David Rovics on using the internet

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POSTED: November 7, 2019

I did not write what follows. David Rovics did. He posted it here on his blog Songwriter’s Notebook, as part of his ongoing ruminations on the cultural, economic and politic aspects of life as a working musician.

If you find this interesting then you should definitely read more of his writing on Songwriter’s Notebook.

Coping with future shock: getting more out of the web for people who got stuck…

I heard an interview with the author who coined the term, future shock, back in the 1980’s. I haven’t read the book, but the term has become familiar, since it’s now something we’re all experiencing to one degree or another.

For better and for worse, children have the most impressive ability to assimilate the world around them, because they have such an inquisitive orientation, combined with the basic human need for acceptance, to fit into the tribe. It’s an especially obvious phenomenon if you observe small children — all the other kids are doing it, I’m going to master this, too; walking, peeing in toilets, climbing trees, watching videos, playing Minecraft.

As we get older, we tend to lose this sense of adventure about everything, and adapting becomes harder, or impossible. And then, even if we don’t get all stultified in our adulthood, it’s still hard. This fact really struck me in a recent visit to my father’s place. He’s now in his eighties, and very active as a composer and musician, among other things. Really ever since he was a kid, he’s been ahead of the curve vis-a-vis technology. In the 1960’s he was using the latest reel-to-reel recording devices. In the 70’s he was doing things with personal computers well before they were commonplace. In the 90’s he was experimenting with websites, and he was one of the earlier ones to move all the exercises involved with composing and creating scores and transposing things, etc., to the digital realm, using programs like Finale.

But even for someone like him, in this rapidly-changing environment, it’s so easy to get left behind. In my last visit I was trying to figure out, eventually with help from Adobe customer service, how to export tens of thousands of photos from an antiquated photo editing program that was invented long before the internet came around. Figuring out how to do a bulk export of the photos was challenging enough, but what seemed perhaps as challenging was understanding the concept that now that these photos were uploaded to Google Drive, they could be shared easily and accessed on any device that’s signed in to Google Drive. My father blinked, and suddenly everything is on the Cloud (and we’re not talking about the sky), and suddenly most useful things done on a computer involve a browser, rather than a program that’s actually running on your hard drive.

So many other people, who do not have the attitude of an adventurous toddler, get so much more thoroughly left behind by modernity. People like my mother, also in her eighties, who can’t find the volume on her laptop even when she really wants to listen to one of her son’s podcasts, or use the map on her phone even when she’s hopelessly lost and has the phone in her bag.

Many people, perhaps most, adapt to a new technology, or attempt to do so, when it’s really forced upon them. In the 90’s, many people started using the new technology of email as soon as it became somewhat widespread. Others waited until no one replied to their letters or phone calls anymore, before grudgingly buying their first laptop, twenty years after personal computers became popular.

Many people enthusiastically experimented with every new communication platform that came along, when it came along — Friendster, MySpace, Facebook, etc. Others got on Facebook only after they couldn’t figure out where all their friends went, who they used to communicate with by email or on a now-extinct platform like MySpace. Or when they could no longer find out what was going on around town through any other means, after the newspapers went out of business, and the email announcements lists they were subscribed to stopped posting.

What seems to have happened to many people who then grudgingly made the move to Facebook is they got stuck there. It works well enough for their purposes, for keeping in touch with friends, keeping track of local events, news stories, and many other things. This seems to be especially true of middle-aged and older people, who are making up an increasingly large base of the regular Facebook users. Younger folks are more likely to be looking for other things that have come along.

By the same token, those of us who nowadays are termed Content Creators — artists, musicians, photographers, journalists, filmmakers, livestreamers, podcasters, bloggers — tend to be ahead of the curve in terms of understanding new developments with technology and communication, because we run into the limitations of the corporate-controlled platforms before people who might fall more into the “consumer” category.

So, for those of you who got stuck in Facebook’s universe, but are increasingly coming to realize that it’s not providing the kind of context you once got from it, that’s because it isn’t — they just try not to make it that obvious. But everything about your Facebook experience is determined by mysterious algorithms that are designed to make you spend as much time on Facebook as possible. The desire to spend as much time on Facebook as possible isn’t what motivates most of us generally, so that creates a bit of a disconnect. Most people are looking for other things — connection, news, stories, songs — Facebook is the means, not the goal.

You can keep on muddling along on Facebook, and I’ll muddle with you, since it is an indispensable tool for the modern artist that cannot be ignored any more than Spotify, Apple, Google or the interstate highway system can be ignored. But there are tools in popular use by many people that you might like to explore. If you’re already well familiar with navigating the worlds of streaming music, subscribing to podcasts, getting notifications about things you’re actually interested in, or following artists’ tours in a way that’s relevant to your physical location, then the philosophical part of this shpeel is over, and you can go do something else now.

What follows is practical stuff – for those of you who are or were keeping track of artists, journalists and other people and subjects of interest mostly through your Facebook feed and perhaps email announcements lists, and you’re wondering if there is a better way. Not that you should abandon these mediums of communication entirely by any means, in my view – but whereas half the population uses Facebook on a regular basis, less than a quarter is subscribed to a podcast on a podcasting platform. If you’re a member of the majority of the population who doesn’t do podcasts except maybe when one pops up in your Facebook feed or on an email list, then you just might want to keep reading – but you need to have your toddler hat on for this, not your “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” outfit.

