22 October 02003

More on the Future of Music

Following my earlier posting about projecting the experience of music into the future, there's an article by Adam Sweeting in the current RSA Journal with projections for how recorded music will be bought and sold [link to RSA Journal current issue page | download article directly].

I think some of the arguments in the article are guilty of being dazzled by technological determinism. The most interesting parts relate to new organisational structures and practices.

For instance, I'm surprised by the claim in article that "the concept of the album is going to disappear" and I wonder if this doesn't overplay the impact of technology while underplaying the role of social and organisational processes. New music cannot be promoted as though every track is a single: the costs of this — which would have to be passed onto the consumer somehow — would make it prohibitive. The market's attention (both the consumers and intermediaries like the music press reviewers) is used to focusing on more significant 'lumps' of material, and this provides for a natural cycle where top artists go in and out of focus, in turn, on the front pages and the playlists. If everybody released two songs a month, as The Wedding Present did in 1992, this attention would blur, it would be more difficult to 'hype' new releases, and sales might drop as a result. While there may be more potential to play with different release patterns, some kind of grouping of multiple tracks into packages with a distinct identity seems likely to continue for quite some time (The Wedding Present singles have since been packaged on two Hit Parade albums).

The spectre of the technologically 'dis-intermediated' music industry appears again. Just because it is possible for a few artists to produce, distribute and promote their own music successfully "with no record company involvement at all" — the article cites the experience of Damien Rice and his own DRM label — does not mean that in the future no artist will ever find it useful or necessary to deal with a record company. A few artists, and their art, may be well suited to self-managed business and technology; plenty of others will not be, and would rather spend time writing and recording than negotiating e-commerce deals.

Another time I hope to write in some detail about Robert Fripp's attempt to establish the Discipline Global Mobile label as an artist-run, artist-friendly alternative to traditional record companies. My hunch is that there are valuable lessons to be learnt from his reasons for stepping back from this goal last year. (Here's one quote from Fripp: "Never allow your business to become reliant upon artists: there is a conflict of interest between what is right, true and necessary; and supporting the business structure. The creative act cannot be other than hazardous. Were DGM to continue as it was, it would become perverted.")

I was most interested in Sweeting's account of the Sanctuary Group cluster of companies (be warned: their Flash-driven web site takes over your browser without warning, resizing it and ensuring that your Back button doesn't work on the site). This includes record labels, music publishing, artist management, tour booking and merchandising, audio and video rights management. A combination of federal organisation (allowing clients to pick and mix the services they need) with economies of scale ought to be well-placed to exploit the new market possibilities.

Finally, there's further reinforcement of the idea that consumers are "going to have far more music at far lower unit prices, and... that's what the record companies are going to have to get used to." Although I reckon there may be scope to support higher prices for some new release music (to parallel the higher prices of books when first published in hardback), I still believe that the sheer volume and disposability of music may have the most profound effects on its aesthetics, as I said in my earlier posting.

It would be encouraging to imagine a rebirth of the garage punk scene that produced so much great 'disposable' (but since highly collectable) 7" singles in the 1960s, though I suspect that the disposability that comes with surfeit volume (2005) has a different quality to the disposability that comes from seeing an art-form as ephemeral (1965).

The Adam Sweeting article prefigures an RSA programme on digital music, which I understand will be launched at a one-day conference on 14 January 2004, with Lawrence Lessig and others slated to talk. Details, when available, should appear on the RSA Events page.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Future of Music, Ideas and Essays, Music and Multimedia on 22 October 02003 | TrackBack
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