After five years of contributing to RELEVANT, the time has come for me to step down. When I started as a music writer, I was a 21 year old hitting up the punk clubs of Chicago every weekend, scouring the Internet for new bands and continually swapping music out with friends. Now, between a major market radio show and a triathlon habit that borders on clinical addiction, I’ve decided it’s time to give the next up-and-coming music writer a chance to shine.
When I started writing about music, Apple had just released a new iPod (that you could see photos on). Teenagers were moving away from hip-hop and commercial rock and toward the hardcore and indie scenes (Death Cab for Cutie went from obscure favorite to nearly household name, thanks the the brilliance of the bands 4th LP Transatlanticism, and references on Fox’s The O.C.) It would be another year Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois would receive so much attention that even Wal-Mart would stock the album. MTV and VH1 weren’t networks exclusively dealing in dating shows.
Every generation’s music contains some form of revolution, from 1920’s jazz to 1980’s punk rock that spoke out against the decade’s rampant consumerism. This is the first generation whose revolution has come, not in the message of the songs, but in the distribution of the music itself.
While the trendiest thing to do would be to label this era “the age of the Internet!”, that only describes the vehicle for the real change. Our revolution is this—we have unlimited choices. While big-name pop acts will never completely leave the American music culture, no one artist is selling 2 million albums in a single day anymore, a la N*SYNC and Eminem at the dawn of this millennium. What was shocking five years ago (indie records finding a large audience, label-less bands headlining tours, putting up big sales numbers) is so commonplace now we scarcely remember a time when anything was different.
Decline of the Album, Birth of the “Superfan Pack”
One of the biggest questions that remain to be answered is the fate of the album. The big trend in within record labels now is to introduce an artist via an EP, giving fans a lower buy-in to check out new music. Radiohead and Smashing Pumpkins have both sworn off making albums altogether, pledging only to release singles and EPs. Kids coming up on music collectively display a lower allegiance to albums, or even the artists themselves. It’s become all about the song. As the 11-year-old son of an industry exec recently mused to his father, “why would anyone buy a song for a dollar when it’s free on YouTube.”
But even as the album continues a downward spiral (album sales are again reaching record lows in all music formats this year), new elements are taking shape. Artists ranging from Nine Inch Nails to Derek Webb are offering “super-fan” packs, which range in price from $30-$2,000. These premium buy-ins contain exclusive tracks, collectible memorabilia, and even hand-written lyrics. Day of Fire even went so far as to offer a “super-fan” pack that allowed 3-4 people to join the band in deciding a final track list.
The Good, The Bad and The Future
Of course, there’s no reason to drop two grand on an album, or even to pirate music, for that matter. So many artists are giving their albums away for free these days. Arists used to compete for sales, and always will to some extent. Now, they’re also competing for fans attention. Between sites like Last.FM and all the fan-loaded content on YouTube, there’s almost nothing you can’t stream for free.
This leaves the question of how any artist will break through all the noise of, literally, millions of “artists,” trying to break free of their day jobs with a MacBook and a few songs for sale on iTunes.
The answer is deceptively simple: inspire passion in fans. When pop-music began to take shape in America, early artists like Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Elvis put roots to their careers by touring. When the hit the stage, they created something. An emotion. An unforgettable experience. A moment of community. Call it what you want, but more people showed up the next time the artist toured that city.
While record labels created big, and often terrible albums in the 1990’s off of mega-marketing schemes (think: MTV’s TRL making Ja Rule a household name), the artists that last are the ones who inspire passion within their fans. This is why a band like Third Eye Blind, with no real media exposure in over a decade, debuted a new album at #1 on iTunes this week. Because, whether or not it’s true, a lot of twentysomething music fans consider the band’s 1997 debut to be a modern-day classic, and a lot of teenagers bought the record because newer artists like Panic at the Disco passionately tote 3EB as one of the bands who inspired them to pick up instruments.
Another way to look at passionate fans is how they spend money. This year, I’ve bought The Gaslight Anthem’s albums on CD ($30) and again on vinyl ($40), and ordered a t-shirt online ($15). I just dropped $90 on tickets to see them at Chicago’s House of Blues, and in April, I spent half of a day searching Chicago’s record stores for a limited edition live EP on vinyl (resulting in a $200 parking ticket from a missed meter). Even without the parking ticket, I’ve spent $175 this year on my favorite band of 2009.
What is the future of music? Honestly, your guess about the structure is as good as mine. I have no idea if CD’s will disappear from stores, if record labels will go belly-up, or if kids will even want a group of songs together in “album” format. But I do know this. The future belongs to artists who inspire great passion in their fans. And for all the doom-and-gloom around music sales, this generation’s music revolution has given us this: freedom of creativity and choice, for both the artist and the fan.
Seth “tower” Hurd, 26, will now attempt to write a book, and get it published. He can be heard on Chicago’s 89.7 Shine.FM (www.shine.fm) and on 101.7 FUSE FM (www.myfusefm.com) in Michigan. Search him on Facebook under “Seth Tower Hurd”
Seth Tower Hurd serves as Marketing Director at Parkview Christian Church in the Chicago Suburbs, one of the fasts growing churches in America. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.