The Evolution of the Web Over the Last Ten Years

Newmusicbox October 8, 2007


I really like your question asking if the web has turned out to be the democratizing and egalitarian force we all once expected it to be.  I wish I had time to formulate and write the 10 or 12 pages necessary to even outline an answer to the question.  When I was writing about the VPo and other orchestras from 1995 to 1997, the web was a very different place.  For one thing, any sort of advertising or Internet business was considered poor netiquette.  Google didn’t exist, and Yahoo was a young start up.  Email discussion lists were new and everyone found them wildly exciting.


By about 2000, the web had changed to a place focused on merchandizing, and all of the large media organizations had established sites that began to suck in most of the hits.  One example I had to deal with was that James Oestreich, the music editor of the New York Times and an apologist for the VPO, began writing a series of articles rationalizing the orchestra’s gender and racial policies.  Using email lists, I was able to counter many of his lopsided reports, but I could only reach professional groups of musicians, while he could reach a general public of tens of thousands.  This domination of the web by the mainstream media is one change that has happened, even though well-written emails and blogs can still make a lot of waves.


Another change was that by about 2000, many of the professionals who were at first strongly attracted to web discussions lost faith in them.  There were many complex reasons.  The quality of dialog was often low, but the web also proved so egalitarian that many of the more established professionals didn’t really appreciate their loss of status in the discussions.  Many established members of the music world left and discussion groups became havens for the disenfranchised.  Some of the better-known people in the music world later formed blogs where they wouldn’t have to deal with people talking back.


Lists also often splintered into smaller groups where everyone whistled the same tune. 

This raised important questions about the Internet's presumed “anarchy” and who it benefits. On one hand, anarchy guarantees a kind of free speech, but on the other, it grants the ruling status quo (which is often that of white males) an unrestricted exercise of power that can further marginalize those who are different. Since the general ethos of the Internet stigmatizes regulation, it is seldom that lists grant any form of encouragement or "epistemological privilege" to marginalized views. Lists tend to gravitate toward norms that leave members little to do except preach to the choir. Those who are different are relegated to smaller, more specialized lists where their concerns are ghettoized.  This is seen very clearly, for example, in the lack of women in the discussions here and on Sequenza 21.  The women seem to be all bunched together over on the IAWM list where hardly a man shows his face.

Does this process lead to a form of diversity, even if fragmented?  Or does it leave a totalizing, "tribal" norm in the center that removes those marginalized from the avenues of power? 


In spite of these problems, I still think the web has done more to create a global village than any other technology, and that it has given new power to groups like women musicians.  In 1997, for example, my Internet articles about the VPO led to huge protests against the orchestra during its concerts in Carnegie Hall.   I rented CAMI Hall, which is right across the street from Carnegie, during the nights those protests were taking place, and hosted two evenings of music by women composers.  We put out a call for scores, and one submission was from the then virtually unknown Jennifer Higdon who adorned the cover of last month’s NMB.  The web has helped make a difference for women, and it still does.


I think another change will be a shift of focus away from the Northeastern Establishment in new music.  Via the web, many other composers are now able to raise their voices and present their music and scores, thus circumventing the media outlets, educational institutions, and foundations that have created a Northeastern regional bias in American new music.  In the egalitarian world of the global village, it is foolish and anachronistic to think America is some sort of one-horse country where everything cultural happens in New York City . 


As the world increasingly challenges domination by New York ’s financial elite, we will also see increasing challenges to the cultural structures that elite (and those elsewhere) use to legitimize themselves.  I am not sure where all of this will lead.  One hint might be Gustavo Dudamel’s appointment as GMD of the LA Phil.  The forces of cultural isomorphism will require orchestras in the United States to move away from a system of cultural plutocracy to something that at least appears more egalitarian.  The end effect will probably not be egalitarian, but something more populist and commercial – something culturally isomorphic with the global domination of capitalism. 


The music world’s intelligentsia will eventually notice how the presumed egalitarianism of postmodernism (including its technologies) were not only easily appropriated by global capitalism, but that from the very beginning they were one and the same.


There is so much more to say, but I have already gone on too long.


William Osborne