Did blogs help Dizzee Rascal win?

The buzz around Mercury Music Prizewinner Dizzee Rascal began on fan sites. Jim McClellan looks at the influence of the music blogs

It's not unusual to hear the winners at music award ceremonies thank media types for their support - everyone from DJs and radio stations to friendly journalists. But according to the music blog Blissblog, when Dizzee Rascal won the Mercury Music Prize earlier this month for his debut album Boy in Da Corner, he took things a little further.

In an excerpt from his award speech published on the site, the young rapper thanks the people you'd expect - his Roll Deep crew, his record label XL and his "Hackney and Bow peeps". But he ends by giving a big shout to "all my soldiers out there in the blogosphere".

A bit of a first, both for the music business and the blogging world. But it didn't actually happen. Dizzee didn't thank bloggers everywhere. It was just a joke on the part of Simon Reynolds, the music writer behind Blissblog.

"I guess I was trying to blow my/our trumpet while also taking the piss out of that impulse to blow the trumpet! Because I'm damn sure Dizzee and the rest are totally unaware of our existence," says Reynolds. He points out that the communications network of choice for the music underground in which Dizzee Rascal operates is made up of pirate radio, mobile phones and SMS messages. "But the blogs had a big role in building buzz on Dizzee outside the underground scene itself. Someone as talented as Dizzee would rise regardless. But I do think 'we' helped get things started in terms of the music media. I reckon a lot of music journalists check out the blogs."

So perhaps Dizzee really should have thanked bloggers? It sounds silly given the relatively small numbers of people reading individual blogs. But music industry types don't dismiss the idea. "Blogs don't have an impact on mass market sales," says NME editor Conor McNicholas. "But Dizzee's success is partly down to word of mouth through the industry. And the industry certainly does take notice of dedicated fan sites."

Blogging can often seem like a self-involved, self-referential world. However, the music blogs are actually about something. As a result, they're finding a place in the larger media ecology of the music business, becoming a place to find out about "the next big thing" and sample quality writing about music. For the music magazines in particular, blogs are a potential source of new writing talent. And, as their quality and range increases, they may even become competitors.

That may be a long way off. But it's fair to say that as far as Dizzee Rascal is concerned, Reynolds and his fellow bloggers were there first. Last summer, Reynolds discovered Dizzee Rascal via pirate radio and specialist record shops. Google showed that no one was writing about him. So he set up Blissblog, in part to cover Dizzee and the scene he was part of, and last December nominated Dizzee Rascal's white label I love U as best single of 2002. Other music bloggers in the UK, US and Australia followed his lead.

"Lots of people tracked down the MP3 of I Love U based on what Simon said, and there was a lot of buzz around it then," says Tom Ewing, who runs a network of music sites including New York London Paris Munich and I Love Music, a hugely popular discussion board where music bloggers swap ideas and insults. Ewing and Reynolds point out that file sharing helped get Dizzee Rascal known much quicker than might once have happened.

In the past, if you lived outside the range of the pirate radio stations that played his tracks or didn't frequent the few specialist shops that sold his white label records, you had to wait until a mainstream record label/radio station picked up on him to hear his music. In contrast, an MP3 of I Love U appeared on the file-sharing networks quickly. Hence, by the start of the year, Dizzee already had a network of fans here and in the US.

The cultural acceleration enabled by blogging and file-sharing has its downside, Reynolds says. The "build them up, knock them down" routines of the music press normally play out over a couple of albums - a debut is praised to the skies and its follow-up is ritually slammed. In the music blogosphere, things move faster. Boy in da Corner was available on file-sharing networks two months before its official release, says Reynolds. As a result, a backlash set in a month before the CD appeared in shops.

Reynolds and Ewing represent opposing poles of music blogging. Reynolds is a well-known music journalist, who started out on the now- defunct Melody Maker and divides his time between freelancing and books. Lots of other professional journalists are also at work in the blogosphere. There is a good set of links on Reynolds' site. It's not hard to see why professional hacks use blogs. They let them try out ideas, showcase their work, raise their profile and possibly get more work.

Ewing represents something different. Though he could make a living writing about music, he prefers to stay amateur and pick up a regular salary from a day job in market research. Ewing says "the hand-to-mouth existence of a music journalist doesn't appeal. Being a print music journalist now, you're subject to an awful lot of constraints. It might detract from loving the music."

Certainly, bloggers have the space to write at length about the music they love, which can be great but can lead to over-involved rambling. However, for the music magazines, the multiplication of music media outlets has led to a fall in ad revenues, which means there's less space in magazines for writers to hold forth.

On a more general level, music magazines are more targeted at specific consumer niches, says Ewing. They're more knowing about what their particular audience wants and less likely to take risks.

"The influence of market research means that the conversation music magazines have with their audience happens on this abstracted level, via focus groups and surveys," says Ewing. With blogs, though, writers are free to ramble and engage their readers in conversation. According to Ewing, aside from the range of material they can cover (unlike the music press, which is mostly focused around release schedules), this is the blogs' real strength. The mainstream music magazines have news and celebrity interviews, which the blogs don't, he admits, but they've lost the sense of a close connection with readers. "The old music press used to feel like a mate. It doesn't anymore."

Some bloggers have said that if you're not interested in interviews, there's not much point in buying the conventional music magazines, you can get all the informed reviews you need online. Perhaps, just as file sharing poses a threat to the music business in general, free content on the music blogs might cause problems for the mainstream music magazines.

"I can see a generation of hipster/ music-obsessives emerging who will never buy or rarely buy music mags," says Reynolds. "The leading edge of opinion will go to the blogs and the webzines." But he adds that the blogosphere might help revive the mainstream as writers from blogs move on to mainstream titles.

It's already happening in the US, says Ewing. Print titles such as The Village Voice and The Seattle Weekly have recently revitalised their music coverage by bringing onboard music bloggers.

Might it happen over here? Actually the NME is already very active online. Its website is the biggest music site in Europe, says McNicholas. Their message boards are very active, with readers uploading gig reviews and photos. The site also polls its users, generating content that then finds its way into the paper - as in the recent survey of what readers thought of the Glastonbury festival.

McNicholas says the paper keeps tabs on the blogs. "Good informed writing is good wherever it is. We keep our eyes and ears open. You never know - there might be people we want to nick for the NME."

Blogs are also having an indirect effect on the NME's general style. "When I came in a year ago, I made an effort to get our style to be more conversational. It was terribly authoritarian. But having authority doesn't mean you have to sound like the Telegraph. We need to get closer to our readers. We should feel like the same people who are going out buying the music and going to gigs." Borrowing the feel of the blogs (if not the actual writers) can help here, he suggests.

Dizzee Rascal's record label, XL Recordings, takes a similarly pragmatic view of blogs, according to Simon Wheeler, head of new media for the Beggars Group (which owns XL). XL was aware of the buzz surrounding Dizzee Rascal in the blogs and file sharing networks, he says.

"It backed up our opinion that Dizzee was someone who would inspire a lot of people once they were exposed to him." That's been borne out by post-Mercury sales. Boy in Da Corner is now well on the way to going gold. Wheeler suggests that in future, the record industry will treat influential blogs like any other form of media. "If there are people who are influential in a particular scene, you're going to want them to act as taste makers," he says.

All of which means that next year, perhaps, bloggers won't have to blow their own trumpet. The winner of the Mercury Music Prize 2004 might actually do it for them.


http://blissout.blog spot.com
Tom Ewing's network of music sites
The Village Voice
The Seattle Weekly


Jim McClellan

The GuardianTramp

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