An open web starts with artists

People who fight for an open web are usually people in tech or with some deeper motivation to think about how we communicate as much as what we communicate. It’s the crowd that actually read Marshall McLuhan. Most people aren’t in that crowd. Most people don’t lose sleep about the increasing centralization of the web unless it has to do with their privacy — and even then a healthy “many” don’t really give a shit.

But an open and decentralized web is vital for all of us.

Let’s start small. Maybe a word association game? Who do you picture when I say “internet entrepreneur?”

Photo by someone entrepreneuring on the internet or whatever

Right? Rich guys! Startup billionaires! Something something VC money! We’ve codified the idea that success on the Internet means wealth and fame, one breathy narrative at a time. Some scrappy (rich) man (yes man, almost certainly white) worked hard (with someone else’s money) to build their vision (note the ownership implied with that vision) on the web and their perseverance (connections) paid off. Yay!

That’s just a story. It’s growing to Joseph Campbell levels of mythic abstraction, but still just a story. Here’s another story:

Photo by Brad Sigal. Shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license. Original on flickr.

The Internet is truly massive in scale, but not all businesses built online need to be targeted at scale. In many cases, huge scale corporations stake claim to their territory and make it harder for smaller businesses to thrive. They close down swaths of the web, built on a need for traffic coming in and never redirecting outward.

Bikini Kill, pictured above, built a store using CASH Music tools that allows them to sell directly to their audience. No one takes a cut of the transaction. They pay only payment processing fees. And they control the whole thing. They own the data. They send fans to their own website. It’s truly direct.

We’ve become trained to think of music in terms of iTunes, Bandcamp, or Spotify. We think of musicians as a part of someone else’s business, not as entrepreneurs in their own right. That’s stupid.

“For every Internet billionaire we could make millions of Internet thousandaires.” — me

I think in terms of music and art because that’s what I do. It’s who I work with and what I fight for. It’s also just one example. The web was built as a great equalizer, and egalitarian tool where everyone can express themselves and anyone can build their own thing. It has the potential to give rise to a digital middle class yet we obsess about the stories of billionaires, mapping them to our favorite superheroes or gossiping about their love lives. Stop.

So how do we get more people to care about a decentralized and open web?

An open web starts with artists

I know. This is where we started, but it’s worth repeating.

The answer to how we get more people to care is “we can’t.”

People aren’t going to start caring about how the web works anymore than they cared about how TV broadcast networks worked. What we can do is get people to change the way they behave and by proxy change their values as a part of a larger cultural shift. And who are the cultural stewards who have been shaping and critiquing culture as long as anyone can remember? Artists.

The fight for an open web needs success stories. Artists need sustainable futures that aren’t just based on billionaires allowing them to stock their businesses. In the era of all-digital-everything this is a match made in the singularity. (Nerd heaven.)

That crowd we talked about? The one that cares about the open web and a decentralized future that isn’t reliant of an increasingly fragile network of middlemen and content silos? That crowd needs to embrace music. That crowd needs to embrace the arts. Because artists can help shift the culture and make an open and decentralized web matter. Not because of long hours of academic pursuit but because of cool.

Music is uniquely suited as a test ground for new success on the Internet. Artists can reset our shared cultural mythology of what an Internet entrepreneur looks like one audience at a time. Artists can be the backbone of a digital middle class.

An open web starts with artists.