music blogs

In 2006 – I think – I started a music blog. 

I was sixteen, a sixth former in south-west London, which was at the time the centre of a moderately-sized NME-christened indie music "scene". With hindsight, the standout acts were Laura Marling, Jamie T and Florence and the Machine. At the time, if you'd asked me, Larrikin Love and Les Incompetents would probably have been much higher up the list, but we pretend otherwise.

(Marling, in particular, gained an unfair reputation as the gig-going equivalent of the person with the guitar at a party. As a solo singer-songwriter, she was a readily-available support at the all-ages night in Brentford FC that was the centre point of the scene. Familiarity breeds contempt, and I'm ashamed to say that teen me took her sets as an opportunity to go to the bar and convince them I was eighteen, rather than revel in the knowledge that I was seeing one of the standout artists of her generation in her teen years with an audience in the tens.)

By that point it had become clear that, whatever I had intended with five years of guitar lessons, I wasn't going to be playing in a band myself any time soon, but I was desperate to get involved.

Initially, I tried declaring myself a "photographer", turning up to events with a moderately big camera and standing close to the stage. It worked – in that no-one else did it, so I really did look vaguely important, and managed to sneak into small venues during the sound check and feel like part of the in-crowd. But the downside was that, in 2006, there wasn't actually much to do with those photos. I could take them all, and occasionally email them to the bands involved, but for the most part it was a hollow experience.

So I turned to writing about the bands. That worked much better, though not, I rapidly came to realise, in the actual gigs themselves. A photographer, even a wannabe one, is obvious; the spoddy teen who's going to go back and write a scathing review, less so.

But the thing about the music blogosphere – a word we all used, in sincerity! – in 2006 is that it was genuinely the meritocratic haven that we all briefly hoped the entire internet would be. And my theory as to why is that the entire thing was, basically, illegal.

Two things defined a music blog in the mid-00s. The first was, well, it was a blog. That's important because the majority of music discussion at the time was still in the great forums of the era, the proto-social networks built around sites like the NME and Pitchfork, as well as the bands' own fanpages. You could become a fairly major figure in the community without ever leaving one of those forums – the 00s equivalent of being Big On Twitter – but your power was always constrained by the fact that you were on someone else's platform.

As a blogger, by contrast, you were your own boss. Posts could be on whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted. Whereas on a forum you needed to keep up a certain rate of posting to be notable, the miracle of RSS meant that people could, and did, follow your blog with even a fairly sporadic posting schedule.

But the second thing that defined a music blog in this period was that it shared music. And not by embedding YouTube videos (which didn't exist) or SoundCloud uploads (which didn't exist), but just by… hosting the MP3 of the track under discussion.

That did a few things to the community, in providing a barrier to entry. In order to host an MP3, you had to a) know how to set up a server that would let you host arbitrary files on the internet, b) decide to pay the hosting fees, and c) be comfortable with the moderate legal risk.

The first two of those constraints served to ensure that setting up a music blog wasn't something you did on the spur of the moment, nor something that many millions of music fans did. There was a definite "creator/audience" split to the scene back then, closer perhaps to the still limited number of Twitch streamers compared to Twitch viewers than anything else.

But the third was crucial, because it prevented gentrification – or corporatisation – of the scene. No matter how influential music blogs got, it was hard for NME or Pitchfork to fully muscle in on the turf. As large publications, they couldn't simply upload random MP3s of popular bands for free downloads. And without the MP3s, not only did they lose a lot of the cachet of writing the blog in the first place, they were also kept off the main discovery services – sites like Hype Machine, which was a search engine and aggregation tool for those uploads.

Some of this was piracy, of course, but much was closer to the bootleg side of things – live recordings, rare b-sides, demo tracks and so on. It didn't take long before I, a random teen in London, was being posted CDs to write about, with the implicit understanding that I'd also rip and share my favourite tracks.

I've been thinking a lot about this given the recent discourse about Substack and email newsletters in general. The whole thing is, of course, just a belated revival of the blogosphere, with Gmail replacing Google Reader as the home of the content. (Though, you can read this and any other substack email in an RSS reader such as Newsblur, both by pasting its RSS feed directly in, or by choosing the email to be sent to your feed reader's inbox, if the service supports such a setting).

I'm happy that the, or at least a, exciting content platform of the day is unambiguously focused on writing rather than video, and happy to that Substack isn't trying to build a social network. But I'd be lying if I said that the incredible success of a small number of already-established US media figures on the platform wasn't a bit depressing. The world wasn't crying out for a way for wealthy American journalists with large followings to earn a higher share of the expenditure of their readers but, at least in the short term, that seems to be the problem Substack is gearing up to solve.

Maybe I'd feel differently if I switched on paying subscriptions, of course. But that would mean I'd not be able to miss a random week and refuse to acknowledge it.

Happy Christmas, everyone.