The 90s Music Bubble…ContinuedPosted: May 18, 2012
This is the second part of a two part look at the era of music just before digital media took over. The first part, with more information on Hootie’s discography than you’d ever want, is here.
America didn’t suddenly wake up and realize they stopped liking Hootie, although that’s a believable reason to some. The better explanation is the turn of the millennium, tectonic shift in media consumption and gathering. Hootie was the Pets.com of the record industry bubble, and if what we’ve done to Nickelback in the last few years is any indication, Hootie wouldn’t have survived a YouTube comment section let alone continued touring past Y2K.
The dates of Hootie’s success and eventual fading away are crucial. The early 90s were economically triumphant in comparison to the previous decade, and with music being broadcast on standard cable and across a varied radio environment, there was plenty to be had for all. Then, 1996 hit, and Congress passed a little number called the Telecommunications Act. The diversity of radio went out the window thanks to a specific clause in the act that removed many of the restrictions regarding how many radio stations could be owned by single entities, giving rise to markets dominated by the Clear Channels and Trinity Privates of the world.
With less players in control of what hit the airwaves, and less opportunity for little guys to get involved in competing in major markets, deregulation cost a lot of the variety of broadcast music. It was harder for a regional radio station to exist outside the box when promoting new music; anyone familiar with the Boston radio scene may know the history of WFNX and WBCN, at one point independent. WFNX was bought this week by Clear Channel, and the eulogies of independent radio have been abundant; BCN, is no longer in existence, replaced by FM sports talk. This happened elsewhere, as well, and over a decade, more obscure alt-rock stations gave way to either Top 40s or The Hits of The 80s, 90s and Today.
Darius Rucker didn’t become country after his Blowfish days; it has a lot more to do with the radio environment he re-entered with 2008’s solo effort “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It”. The format we know as “country” similarly adjusted in the radio shuffle, becoming more mainstream and scooping up plenty of acts that would never have been considered Nashville in the mid-90s. If you can tolerate it, give Cracked Rear View a front to back listen and tell me that it wouldn’t be on your country station these days before it would ever hit the KISS or Alternative station. Formats had to both expand and exclude to survive.
Radio formats and changes alone don’t explain how a band that once sold 20 million records all but disappeared. There has to be at least a few other factors that changed how we consumed music, which leads us to a little development that rocked the music world known as widespread peer-to-peer file sharing.
It’s been 12 years since Metallica’s very public lawsuit with Napster brought even more attention to the service that made mIRC backroom sharing a public activity. Shawn Fanning didn’t invent the MP3; he just made it simple and easy to share, and in the process, created a new currency of music. Cassingles were a terrible way of passing an individual song around because you had to give up your copy to let a friend listen.
This piece is not about where the record industry did or didn’t embrace the technology of the MP3. This is about timing, how Napster was in the right place at the right time thanks in part to a storm of activity included High Speed Access in homes, CD-R in every computer and flash memory developing beyond Zip Drives. It’s not that the option to buy Cracked Rear View was suddenly gone; it’s that there was an option to avoid a receipt that proved we wanted to hear it again.
As users, we changed the way we could access and accumulate music, and it made terms like “platinum album” and “discography” obsolete. As Napster came and went, other services – both legal and less-legal – took its place, but the change still revolves around the redefinition of music discovery and the currency of that transaction.
It’s realistic to say that we are not likely to see a new artist reach 20 million albums sold, when 15 years ago, Hootie made it look so easy. It isn’t their fault that we downloaded music from anywhere we could find it, legal or not. But we could. And now we still do.
Time, the past has come and gone, the future’s far away.
I pay Spotify $10 every month now for my music, streaming on my computer all day and my mobile device in between my apartment and office. It has almost any song I can think of, immediately at my search bars’ desire. It’s seamless, it’s a lot more affordable than the $40-50 I spent monthly on CDs in high school and a lot more legal than those Napster-and-their-ilk services have appeared and disappeared during the last decade and a half.
Perhaps it’s a bit of irony, or maybe the fact that we all already own it, but you can’t stream Cracked Rear View in the States on Spotify. If you want to listen to it, you may just have to blow the dust off that cassette deck, find a pencil to get the tape fixed, hold the fast forward button for 30-45 seconds to get past Hannah Jane, press play, sit back and enjoy.