Thanks to LimeWire, the extremely illegal but somehow wildly ubiquitous online pirating service, a whole world of free music was opened up at the click of a button. The history of sound was just one nine-minute download at a time away, provided your mother didn’t get a call from her friend that knocked the dial-up off. Once the cyber-lime was clicked, you could pick and choose whichever track you cared for… or a soundbite clip of Bill Clinton announcing that he did not “have sexual relations with that woman”.
I fess up, I was a keen user of this illegal and troublesome tool. Even now, when I hear The Killers’ ‘When You Were Young’ it doesn’t sound right without the little KROCK audio signature at the start. These quirks of piracy were pop-riveted onto the psyche of my 13-year-old self. And I know I am not alone—I think every musician to emerge in the last decade remembers a similar state of affairs.
You see, I interview plenty of them, and they sit there and patently lie about how they discovered Simon & Garfunkel on vinyl in a dusty box in the attic and found themselves mystically allured by the cover and the two funny little men therein. Whereas I suspect, like just about every other person in a scallywag generation, they ventured out from MTV2 and saw what wonderous obscure tracks they could find to pop on as their MySpace homepage song in a declaration of edgy independence.
However, it is highly understandable why the impact of LimeWire has been swept under the carpet—it was terrible for artists and a crime to boot. But it was also brilliant for a generation of youths. For a working-class kid, what a joy it was that your expenditure on recorded music was nought, and yet exposure was as infinite as dial-up or your allotted time on the shared family PC allowed. Once more, I have to apologise for how it wronged musicians, but aside from that thorny element, there is no doubting it had a huge impact on the musicians of the future.
Unlike previous generations, you didn’t have to rely on being served up music from elsewhere. Sure, the radio and music television dictated tastes to some extent, but the mystic lure of an unheard MP3 file also entered the swirl of influence kicked up by the internet. This was how I personally discovered The Strokes. Before I knew otherwise, I thought they were some cool faceless bands from the 1970s. As it happens, they were still in the charts, dabbling in heroin, and about to call it a day before I’d had the chance to see them live.
Nevertheless, in the nick of time, they helped tune my juvenile ear to the sound of rock ‘n’ roll. Then, I’d seek out magazines and read about how they sounded like The Velvet Underground. So, you’d log on and check them out. Who is this enigmatic singer? Google says it’s Lou Reed: check him out too. And so on, and so on. This universal tale is the story of how a generation quickly amassed the widest alternative spheres of musical influence in history.
The sounds of the past are always woven into any current music, however, that is now more apparent than ever. That is not to say that modern alternative music is some sort of pastiche, but it certainly echoes older acts a little louder than in an age before the internet.
However, every new generation also strives to bring something new—that is the purpose of art, and it has never been lost in any era of creativity. So, how do you change the direction of music if you have no previous generation to rebel against because your revered influences come from further afield? When you’ve got 50 years of popular music on your iPod there isn’t much of a niche of shoulder out.
Thus, the rebellion has been against how music is consumed more so than its sound. You see, the problem with LimeWire was that if you’ve only got an hour online, and you can download 13 songs to your iPod in that time, then you don’t want any filler frittering away precious megabytes and time.
In this way, the sprawling masterpiece of an album that purveys the nooks and crannies of a subject was reductively abridged to a sorry serving of ‘all killer no filler’. Kids might have had a mausoleum of song at their fingertips, but they never got to see how the first three songs build towards the epic ‘Marquee Moon’ or how PJ Harvey’s singalong catharsis of ‘You Said Something’ follows a bitter row.
Now, in the age of the vinyl revival, this is the factor that many bands have rebelled against. With uniform and considered outings, it is a lack of singles you are more likely to miss than the cohesion of carefully collated LP when you listen to a new release.
Thus, we have sounds reminiscent of the past, but this recapitulation is awash with a sense of cognisance of craft beyond hitmaking. After all, when was the last time you came across a one-hit-wonder indie band with loads of radio play? These days, you’d be more likely to come across a band sealing a number one album without having ever had a single played on Radio One.