Will Digital Revolution Be Remembered as Artistic Renaissance or Cultural Death Knell?

Just FYI – You may have to reload this page to watch the video. Reason: It’s being hosted on a server in Italy. No idea.

Lykke Li - PressPausePlay

Recording artist Lykke Li puts extra care into her live performances to make up for what's lost in a digital age.

Examining the love-hate relationship between artists and their computers.
As an artist working in the digital age, you’re supposed to be super psyched that everything has gone do-it-yourself. Want to make a movie? You can now buy a camera (or two), rent some lights and recording equipment (if you’re feeling fancy), and get some software from a friend.

Best case scenario, you’re well on your way to the next showcase piece at SXSW.

Worst case, your friends and parents will have to dedicate 2 hours of their soul to a film that will forever haunt the dusty corners of Vimeo. Either way, booyah! That’s the magic of the Digital Revolution.

The word “Revolution” sounds punk rock. Add “Digital” and it immediately sounds less so.
People hate digital. Let’s be honest. Or at least what it represents. Because in most of our minds, even those that have fully invested their careers into digital pursuits (mine included), we secretly feel like we’ve come to the end of reality, of flesh and blood, of one-offs, of vulnerability, failings, and humanity.

Splicing film in the editing room - PressPausePlay

Splicing film in the editing room - A forgotten art? Or happily forgotten?

When was the last time you used the word “digital” in a conversation with a fellow creative person and didn’t feel your womb dry up and die? This is one of the ideas being explored in the movie PressPausePlay, produced by House of Radon, and featured by Wired Magazine (see the video at the bottom of this post).

Wired - How Social Media Fuels Social Unrest - By Bill Wasik

Wired - How Social Media Fuels Social Unrest - By Bill Wasik

I have a subscription to Wired. And so does Moby. Probably.
If you feel like the last time you heard the name Moby was when you were still on drugs and making poor decisions at after-hours clubs, then you are not alone. Because even Moby gave his digital music career a temporary hiatus. To make tea. Yes, that bottle of Teany Tea you just bought at Whole Foods? That’s Moby’s. When he came back to his music it was mostly to bitch about how the world of good taste had become overrun by regular people thinking they knew how to make dance music on their laptops. He also made a few interview appearances where he said he regretted licensing EVERY song off his Play album, because it made him feel like a sell out.

Poor Moby. (Oxymoron?)

Moby - Play - 1999

Moby - Play - 1999

That was a decade ago.

Today, if you’re going to be a successful musical act, you’re expected to sell out.
You expect it of yourself. When Santigold came out with her debut album in 2008, she followed the Moby model and leveraged every track to the hilt. And that was success. Or was it? Where is she now, just a couple years later?

Santigold for Converse

Santigold dropped her album and immediately started doing ads for Converse

The fact is, no one has the answer for digital.
The best we can do is call it a Revolution, and state, as they do in PressPausePlay, that this is the most epic time to be alive and creative. That past generations never had it so good. Maybe they’re right. Maybe hindsight will be twenty-twenty. All I know is that I just hung out with my Mom, who was alive for the Sixties and Seventies and saw her own share of revolutions. She said something that got inside me, way down deep. She said, “When I look at the world today and how fast everything is happening, I think this is a good time to be old. I’m glad I don’t have to do it.”

Do what? This. This way of life that has all of us doing a million things at once, just to get by. Let alone be seen or heard. But that’s just the one side of it. That’s the dark side. And everything has a dark side. Honestly, it’s sometimes the easiest thing to see.

But here’s where things take a brighter turn.
When I go to a playlist on my iPod and hit Play, I notice something. The songs that come up weren’t produced by a major record label, but rather by the artists themselves who were probably working in a room, much like the one I’m in now. All by themselves, spinning straw into gold. And when I think back to the music that was actually made by all of those record companies, back in “the good old days,” I remind myself that most of it was awful. Because back then, records were a commodity. They were tied to corporations and sales figures and test markets. Today, you could argue that there isn’t any market for music. But then there aren’t any test markets either. And so what you get is something fresh and raw coming from the most unlikely of places.

A computer.

Watch PressPausePlay in its entirety below.
Make some popcorn and snuggle up on the couch. It’s the most interesting (and important) thing you’ll watch all week.

  • Michael Tapp
    January 10, 2012

    Great post! It’s really thought provoking and asks questions that I think about on the daily.

    Is now, 2012, a better time to be an artist than in 1970? Just like everything in life; there are pros and cons. Currently there is less of a barrier to entry for equipment and distribution, but I think media is completely oversaturated right now and business models for artists in new media have yet to be established. Right now the aggregators and manufacturers are making an unbalanced bulk of revenue. The digital age fuels innovation because anyone can be an artist. I think the digital age is better for art, but not for artists.

