Sounds of cyberspace: How the internet has influenced music

If there are any two things that are constantly changing with the times, it is music and the internet. Good things happen when one meets the other. The internet has had a helping hand in bringing musicians and fans together in ways once impossible, but the internet’s influence on the actual sound of music raises questions.

How can one take the merely visual internet, and associate it with sounds? Can the internet make a sound? And how do we come to the unanimous decision regarding what defines the “noise of the net”? Musicians of the 21st century have found ways to bring aspects of the internet into not only their visual aesthetic, but also into their styles.

Prehistory – MIDI

The standardization of MIDI controllers in 1983 allowed musicians at the time to make music using personal computers. While countless original (and advanced) compositions have been created using MIDI controllers and computers, creating MIDI versions of pre-existing songs was popular in the early years of the web. Before the popularity of .wav, .mp2, .mp3 and other audio files, there were basic .midi tunes.

MIDI versions of pre-existing songs were limited in replication abilities. Think corny elevator  music or karaoke instrumentals. MIDIs weren’t the most exciting to listen to, but served their purpose as an alternative for listening to music on a computer during a time of less resources for finding audio files on the internet.

MIDIs remained popular on the web throughout the 1990s as many served as background music for (typically) personal websites. The sounds of a keyboard trying to do its best impression of all instruments (mostly resulting in saxophone-type noises) was a common sound remembered by those who browsed many early websites.

Despite MIDIs not actually being composed to fit a “sound of the internet”, the creation of MIDIs during this time were often created with web-compatibility in mind. From a nostalgia point of view, MIDIs are easy to label as being a web-sound due to their heavy presence in the early web.

Cyberpunk and early internet influence

Album cover for Billy Idol's Cyberpunk
Photo from

One of the earliest examples of the internet influencing a style of music is Billy Idol’s 1993 release, Cyberpunk. The concept-album was based around themes involving Idol’s exploration of the internet at the time, touching topics such as e-mail, online communities, and the information highway as a whole. During the time of its release, Idol used the internet to discuss the album with fans via e-mail, The Well and Usenet newsgroup alt.cyberpunk.

Despite being recorded entirely on Idol’s Macintosh computer, it’s hard to say where an exact “sound of the internet” is present on the album. Critics saw the album as a way for Idol to capitalize on the growing popularity of the internet without knowing much about it. Supporters, on the other hand, saw it as an innocent way for Idol to further his newfound interest in the internet. Regardless of the point of view of others, the influence of the web on this album’s creation marked a “first” in the history of popular music.

Music of the dot-com boom and Web 2.0

The late 1990’s/early 2000’s saw just about everyone trying to cash in on the growing popularity in some way or another. Destiny’s Child weren’t going to “diss you on the internet”, and Canibus wanted you to “put this in your CD-ROM”. From NSYNC’s “Digital Get Down” to Britney Spears’ “E-Mail My Heart”, popular musicians were finding ways to bring the net into their lyrics. Web graphics saw occasional light in things such as album artwork or music video visuals for many of these artists as well.

Album cover of by Trick Daddy
Yes, that’s a real album cover. (Photo from Amazon)

The late-2000s saw somewhat less-cheesy efforts to integrate web themes into music. Through namedropping, Katy Perry referenced Myspace in “Ur So Gay” and Beyonce referenced Instagram in “Yonce”. Internet visuals even found a place in M.I.A.’s music video for “XXXO”, which used a handful of glitter graphics popular on Arabic-language personal pages in the mid to late 2000’s.

By the mid-2000’s, the internet had become a part of most musicians’ lives, but it had yet to reach a point where what it had to offer influenced the actual sounds and genres of music. Computer-themed genres such as Nerdcore were about as close as one could get despite not pulling in a heavy internet influence.

Internet-inspired genres of the 2010’s

Vaporwave aesthetic
A collage of vaporwave aesthetic. (Photo by Deviantart user Karuari)

Nostalgia for the early web found its way into music at the beginning of the decade with an explosion of new genres such as vaporwave, future funk, witch house, and seapunk. In both visuals and in sound, the musicians of these obscure, new styles each found similar yet unique ways to incorporate online culture into their work.

Vaporwave grabs from sounds of the ‘80s and ‘90s muzak-style which creates sounds reminiscent of MIDIs found on personal web pages in the ‘90s, but are tinkered with more creatively. Vaporwave’s visual side borrows heavily from internet graphics from the early web and is considered a “parody of American hypercontexualisation of e-Asia circa 1995”. The corporate-heavy dot-com boom of 1997-2000 could also be argued as other grounds for parody with the genre’s style and message. This is not to say, however, that the genre is ultimately influenced by early Internet, as that is only a fraction of themes found in Vaporwave albums. It does, however, come closer than any other genre in terms of pulling some form of influence, one way or another.

Artists such as Vektroid (Known as MACINTOSH PLUS! and 情報デスクVIRTUAL in the vaporwave world) incorporate the muzak style in a “chopped and skewed” fashion to add an erie feel to the wave of nostalgia. The spirit of vaporwave is retained in the spin-off genre future funk, but is created in a less “chopped up” manner, and doesn’t have as much Internet influence. Artists such as Skylar Spence (formerly known as SAINT PEPSI) and マクロスMACROSS 82-99 are popular in the future funk scene.

When it comes to original instrumentation, producer Blank Banshee creates his own style of vaporwave involving compositions which utilize less samples of full songs and more sounds of the internet.

Witch House and seapunk are more visual-based in terms of influence, with seapunk arguably trying to include more internet influence in its sound in comparison to witch house. Seapunk was a short-lived sub-culture which only lasted a few months in 2012, mostly on Tumblr, but its ties to vaporwave keep it somewhat-alive at this point in time.

What makes these genres so fascinating are their bizarre styles that don’t typically follow traditional music structure. Moving on from the vaporwave/seapunk style of sampling comes original tracks of the “PC Music” label. PC Music is also an electronic genre that pulls influences from cyberculture. The style of PC Music is similar to other internet genres in terms of manipulating samples heavily, but is ultimately structured differently and is considered to be a “humourous” genre. PC Music artists include SOPHIE and Kane West.

The internet genres of the 2010’s may be underground and unorthodox in style, but popular artists have found ways to copy the styles into their own work. Seapunk was adopted by Rihanna, Azealia Banks, and Frank Ocean for a short time during its popularity. Witch House is blended in the music of Grimes and Charli XCX’s earlier work. Charli XCX has also worked with SOPHIE for her most recent release Vroom Vroom. Madonna’s recent SOPHIE-produced single “Bitch I’m Madonna” blends PC Music style with pop.

The future of the internet’s influence on music

In the internet’s many years of popularity, seeing an impact made on music in terms of sound was slow and produced minimal results. With only the last 5 or 6 years actually inventing internet-based genres, it brings a sign that there might be something bigger to come that’s nearly 100% internet inspired rather than only pulling in some influence.

Vaporwave, Witch House, PC Music, and the like may never evolve from how we currently know them, but they are providing the groundwork for future genres to come. Time will only tell when the first fully internet-inspired music genre sees the light of day.

What are your thoughts on internet-inspired genres? Share your story in the comments.

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Author: The Netstorian

Internet culture enthusiast and creator of The Netstorian.

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