10 July 02004

The new gatekeepers for discovering music

As the means of accessing and consuming music change, so do the kinds of intermediaries who act as 'gatekeepers' controlling how listeners can discover new music. If you're shopping at the iTunes Music Store, surfing among thousands of online radio stations with Windows Media Player or RealPlayer, or using 'personalised' streaming services like Last.FM, then what you see and hear is not influenced by the same group of radio DJs/pluggers, music weeklies, in-store promotions, and friends' recommendations that were your your 'interface' to new music fifteen years ago.

And the sheer quantity of music available now makes the interface more important. It has to do more work to filter that quantity down into something that you find manageable rather than overwhelmingly complex or tediously unimaginative.

Some projections of what this means for future music consumption habits still seem dubious to me. For example, contrary to the predictions of one music journalist in this article on the impact of the iPod Mini, setting your iPod to play your entire music collection randomly sequenced is not like having your own personal radio station, and I've said before why I think reports of the death of the album are exaggerated.

Here's a few glimpses of the technological, media and social gatekeepers that may become influential to differing degrees.

Some of the technology may be important even though it is more or less invisible to users. This Wired News article on the metadata generation systems developed by Gracenote is a case in point. Gracenote's technology enables listeners to organise their digital music tracks by artist, album, genre and so on without having to enter all these labels themselves. "AOL, Apple, Philips and Sony depend on the company to make their music players and gadgets easier to use." To manage its growth, Gracenote had changed its technology from an open, public database to a private, profit-oriented venture, and the article examines some of the criticism this move has attracted.

At the time of writing, the iTunes Music Store says it has 700,000 tracks available, and they're not stopping there. Selling individual tracks makes the process more complex than it would be if the music was grouped into traditional albums. It introduces the possibility of alternative ways of grouping tracks in different ways. You can identify other users with similar tastes and choose stuff from their playlists (Last.FM works on a similar, though more automated basis — I'm planning to write about that separately). Apple has also introduced the idea of getting celebrities to publish their playlists, which provides you with a familiar, 'branded' way into this mass of atomistic tracks. Slate has produced an amusing piss-take of this approach (the owners of Slate have a stake in technologies that compete with iTunes).

Putting the means to discover music in the hands of faceless geeks at Gracenote, Apple and — lord help us — Microsoft may strike many as worse than the cynical cocktail of payola, backhanders and hype that they could replace. But the Internet still retains space for idiosyncratic creativity on the margins for those interested or lucky enough to find it. This BizReport article on 'MP3 Blogs' argues that unpaid enthusiasts may not be strictly following the letter of the law, but by championing obscure and forgotten music they build audiences that the music industry will go on to profit from. It's thanks to the (totally legit) Tangents fanzine and its associated radio stream that I have discovered and bought music by Aislers Set, The Russian Futurists and July Skies.

Some independent artists are also getting in on the act, with Steve Winwood reporting increased sales of his new album attributed to his giving away a track from his latest album on peer-to-peer networks, as reported in this Wired News article.

Why isn't random play on your iPod like having your own personalised radio station? Partly because radio works best when it works as an interaction between you and someone else's personality, as I touched on towards the end of an earlier posting. At a musictank event on access to radio earlier this week, I asked the panel of speakers how they saw new technologies changing the landscape of radio. It was encouraging to hear Martin Campbell, Head of Radio at Ofcom, say that he was concerned to avoid a scenario where radio is seen as simply one more way to distribute music: it could and should be a lot more than that. Another theme to which I hope to return.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Future of Music, Music and Multimedia, Radio on 10 July 02004 | TrackBack
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