One of the most persistent myths of the digital age is that the internet is here to help new musicians become rich and famous on their own terms – that it’s never been easier for independent bands to MAKE IT; that social media is opening up the doors to people who previously found themselves closed out.
But this is a pretty two-dimensional way of looking at the digital landscape – virtual keys to virtual gateways – I can’t work out if it’s closer to sci-fi or fantasy. The emails I receive from young bands throwing their demos about still use old fashioned phrases like “reaching the next level” and “breaking through” as though we were all trudging along in an 8bit platform beat-em-up.
Like it or not, we are no longer living a linear narrative (or at least our online avatars aren’t), we live in the age of the network. Networks explode outwards in all directions.
We’re drowning in the biggest Venn diagram anyone’s ever seen.
The little bit of the web devoted to the plight of needy musicians does not exist to help fill the world indiscriminately with their/our music. No one is ever going to see a pop-up box in their browser that says “Congratulations, the world wide web has selected your band to be the next U2, click here to download your leather trousers and helicopter keys.”
It can, however, help us to pretend. And that’s what Rock & Roll has always been about: Pretending. I don’t mean “pretend to be successful” by buying facebook likes and fake youtube views, or “pretending to be hip” by having white slanting Coolvetica text with forward slashes superimposed over greyscale images of the band looking at their shoes. I’m talking about pretending for pretending’s sake. Fantasy. Escapism. This is why most people want rock bands to exist at all, this is the niche that most musicians are required to fill. Sometimes we want social commentary, sometimes we want a call to arms but most of the time we just want a break from our everyday lives. Every successful band has incorporated a certain theatricality, every one of them has been in some way larger than life. It is the pretending that is important, not the pretender.
True, historically those without label backing were denied access to essential distribution networks (and thus any hope of getting their music heard by anyone outside their immediate vicinity) and that is a huge factor separating pop superstars from underground hopefuls. I’d argue, however, that the biggest difference between the winners and losers in this instance is that the latter were also denied access to that great big dressing up box enjoyed by generations of our favourite entertainers. Major label artists looked like they inhabited a different world, not just in the way they dressed and carried themselves, but in the way they were contextualized by the media, the way they were projected into the public consciousness. It was theatre.
This is where the internet helps – not in leveling the walls of distribution, but in bringing closer the canvases and collaborators. We can spin our own story, fix ourselves in post, fashion our personal contexts and sculpt the plinths on which we prop our art. In a virtual terrain where nothing is solid, magic and make-believe are within the grasp of us all. And though no amount of wishful conjuring will make an audience materialise out of nowhere, it is now within the power of all artists to project versions of themselves that transcend the pernicious realities afforded them by the everyday.
But, to judge from many current bands’ online presence, it seems all that’s left in the dressing up box is a bunch of cheap “rock star” costumes.
Really, why pretend to be Bono when you could pretend to be ANYTHING? Johnny Cash hadn’t spent any time behind bars when he wrote Folsom Prison Blues but I enjoy his jailbird act nonetheless. Similarly I can believe in Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust glam rock fairytale, no problem at all. Or Sun Ra’s space jazz for that matter. I’d happily warm my hands over a burning bin with the faux hobos (fobos?) of Dexy’s Midnight Runners. I might even be persuaded to stand and deliver for Adam Ant. I will not, however, worship at the feet of some sulky indie band shivering in a car park staring aggressively into different bits of the middle distance for no reason. There’s just no story in it.
The great disappointment of Web 2.0 (or whatever version of the internet musicians are currently spamming us in) is not that it has failed to give talented and deserving artists their big break, but that it has repeatedly exhibited the pitiful limits of so many artistic visions, like some great sprawling imagination graveyard.
The new crop of bands currently snuffling around Facebook harvesting Likes and email addresses have a simple choice: they can either broadcast their ordinariness or they can broadcast their uniqueness. They don’t need to be entirely original (indeed it often helps if there is something familiar to grab onto) but every audience expects at least a grain of raw inspiration accompanied by a suggestion of flair.
New bands no longer develop secretly behind locked doors, overheard by a handful of heroic neighbours. They grow up in public, wielding the same arsenal of sophisticated promotional tools as their more established/experienced peers. They don’t have to invade our Twitter feeds and invite us to their Facebook events – they probably shouldn’t – but there’s no stopping them. After all, one’s early demos sound pretty phenomenal when viewed through the prism of blind ego. But if you decide to put yourself on a public stage (be it real or digital) then you’d better do it in costume. Actors don’t just wear make-up for dramatic effect, they do it to prevent their features getting washed out by the bright lights. Virtual spaces have their own kind of illumination: just as uncompromising, just as cruel.
It takes a lot of artifice to make someone look normal when they’re standing that far away. It takes even more artifice to make someone look interesting.
To paraphrase Shakespeare: “All the internet’s a stage…”