The sound of change

Modern technology is improving the way we listen to music as well as the manner in which it is made.

John Grimley

On the bus, at the Recreation Center and in class: Most people are plugged into iPods whenever possible. Today students carry hundreds of their favorite albums everywhere they go.

Technology completely changed the music landscape. ItâÄôs affected how we buy, hear and even make music. TodayâÄôs artist has more tools and opportunities than ever before. Technology is also forcing musicians to try new ways to reach fans and sell their product.

Musicians today explore more and more avenues in order to reach fans. Even better, big record companies no longer dominate the industry, which is good for musicians and even better for fans.

The path to being a professional musician used to involve playing small clubs and hoping to get the attention of a record label. Thanks to the Internet, that changed.

MySpace, once intended to compete against Facebook in the social-networking arena, instead became one of the easiest ways to find rising bands. A MySpace page is now almost as crucial for a band as a clever name. The service lets bands set up a free page, complete with music videos, a biography, lists of tour dates and links to buy albums.

Sites like Vimeo and YouTube, alongside MySpace, make it easy for a band big on riffs but low on cash to reach a receptive audience. Although they do have drawbacks âÄî Justin Bieber started out as a YouTube sensation.

Bands have started to explore many different ways to connect with fans. Radiohead decided to let people name their own price for their 2007 album “In Rainbows.” Not surprisingly, most people only paid pennies for the album, but it demonstrated the trust the band had in its audience.

Earlier this year, the band Middle Brother developed an iPhone app for fans. The free app lets people download new songs and wallpapers, and watch videos posted by the band. The app bridges the gap between the band and its fans.

With big record labels hurting, many more artists are trying their hand at running the show. One of the most familiar labels/rap-troupes is MinneapolisâÄô own Doomtree, who, instead of releasing albums, releases bite-sized samplers, usually three or four songs long. A national example is Jack White, formerly of the White Stripes. The rock star has set up a record label in his adopted city of Nashville dealing mainly in vinyl records. WhiteâÄôs Third Man Records serves as a recording studio, live stage and record store. It hosts concerts and releases re-mastered or new recordings from its hand-picked artists that White produces himself. So far, the labelâÄôs low operating costs and WhiteâÄôs popularity have made the label a surprising success.

Many musicians are also looking to the past to help them fight piracy. Vinyl sales have steadily increased in the past five years, and bands have started releasing exclusive material to celebrate National Vinyl Record Day on Aug. 12. Vinyl listeners like the warm sound and extra swag usually thrown into the record package, and record labels and bands appreciate the fact that itâÄôs really hard to pirate vinyl.

On the other end of the spectrum, new technology has given listeners countless ways to find their next music obsession.

The demise of the CD has been a blessing for fans. The biggest benefit listeners have seen âÄî or heard âÄî is practically unlimited access to music. Besides digital download sites like iTunes and Amazon, there are now a myriad of ways to find your next favorite song.

Streaming Internet radio has become a huge market thanks to Pandora. The site uses an algorithm called the Music Genome Project to suggest bands that a listener might like based on artists the user tells the service. The site currently boasts 80 million listeners.

Spotify and Grooveshark have one-upped Pandora by letting listeners pick their own songs and create play lists without having to pay any fees. Spotify is not available in the U.S. yet. The company is trying to reach agreements with major U.S. record labels and hopes to be in the U.S. market by the end of 2011.

Then there are the music-buffets of the Internet. Services like Napster, Rhapsody and MicrosoftâÄôs Zune Pass let listeners download as much music as they want for a monthly subscription fee. Subscribers can put the music on everything from laptops to smart phones.

Fans are also getting more attention from musicians. Instead of trying to attract a giant fan base of semi-loyal listeners, many artists are aiming for a smaller group of dedicated fans. This translates to smaller tours. Think First Avenue instead of Excel Energy Center.

The strategy helps artists because loyal fans are the ones most likely to head to shows (and buy a t-shirt). It benefits fans because they get more back from their favorite bands.

While major record labels try to find new ways to return to the years of massive profit, many artists have found alternative means to connect with fans on a more personal level as well as new ways to get their music heard.

Fans are discovering the perks of following artists that arenâÄôt controlled by four record deals and corporate input. Artists are finding the freedom to stretch the boundaries and explore different ways of making music and getting people to listen to it. Technology has broken down many of the barriers between musicians and their audience. This is great news for any music fan.

 

John Grimley welcomes comments at [email protected].