Internet Killed the Video Star

Originally published in Bandwidth Magazine.

Fourteen years after MTV burst onto the airwaves with the prophetically titled ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’, Randy Conrads founded Classmates.com, one of the internet’s first major Social Networking sites. Since then, the category has grown to include such massively successful dot-coms as Friendster, Hi5, MySpace, Facebook, and most recently Twitter, as well as countless other theme- and region-oriented communities, collectively boasting hundreds of millions of subscribers worldwide.

Just as decades ago the musician’s demographic shifted towards those who were equal parts aesthetically and aurally pleasing, it is now shifting towards artists who enjoy membership in the Cult of Personality as well.

The first step in selling your music to an audience is acquiring one. The act of gaining and holding public interest can be a task unto itself. In addition to competing with other artists, you also have to compete with celebrities, creative and otherwise. Those lacking a product to promote often resort to promoting themselves, and nothing gets attention quite like drama.

It is quite possible for someone to become the biggest name in pop media simply by appealing to the lowest common denominator more frequently than any of their competitors. Thanks to Social Networking sites that pander to popular voyeurism, this can be done quickly and easily from the comfort of one’s own home. Disseminated through viral marketing, it needn’t be long before conventional media catches up and turns it into news. Rather than notifications and commentary, Tweets can serve as the social dung which chittering celebutants fling at one another in the effort to become dominant within the contemporary media jungle.

So when historians look back a century from now and use our greatest technological advancement — the internet — to gauge our greatest artistic achievements, what stories will our caches tell? Will our most influential album be determined by it’s degree of global dissemination, or how many teenage girls fell in love with the lead singer’s hair? Will the most revolutionary example of musical cinema hinge upon the pedigree of it’s director, or the number of men who borrowed their sister’s black leotard and heels and recreated it for YouTube? Is the musical icon of our day Chris Martin, or Samantha Ronson?

There is a choice to be made: are we going to give in to the ultimate irony of proverb and let the music play second fiddle? Are we going to make ourselves the products and let our songs be little more than merchandise? Or are we willing to stand on a lower rung of the socio-corporate ladder if it means being artists beyond reproach?

Perhaps there’s a compromise to be made. Perhaps it’s worth taking a hit to personal dignity if it increases the number of people who are exposed to the music. Perhaps the producer must be martyred for the sake of the product.

There is a line that falls somewhere between promotion and prostitution, and it is incumbent upon aspiring artists to decide where it will be drawn and on which side they will stand. Integrity and success need not be mutually exclusive, but if at some point they should diverge, every fan you have ever acquired will be waiting eagerly to Retweet your decision.

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