Web-folk, network-folk ... and whatever comes out of the interaction

(January 19, 2009)

 With all types of musicians, artists, singers and bands from every musical genre, folk music uses the wonders of the worldwide web to ‘spread the folking word’. Not so naïve and country-simple any more then, the ‘folking’ community has embraced this avenue of technology at least and is now (or rapidly becoming) Internet savvy. Along with every musical variety under the sun, folk is now rife on the web’s social networking platforms and web-based music media sites.

The arrival of MySpace and the enormous take up by musicians, artists, singers and bands enabled more artists to get themselves known to a wider community (even if it can be a little incestuous with bands talking to bands) faster than ever before. It was once said that ‘pop music was the fluid that kept the musical web flowing’ – that may be, but now folk is in there too.

My Space began as a social networking site, now it has become a music networking site. Most of the social chit-chat, silly photographs, teenage character assassination, party planning and invitations have migrated to Facebook and the like.

So what has the web brought to folk? Is it all good exposure or is this wide-ranging communication adding something unhealthy? Is some of the musical melange infecting folk with viral styles it doesn’t need? Or is it part of the relentless march of our over-communicated society?

One important point to note with technology – especially communication technology is that it never goes backwards. This absence of a reverse gear is not to avoid or remove reaction it’s simply unavoidable. The web has ‘virtually’ put everyone into everyone else’s back garden – if not their living room or beyond. The point here is that once you’ve had a look over the garden fence you cannot choose to forget what you saw.

It’s the same with music. Artists may not immediately implement every new idea that comes along but they will inevitably absorb it – even if they reject it outright it’s still there nagging away. And eventually some of it will influence.

A key aspect brought on by the web is the speed with which styles are fluid and interchanging. Internet-wise it takes only a few seconds to locate, listen to and buy (or steal, depending on your view of downloading) almost any music. That can be good as it opens our ears to the wider interpretations of music and the reasons artists work so hard to write and perform it. However, it also blends and moulds styles to a point where it can be hard for a new band or an upcoming musician to define their style.

The web generation may have the chance to listen to a wider range of styles and influences than their parents but in doing so it becomes ever-harder for artists to find their own niche – especially in their early days. Many bands copy others at first and then progress to writing their own material - unless they are one of the ‘tribute’ sound/look/behave alike bands. But when it seems that every note has been played before – what happens then. So perhaps it’s true as Keith Richards once said: “There are no more new chords just the same ones in a different order.”

Now the web has opened the floodgates on new and original music it has allowed a vast river of music to wash over us all – influencing some more than others. But is that river always there in the background infecting every new idea? Don’t misunderstand I’m not being reactionary or misogynistic about the web or its abilities, I’m just considering why in many musical fields we have an increasing blending of style with fewer stand-out artists and musicians appearing.

Our society (or a large portion of it) has more permeating and continuous forms of communication available to it than any before. One can access the entire planet (or most of it) from a desktop. And once one does that it’s tempting (for some) to believe the virtual world can replace the real. Then take one of those keyboard and screen bound people to a live music gig and see the difference.  The web in all its wonderfulness allows bands to find an audience and put their work up for consideration or criticism without flogging round the open mic spots trying to get heard. Although, despite the web giving almost everyone (with access) a wider audience, it’s true that Internet-immediacy is no substitute for live music.

There is another issue. Simply blending and bending musical styles to form something new or different is not enough. The roots that began the entire style cannot be cut out and the branches expected to thrive. That’s why folk can go through all sorts of mangles and still come out recognisable as folk.

It appears the great advantage folk has over so many other styles is its seeming capacity to soak up these contagions and then make them into something good. Rather than suffering from the effects of this musical pollution and dying or becoming moribund as a result, folk absorbs the virus and changes it. Now I’m not likening folk in general to Frank Herbert’s hero Paul Atreides but the ability to absorb something and blend it with an existing style to create yet more variations of that style is positive.

So where do we go with the web? The options are as wide as the web itself; namely worldwide. Yet that doesn’t mean that ‘local’ styles will cease to exist. ‘Worldwide’ will not result in a single bland blend. It just means we have to be ever more selective about how much of the Internet Information River we allow to flow into our heads.

It also means heading for the off switch – it does exist you know.


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