The internet is rendering the music industry's physical and cultural barriers to entry irrelevant.
Kevin Abstract lives on the internet. Over the last month, he has tweeted updates on his day-to-day life to nearly 500,000 followers—amid a constant stream of self-promotion, Abstract let them know he was listening to SZA and Frank Ocean, reminded them of the majesty of Travis Scott’s Astroworld, paid tribute to Houston’s legendary DJ Screw, confessed his love for Harry Styles, and talked about his struggles with depression. “Life can fuckin suck big time,” he wrote on September 25; more than 7,000 people agreed enough to retweet. Earlier this summer, he filled a second Instagram account with selfies, artistic inspirations, memes, and the antics of him and his 13-member boy band, Brockhampton, who released a new album Ginger at the end of August. Last month, when the Fonda Theater in Los Angeles was too small to accommodate all of the shrieking young fans who wanted to see Abstract and the gang perform their album live for the first time, Brockhampton streamed the show on YouTube, letting thousands more of their cult following in through digital doors.
There’s a prevailing notion that the digital age has ushered us toward isolation, that by spinning ourselves into the World Wide Web we have been disconnected from each other in the real world. This old-on-young proverb might hold some truth. But young people like Abstract are part of a generation that moves at the speed of a Google search. For them, computers are not just boxes for finding information faster or keeping up with old friends; they are integrated into their lives as a kind of second home, a place for connecting with people in ways that the physical world doesn’t always allow.
So when Brockhampton streamed their concert, titled Friday Therapy in honor of the actual therapy sessions actor Shia Labeouf leads at the band’s creative house, the act was a testament to a deep truth behind the band’s success: that the fast-paced intimacy displayed by Brockhampton resonates with a certain crowd of young people who survive their physical lives by venting to strangers on Tumblr and Twitter. Abstract, in particular, writes the kind of lyrics one might reserve for their close friends on Instagram: On Ginger’s soul-searching song, “DEARLY DEPARTED,” Abstract’s verse laments the dissolution of his home—that his mom is stuck working at Sonic Drive-In, his sister needs a car, the air-conditioning has gone out again, and he has lost his best friend. (On the same track, Abstract admits that even his Instagram, his vehicle for connecting fans, doesn’t show all of the man’s turmoil.)
“[Computers] are integrated into their lives as a kind of second home, a place for connecting with people in ways that the physical world doesn’t always allow.”
In 1991, an English engineer invented the web as we know it, marking a major milestone in the age of information that began in the ’50s. In 1994, IBM produced the first smartphone—a block of touch screen with a 1-hour battery life. And then in 1996, on the day that newspaper headlines announced Microsoft and NBC would flood TVs across America with round-the-clock access to news as MSNBC, Clifford Ian Simpson was born in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Texas has produced famous rappers (Travis Scott) and brought gay men to celebrity status (Todrick Hall), but it’s never done both in the same person. Of course, while Simpson grew up in a South Side house on Brockhampton Street, for which the band is named, it was the internet that made him Kevin Abstract: In a recent VICE interview, he talked about spending childhood locked in his room, watching interviews of his favorite celebrities online and hoping to become them. One artist, Kanye West, inspired young Simpson—along with hundreds of others—to take to the internet to discuss his work. Simpson began posting on an early version of fan forum KanyeToThe.com, which today hosts thousands of followers discussing West’s work. At age 14, Simpson felt driven to post on the site: “Anybody want to make a band?” The precursor to Brockhampton, Alive Since Forever, formed almost entirely online. And it was fitting, then, that when Simpson decided on a new name for himself to work under, he chose one that evoked a bypassing of physical reality, a nod toward the way he planned to move from Corpus Christi’s concrete sidewalks to build a home out of the whirring ideas and sounds inside his mind.
“Of course, while Simpson grew up in a South Side house on Brockhampton Street, for which the band is named, it was the internet that made him Kevin Abstract.”
Much of Abstract’s music idealizes matters of the home; his 2014 album, American Boyfriend, grapples with the fallout of being gay and black in a world that doesn’t want to make space for either. Last April, he released a third solo album, Arizona Baby, in bits over three weeks—on Thursday midnights, fans rushed to their phones and laptops to listen to new songs, and then replayed the entire album all over again, digesting it as a whole. This was a great business decision; it wrung out streams from followers over an extended period, but more importantly, it further developed his fans into the kind of people who will hear an entire album out. It made them really listen, over and over, the way one hopes a family might. When he released the full album at the end of the month, he celebrated with a live stream of him running on a treadmill outside his house on Brockhampton Street for 10 hours. Fans came out, and thousands more tuned in. It was a bizarre spectacle, watching a close-up of Abstract’s face under the duress of a seemingly pointless exercise as a crowd gathered around to cheer him on. But Abstract was not simply bringing fans to a new level of digital intimacy, he was bringing them home with him.
Recently Abstract has become preoccupied with endings. In a recent i-D interview, Abstract answered honestly about his uncertainty for the future of Brockhampton. “How long does it last?” he said, meaning not only the band but also his friendships—Brockhampton’s 2017 album Iridescence mourns the loss of former member and Abstract’s longtime friend Ameer Vann, who was booted from the group after sexual assault allegations. Abstract, who doesn’t want to make another solo album, has foreseen the ending of the group; the boys have talked about it, he admitted. But it will not be surprising if, when the Brockhampton site goes cold and their social media accounts start to grow stale, a new boy band forms out of the ashes of the Brockhampton forums online and takes up the mantle, ready to move even faster.