The good news is that we absolutely are starting to see the benefit of living in the future. Take this wild statement: you can now hear nearly every current local artist via a digital platform, and all of it is accessible from a web-connected device. Let that sink in for a minute. When I’m at a show, and I see a band I like, I am a quick search away from having access to their catalog instantly, and if current trends continue, that music will be at my fingertips forever, and most likely for free, too.
“I can fit an infinite collection of music in my pocket which is pretty cool,” said Josh Schroeder of Sleep Millennium. This is the complete reversal from the way recorded music worked for nearly 100 years, and before that music was isolated to only those within earshot of an un-amplified performance. The democratization of digital music means that in the modern age, I can have a playlist where Benny Goodman, Vortex Remover, Led Zeppelin, Orchards, & Joy Division all have equal access to my listening device of choice. That, alone, is staggering.
And local artists are starting to notice the difference this change in the industry has had on their own creative lives. “In my experience it spreads faster, and you can get feedback faster,” said Jocelyn Paige of Brides, essential if you’re a new band trying to find their sound. Getting music on a piece of physical media isn’t always easy or accessible to everyone, largely thanks to cost. In the digital era, we have finally found a format that costs the same for every artist at every level of the industry, and at the same price: free. “Releasing music digitally is very simple, quick, and inexpensive,” said Jared Richert of Showtigers, and he’s right. There are hundreds of free platforms, where you can post your music and offer it to fans, and at a price you can choose. Unlike making tapes, CDs or LPs – all costly endeavors – I can record and post an album using my phone by the end of the day, and people anywhere in the world can be listening to it within minutes.
However, this hasn’t really quelled the desire to make or indulge in physical media. Nearly every band or artist I spoke with on this subject all wanted to make physical media, and also wanted to own physical media, too. “Clearly there is a charm and personal experience in owning the music, having a piece of what the artist made. The artwork, having a collection, building your sound system. It’s a thing,” said Jayson Selander. And there is something important about having an album you can touch that will always be novel. But physical media requires a listener to have access to the gear that plays those items. “Records cut out a whole population of people who don’t have turntables,” Karen Holman said. A large number of people can’t hear a cassette release if they don’t have a deck, and many households these days leave the computer as the primary way music comes into the house.
The problem that arises, of course, is making money on music. Even with physical media, overall music sales are down from where they were 20 years ago, and while digital music is certainly ubiquitous, people are not really making a lot of money on the digital home front. “It’s definitely cheaper to release digitally, but in my experience CDs sell better,” said Peter Vortex, of Vortex Remover, and he should know, having been at it for years. And in a small scene, where money is already a little scarce, making a living at music is still questionable. The digital format is liberating in what it can do as a creative tool, but as a business tool, you still have to make something people like.
The world fought digital music as a format for almost 20 years, and now it has come to be a part of the way music is made and consumed. In the same way that this has become normal, there is certainly a trend with younger artists to think of the physical release as an afterthought, the same way artists made mono mixes of their records for years after the point people were buying them in stores. It isn’t that we’ll ever give up the idea of mono or old formats, in the same way we’ll never give up physical media. But at this stage in the game, digital media is such a massive part of the way artists interact with the music world that it is no longer a novelty or a thing of the young.
Now that we all live in the future and we have access to everything, the only real question when it comes to music becomes: is it any good?
And in Salem, the answer is, certainly: yes.