How To Start A Musical Revolution In The Digital Age

Throughout history, there have been a number of musical revolutions that can be linked to a certain time and place. The emergence of ska, reggae and dub that came out of Kingston in the 60s is a good example. San Francisco saw an explosion of Psychedelic Rock in the 70s as did New York with hip hop in the 80s. House music exploded in Chicago, techno in Detroit, hardcore and jungle in London… the list goes on. In each of these scenarios, the stars aligned, the conditions were right, something amazing happened, and the world became musically richer.

The Guardian recently published an interesting article about how cities shape music scenes, asking: “What is it about some cities… that bring about these creative bursts?” Focusing on urban planning and economic geography, the story goes some way to addressing that ambitious question.

Yet these days, artists don’t have to come from the same place. Nor does the audience. In this new paradigm, we don’t need physical places for new musical scenes to emerge. So the big question we should be asking is, how do we ensure musical revolutions as rich and diverse as those from the past continue to take place in the digital age?

What real-world aspects need to remain, and what conditions need to be in place—both virtual and physical—to make sure we embrace the future without forgetting where we came from?

1. Creativity

Despite creeping developments in AI, people are, for the moment at least, still the most important ingredient in this whole process. Creative producers need the means and inspiration to spend time in the studio. Lucrative income channels for musicians, an affordable cost of living and supportive social systems help here. It sounds obvious but without people making music, the revolution will not happen.

2. Direction and distribution

Then, you need direction. That is, you need a number of artists collectively focusing on a shared sound. Those artists become musical peers (or sometimes rivals), pushing each other to accelerate the development of something new and exciting.

Sometimes a producer comes along and defines a new sound all by themselves. LTJ Bukem springs to mind as the guy who made intelligent drum and bass. More often than not, though, it’s a group of people working in the same musical space who develop a new sound. The trend for artists trying to sound completely unique—not inspired by anything else nor tied to any genre, club night or record label—can create a silo effect within the musical landscape. When every producer is doing it for themselves, there can be no development of new scenes and styles.

Distribution is also important. In other words, you need a way for people to experience the music. A place where people can hear and engage with music provides a crucial feedback loop between creators, DJs and audiences. Traditionally, this has meant clubs, sound-systems, record shops and radio shows. In the digital age, you have to add online magazines, blogs, playlists and recommendation algorithms to the list.

3. Post-place, but never post-party

Musical revolutions no longer have to be tied to a physical place, but that doesn’t mean local events and venues are obsolete; quite the opposite. I went to a Warp Records party in a warehouse in London six or seven years ago. The style of music (at the time being called “Purple” or “Aqua-crunk”) was impossible to tie to a geographic location. It had key artists on both sides of the Atlantic. It seemed to be defined by a few labels pushing a sound, rather than a group of artists in the same neighbourhood.

Labels providing infrastructure to accelerate a sound is nothing new. Studio One had an open-door policy that offered opportunity, peer support and infrastructure for talented artists to record. Motown had a similar setup.

Nightclubs play an essential role too and a small group of people putting on a party can make a huge impact. In the early ‘60s, there were over 300 nightclubs in Liverpool, the birthplace of Merseybeat. The Warehouse in Chicago, Paradise Garage in New York and Niche in Sheffield are all clubs instrumental in the birth of a genre (house, garage and niche, respectively).

Putting it all together

The “Outsider House” scene is a good recent example of an emerging sound that had all of these elements in place. Hessle Audio, coming from the dubstep scene released some records that sounded creative and new. A peer group including artists like Four Tet from quite different musical backgrounds formed and were able to focus the sound into something that people understood. Enough DJ bookings and radio shows gave them the distribution channels and the means to spend lots of time working on music.

Music is a social and cultural experience. People need spaces (physical and virtual) to organise, listen, play, dance and celebrate. Every club and record shop that closes means one less space to do that. Every new party night, studio opening, record label, radio show, podcast can be one more.

Maybe all we need to do is to throw more parties, dance more, and look for the next new sound. The next musical revolution may be just round the corner.

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