"The Universe, as has been observed before, is an unsettlingly big place, a fact for which the sake of a quiet life people tend to ignore."
-- Douglas Adams in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
I've spent the last (and as you can see largely postless) week engaged in the rather stressful activity of moving house, and for a bit of reprieve I decided to re-read Douglas Adams's Hitch-hiker trilogy, which I vaguely liked many years ago. Not so brilliant on the whole but I did like the story of the Oglaroonians.
Rather than go out and explore the world, the inhabitants of the planet Oglaroon have amassed themselves in a single tree in a forest, creating an elaborate mythology to prevent any of them from ever leaving. Rather than face up to the vast universe, claims Adams, most people "would happily move to somewhere smaller of their own devising."
Now I'm thinking this brief incidental anecdote is a rather credible metaphor for what to me is one of the bigger mysteries of music on the internet.
The basic problem is this. The internet allows for virtually unlimited exchange of music over all kinds of borders. Yet the development of music over the past decade has been towards smaller, geographically localised scenes as much as anything, and people might be more narrow in their listening now than ever before in recent rock history.
It all seemed so remote in the wake of Napster's success. I remember reading an anti-iTunes article on The Register (it might well have been this one, where Andrew Orlowski praises "short-range broadcasting" and ready exchange of music with neighbours on the bus) and laughing at the idea that the future of the internet held anything other than an ever-widening listening range. But they were right, totally right.
The file-sharing technologies have become narrower. DC++ and then BitTorrent increasingly limited the amount and type of files one had ready access to - it's totally symptomatic that creaky old Soulseek is still superior in musical selection to any more modern service. Services like last.fm are built around reinforcing already extant tastes, or integrate them with those of your existing friends. Music blogs and podcasts are also very much limited selection tools that present "somewhere smaller of their own devising." The ambition for the truly world-wide seems to have largely dissipated.
The statistics bear this out. Swedish vote-based hit list Tracks (via) contained 31% Swedish tracks in 1997. Last year that figure was 63%, more than twice as many, and the interest in local bands here seems to never have been bigger. And look at all the local scenes that have turned up, from Snap to Kuduro - now more than ever we've got all these tiny communities in marginal cities turning out thoroughly localised genres.
Is the world really that frightening a place? And is this desire to profile yourself as a local community really a bad thing? I haven't decided, but it's nevertheless damned interesting.