How musicians have harnessed the internet

A No 1 single out of nowhere has worried the major labels. Ben Perreau on how new technology is changing music
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The Independent Culture

You have probably heard the extraordinary story of how a bunch of Sheffield lads called Arctic Monkeys made their way to the top of the charts, and become the coolest men in the country according to this week's NME. The new fab foursome, blessed with songs, sweat and spirit in abundance, have somehow harnessed the internet to take them from a London debut in February to a number one single, "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor", in eight months.

Ever since the web began burgeoning in the mid-1990s there had been prophecies of a band which might do this. But almost everything about Arctic Monkeys, who signed to the London-based independent label Domino Records in May, defies major record company logic.

Somebody in Sheffield knew what they were doing. Their blueprint was The Libertines' ascent to stardom in 2002. Pete Doherty had at that time been giving away demos for free. It worked, and when The Libertines arrived in New York early in 2003, everyone knew the words to all of their songs - a greeting which hadn't been enjoyed since bands like Oasis and Manic Street Preachers arrived a decade earlier. By building a following right from the bottom up they had successfully removed any barriers between the music and their fans.

It's likely that, earlier this year, somebody in Arctic Monkeys' camp decided that 15 to 20 tracks should be put "out there" to build popularity. Although they weren't the first young band to give away free music, their courageous indie street-soul style and audacious lyrics fired imaginations in a way which was just right to feel valid amongst a community of message-board users. Upon discovering a band like Arctic Monkeys in this way, people immediately felt a sense of ownership and developed an emotional attachment. The person who introduced them to me bought "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor" from iTunes the very day it was released, saying, "it was like registering a vote for the band."

By making their recordings available for free and allowing people to share them with each other, bands are able to get themselves heard without having to spend huge pots of cash in advertising, or participating in long, dull strategy meetings. Most importantly, it means they needn't worry about accruing the considerable debt inherent to normal record company practices, where bands are liable for recording and promotional costs against royalties.

Now, such a strategy is becoming a vital subdivision within Britain's blossoming music scene. Test Icicles are a band who have made their mark this way and The Maccabees and Larrikin Love are working like hell to be hot on their heels.

Many of the bands acknowledge the importance of a recent acquisition of Rupert Murdoch's media empire. Myspace.com is a website that gives fledgling rock bands the opportunity to create their own pages within it. Fans can get the latest tour dates, pick up messages from and post messages to band members, communicate with other fans and, most vitally, hear and download the act's music, all at no cost except for the time they're willing to devote to the activity. Music fans scour the pages of myspace.com looking for stuff they love, affiliate themselves by becoming "friends" and bands come out the other end with fully-formed followings.

As a musician, it is already possible to write, record, and distribute music without signing a record deal at all. Now bands can connect with their potential fans, too. The proliferation of widely available high-speed internet access coupled with the current crop of creative young people in British music has heralded a new era of low-cost, mass-market, musical fandom.

The alternative story involves the investment of a huge amount of capital to get a band off the ground, and this is the way that record labels know best. History proves that the way the corporate behemoths are used to doing it is the way they'll carry on, until they're forced to change. Could recent events alter all that? Do major record companies continue just as they did before, in the hope that their apparently huge swathes of cash will sweep any hopefuls under the carpet? Or can they find a way to grab hold of this shift in attitudes towards how we find music? They will have to be quick. Musicians just might not need what the big record companies offer any more.

Ben Perreau is the editor of NME.com and Uncut.co.uk

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