Thanks to online platforms for creating, distributing, and promoting user-created content, and with the arrival of user-driven monetization, independent and amateur creators are in greater control of their work than ever before.
Hello all! None of you expressed any preferences or opinions in last week’s open forum, so I’m just gonna keep doing my own thing.
I want to tell you a story of my teen and pre-teen years. It started with Shakira and 50 Cent, and ended it with Fall Out Boy at their peak and Lady Gaga just beginning to explode.
Despite those groups getting tons of airplay and radio play, from Cry Me a River to Paparazzi, I didn’t know many people who were into that stuff. Mainstream music and radio was a thing that “other” people liked. Throughout middle school, my friends and I were digging Linkin Park, Good Charlotte, Story of the Year, Evanescence, lostprophets, and others.
Musical Tribalism, Brought to you By the Internet
In high school, I did have classmates who were following The Killers and Gwen Stefani, so mainstream music wasn’t this totally foreign thing. But the numbers of people I knew seeking music outside the mainstream grew as well. I knew a cheerleader who warmed up every morning to Disturbed, a girl I liked listened to the more obscure half of emo like Mayday Parade and Kill Hannah, and another friend of mine gained local popularity on Myspace as an indie singer/songwriter that sounded a bit like Gregory & the Hawk. I even had a couple of friends who shared my love of Dream Theater.
My point is that during the 2000s, following the peak and decline of boy bands like the Backstreet Boys, mainstream music no longer really described a common cultural “heritage” for an entire generation. Young people growing up in the ’70s and ’80s might point to a shared love of Sweet Child O’ Mine or Bohemian Rhapsody. People my age don’t really have that – we don’t all know the words to Hey There, Delilah and we didn’t all love Pon de Replay (I must admit I didn’t even know that song existed until a year ago).
As a result, the line between mainstream – what was supposedly “popular” – and music that was actually popular and characterized “what the kids are listening to these days,” was blurred. In recent years, lo fi hip-hop, electro swing, vaporwave, and future funk have proliferated in an environment where mainstream music is no longer really determinative of what everyone is listening to. Yes, it is happening again.
Why Online Platforms Have Flourished
It’s all made possible by user-created content platforms. And it’s not even confined to music anymore: you can share visual arts such as photography and digital drawings on tumblr, DeviantArt, Pinterest, and more. Since the decline of Newgrounds, animators have flocked to YouTube. Craft artists can sell their wares on Etsy and Bonanza. For us writers, of course, there’s WordPress (WordPress overlords: I take cash, thx), Squarespace, Wix, and about a million others. And of course, all of us can finance our projects through crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, Patreon, and GoFundMe.
The result has been a huge and active online community of independent creators, and between them they have produced countless archives worth of creative output. Today, I’m going to talk about how this happened and why.
Don’t get me wrong – this posting of creative works online is nothing new. As far back as 2005, I remember Myspace bands trying to get their work noticed by record companies by posting music players on their pages filled with demos. I’m sure similar platforms were available before that. I think two things have changed, however: first, users can now monetize their work directly, without the help of a record company, publisher, or whatever else.
Second, a lot of the gatekeepers to media popularity, such as record labels and movie studios, are becoming or are already copyright and trademark vultures, preying on amateurs desperate for a big break.
Take for example the case of 13 year-old cartoonist Sasha Matthews, who won entry into a Scholastic Art & Writing Award, a program to showcase young and budding artists. You remember Scholastic, right? The nice company that wanted to keep kids reading, so they circulated those little catalogues to your grade school classrooms. Well now they want the rights to your work! From the terms and conditions of the Scholastic Art & Writing Award program:
The student irrevocably grants an assignment transferring to the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, Inc. (“Alliance”) all right, title, and interest (including all copyrights) in and to the submitted work (“Work”), such that the Work, and all rights relating to the Work, shall be the exclusive property of the Alliance . . .
