they had one, not the radio stations that had long treated them as disposable — to get themselves noticed. That could mean making silly novelty videos for YouTube, or it could involve what was once considered selling out: placing a song in a commercial, where people could hear it repeatedly (and then track it down online).
Instead of waiting for royalties to trickle in from sales, musicians were happy to get paid upfront for licensing their music to advertisers and to TV and movie soundtracks. A distracted listener was better than none at all.
In the 2010s musicians can look forward to working harder for smaller payoffs. They’re resuming — if they ever really left it behind — their age-old role as troubadours, touring more frequently to make up for disappearing album sales. (Big stars with expiring contracts went independent instead of renewing their major-label commitments, or set up so-called “360 deals” that depend as much on touring and merchandising as on selling albums.)
There are newer demands on them as well: interacting with fans who never had to accept the top-down, broadcast model of the old music business and have come to expect the individualized tone of the Internet. To perform offstage musicians now hone social-networking skills: mastering the blog post, the semi-candid photo, the not too overtly promotional self-promotion, the guarded personal revelation, the clever Tweet. Those with true star ambitions will also have to manage the meta-careers that a little bit of fame now entails, knowing that any time they show their face in public, it can turn up on a photo blog, any interview can be cross-referenced forever, any live performances or television moment might show up on YouTube. The smart ones, like Lady Gaga, already have their costume changes planned.
Musicians and their managers will also be improvising their own routes amid a wilderness of marketing and career strategies. They’re experimenting with what an album is now worth, like Radiohead’s pay-what-you-will album in 2007, “In Rainbows,” or Nine Inch Nails’ 2008 spectrum from luxury (an elaborate limited-edition $300 package of “Ghosts I-IV,” which sold out instantly) to free (digital versions of half of “Ghosts” and then all of “The Slip”). But those aren’t baby bands who had to do it themselves from the start. Newer acts may well be cottage industries — in wired cottages — for life.
One emblematic album for the 2000s was Danger Mouse’s “Grey Album” in 2004, which backed up a cappella raps from Jay-Z’s “Black Album” with finely micro-sliced samples from “The Beatles,” a k a the White Album. All of its sounds, in other words, were recycled; the musicality was in the cleverness of the cut and paste. There was no permission from the Beatles and no official commercial release. The album simply escaped onto the Internet, where it can still be grabbed, earning nothing but good will for the musicians, but ready to play any time.