The digital revolution has re-written the way people engage with music, says Peter Sabine.
Travel back to a time of Walkmans, CDs played until they were scratched to hell, and you stayed up to 2am to watch Headbangers Ball to catch that song you loved. We felt the pain of spending pocket money on a bad CD.
Those days are long gone, but what is the effect on how music is produced, performed and listened to? In the mainstream, artists are exploring the notion of how music should be released. Björk released Biophilia as an app, Beck put out his Song Reader album as sheet music with art work, and Beyoncé’s last album was positioned as a series of music videos.
In Hong Kong, the shift is no less severe. For hip hop producer and artist INK, image is now playing a key part in how his music is presented to the audience. For future albums, INK is keen to release more videos. “Listeners might have thousands of songs on their iTunes, but one fantastic YouTube link will hook them into your stuff,” he says.
Local DJ legend Roy Malig takes more traditional approach with his “Strictly Vinyls” night where he plays only original records.
“With vinyl I love the human touch, you can look at the label, read the credits and who is contributing to the music and it has good pictures. So much of that is missing from the mp3, where all you do is download.”
Malig, who ran the now closed record store Dr1ve, says “before people wanted to hear something rare which they didn’t know, but now it’s all about what we call disposable music.” Seeking to buck the trend, Malig organises regular vinyl digs in his Tuen Mun warehouse.
And the interest is mirrored at HMV in Hong Kong, with 5,000 vinyl titles available that account for 12% of their music sales. Michelle Tang, Product Manager at HMV Hong Kong, says sales are increasing and local labels are offering more vinyl to meet the demand, much of which comes from people born in the 1980s who would not have grown up listening to music on a turntable.
The quest to find niche music is not limited to crate diggers. DJ Steve Bruce discovers underground music on SoundCloud.
“It’s like Facebook for DJs,” Bruce says of the online audio distribution network. “The whole community is very friendly, people are willing to share their tracks.” Bruce has seen a sea change from DJs who used to jealously guard tracks to a culture of sharing music. “Some DJs want to be the only one that has the tune, but we need to create hits. Any tune I have I am happy to share it with other DJs,. That’s how songs get popular.”
As the production of music becomes cheaper, distribution networks get wider, and supply goes up, and record labels have to adapt to the times. “The reward or capital from our work is getting music out there to anyone who wants to hear it,” says Artefracture label founder Arthur Urquiola, who puts out everything from electronica to punk rock acts that missed out on being released, or didn’t get a fair chance when they first came out. The label releases music via Bandcamp.com, and customers can pay any price they like for releases (including nothing). “Before, the record was the product, now it has become a calling card, and to see a return you have get out and play live.”
Gary Leong, owner of White Noise Records, says traditional CD launches can still do well, with the right management. When the post-rock band tfvsjs launched its debut album, Leong advised the band to skip iTunes and limit YouTube exposure. The CD sold out its 1,000 print run in months. “If people think the music is good, they will try their very best to find it,” says Leong.
The digital revolution has brought a ‘de-professionalization’ of how music is produced, played and distributed. Founder of venue XXX, Cassady Winston, aka DJ Enso, says the new environment has “made for a more niche-heavy landscape with so many specialized forums to develop, access, and distribute content. The idea of ‘mainstream’ fame is indeed changing, as an act could be at the absolute top of his game within his own subgenre, but hardly known across others.”
For Leong, the democratisation of music has greatly developed the local scene. “Ten years ago a band needed a label to release a CD, now the band can do everything themselves and the money goes into their pocket, so it’s a good thing, “says Leong.
But while technology has put music in hands of the masses, it is harder to make a lasting impression now when putting out music. “Make a release an event,” DJ Enso advises, “just accept that people will soon move onto the next new thing within days, if not minutes.”