    • Sparrow
      January 10, 2012

      Michael, Great point about the Digital Age being great for art, but not for artists. Often, I’ll be listening to a new band that I’m into, and I’ll think to myself, “I wonder how they’re making a living?” We shouldn’t have to ask that question. What these artists are manufacturing is unlike any other product. It carries a unique magic. And it fuels the spirits of so many others. Artists should be compensated handsomely for that.

  • Rachel Fairbanks
    January 10, 2012

    My personal take on this is a bit long, but I’ll sum it up by saying that I think digital is just another step in the evolution of art forms. Every time a new movement comes about, the masters of the old would always bitch about how the new stuff was ruining everything. Now it just has that layer of technology, which has also disrupted business models as well.

    I think it’s a case of adapt or die, as always. But that’s not to say that certain things of the past will be completely obsolete. I think there will always be an audience for certain forms, or in this case, certain formats. There’s been a recent resurgence in vinyl, and there’s always going to be people who will buy paper books instead of Kindles. To say that digital is lowering the bar for artistic standards isn’t true because there have always been people who suck who think they’re doing something phenomenal. Now those people just have more access to things. But so do talented people! I think there is a lot of mediocrity in current pop culture, but I don’t think digital is to blame for that.

    • Sparrow
      January 11, 2012

      Rachel, These are great thoughts. You’re right. It’s an “adopt or die” scenario, and because of that it frames itself as a challenge, and less as an opportunity. There’s a part of me that feels like I was born at just the right time to be able to take advantage of what this Age has to offer, but the romantic in me is always looking back at the old ways. Maybe it’s just about taking the spirit and feeling of the way we used to do things and applying that to the technology of today.

  • Mike Knowlton
    January 11, 2012

    Enjoyed your post very much Sparrow. I was in a punk rock band in the early 90s back before the internet transformed the industry. We made no money, booked our tours ourselves, slept on floors, released our own material, etc… It was amazing but we were broke.

    If we had been doing this now, I believe it would be much easier and I think we could have made more money doing it. From that personal perspective I think the Digital Age is definitely an Artistic Renaissance. But it’s one that requires participants to embrace technology (both in its consumption but also it’s creation).

    • Sparrow
      January 13, 2012

      Mike, That’s an interesting perspective. I think you’re right. When it comes down to it, it’s about artists understanding how to do business. My dad said something recently – that art students should shoot for a major in business and a minor in art. Once you have your business mindset in place, the digital frontier is rife with opportunities.

  • Jen Begeal
    January 11, 2012


    I agree with you that we are in a new era of self-discovery as artists and that the “old ways” of being tied to our craft or techniques has all but fallen by the wayside with the boom of digital technology.

    When I was applying to undergrad in the mid-90’s I was uncertain which artistic path I wanted to take; did I want to follow my music, did I want to study theater, visual arts, writing? When I met with the Dean of Admissions at Carnegie Melon (I was looking into their acting program) I explained how I felt and that my creativity spanned multiple disciplines. Her answer to me was “there is no such thing as a renaissance artist anymore, you must choose one creative path and stick with it.” In the end I chose film because at the time it seemed to encompass most completely the different elements of my creativity, however her words always stuck with me, causing me to believe that one could not be functionally creative across multiple platforms. Digital media and the “re”-birth of transmedia has proven the old ideology of a single platform creative skillset wrong, and I am very thankful for that.

    • Sparrow
      January 11, 2012

      Jen, Yes, you’re right. In fact, you’ve been right all along. Perhaps sidetracked (at least in your mind) by your Dean’s short-sightedness (or her own creative insecurities). That said, I think it’s great that you developed yourself in the realm of film in order to give yourself a foundation to stand on. I’m in a similar boat. At Bennington, I wrote plays, short stories, children’s books (um, scary!), painted, drew, acted, and designed posters for the publications office. I thrived on all of these pursuits, but when I left Bennington, I felt like I had to define my path and so I chose writing. But all of those other passions remained. Only now am I getting back in touch with them and seeing how they all work in symphony. It’s lent quite a bit to my tinkerings in transmedia, but mostly it makes me feel like a richer, more fulfilled creative person. I’m glad to have them back. Or perhaps they never left. Jen, I can’t wait to see where you keep pushing you’re multi-faceted self. You’re an artist of your time.

  • Nick
    January 12, 2012

    I stopped making the distinction. Life got easier when i removed that illusory roadblock.

    And that thing your mother said to you? Her parents or grandparents said it to her, and you say it to your progeny. Who are currently having no trouble inhabiting this ‘other’ world. :)

    • Sparrow
      January 13, 2012

      Nick, I’m waiting to see how people will be living 20 years from now, when all of this looks quaint in hindsight. I’m reminded of the scene in “Children of Men” when Michael Caine goes to his stereo and plays the music “that the kids are listening to these days.”

    • hapa
      January 13, 2012

      no… trouble…

      i wonder how many progeny-generation people would like to hear how their experience right now isn’t ‘trouble’

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