For some counter-culture genres of music, the digital revolution has been a blessing as well as a curse.
It’s 6pm on a cool January evening in Bethnal Green, east London. On the top floor of a nondescript building, a group of young, mostly male, music producers mill around, playing pool and throwing darts. A lot of them have never met before but interacted with familiarity, comfortable because they know each other from time spent online, on platforms like Soundcloud and Twitter.
This month’s maestro is Oshi, a producer from north London who moved to LA at just 17-years-old, and will later this month release a track with American producer Baauer, of “Harlem Shake” fame. After an hour, the audience files into a studio with a huge green screen, where they sprawl on couches and bean bags while a few Boiler Room staff iron out the technicalities of live streaming.
There’s no doubt that for some of the people in the room, and even those watching at home, this is one of the first opportunities they’ve had to see what their work can lead to thousands of listens, a shout-out from one of their favorite producers, a room full of nodding heads. A show like this – where people around the world, without a record label or formal musical training, can send in their oddities and have them used in real time, for countless others to see – might have been impossible twenty years ago. But the internet’s integral role in music education, production and dissemination have allowed new kinds of collaboration to disseminate. The only question is, at what cost?
Technological advances, in particular, streaming, have helped create a musical landscape that is porous and fractured. On one hand, there’s an overwhelming narrative that portrays the intersection of the internet and the music industry as a positive development. Fundamentally, consumers and audiophiles have been able to broaden their musical horizons with relatively little effort, through easy access to vast archives and libraries, and, as has increasingly become the norm, automatically generated, tailored playlists.
But the internet alone does not the next Justin Bieber make. Digital service providers like Spotify, YouTube and Soundcloud have widened access to music in an unprecedented way, yet their rise has been controversial. There has been a sense among many musicians, as well as those working at or involved with the platforms they usually provide for, that the intersection of music and technology might not be the halcyon dynamic it is sometimes portrayed as.
Take music behemoth Spotify. When news of Spotify’s unusual IPO (only existing shareholders can sell to public shareholders, and investors can “cash out” whenever they want) broke, it became evident that the streaming service has an uphill battle to fight, with pending lawsuits, wafer-thin profit margins and growing discontent from independent artists.
While Spotify has more paying subscribers than any other streaming service, its model – persuading companies and record labels for unlimited streams of their music, essentially for pennies – has run into issues of profitability already. Competitors like YouTube and Apple Music have far more all-encompassing musical empires to cushion any possible pitfalls. Moreover, within the music industry, artists like Thom Yorke of Radiohead fame have continually raised complaints about the minimal amount that artists make because of how Spotify calculates royalties.
Craig ‘Comrade’ Massie, the crowdsourced “guru” at Boiler Room, points out that all of these developments – tutorials, easy access to archives – are a double-edged sword. “While the cost of access has decreased dramatically for the tools to create and market your own work, it also drastically devalues the resulting music to the point that it almost cancels out any chances there might have been to allow more people to use it as a profession.”
That conundrum – breaking in might technically be easier, but standing out has skyrocketed in difficulty – is really at the heart of these complicated debates. Does that mean that the internet’s central role in music production and streaming – dispersive, at once impersonal and personal – will dilute experimental music? Not necessarily.
There are few places that showcase this interplay between technology and music as well as Boiler Room, which has achieved widespread global success since its inception in 2010. It champions up and coming musicians and established talent, from Yaeji to Young Marco, spanning a huge range of genres, often recorded and uploaded for free onto its YouTube channel.
There is a clear contrast between the likes of dominant player Spotify which is purely a streaming service, and the parties, festival stages, and collaborations organized by Boiler Room.
And despite its growth (their YouTube channel has 1.5 million subscribers, and videos easily rack up thousands of views), marketing executive Osho Frankland explains that Boiler Room’s focus on authenticity means that it could never turn into the kind of service Spotify has become.
