#12: Dubstep, Clickbait and Culture as Content x I'm in London x App Store success, VR, and Minecraft
This week I’m in London for Music Connected. Look forward to seeing some of you there. I still have time for meetings on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Get in touch.
This week a thought piece about how and why our culture is becoming content.
Dubstep, Clickbait and Culture as Content
Read this article on Medium >>>
In 2007, dubstep started to get a hold on countries outside of the UK. The sound of the genre and style of DJ sets was vastly different from what people associate with dubstep nowadays. Sets would be patiently built, occasionally climaxing with a track that DJs knew would ‘kill the dance floor’.
Things quickly changed. As people were discovering the genre, they focused on that track, the dance floor killer. Soon enough, sets became dance floor killer after dance floor killer. With no clear peaks in their sets, DJs would try to just peak compared to the previous DJ. It led to a schism in the scene, where some dubstep aficionados would refer to the dubstep preferred by other aficionados as ‘brostep’ — reminiscent of a phrase used for a subgenre of another UK-originated genre, drum & bass: ‘clownstep’.
Eventually the sound became formulaic. Something which it had not been. Some of the newer fans, would not even recognize the non-formulaic dubstep as such.
The role of the internet in this is often underestimated:
Without the internet, dubstep wouldn’t have started spreading the way it did;
Many of the genre’s new fans, had never seen the music in a live setting when they got into it;
The context of the sub-culture was missing. There were no rules;
The currency of the internet is: hits, shares, favourites, likes.
While the internet provides great room for experimentation, producers are influenced by this currency. It is difficult to know whether you’re making something great when you don’t get feedback. On the other hand, it’s difficult to know when what you make actually sucks, but people hand over their internet currency, because it follows a formula they’re familiar with.
Music, Clickbait and Listicles
Internet currency and ad-based platforms have changed and spawned new formulas for media. A successful heading used to be one that captures the core of the story. Now, successful headings are the ones that draw in the most clicks. A successful article would be one that makes someone to decide to subscribe, read more, or to mention your article in a blog post, with a hyperlink — the old currency of the web. Now, shares on social media have become a crucial indicator. Time on site is still important, but mostly because it increases the number of ad impressions and click throughs. These latter two have become so important, that many sites just produce simple list-based articles. Articles with seemingly randomly generated headings (eg. 8 Things Cats do Better than Kids — You Won’t Believe Number 7), which are subsequently filled out by an intern with a bloated job title and decent search skills on Giphy.
Dubstep was probably the first genre which felt the full brunt of the internet. It started to gain momentum just around the time Soundcloud and Bandcamp launched. This is the time that Facebook started to get a strong hold on social interactions on the web. Suddenly it became easy for bedroom producers to be heard. Someone in San Francisco, who hadn’t heard dubstep before, could start producing it immediately after hearing the sound from a London-based producer. After a few tracks, they notice one that gets more ‘engagement’ (likes, plays, favorites, comments). Without having a great grasp of the context of the music, the producer thinks to themselves: “this must be the way it’s supposed to sound” and proceeds to make more of that.
The next producer comes along, sees what works and mimics. Suddenly the dominant stream in a genre becomes monotonous: dance floor killer after dance floor killer, clickbait after clickbait. This doesn’t mean that the individual pieces are no good, but in a wider context they are disposable and interchangeable. They are culture turned into cheap entertainment (♫).
While the internet provides great space for experimentation, it also dumbs things down. Our brains love pattern recognition. This is why people love all those dubstep ‘dancefloor killers’ — it gives them a dopamine release. The same thing happens when you get likes or notifications on Facebook; dopamine is released, which is why the web can be so addictive. This creates a feedback loop of people producing content that they know others will like.
A huge amount of humanity’s cultural output turned into ‘entertainment’ in the first age of mass media. This was bad enough in itself, but now, in the age of networked mass media, we go a step further to the conclusion of pop culture: our culture is content.
