A sixth form computer room in 1998, and it’s hard to imagine how excited I was to hear a low-quality 30 second clip of a song by Brazilian-American metal band Soulfly. It was the first time I had used this new-fangled internet thingy people were so excited about, and of course the first thing I wanted to use it for was to listen to music. I sat, headphones on, in awe and wonder at the idea that I could hear a bit of a song without buying the CD or waiting for it to come on the radio. Little did I know where it would lead.
Stepping back a bit, to 1993, when music began to truly matter to me, options for hearing the kind of music I loved were very limited. Evenings on Radio 1 were pretty much the only place you could hear indie or alternative music and I listened religiously to the Evening Session, John Peel and Mark & Lard. MTV existed (and was still primarily a channel that played music videos), but not in my house. You might get the occasional band or video I liked on Top of the Pops or The Chart Show (the first place I heard Nirvana incidentally), but you could hardly rely on it.
I ended up taking a lot of chances on bands, buying albums based on one song I had heard on the radio, or even having just read about them in the music press. This led to some duff purchases of filler-filled albums, but occasionally wonderful successes. Most notably when I bought Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out, never having heard a note but having read a live review in the NME and somehow understanding that this was my kind of band (and how right I was). Every album purchase was genuinely exciting, would this be a let down or my new favourite band?
Of course, it was sometimes the case that you couldn’t buy an album at all. My home city, Leeds, was pretty well served for record shops, with a number of independents and major chains, but if none of them had the record you wanted, and you’d tried the mail order catalogues in the back pages of the music press, you were stuck. Often albums were actually deleted, meaning there was no way you could buy them unless you chanced upon a copy in a second hand store. Some albums took many years to track down. I think it took me over a decade to find a Heavens To Betsy album, and a wait that long was always likely to be hard to live up to.
Fast forward a couple of decades and I rarely have to struggle to find an album, or take a risk on buying one.. Almost anything I want to hear can be found on Spotify, or Bandcamp or YouTube. In theory, this means I can spend the same amount of money on music, but without the risk of buying a duff record. In reality I worry that I just end up spending less. My excuse, to myself, is that the rise of streaming services has coincided with the time in my life when I have financial responsibilities, like children and a mortgage, and less disposable income than i have ever had in my adult life. But, is it just an excuse? Certainly, if an artist I really love (hello, Joanna Newsom!) releases one of the rare albums that isn’t available on streaming services, that can only be bought not rented, I find a way to afford it.
Between my Spotify Premium subscription (and I in no way kid myself that this supports the bands I love), and my now digitised CD collection, I have access to infinitely more music than I could ever listen to in one lifetime, all available to me at work, at home, in transit. My teenage mind would have been blown by the possibility of being able to summon up that Heavens To Betsy album in the amount of time it takes me to type their name. But still, I worry. The internet has made it so easy to be a music-lover whilst spending virtually no money. For new bands, it’s a struggle for music to even be a hobby that breaks even The thought of actually packing in their jobs, should they have one, to make music full time is impossible for all but a privileged few.
Despite this, for me, the internet has been more a musical blessing than a curse, if only for all the music I may never have heard, may even have never been made, if not for the internet. DIY artists like Oh Peas, Mario D’Agostino and Breakfast Muff, able to record cheaply and upload directly to Soundcloud or Bandcamp, finding their audience (or me at least), on social media. A profusion of blogs, internet radio stations & playlists, mean that no longer do a handful of gatekeepers get to control what I hear. I can be listening to a compilation of soul from The Cape Verde Islands one moment, queer pop-punk from Durham the next, a nerdcore supergroup rapping about the host of Jeopardy still later. The possibilities are glorious and endless.
One song sums this up more than any other to me. Simple World by This Side of Bearable. It’s a gorgeously simple piece of lo-fi indie-guitar pop, reminding me of Syd Barrett, Robert Wyatt, and so many other artists I love. It might honestly be one of my favourite songs of all time. It was only released on cassette, in Perth, Australia, as part of a compilation intended to accompany a fanzine that ultimately never existed. I can be sure I never would have heard this song, had the internet not enabled it to be heard by anyone, anywhere, and my life would be poorer for it. I know nothing about the song, or the band. It’s a rarity in that essentially no information exists about it on the internet. But whoever This Side of Bearable is or was, they inspire me to keep searching for new music, and to hope that musicians stick with making music, despite the lack of financial reward, because even if it is 30 years later on the other side of the world, it will bring joy to someone’s life. They inspire me to support new and independent music so it can even exist to be discovered.
I sometimes do yearn for that simple world, pre-internet, when my choice was limited, my options few, but the feeling never lasts too long. It has been a long, strange, ultimately wonderful journey from Soulfly to This Side of Bearable, but I prefer to look to the future, to think of all the songs yet to be heard, to wonder what strange musical places this new-fangled internet thing has still to take me to.