In September 1995, the first consumer mp3 encoding software was released, allowing computer users to store digital music on their hard drives. At this time, typical hard drive sizes ranged between 500 and 1000 MB in size, so data compression was essential.
While it took time and persistence (because of dialup speeds), it became possible to transmit these compressed files to other computer users around the world over networks such as IRC and USENET.
In June 1999, Shawn Fanning, John Fanning and Sean Parker launched Napster, which allowed peer-to-peer sharing of music over the internet through a user-friendly interface. Just six months later, after the service had accumulated 80 million users, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) sued.
Throughout the 1990s, record and cassette collections were gradually, and finally, replaced by compact discs. Back catalogue sales, which had formed such a massive part of the music industry revenue stream for nearly fifteen years, dwindled – and in the year 2000, CD sales had hit their all-time peak.
There was a downturn in the music industry – and so, inevitably – rightly – budgets were slashed.
At the same time, the cost of music production dropped in all sorts of ways, and the potential to make and release music was, for want of a better word, democratised (insert massive disclaimers here about the problematic nature of that word).
Hold down the pause button
For a while, everyone held their breath. The ‘music piracy’ can of worms had been opened. The record industry faced an inevitable downturn – for many reasons, most entirely unrelated to unauthorised downloading, though you might not think so to read anything written about the topic in the press over the ensuing decade.
People made music. People released music. People went to gigs. Things continued, but they were not the same. Something had changed… but it hadn’t finished changing yet.
2000… 2001… 2002…
And then something happened. In fact, quite a few things happened. They happened pretty quickly and they made an incredible impact.
In April 2003, the iTunes Music Store was launched. In August 2003, MySpace was launched. In February 2004, Mark Zuckerberg made what was soon to become Facebook. In February 2005, three former PayPal employees started YouTube. In July 2006, Twitter was launched.
A lot happened that became central to what we now think of as essential to the digital music ecology. But it had come just a little too late for some people.
Between about 1999 and 2004, there was a lot of exceptional music made by a lot of talented artists – many of whom might not have been given the opportunity to record prior to that time. It was an incredibly rich period for music production. Some utterly fantastic records were released.
They may not have had anything like the promotional budget similar acts might have enjoyed just five years earlier – but they were recording and releasing like never before – and in every greater quantities. More and more great music.
But what we think of now as the core power tools for promotion and dissemination online simply did not yet exist.
This five year period between – for the sake of argument – Napster, and Chris Anderson’s identification of the phenomenon he called The Long Tail (in a Wired editorial in October 2004) represents a significant and important gap: a chasm between two entirely different music industry ecologies.
The tools for composition and production had leapt ahead. The tools for authorised and legitimate promotion, distribution and consumption were yet to be established.
And as a result, there is a five year period of popular music culture that represents an incredibly rich seam of fantastic independent music, much of which never had the opportunity to find its audience.
It’s an incredible gulf. A deep trench between the old music business and the new music business. A Grand Canyon of digital music.
I was talking to a friend of mine who was in a band ten years ago. They genuinely were – and I’m not being biased here – a fantastic band. You’d love them. They had a following. They had a record out on a really great independent record label. They were raved about on blogs at the time and were even written about in the mainstream music press.
But my friend couldn’t help but feel that they’d missed out. Their moment in the light was post-Napster, but it preceded YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Bandcamp, Spotify, Rdio, Soundcloud, Last.fm, the invention of podcasting – and all the other incredibly helpful tools that they would have gratefully seized with both hands and made the most of.
In other words they, like so many of their peers, simply disappeared in the digital music Grand Canyon.
The ‘long tail’ is not just long, it’s also deep and wide. Much of it – even the best of it – went largely unnoticed when it lacked the institutional support that a boom economy would have afforded – and we as a society lacked the tools to identify and make the most of it. We lacked the tools as a culture to seize on digital media as social objects and share them with our friends and networks.
And so the music that came out just a decade ago simply didn’t get a fair chance, and an incredible amount of great music from amazingly fertile scenes simply fell by the wayside. And this applies across genres. Post-grunge to Broken Beat. Singer-songwriters to instrumentalists.
I think it’s time we went digging.
Let’s have another period of reissues – not to replace a format and sell the same old music again to the same old people – but this time to bring to light the nuggets of gold that already exist in that digital music ‘gap’ and bring it to the attention of the audiences that would genuinely love it.
And let’s use the new tools we now have available to bring this incredible wealth of music to light and tell its stories.
New music is great. I’m a huge fan of new music. But there’s a massive amount of untapped economic value in the long tail back catalogue.
I reckon we should party like it’s 1999-2004.
Let’s all go visit the Grand Canyon and see what we find there, shall we?