We Are Living Through a Cultural Revolution!
Sent out as part of the MUSIC x TECH x FUTURE weekly mailing
No, not Mao’s type of cultural revolution. This is a revolution of art, communication, expression and beliefs. A revolution that’s driven by innovation, networks and our changing relation to technology.
When technology evolves, music is always turned on its head. From the recording, to the electric guitar, synthesizers, samplers, cheap microphones, and production software, each of these has created a revolution in music.
This is one of the reasons why I’m fascinated with music. It’s always on the frontier of innovation and debates about how we deal with progress, exactly because it’s one of the first things to be jolted by it.
Roughly ten years ago, I was listening to bands and mostly hiphop. Hiphop was, and still is, one of the genres that best represented the time we’re in. I spent a lot of time on forums like B-Boys.com and Rapmusic.com, where “netcees” would compete with each other to see who could drop the best rhymes. Due to the fact that it was cheap to produce music, people from around the world were able to participate. I was always more into “textceeing”, which was pure text-based lyricism and battling. As a kid from a small town in The Netherlands, I was competing and collaborating with people from all over the US, Europe and Australia. People from vastly different backgrounds with wildly divergent outlooks on life. Since the 1980s, hiphop has given generations a voice and a way to communicate with each other. Straight Outta Compton, the 2015 NWA biopic, illustrates this perfectly.
At the same time, elsewhere on the web, Hollerboard provided a“Soundcloud before Soundcloud” where producers like Major Lazer’s Diplo, Willy Joy, Spank Rock, Erol Alkan, Flosstradamus and A-Trak would hang out and develop ‘open format’ dance music where people would blend sounds from hiphop, bass, breaks, electronic dance music, etc. This Hollertronix mixtape is a good example of what the board’s sound consisted of in its early days. Dance music right now wouldn’t be what it is without that forum.
For nearly 2 decades, internet culture has been instrumental in defining music culture. Initially this most noticeably affected hiphop and related genres, but since the second half of the 2000s it moved on to electronic dance music.
Dubstep’s worldwide rise to popularity plays an important role in this. The US might be the birth place of electronic dance music (house in Chicago, techno in Detroit, garage in New York), but it took decades for the music to garner mainstream appeal there. I was hanging out a lot with Miro Gee at the time, the excellent producer behind vocal house-project Star Tattooed. He always pointed out how kicks had to be powered down and the tempo dropped for productions aimed at the US (mainstream) market. Dubstep could give dance music fans the energy they wanted and provide people who were more into hiphop or rock with a BPM they could understand. Within a year, you could type in any new or old song on YouTube, followed by the words “dubstep remix”, and you would have multiple options.
As Soundcloud grew bigger, it went through its most important phase as a cultural platform. The popularity of dubstep gave the genre a bit of a burnout and the sound was getting old. Producers started looking for new sounds to incorporate in their music. Soundcloud, and the ecosystem of music blogs around it, provided a great medium for people to communicate ideas around music, to remix each other, to incorporate their own local sounds, and to push it back out into the world within just a few hours. Moombahton is a great example of this and finally led to last year’s global moombah-inspired hit Lean On by Major Lazer. Soundcloud became the Tumblr or music: a place where a small idea could go viral and within days, hundreds of edits and iterations would be made, distributed and played in front of live audiences, from nightcore to trap to deep house.
Poet, musician and actor Saul Williams recently likened digital culture today to what drug culture represented in the 1960s. Saul provides a contemporary echo of what Terence McKenna and particularly Timothy Leary have been saying, both icons of the ’60s cultural revolution: “Drugs were a connector, and now we have technology as a connector.”
So, excuse me when I refuse to share the pessimism or concern some have over streaming royalties, the future of songwriters, etc. I think it’s trivial, because we are living through a cultural revolution and those that focus all their energy on defending the status quo are choosing not to be a part of it.
Music has always been a medium for communicating feelings, stories, emotions, thoughts, and now it has become possible to do this near-instantly with people from all around the world. Forgive me for getting annoyed when legacy copy-monopolists threaten the existence of platforms that foster this immensely important cultural development. It’s not that I don’t care about creatives getting paid — that’s one of the things I care about most. It’s just that I’m too busy checking out how some kid from rural Peru took a Jersey club track remixed by a Berlin techno DJ and blended it with local prehispanic rhythms. I’m too busy telling people about blends of trap music from the south of the US with Yugoslavian pop music. Too busy watching how fanbases of ‘internet producers’ connect and share their love for the incredibly niche music the subject of their fandom creates.
This is also why I don’t listen to bands so much anymore. As a band, it takes a lot of time to create a recording to participate in this conversation. I think bands, in their traditional form, are slowly losing their cultural relevance. Also from an economic perspective, electronic music makes more sense: it’s easier to tour, easier to make music on the road, and you have less people to split earnings with.
This is true for hiphop too, which has similar origins to modern electronic music.I set out to explain my love of electronic music. I haven’t even covered one of its most important elements: the communal live experience. If you ever get the chance to hear Tommie Sunshine speak about this topic, take it. I’ll be happy to expand on this in the future myself.
For all of those who have ever dreamt of living through a cultural revolution, get excited, for we are going through one right now.
Soundcloud is waiting for you.
(a special shout out to Generation Bass, who have been documenting this revolution for the last 7 years)