“We’re not ever going to really be like Spotify because there’s no algorithm that tells us which artist is next to book. That’s not the point of Boiler Room – it’s underground, and it happens organically,” he explains. “Part of our ethos, it’s called leveling. So, physically, all Boiler Room sets – like Princess Nokia in London – are on the ground, the audience is on the same level as the DJ. But it’s also about giving a platform to some artists that don’t get played out, and giving them as much attention as the big names.”
Some of Boiler Room’s initiatives are antithetical to how big corporations like Spotify operate; like ‘Low Heat’ where local musicians and promoters are invited to bring friends, booze and play some music, courtesy of BR. Another example is ‘Communities’, where staff work with promoters and musicians around the world – in countries including Turkey and Brazil – to publicise local talent and organize club nights in underground scenes that BR draws artists from.
Yet Boiler Room, and similar community-focused organizations like Radar Radio or NTS, is taking advantage of the same capabilities that have allowed Spotify and its ilk to grow. They emphasize the importance of using platforms to broadcast local talent and encourage experimental music making, as opposed to what will just do well at the moment. The internet is arguably vital to their work. It’s been a platform for local talent to be discovered by people who might not have come to their shows, and at least initially, it can encourage musical communities to build up, give young musicians and producers a chance to experiment with the support of their friends in low-stakes environments.
In another sense, past the distributional opportunities that the internet can offer, how these websites fundamentally work – in a word, algorithms – has had unexpected effects in some corners of the music industry. Spotify’s playlists have recently come under fire because of their focus on, for lack of a better word, vibes (Spotify’s SEC filing highlighted that playlist streams account for a third of all music streamed on the platform). As Liz Pelly points out at Baffler Mag, Spotify’s algorithmically generated playlists provide a valuable jumping off point for up-and-coming artists to make it in the industry, giving them thousands of new followers and broadcasting their music to a wider audience. But by offering a route in, is Spotify guiding new artists down a narrow path to bland output? Industry insiders and musicians have highlighted that the secret to getting on these playlists and getting exposure is to make vanilla music; broadly palatable and appealing to a large number of people, avoiding anything particularly experimental or daring.
Algorithms – feeding off endless streams of musical data online – are also influencing the kind of music that people end up listening to, on a collective level. Thump, VICE’s dance music arm, recently surmised that YouTube’s algorithm, derided for its formulaic approach to music recommendation, played a vital role in proliferating the dissemination of a sub-genre of house music colloquially referred to as lo-fi house (bass heavy, run through filters to create a hazy, rhythmic feeling).
That sound has continued to permeate club nights and those three hour long playlists that YouTube and Spotify have capitalized on, blandly titled along the lines of “chill study beats 4 – lofi / jazz (5 HOURS!)”. Pioneers of the sound, like London-based trio Ross from Friends, or DJ Seinfeld (full disclosure: two of this author’s favorites) have embarked on international tours, both in their own right and as support acts.
Like most debates about the internet’s impact, on everything from dating to shopping to renting a car, it’s difficult to disentangle the good from the bad. Problems begat by the internet are difficult to solve without using, you know, the internet, even if they seek to take radical new paths. While platforms like RESONATE or OPUS – two artist-owned cooperatives that double as music streaming services – have started to spring up, a cursory glance at sites like Spotify or Soundcloud demonstrate that most musicians, established or not, still have their content available on those platforms, perhaps because there simply are very few other places to go without running afoul of copyright law.
Concrete ways to really resist those organizations remain few and far between. Musicians and the people who support them are aware that the difficulties posed by these developments are unlikely to disappear soon. At the moment, it’s difficult to say that the frustrations of many artists, especially independent musicians, will actually be addressed going forward.
Spotify has released numerous statements reiterating their support for independent music, and emphasized the creative control that they want to give artists. YouTube continues to court controversy outside of just its streaming practices. As the costs of making, producing and listening to music increase, the dynamic between internet and industry will continue to warp and twist, perhaps eventually into unfamiliar, irreversible forms.