The digital dark ages

Is easy access to the music of yesteryear stifling creativity? Duran Duran bassist and '80s fashion icon John Taylor thinks so – and he blames the internet.

In a speech given at UCLA two weeks ago, Duran Duran bassist John Taylor comes off as earnest and reasonably thoughtful, so I am going to do my best to take seriously his argument that the internet may be "stifling new music." But it won't be easy.

When a member of a band notorious for leveraging its good looks and stylish hair into rock superstardom mainly via the new medium of MTV complains about the supposed negative impact of even newer media it sounds just a little bit ungrateful.

Here's Taylor's critical point:

    ...The availability and accessibility of music on the internet today is truly incredible, and I applaud anything that can inspire interest or curiosity in anyone. But this also means that those of us who before would have been looking towards the current culture for inspiration are now often to be found... in various backwaters of older music. This relative lack of need for current, innovative culture can cause, has caused, is causing – maybe – the innovative culture to slow down, much as an assembly line in Detroit slows down and lay-offs have to be made when the demand for a new model recedes. And the speed and growth of new technology, which has been so heralded and so much fuss has been made of, has actually served to disguise how little real growth is taking place at the artistic level.

In the excerpt of the speech published by the BBC, Taylor provides no evidence for his theory that there is "little real growth" taking place in music today, or that listeners are less interested, in any quantitatively measurable sense, in new music now than they ever were before. Even if this could be proven, I'd more inclined to blame consolidation in the music industry and radio business, the stultifying effects of such things as classic rock radio station formats, and other market forces for cramping new music creativity, before I blamed the net's powers of distribution.

But the argument about access just seems cockeyed. New music is easier to find than ever before. The technological obstacles separating nearly any group of musicians practising in their garage from my daughter's Nano are nothing at all compared to the efforts a new band would have had to make in the 60s, 70s, or 80s to get heard. If this is "stifling," then I can't imagine what a nurturing environment would be like -- I am routinely overwhelmed by the choices available to me. All one needs to be drowning in a sea of newness is the will to dive in.

That being said, Taylor does touch on something important going on in our culture worth investigating. The past, or at least "the past" that dates back to the introduction of audio and video recording technology, is no longer the past. In the vast territories of cable television and the internet and everything captured on disk, the cultural modes of previous generations are all part of our ongoing present. Nothing fades away. It's all there, ready to be found.

When I was a kid, if it wasn't on the handful of broadcast television channels or a dozen or so radio stations, it just wasn't on. As a teenager in the 1970s, the 1960s seemed a galaxy far, far away. But for my children, there is a very real sense in which the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s are all contemporaneous with the now.

Does this push us, culturally, towards a mode of expression dominated by sampling or re-mixing the existing corpus of entertainment product, instead of creating something completely fresh and new? It's a good question? Where's Walter Benjamin when you need him? Certainly, something's happening here...

But rather than worry about whether the internet is exerting a baleful influence, I think we just need to make our peace with the fact that every new technology creates a different space for cultural practice. Duran Duran without cable television or a high-end production studio is simply unthinkable. Recording technologies enabled the commodification of musical performance on a mass basis. Networked computers have crippled the profitability of that commodification. The adventure is ongoing.

Perhaps the digitally-enabled overhang of the cultural production of previous generations is a heavy burden. But I guarantee you that those artists who do break free of its restrictions, and can come up with something interesting to say, will be easier to find and easier to enjoy than any pioneers of any previous era were.