2014: The Year Music Actually Did Something About Its Tech Skepticism

U2 force-fed their new album to the world for free and ended up the enemy. Taylor Swift took hers away and ended up a hero.

Swift changed her narrative in 2014, and it wasn’t about ditching country or dating out of the public eye. She became the face of skepticism over how technology has changed music, during a year when the streaming music economy was debated more than ever — not only among artists, whose wellbeing is affected greatly, but in the court of public opinion as well.

How is it that a 25-year-old worth a speculated $200 million convinced the masses of what other artists and self-appointed figureheads — Thom Yorke, David Byrne, Beck, The Black Keys, David Lowery, Damon Krukowski — have been saying for years about digital music culture? By presenting her view as the result of a philosophical discussion about the value of art. “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for,” Swift argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed back in July. “It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is. I hope they don’t underestimate themselves or undervalue their art.”

A few months later, Swift translated her stance into actions by banning her music, including new album 1989, from Spotify. The streaming service would go on to contest Swift’s facts and figures about streaming in a public pissing match with Swift’s record label, Big Machine Records. Like many other “truths” lurking behind the kinds of wars that play out in headlines, it appeared to matter very little which party was ultimately correct. That’s because, in the process, Swift emerged as the year’s most passionate voice of reason in the digital music debate — but not because she talked down to the internet. The BuzzFeed of pop stars could never do that. Swift wouldn’t be where she is today without her own relatable memefication via social media.

At least as it relates to music, this year’s digital skepticism differed from the technophobia of years past. Back in 2000 when Metallica beefed with Napster, it was difficult to pinpoint the longterm effects of the internet on how we consume media and perceive the role of art with so little history to access. Disdain for music’s digital shake-up appeared to revolve around greed on the part of a successful band, rather than a defense of what’s right in our society.

By contrast, Swift’s Spotify stance quickly proved beneficial to her sales, not to mention bordered on concern-trolling. Yet it mattered little. In 2014, Swift and artists like U2, Thom Yorke, St. Vincent, and EMA showed that they could accept the internet as a fact of modern society and use criticism to alter — rather than dismantle — a self-obsessed cyber culture that would popularize a song called “#SELFIE” and stream it for free hundreds of millions of times.

For St. Vincent and EMA, the conversation extended beyond the music internet and the ethics of streaming. Their stances were not about money and “what’s fair” — they were about society’s growing web dependence. With their respective albums released this year — St. Vincent’s self-titled fourth album and EMA’s The Future’s Void — both artists aimed for unsettling cultural commentary that included, in addition to other topics, digital surveillance in a post-Snowden world and IRL vs. online identity. The latter topic, in particular, seemed to strike a chord.

On the St. Vincent single “Digital Witness,” Annie Clark took down Big Data marketers and oversharing social media types in just three minutes. “Digital witnesses/ What’s the point of even sleeping?/ If I can’t show it, if you can’t see me/ What’s the point of doing anything?” This implicit voyeurism encouraged by the social web was at the core of EMA’s commentary on her William Gibson-referencing single “3Jane,” where Erika M. Anderson declares, “There should be a law about it, where they can’t take videos of you.” But even she’s not shunning the web outright. Anderson’s fascination is clear: not only does she appear on the cover of The Future’s Void wearing an Oculus Rift, the future of simulated gameplay; she also posed in front of Second Life porn for the album’s promo photos and tapped Tumblr artist Molly Soda to create GIFs for her “So Blonde” video.

“I don’t know if we’re saying the nature of being online will always create a third thing – will always create a separate entity, or if we’re moving towards a point where these words like ‘construct’ and ‘in real life’ and ‘online’ are becoming these kind of irrelevant distinctions,” Anderson told Flavorwire earlier this year. “For me, even considering there’s a difference is going to be an outdated model in five years.”

Conflicted feelings about the internet, and the beauty and terror of its future incarnations, feel like a decidedly contemporary concern. On one hand, we’re constantly told to disconnect from digital culture in order to reset our minds. On the other, so much of culture — popular or otherwise — demands that we’re constantly plugged in, ready to consume and share content. Those beliefs can, and do, exist within the same individual. It’s why St. Vincent can build an entire rollout strategy around hashtags that “unlock” new music on one album cycle (2011’s Strange Mercy), then criticize digital culture as some sort of robotic cult leader on the next. As it relates to the internet, we contain multitudes — and we felt the need to discuss the nuance of the situation all year long.

Some were more optimistic than others, but what they all had in common was the belief that new advancements have their downfalls too. In nearly the same breath that he’d celebrated Apple’s ability to digitally gift U2’s Songs of Innocence to half a billion people, Bono scoffed at the notion of being paid nothing for his art and justified it by — like Swift and Thom Yorke — bringing up philosophical implications.

“To celebrate the ten-year anniversary of our iPod commercial, [Apple] bought [Songs of Innocence] as a gift to give to all their music customers.” Bono wrote on U2’s website shortly after the surprise drop. “Free, but paid for. Because if no-one’s paying anything for it, we’re not sure ‘free’ music is really that free. It usually comes at a cost to the art form and the artist… which has big implications, not for us in U2, but for future musicians and their music… all the songs that have yet to be written by the talents of the future… who need to make a living to write them.”

On a surface level, it made little sense to see U2’s push for new-age connectivity failing when Swift’s seemingly old-school tactic paid off. Amidst all their big plans with Apple (“cool stuff over the next couple of years, innovations that will transform the way music is listened to and viewed”), U2 didn’t account for how sensitive internet users become when they feel their privacy has been violated. Placing Songs of Innocence in 500 million iTunes libraries by default does not even give the illusion of secrecy amidst a plan of world domination.

Equally amusing as the NSA-like vilification of U2 was the way the internet collectively shrugged when Radiohead’s Thom Yorke pragmatically offered up a solution to the streaming problem, once again. Long a critic of Spotify’s meager payouts, Yorke released his second solo album — the smugly titled Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes — via peer-to-peer protocol BitTorrent back in September.

“It’s an experiment to see if the mechanics of the system are something that the general public can get its head around. If it works well it could be an effective way of handing some control of internet commerce back to people who are creating the work,” Yorke wrote at the time. “Enabling those people who make either music, video or any other kind of digital content to sell it themselves. Bypassing the self elected gate-keepers.”

Yorke’s idealism was not exactly a source of controversy, or at least not anything he hasn’t said before. In fact, very few of music’s digital critics did offer up something new. But instead of fearing or embracing technology, these skeptics prevailed by mirroring listeners’ own complicated feelings about the web and peddling that very complication as a solution — or, at least, proof that they live in the same digital ambiguity as the rest of us.