Music at Mars Hill is a weekly column by Luke Larsen that seeks to find God amidst the newest trends in both mainstream music and independent music.
There is a lot of talk these days about how digital media and social networking is changing the music industry. Streaming services like Spotify are taking the center stage in terms of mass music distribution, and the result is that music is being made and listened to differently. However, defining who the tastemakers are in our emerging online culture is difficult. At one point, the tastemakers in our culture were the entertainment distribution giants — the executives working for distribution companies and record labels. Art and entertainment was filtered through these corporations and handed down to us, and the public had very little say in the matter.
But who are the tastemakers of today’s Internet culture? The answer isn’t straightforward.
Some will argue that online publications like Pitchfork and Spin have taken the spot as the tastemakers in the music industry. A huge amount of value is put into how well music critics receive albums — so much so that artists’ entire careers can be built or shattered on a single article and a single numerical rating. I’ve seen it happen time and time again, so I can see why people think this.
Others will argue their own friends are the tastemakers in today’s culture. Through easy music sharing such as Spotify, Rdio, and This Is My New Jam, it’s easier than ever to check out what your friends are listening to. This is especially true for people who don’t have the time or energy to scour blogs and music publications for the newest music. As more and more of our lives and personal interactions move online, this idea seems simple enough.
However, I’m not quite convinced that either of these really take the cake as the definitive tastemakers in music culture today. As a simple case study, let’s take a look at the song “Somebody That I Used to Know” by the Australian indie pop band Gotye. The song started out as a hit in Australia last year with indie music publications picking it up as well. It also bounced around quite a bit in the blogosphere and found some attention there. But now, the song is #5 on Billboard Hot 100 charts here in America — what happened? Did the record labels push it hard into mainstream radio stations? Did Pitchfork give it a 9.5?
The answer is, in fact, no. To the contrary, Gotye’s album Making Mirrors surprisingly didn’t get very much attention at all in terms of music critics and publications covering it. Somehow it defied all logic and gained popularity without these props. My theory is that something much more grassroots took place in the life of this song. Chances are you’ve seen the following video, as people watched it over 80 million times and spread it across Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube like wildfire earlier this year:
This cover by Walk Off the Earth features five musicians playing one guitar and singing the different parts of the song together — a unique take on the already fantastic song. But this video hit the Web faster and quicker than even the original song it was covering. In fact, I know a number of people who heard the cover much earlier than they heard the original. All this really begs a question that might not currently have an answer: Who are the influencers today? Who is in charge of our culture and who’s word is actually worth something?
In all honesty, it seems more and more that influencers and tastemakers can be just about anyone with an Internet connection. We have an increasing amount of say in our culture no matter where we are in the progress of the life of a song. Whether we are musicians, producers, record label execs, journalists, critics, bloggers, avid music fans, or just the casual passerby, digital media and social networking have enabled us all to have a voice in what our culture is made up of. It’s now up to us to determine what we will choose to do with this new-found sense of ownership, entitlement, and responsibility.