Listening to Music

The main way artists release new music, and the main way people follow the work of artists they like, in terms of new and old albums of that artist, is by following them and listening to their music on free streaming platforms, especially Spotify. There are loads of problems with this, and artists desperately need to organize a campaign for streaming justice, in my view. But that’s not what this is about, so I’ll stop there on that tangent.

I have not released a physical CD in many years, nor do I have any plans to do so in future. The vinyl album I released will surely be my only one, and I’ll have those boxes cluttering my family’s apartment for years to come I’m sure. The era of physical merch is over. So if you want to listen to my latest stuff, or that of most artists, you won’t find it there.

You may find a post about a favorite artist’s latest release coming up on your Facebook feed, but if you did see that, it’s probably because it was paid for by the artist. It’s a terrible system in that regard and many others, Facebook. You can free yourself from their evil algorithms by intentionally following artists you like on a streaming platform.

If you haven’t done it before, listening to music on a streaming platform is as simple as downloading the free app (Spotify or zillions of others), signing up to either the free or paid tier of the service, depending on whether you can deal with the occasional ad and whether you want to be able to listen to albums in the actual order the songs appear or not. Most people evidently don’t care about those things, and sign up for the free service. (Signing up for the paid service does not benefit the artist any more than streaming on the free service does, in case you’re wondering.) Then, you search for an artist you like, and click “play.”

If you ever used to do mixed tapes back in the day, you’ll find that creating playlists on Spotify and other streaming platforms is very easy, and most of the artists you might be interested in are there – their entire catalog. Some of you may be wondering how or why it is that the entire catalog of most artists can be found on all of these platforms — both more commercial ones but also most any independent one who was on an independent record label some time in the past 25 years. The explanation is that most labels and millions of independent artists used platforms such as CD Baby to register and distribute their CDs. When download services like iTunes came along, CD Baby set up a structure so with one or two clicks you could have all the music they were already distributing for you available on iTunes. The overwhelming majority of these artists and labels signed up for it. It was a good deal – these downloads on iTunes were expensive! And then streaming eventually came along, and artists almost all clicked “yes to all” for that, too. With a click, your whole catalog is suddenly made available on dozens of streaming services around the world, voila.

For those of you who want to support artists and are concerned about the streaming platforms for that reason, I hear you and feel the same way. But not using the platforms doesn’t help the artists, any more than using them helps the artists. If you want to help struggling independent artists, sign up to their patronage programs.

Listening to Podcasts

With podcasting it’s the same kind of thing, but with slight variations. First of all, to make sure we’re on the same page, what’s a podcast? It’s basically a segment of audio you can stream or download, usually one that is part of a series of some kind. Maybe if you’re on an email list or looking at your Facebook feed, you click on a podcast that someone shares, so you’re familiar with the concept that way.

But to take advantage of the medium in a more reliable, less cluttered and random kind of way, to help you get away from these mediums like Facebook that are ruled by billionaires and their mysterious algorithms, your best move is once again an app. Examples include Podcast Addict and Podbean, or whichever podcasting app may have come with your phone, like if you have an iPhone. Using any of these apps, you can find the vast majority of the podcasts that are out there that are worth listening to. You can find a podcast, subscribe to it, and then get notified on your phone when a new episode is out, or just go to the app and refresh it to see all the latest episodes of any podcasts you’re subscribed to.

How is it, you may be wondering, that it doesn’t matter which podcasting app you download, that whether it’s a little open source one or a big corporate one, you can access most of the same podcasts from around the world? This is because when people like me sign up to a podcasting platform – one that’s not just for listening to podcasts but also for uploading and distributing them, such as Podbean – we jump through some fairly simple online hoops to get the podcast registered for distribution on all the different major podcasting platforms, such as Apple, Google, Spotify, etc., and then they automatically go out on all of those platforms every time we put up a new podcast episode.

Watching Livestream Broadcasts

Livestreaming various kinds of things has become very popular, but reliably knowing about broadcasts you may be interested in and watching or participating in them when they happen can be very challenging. The internet is divided into various corporate platforms, all vying for your attention, and they don’t want to share it. They all have various things to offer, pros and cons, and naturally tend to attract different sorts of people. But any of them who are interested in a particular artist or other person who does a livestream these days can often more reliably see broadcasts that pop up on their screens.

If you are seeing livestreams popping up a bit more often than they used to, the reason is because increasing numbers of people are using broadcasting platforms that allow them to livestream on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Twitch and other platforms simultaneously. This way, whichever one of those platforms you may be logged in to when a broadcast happens, you’ll see it pop up on your screen (depending on your computer or phone’s various settings related to this sort of thing). If it’s not a window popping up your screen, it may be a phone notification, an email, or all of the above.

What’s All This About Notifications?

If you’ve noticed that I’ve mentioned notifications a lot, here’s why. In the age of Too Much Information, for those who want to get away from the noise and clutter of their Facebook feeds and email lists and hone in on the online content they’re really interested in, in such a way that they can keep track of it easily, the notifications on your phone are your friend. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, on any Android phone, you drag down from the top of the screen once or twice and you get your notifications. Any of your apps that have new content will probably let you know in the form of a notification, which will appear in a list of the most recent updates from each of your apps (unless you’ve blocked this feature for that app, or for all of them). There’s a similar function on iPhones, too.