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In the Mix: Vive le Progres

October 13, 2010

For the past few months, I''ve written this column from the perspective of someone watching the music business change drastically since the advent of download culture. I''ve argued almost entirely for the old ways over the new, but clearly nothing is that simple and there was a degree of playing devil''s advocate. While I may feel that music no longer has the potential for major cultural impact that it once had, it''s perhaps also true that thanks to the Internet and iPods, music is more a part of our lives than ever before—surely a good thing.

Recently, a letter written to a fan by a young John Lennon sold at auction for $20,000. By contrast, I don''t think anybody will be paying anything for a framed copy of a tweet by Chris Martin. But that''s probably the point. Social-media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have made personal access to musicians commonplace. In a previous column, I spoke about the pitfalls of this new accessibility: too much banality and trivia, which can rob the artist of their enigma. It''s also possible that if an artist has too much feedback, they may try to please the fans. It''s my belief that being an artist is largely about being selfish and expressing that self. This, for me, is the distinction between an entertainer (cater to an audience) and an artist 
(create your own audience).

There''s no question that the Internet and social networking provide an opportunity for the business of making music move to the next level. Artists can now promote tours, albums, and DVDs without spending money on expensive mailouts. There is also the possibility of making the listeners feel that they are part of the team, and thus more invested in the success of their favorite artist. It''s also now possible to sustain a career quite comfortably by selling 50,000 albums directly to fans though the Internet, generating the same kind of income that would have necessitated selling 500,000 or more under the terms of a major recording contract (where the artist is lucky to receive a dollar for each CD sold). The result of this is that music is free to stretch, develop, and fractalize in all sorts of interesting ways, without having to show allegiance to the kind of lowest-common-denominator hit-seeking that has plagued creative musicians signed to major record deals for decades.

I also talked previously about the death of the physical album; this, of course, is partly romantic nostalgia on my part. iPods are not about to disappear, and in fact an interesting and positive new model is presenting itself. The generic CD is still with us, but I believe that ultimately the act of releasing music will focus on the two extremes of a cheap download and an expensive, deluxe art edition combining beautiful packaging with a CD, a high-resolution audio format, and perhaps also vinyl. For those of us who still like our music presented as art, things are actually moving in a good direction, with many new releases and archive reissues presented in this kind of packaging, with a lot of care given to the audio fidelity. On the other hand, the download satisfies the people for whom the art is simply the music.

As for file sharing, I can''t say I like it that much, and I struggle with the idea that many people now feel an entitlement to steal the work of musicians, something surely unique to this profession. But on the other hand, I ask myself why I started making music in the first place. It certainly wasn''t to make money or to be famous. In fact, there was once a time when I would have given away my music for free just to know that someone was listening, and in many respects that hasn''t changed—sharing the music is still the only thing that really matters to me. So given the choice between someone listening to my music for free or not hearing it at all, I''ll take the first option every time.

Steven Wilson is the lead vocalist, guitarist, and founding member of the band Porcupine Tree. His most recent solo album, Insurgentes, was released in 2008. Go to for more info.

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