Saturday, April 06, 2013

Digital Evolution: Part 1 Music

When we look at today’s digital revolution we often see disruptive change. Many shout, ‘out with the old and in with the new,’ but we have to often ask if the new is really ‘new’, or merely a reiteration of the past? What once worked, but became uneconomic, or inefficient, or was often constrained by the technology of the day, can often come back, without the baggage that once burdened it in its previous days. Suddenly we have a renaissance, a new opportunity, a new dawn.

Music is a classic example where the constraints of the technology inhibited or defined the form. What was once accepted as efficient soon was overtaken by technology that tackled that which limited its performance or capacity. The length of a single or an album was determined not by the content but originally by the constraints of Vinyl. When we were released from those constraints we often found other inhibitors with eight-track, cassettes and even CDs. When we went digital these constraints were no longer with the media, but the network and its capacity to transfer files. Now we have the cloud and super-fast connectivity and these has spawned streamed services such as Spotify and Pandora. 

We now have to question the definition of recorded music itself.

During the vinyl evolution the LP, or album, came into its own and moved its content from a collection of tracks to the concept album. Then digital allowed users to pick and mix their own playlists of tracks. No longer did they have to buy the whole album, or the unwanted ‘B’ side, they could just buy what they wanted and create their own mix playlists. The only time constraint was with the consumer. We often refer to this as the ‘iTunes moment’.

However many producers wanted to restrict sharing, copying and imposed unsociable DRM locks on the material. Thankfully, the threat of Napster, Kazaa and bit torrent made them see sense and music freed itself from proprietary formats and went MP3. MP3 wasn't the best format but it was the common one all could adopt.

The neutralization of the format has enabled us all to copy and share our music. We now question whether we have to even own all our musi, or build big repositories of music we hardly even listen to. Faster communications allows us now pull down the music on demand from the cloud and even enjoy it on or offline. This has changed not only how we collect our music, play it, but also the payment model itself. We are now moving from pay to own to pay to play and subscribe to as much as you want.

Unless you went to a live concert, music pre-digital could be described as ‘one dimensional’ and that dimension was pre-recorded audio. MTV was one of the pioneers that introduced us to the music video, but again it was initially constrained and supplied on a broadcast or CD/DVD format. You could buy music video and later CDs but the opportunity to recreate the concert and live music was heavily reliant on a film and sound crew, and limited it to the bigger and wealthier artists.

Digital cameras and video not only spawned YouTube, they smashed the ‘packaged’ music video and concert. YouTube  Myspace, Facebook etc have democratized the music video and made it possible for everyone to record and share live music. It is now claimed that more kids today watch their music than listen to it. No longer is the music video restricted to the ‘haves’ it is now available to anyone with a smartphone to create, record and share.

Musician and ex Talking Heads lead, David Byrne was one of the first artists to recognise this and open his concert performances by encouraging the audience to film it and post it on the net. In his book ‘How Music Works’ he says, ‘In the past, performers would at least try to limit amateur photographers and especially video cameras, but now that idea seemed simply ridiculous- hopeless. We realised there was a silver lining: they liked our show and their postings were functioning as free advertising. The thing we were supposed to be fighting against was actually something we should be encouraging. They were getting the word out, and it wasn’t costing me anything. I began to announce at the beginning of the shows that photography was welcome, but I suggested to please only post shots and videos where we look good.’

People’s music taste is probably more eclectic than ever and no longer restricted to what they hear on the radio or the top ten. The big artists still dominate the market but the music tail grows ever longer.

It’s often hard to accept that up until 1878, music was restricted to the live performance, be it in the home, on the streets, in bars and clubs or in concert halls. The original recorded format was restricted in both length and quality. Sousa feared, that we would see the recording as the master and the live performance as secondary and this has largely prevailed over the last century. However, today digital and communications have brought us full circle and the only constraint is often the ability to discover that something you had never heard before. Live, uncensored music can be created by anyone and delivered to potentially millions in real time.

Perhaps we will next address the 'dumming down' ,or restriction of the quality master tape by the format and await Neil Young’s Pono venture. What is interesting, is that in an emerging on demand world we will no longer have to replace our collection. It may be that MP3 becomes the free sub standard rendition whilst you pay for the quality one. Many will continue to search for the money but whatever happens this may be the case. 

So where is music going next? 

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