The moment of discovery

Walk the LineOne of main reasons I like to watch biopic movies about bands or musicians is because I like to see two scenes that are always part of those movies – the scenes that have to do with discovery.

The first scene is the part of the story where someone first listens to the music and realizes “damn, this is good.” It’s that scene in Walk the Line where the producer first hears Johnny Cash play, or when Ray Charles finally gets to take centerstage in the movie Ray. It usually takes place in a smoky club or a tiny, ramshackle recording studio. It’s that first intimate moment of virtuosity and greatness. The best biopics usually place that as the first time the viewer gets to see a full performance as well, so as you watch you share in the wonder of the first person who discovers a future legend. It’s the best expression of the importance of music to the listener.

The second scene is the part of the story where the public-at-large first listens and realizes “damn, this is good.” One of my favorite movie scenes in this category is in the cheesy-but-lovable That Thing You Do, where the band (The Oneders) first gets played on local radio (in the 1950’s, mind you). All of the band members are going about their normal non-rock-star lives in town, cleaning shop floors or running errands, and suddenly their song crackles to life on the radio. They all drop what they’re doing, drive and run to the drummer’s parents’ appliance store where they turn every radio in the place on and dance wildly in collective victory. It’s not an intimate type of discovery, but it does mean they have found an audience and now have that ability to finally afford to do what they love for a living. It’s the best expression of the importance of music to the musician.

The interesting thing about discovery is how it has changed. Now that first intimate moment might happen in a lonely, out-of-the-way website or MySpace page. The second moment, when an act hits it big, might happen on YouTube when a homemade music video “goes viral” or when a big brand like Apple picks up your song for a commercial spot. Where the first and second moment might have been a couple of years and hundreds of thousands in marketing dollars apart a decade ago, now they might be a week to a couple of months apart as friends share with friends and everyone from ad execs to label execs comb social sharing sites looking for the next big thing.

Also, the idea of where that discovery might lead has changed. Of course you will still have your big success stories – the U2’s, Coldplays, Kanyes, and Red Hot Chili Peppers. But the internet has given birth to a musician middle class, where artists distribute cheaply, find fanbases all over the world efficiently, play more, smaller gigs and publicize them to local fans easily. A musician can make a good living as a mid-sized band without ever needing to really hit it big 1950’s style. And there is more variety and inspiration for all of us.

Some people say that the internet is killing the music industry. Yes, the economics that depend on mass physical distribution and mass marketing are going the way of the dinosaur. But the economics that depend on those magical moments of discovery, and the best expression of what is important to listener and important to musician, are thriving in ways they never did before.