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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2004/12/01
by David Steinberg

How the Internet Destroys Jambands

The Internet is a wonderful tool for getting information about music. Having a net presence is a crucial component for any new band. Fans can spread the word about your music. You can let people hear samples of your songs. Archive.org gives people the ability to download your live shows. You can get plenty of publicity without having to sell out in any way to the mainstream media. The Internet is so good in so many ways for upcoming artists, it might be silly to wonder how it hurts them. Unfortunately, the harm done is pretty substantial.
One of the biggest ironies of the Internet is how it affected the exchange of ideas. In theory we have a chance to talk to more people with divergent views than ever before. In practice though, we self select for similarities much more than in the past. Discussion boards form around a point of view; people who post views that challenge the mainstream opinion are dismissed as trollers. Political discussions used to happen between people who were together for a reason other than their common political beliefs – family gatherings, neighborhood block parties, coffee break with the coworkers, etc. There was no implied connection between being likable and having opinions that agree with your own. It’s no coincidence that politics is getting more and more abrasive recently. When you don’t talk to people who disagree with yourself, it’s easy to assume the worst about their motives.
While this is most obvious with political discussions, it also comes up in musical discussion boards. If the majority of the vocal participants of a board don’t like a song or a band or a jam it becomes received wisdom. The booing of the ‘Secret Smile’ encore in Camden last year probably would never have happened without the weeks of people mocking the song on the Phantasy Phish message boards. It’s not just songs that get bashed of course. One of the most unfortunate trends of the jambands world these days is how people use homophobia to mock String Cheese Incident. There are many things that I don’t like about that band these days but a perceived lack of straightness isn’t one of them.
The great thing about the Internet is that it can be a perfect medium to discuss ideas in a rather pure form, without the superficialities of appearance and mannerisms and voice getting in the way of the message that you’re trying to deliver. We have the opportunity for an idea based community and people instead use it to attack for the most superficial of all reasons. As an added bonus they get to make sneering comments about an oppressed minority. Free hint: ‘Not that there’s anything wrong with that,‘is – as it turns out – not a get out of jail free card for whatever vicious comment that you made about homosexuals right before it.
While using the Internet to build a consensus about which songs and bands deserve to be attacked is a problem, it’s not the only one for up and coming bands. Being bashed is a bad problem indeed, but being praised is almost as bad.
Other than rarities like The Spin Doctors and the Dave Matthews Band, jambands don’t grow with the explosion of the big hit single. It tends to be a more controlled process due to the power of gushing fans bringing their friends. This is a wonderful process, but the Internet accelerates it. In the same way that pumping excessive nutrients into a body of water can lead to the death of all life in it, too much praise in the early life cycle of a band can end up causing harm.
One of the lucky breaks that Phish got is that the Internet came along at the perfect time for them. With the exception of that one disastrous Colorado trip, they didn’t even leave the northeast for the first six years of their career. It took them nine to get as far as the west coast. Yes, tapes circulated if you happened to know the right people and you could occasionally hear someone playing Phish in the parking lot of a Grateful Dead show, but it really wasn’t until their eleventh or twelfth year until Phish really became known outside of a small cult crowd, just in time for the net to be at a point to help their growth.
Those dozen years were put to good use. They had time to discover what songs worked and which ones didn’t. ‘Lushington Miles,’ ‘Anarchy,’ and ‘Dear Mrs. Reagan’ were dropped. The silly lyrics of the Junta period were replaced with the more intriguing songs of the Rift era. Chris Kuroda had time to become an amazing lightman and Paul Languadoc developed the ability to make any room sound amazing. It’s not enough to have talent. You also need the time to hone your skills.
There’s reasons why so few Phish tapes from the early 80s circulate. There’s reasons why The Disco Biscuits don’t push their days as a Phish cover band. Bands need the time to develop, to not be forced into a role from their first few concerts. Part of that process is having time to play without having to worry about the opinions of an increasingly critical fan base. When no one really knows about your band, you have a chance to surprise people. Now though it seems that every band who is big enough to sell out a club is being pushed as the next big thing. People expect to be blown away every night by bands that are just starting out. That seems somewhat unfair.
If you want a more concrete example of the problems caused by the Internet age of communication, look at Umphrey McGee’s recent Halloween stunt. They made a joke at the expense of recent problems that Mike Gordon had. In the context of playing a 600 person theater, it wasn’t particularly inappropriate. If this were still 1991, there wouldn’t have been any problem. The people there would have been amused. Some might have told a friend or two. It might get mentioned every now and then, but otherwise would just be a funny little thing to tell a friend or two.
Unfortunately, that’s not the world that we live in anymore. The ease of communications means that a joke like that quickly spreads beyond the confines of the crowd for whom they were playing. It’s one thing to make a joke at a small venue. It’s another to do so to the entire community. In 2004 the former rapidly becomes the latter. Umphrey’s might be the most recent to get bit by that, but they’re far from the only ones. No matter how much you think that you understand how the Internet works, it’s so easy to forget and make that kind of mistake. I spend way too much of my time online and I still find myself doing that. It’s not a surprise that musicians would do that too.
As problematic as discussion boards can be to bands, they might not be the worst problem they face by the Internet. I have to confess that lately I suspect that one web site poisoned the post-hiatus Phish community more than any other. Which site was that? Alas, it was a little thing that goes by the name of Phish Stats.
I don’t intend to completely disavow my work here. It’s usually harmless fun to see how many times you’ve seen each song. At times the site even could be used to help out the band, such as using it to point out that despite complaints about repeats, 2003 was the most or second most diverse year in Phish’s history in any metric that people could give me. That sort of defense is rare though. Far more frequent is people looking at the evil feature called, ‘Most common songs that were not played.’ People always were aware of a few songs that they’ve never seen. My girlfriend waited forever for her first ‘Eyes of the World’ and can immediately give the date when she finally got to see one. The Internet rarely creates problems after all, but it does specialize in exacerbating them.
People always had a vague feeling that there were a few songs that they hadn’t seen, but now they can see on their screens exactly which ones they have missed. They can compare their lists to those of their friends and use that to mock each other. As a result people started to focus their desires more on songs that haven’t been played instead of songs that they love. I know this is real because I’ve done it myself. I don’t even like ‘Alumni Blues’ all that much. When I’m listening to cds, I’d much rather listen to a ‘Mike’s Song’ or a ‘Divided Sky.’ However, those songs are in my top ten and Alumni is clogging up my not seen list. Even though I’d rather listen to the former, I was always rooting for the latter just to get it off of my stats. There’s a reason why most rare songs are rare. Often, they just aren’t as good as the more common songs. Other times the band just feels like they’ve outgrown a song or have nothing new to say with it. When Trey expresses frustration that Phish fans want to hear the songs that he wrote when he was young instead of those that he wants to play now, it’s hard not to feel somewhat responsible for that fact.
Technologies go through multiple phases. At first the Internet seemed like the best thing ever for musicians. Record labels and music magazines would not longer be able to control communications. Now we’re in a spot where it very well might be doing more harm for the small bands than good. There never is status though. Bands will get used to experiencing pressure earlier in their career. They’ll understand and even thrive on the idea that they might be playing to 600 people, but the whole world is likely to hear (and critique) the music they are creating. I just hope we don’t burn through an entire generation of jambands before the adjustment is made.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html. He is the stats section editor for The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts at www.livejournal.com/users/thezzyzx.

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