Culture as content
We got it wrong. We wanted everything for free. We were not vocal enough to force governments to think ahead, break up concentrations of power and force cultural corporations to innovate. As a result, the cultural landscape provided by the internet has become a Frankenstein of business models and ideologies.
A great example of such a Frankenstein is Spotify, with its massively popular freemium model: a premium tier for the power users and a free tier for more casual users. Here, on the one hand, we have a rather radical notion that most culture and information should be free. On the other hand, it contains the idea that everything should be paid for — if not through subscriptions, then ads. This idea has been dubbed ‘Feels Like Free’ by media futurist Gerd Leonhard.
The problem is that this ad-supported model is only rewarding for content with high engagement levels, because it’s essentially a numbers game.
The internet landscape has changed from ‘websites’ to predominantly platforms. These platforms help you browse through, discover and consume content. This means attention, not money, has become the scarcest good on the internet. To be discovered, you need to compete for attention. To compete for attention, you need to do what drives clicks and engagement. It’s the Rat Race 2.0.
It is this indiscriminate hunting for clicks and engagement that is at the core of our culture being reduced to content. With the demise of sub cultures as an essential element to music genres, for many producers the context necessary to determine what engagement to look for is missing. On the internet, it is hard to accurately understand a scene and take it over. Scenes have become blurry and are no longer geographically bound. So for a Trap producer, it might be hard to know whose engagement to vie for, other than 16–24 year olds who like electronic dance music and hiphop.
Don’t pee in the pool
Some of the points mentioned above might hit home. We all deal with content in some way, whether that’s making posts on social media, photos on Instagram, releasing music or advertising. To keep people’s attention, it’s not necessary to release one ‘dance floor killer’ after another. We have an amazing pool of culture and filling that pool with ‘content’ is like peeing in the pool.
I’ve always been a bit of an activist and I hope I’ve triggered your inner activist too. If you feel like you need to do something, here’s what you can do.
Release music you believe in. Identify your inspirations and try to find a way to connect with them. Networking is key if you want to be successful in music. Connect with your early audience. Seriously, talk to them on Skype, through Periscope sessions, whatever. Understand who they are. Keep them in mind when you make music, so that you can forget about the number of likes, clicks, whatevers. A 1,000 True Fans can help you make a living. Offer them value beyond your music. Platforms like Patreon and PledgeMusic will help you do this.
Stop posting insignificant nonsense right now. Stop creating content for the sake of engagement. Answer this: why do you need engagement? Your answer will probably contain what you should focus your efforts on. Feel great because your intern posted a cat picture which got you a 1,000 new likes on Facebook? Unless you run a pet store, cancel your evening plans and spend your night thinking about how the hell having those likes will help you at all. Compare that to the value of using that time to connect directly, proactively, to a customer in a meaningful and caring way.
Consumers (all of us!):
Stop liking unremarkable things on Facebook. Stop validating nonsense. Do an experiment and stop using Facebook’s Like button for a month (or quit Facebook altogether). If you like something, send someone a message or comment. Find ways to reward people who make great things. This can mean subscribing directly to a good record label on Drip, reading through Blendle (micropayment journalism platform), supporting crowdfunding projects, or helping an artist in need out by buying their music or making a donation. Basically, stop flicking channels and spend more of your time and money on artists you truly appreciate.
The internet has shaped an amazing reality. At any given time, we have near-instant access to our shared cultural output. As the distinction of online and offline blur we find ourselves increasingly immersed in a vast pool of information and culture.
So please, don’t pee in the pool.
Recommend on Medium >>>
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The Minecraft Generation >>>
Interesting piece on the friction between longstanding record label practices and digital music services’ desire to serve their users with an excellent experience >>>
Thanks to everyone who recommended and shared my Music 2025 piece on Medium. It’s just a button on your end, but on my end I receive all sorts of interesting questions and connections. This has actually led me to decide to give Medium a more central role in my strategy for now, hence the “Read this on Medium” link at the top of the article.
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