. . . If the Work is not retrieved by the student or on the student’s behalf once the three (3) year period has lapsed, the student understands and agrees that exclusive ownership of the physical Work will transfer to and fully vest in the Alliance automatically and immediately upon the expiration of this period.
As comic book artists can tell you, none of this is new. But when you have publishers preying on kids, it should be clear that this phenomenon is getting worse. With that to look forward to, would you want to be discovered by a major distributor or studio?
Creators are thus faced with a choice: hope to get published and maybe receive a decent fistful of change from royalties, but also forfeit their intellectual property rights to the company promoting them.
On the other hand, they could strike out on their own, keep their IP rights, and maybe people like the material enough to pay what they want or buy the art at your asking price. With these two choices, it’s easy to see how artists might get to thinking that being discovered and represented is no longer all it’s cracked up to be, and like they may not even need it.
The Democratization of Art
So what are the consequences of the creation of this online artistic community? It all goes back to what I was saying about vaporwave and future funk when I started posting on this blog. The music industry has spent decades seeking out new and exciting sounds, appropriating them, and polishing them for mass consumption.
At the same time, our restrictive copyright system gives distributors intellectual property rights to creative works essentially for all time, with 1923 being the last year works entered the public domain en masse. There is little reason to believe distributors will give up this advantage when the U.S. Congress convenes to tackle this issue once again this year, so we’re looking at a regime in which all ideas are swallowed up, leaving nothing for the public domain.
With ideas being zealously guarded behind a copyright moat, commercial art ended up painting itself into a corner in every medium in the artistic and creative market. Hence where we are now, where it feels like everything has been done before and it seems like there’s nothing left to say anymore and nowhere else to go.
But now you have young independent artists appropriating corporate products, essentially reversing the process and making cheap artifices into art of their own. That’s one hell of an act of rebellion. Moreover, by foregoing traditional corporate patronage, many online artists are laying the groundwork for unique new styles to grow.
As a result, where there was a creative roadblock, now there are burgeoning creators that could be showing the path forward. This has made Death Grips, Junk Head, and Hollow Knight possible. And this may evolve into something spectacular, like how R.E.M. and others like it in the early ’80s basically invented alternative.
Finally, in a very free market sort of way, by bringing art directly to the users and consumers, the public has much more direct control in who “makes it,” rather than being told what the latest trends are by a marketing team. And just like that, online platforms have vastly democratized the market for commercial art.
If artists on these platforms could obtain copyright protection or Creative Commons Licenses grew some teeth, we could be on our way to a much more communal yet globalized pop culture.
I realize with fake news, the dark web, literal Nazis, personal information leaks, and with how social media has made it harder for people to connect with each other on a personal level, the Internet and especially Internet 2.0 can seem like a curse. But I like to think phenomena like restoring the vox populi in creative arts is important enough to show what a gift the Internet can be.
Even these platforms come with a host of their own challenges, not least of which is the lack of a filter for truly bottom quality work, and several labels have scooped up promising artists from these sites. On the whole though, it’s clear that YouTube, Bandcamp, and others have changed the game.
I understand people who have voiced concerns over the years about what appears to be an emerging dark age in media. Our song and video purchases have been reduced to mere licenses to play; art and artists seem to be squeezed of any creative spark they had and melted down into bland and unoffensive products for consumption by the lowest common denominator; and an increasingly restrictive copyright regime has come down on even arguably productive uses of copyrighted works.
But even if mainstream media does take a turn for the worst, don’t forget that we are creating a culture all our own. One that belongs to only us, and it can be found online, where indie artists are merely waiting for you to discover them. And this is better than anything that is offered to us, because it is created by and for us. Thank you all for reading. Please support indie musicians and other artists on Patreon, Kickstarter, YouTube, Bandcamp, or wherever else you may find them. See you next week!
Are there any platforms for user-created content I missed? What are they, and what sorts of works do you find there? Share your thoughts – and your links – in the comments section!