No, the RIAA Did Not Kill Your Obscure Music Blog

There’s been much talk on Tumblr this week about a roundtable discussion in the Awl, and follow-up item by Willy Staley, on (as the Awl called it) “the rise and fall of obscure music blogs.” The Awl piece focused on the genre-specific blogs that had their heyday in the mid-’00s, although many of the reasons identified for their decline could apply to music blogs generally. While the roundtable and subsequent responses identified many culprits for the blogs’ demise, they missed out on the most important ones. 

To hear the roundtable guests tell it, the decline of these blogs was largely the effect of an out-of-control recording industry cracking down on music blogs and wiping their MP3s off the face of the Internet. The RIAA sued file-sharers into oblivion; Google wiped its index of RAR files; Megaupload went up in a puff of smoke. “It’s these paranoid times that are killing off many of the blogs we know and love,” says Frank Deserto, of Systems of Romance. “We live in an era that is now overly policed. Free music is now expected by the masses and the industry is broken beyond repair. When met with a mandatory shutdown, most bloggers are happy to throw in the towel, and I can sympathize with the frustration of having to start from scratch.”

The most interesting part of that quote is the non sequitur buried in the middle of it — “Free music is now expected by the masses and the industry is broken beyond repair.” The expectation of free music should have been a good thing for MP3 blogs, given that free music is what they have to offer. The “broken industry” thing should have been helpful, too — as the promotional gears of the big record labels sputtered to a halt for all but the biggest acts, blogs emerged to promote the underserved artists of yesterday and today. 

Yet free music did help kill music blogs, in a way that none of these pieces quite get at. 

MP3 blogging started in 2002 and reached its height of popularity a few years later. Right around its peak, in February of 2005, three former PayPal employees got together and created a site called YouTube. At the time the idea was to create a simple way for people to upload their videos to the Internet; almost immediately, it became flooded with music and music videos. Today YouTube is the single largest music site in the world, hosting an astonishing variety of material from every musical genre on earth. Crate diggers can use it to hear ancient field recordings of folk music or obscure African pop songs; normals can use it to stream the new Taylor Swift. 

For seven years now, teenagers who want to sample new artists can simply go to YouTube, do a quick search or click on “related” links for popular songs, and fall a down rabbit hole far deeper (and in many cases, more satisfying) than they would ever find on an amateur blog devoted to preserving the memory of Arizona rockabilly (or whatever). YouTube is the second-largest search engine in the world, behind only Google, processing more than 1 billion queries a day. In 2011, of 384 billion videos watched, nearly 40 percent were music videos. 

The free music doesn’t stop there. Pandora started in 2000, though it took several years to gain critical mass. Today it’s more popular than ever, offering an elegant way for normal people to say “play me something that sounds like this” and then actually deliver it. The service works just as well on the phone as it does on the desktop, can easily be played on a home speaker system or in the car, and is accessible even when the user is away from her personal computer. Almost nobody pays for Pandora, it works great, and while questions remain about its business model there’s no doubt that most of its users find it more convenient than keeping tabs on even the most fanatically maintained MP3 blog. 

The other big free-music idea as of late is Spotify, which did Pandora one better (for music obsessives) by allowing us to stream whatever we want, whenever we want it. Its 18 million tracks may not include every compilation of didgeridoo Christmas music, but most users find enough there to keep them coming back. And let’s not understate the value of its integration with Facebook, the website where Internet users spend the vast majority of their time online. On Facebook we log in and are presented with a list of the songs our friends are listening to; we click a link and the song begins playing immediately. Satisfying, easy and free.

Watch a normal person using these services and then ask your self again, with a straight face, why they quit visiting MP3 blogs to find the link that would allow them, after they braved a malware warning from Chrome, watched a short video advertisement and killed 14 pop-ups, to download an MP3 that may or may not be of the song they were looking for. (Even before things got this bad in the world of file downloading, Rapidshare still had some of the most baffling CAPTCHAs ever devised.)

A music blogger might object to these points by saying well, sure, but show me the curation on YouTube! Where’s the context, the commentary, the personal stories that illuminate subtle aspects of a song and help us appreciate it in new ways?

It turns out most people don’t want that. No one is saddened by this fact more than me — I’ve spent a decade posting music online with commentary, and even longer reading other people’s commentary. But the Web traffic doesn’t lie — the market for the music + commentary format, though it comprises some of my very favorite people and writers in the world, is astonishingly small.

No wonder folks are getting out of the business. Reasons vary, but most erstwhile music bloggers seem to simply grow out their youthful obsession with music. Staley quit when he got bored of his subject; Scott Tennent quit to write a book; Stereogum became a content farm. JamesMusik, a Tumblr I’ve followed for a couple years now, said this week that he was quitting because he just got out of grad school, he’s looking for a job, and he didn’t like all that much music in 2012. Even Carles, who exists primarily to make fun of music blogging, is sighing weary sighs and wondering what the point is any more. 

Surely many of the writers who have stopped writing about music several times weekly will return to it over the years in new venues. But even at its peak, personal music blogging was clearly a young person’s game. And the young people of today, as I argued earlier this year, have easier ways to share their musical obsessions than did their ancestors. The RIAA may not have made things any easier for music bloggers in the middle part of the last decade. But the real reason they went away was that nobody needed them anymore.

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  3. about-today reblogged this from crumbler and added:
    Smart commentary as ever.
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    This whole Awl Music Blogger Roundtable / Death of the Music Blog / Why Did the Music Blog Die? thing has also spent the...
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