Over the past two decades, the landscape of the music industry has unquestionably changed. The Internet revolution and laptop generation sparked a radical transformation of the business, allowing music fans that previously read Rolling Stone cover to cover for their music news to now browse up-to-the-minute blogs (ours truly included) to stay up to date with their favorite bands. No one could have anticipated the social networking explosion, but since the use of new peer-to-peer websites doesn’t have an end in sight, the question is how has this affected the music industry and what will they do about it?

I remember my friend showing me MySpace during my freshman year of high school back in 2001. Facebook was still on the horizon, so this was a prime opportunity to network with my friends. But better yet, bands had a forum to share their music, write blog posts, update their performance calendar, and directly communicate with their fans. Everything was streamlined. There was no need to buy a domain, pay a web designer to create your site, or have fans register their information. Fans felt special if bands reached out directly — how excited was I when Acceptance (rest in peace) wrote “Thanks for being a friend!” on my comments page! Huge acts like Lily Allen, Colbie Caillat, Soulja Boy, Sean Kingston, and Never Shout Never gained national attention through the site.

When I later worked at a well-known indie record label in 2009, my job was to run the social networking websites of their biggest artists. I would log in to the accounts of smaller bands on our roster and send friend requests to users who were friends with popular artists in the same genre to boost their online presence and MySpace fan base. I would also design fliers to post on Facebook announcing concerts or album releases.

Since the early days of MySpace and mirror self-portraits, the boundaries of the Internet have all but disappeared, and independent record stores are in terminal decline. A myriad of music social networks are springing up to meet the demands of music lovers who want to share music with others and directly connect with the bands they love.

It’s also cheaper than ever to be a musician without the backing of a label. Bandcamp has become the new MySpace, Tumblr the new LiveJournal. Twitter lets fans win tickets, merchandise, or just a shout out from their favorite bands in under 140 characters. Bandsintown alerts fans when artists they like (based on their iTunes library) are in town. You also have sites like Spotify, Pandora, and 8tracks that put the power of music discovery in the hands of the fans.

Facebook is another heavy-hitter, and lead vocalist Josh Williams of the Alanta-based Ocean Is Theory explains why: “People are less centralized these days. Myspace helped us grow tremendously. Facebook certainly has brought new challenges. It’s not as easy but we have to adapt and run with it! We’re gearing up to release our record Future Fears on December 11, and we’ve been using a lot of everything to promote.”

David Haynes of Soundcloud, which offers a platform for artists to share music, says, “In the past, there were just a few gatekeepers to music, and you had a powerful network of labels, A&R men, radio and TV executives, and magazines who decided what you should be listening to. Now it’s so much easier to find out what your friends are listening to or what other people who like the same music on the other side of the world are recommending.”

Julia Nunes, one of my favorite YouTube sensations, regularly uses social neworking to promote herself. She tells the LA Music Blog, “It’s a way to connect with people and show more sides of yourself. I use Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter all in very different ways.”

Video-based websites like YouTube and Vimeo allow artists to connect face-to-face with fans and host private concerts as well. Several bands use these sites for vlogging or studio updates while recording. Yours truly won an online contest in 2007 to sing back up vocals on Paramore’s RIOT! by submitting a YouTube video and sharing the link on every social networking site I had. Check out the studio update below (another way the band involved fans in the recording process using social networking):

Am I a fan of the band for life? You betcha. And I’m sure similar contests like these, whether they’re ticket giveaways, autographed merchandise, or participation in the recording process, solidify a fan’s dedication to their favorite arists just as much.

But, as with most things on the Internet, there is a dark side.

Before the social networking explosion, agents and publicists packaged the artists, drafted press releases, and presented their clients to fans ready to sell. Music magazines used to exist to show their audience what the artist was really like. Now fans have direct, unfiltered access to their beloved artists sans the middle man. After Kanye West’s debacle with Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, he took to Twitter to defend himself, arguing that traditional interviews didn’t allow him to “approve’” the article and that the control was in the hands of the reporter.

This newfound access to the personal lives of celebrities makes fans believe they know them on a deeply personal level, more so than any lyric had before. They are our friends, our confidants. Brand New’s Jesse Lacey was frustrated by idol worship like this and penned the lyrics, “I am not your friend, I’m just a man who knows how to feel.” The Wonder Year’s frontman Dan Campbell wrote “I’m not a self-help book, I’m just a fucked-up kid,” in reaction to fans hanging on his every word. Am I saying it’s bad to worship the bands you love? No way. I’m simply saying that if they TwitPic their breakfast or reply to you on Tumblr, it doesn’t mean they owe you an autograph if you run into them at Safeway.

Also, let’s not forget the financial hit that the music industry took when the price of CDs went from $17.99 to $0.00 thanks to peer-to-peer websites like Napster, LimeWire, Kazaa, and Bearshare. While sites like iTunes have helped recoup some of those losses, the Internet chipped away at the record labels’ monopoly on the distribution of music and put it almost solely in the hands of the artists and their fans. Albums and singles are leaked months in advance of their official releases: Beyonce’s 4 was leaked three weeks prior to its release, One Direction’s Take Me Home popped up on the Internet two weeks before its intended debut, and fans were listening to Drake’s Take Care a week prior to its scheduled release. According to SoundScan, physical album sales have dropped 50% since 1996 while digital sales have increase 1900%.

I fell in love with this topic after reading Ripped: How The Wired Generation Revolutionized Music by Greg Kot, the Chicago Tribune’s music critic since 1990. In it, he argues that more people are listening to music from a greater variety of sources than at any time in history. Kot argues that the Internet created a completely new grassroots music industry in which the fans and bands are in charge rather than the corporations.

The key is for the music industry to figure out how to play ball when the rules of the game have completely changed. Take Radiohead, for example. In 2007, the group released In Rainbows via the Internet and allowed customers to name their own price, including the option of paying nothing. By the time it was physically released two months later, the album had already generated more money than the total amount made by the band’s previous album, 2003’s Hail To The Thief. Radiohead’s “it’s up to you” marketing strategy seized on a concept the now-outdated music industry had forgotten: the customer is always right. Girltalk had a similar “pay-what-you-like” campaign with his 2008 Feed The Animals, as did Amanda Palmer with Theatre Is Evil.

Bands also have to draw a line between publicity and privacy. Overuse Twitter and fans will be more miffed when you don’t respond to their direct messages. Start a blog but don’t post for weeks, and they might feel abandoned. It’s easy to upload photos from your iPhone onto Instagram, but pick your subjects wisely; promoting a contest or showcasing new merchandise for the tour? Awesome. The lead singer’s girlfriend when they’re on a date? Not so much. Artists can’t win over every fan, but privacy settings work wonders.

You can’t fight the social networking websites (see anyone that has dared challenging the notorious 4chan), and there is no feasible way to stop Internet piracy (hard-to-track torrent websites are the newest trend in sharing media). The music industry and artists are slowly adapting to an ever-changing world where the music is more and more in the hands of the bands and their fans. But hey, would we want it any other way?

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