Observations and Speculations on Music

01/19/2003

I spent much of yesterday in a strange venue – a converted public toilet. In front of a Hawksmoor church near Spitalfields market in London is a small glass structure – probably no more than 7ft x 7ft x 14ft. It’s surrounded by a set of wrought iron railings. If you were looking for a meeting venue or a bar, you wouldn’t notice it. But in fact it’s just the top of a staircase that goes into an underground structure. Underground there’s a new bar and a set of decks, but there also remain traces of public-sector tiling. The roof above is concrete struts with glass tiled pavement slabs forming hundreds of mini-skylights that let in a certain amount of greyish London light… I was in this public convenience for a short brainstorming session about music websites, the music industry and ways in which people go about discovering new music they like. Lots was discussed and I’ve been letting it settle in my mind to see if I can come to any general conclusions. So far my insights into the music industry have been limited to:

  • Like everything else, music is becoming more componentised. Groupings of songs distrubuted as a unit have been a staple of the music industry since the transition from printed to recorded music. But these have often been as much a factor of the media available and the costs and ease of distribution than about how people would ideally like to listen to music. The closest thing we have to how people would ideally listen to music is probably radio – songs selected from a larger assortment based on assumptions of audience preference etc. etc.
  • But is there a difference between listening to music and buying music? The function of an artist or an album is that it provides two easy axes by which we can find other songs that we are likely to enjoy based upon our preference for one song. I like Beck’s song “Lost Cause”, therefore I’m likely to enjoy other songs by Beck, and particularly other songs on the album “Sea Change”. So it could be that compiled batches of media – in the form of albums might conceivably represent useful groupings for distribution.
  • Now – while it’s possible to consider batches or compilations of songs useful for distribution, that does not necessarily mean that CDs, Vinyl albums or other physical media have much of a future. If we are to accept that componentisation is the most likely end result for the the use of music, then at present this amounts to MP3 and comparable formats as representing the primary medium. This also ties into increasing digitisation of media. At present the only effective ways of getting MP3s are via personal ‘ripping’ (copying of songs from physical media to digital media) or the distribution of said MP3s online between individuals, via file-sharing networks or from companies. The distribution of MP3s online represents a relatively fast and effective way of getting hold of songs – if you can find them and if bandwidth is of a satisfactory level. The benefits of physical media at present then are that they make it easy to find the songs you want and at a quality that you want. Physical media are also better catered for in the mass market and can be moved between distinct media players quickly and easily.
  • This aspect is significant and important to people – the ability to have access to as much of their media at any time, in an easily distributable way that can be used across several platforms is of significant interest to people.
  • Technology – bandwidth and storage capacity – are continually increasing. In addition to these inevitable improvements, increased interoperability and improvements in wireless communication between devices are likely to be on the agenda.
  • It’s profoundly difficult to know at what point bandwidth and storage capacity will level out over the next ten years or so. Different availabilities and pricing levels of bandwidth and / or storage capacity will have profound consequences on which technologies become dominant. Alongside the difficulties in prediction come real-world legal, financial, monopolist and inter-company situations that may cheerfully scupper the development of the best or most effective means of managing musical distribution – or indeed the distribution of any media in an effective way.
  • The benefits of centralisation are becoming increasingly clear as well. E-mail protocols like IMAP still haven’t received general take up, but as more people find themselves using multiple computers (which seems to be a likely situation – probably following the approach of people buying multiple televisions or stereos), centralisation away from the home seems to be a plausible way of handling this. There’s clearly a market here in being the company or the ISP that handles all your personal information centrally.
  • Technologies are starting to appear that gesture at early-adopter’s desires to centralise music playing as well. From applications like iHam on iRye (which allows you to control iTunes running on one computer from another) and applications designed to control how music is played on a network to devices that broadcast on short-range FM frequencies the audio output of MP3 players – there is a clear desire to be able to collate music in one place and yet play it anywhere.
  • Closing ‘The Analogue Hole’ – the ‘problem’ of the Analogue hole is one that quite a lot of people are working at in record companies at the moment. The issue is that at present there is little or no way to stop people copying music into a digital format from an earlier analogue version of it. And more to the point, there’s no apparent way of stopping people playing digital music that’s full of encryption through a standard set of interconnects. The music is recorded again – relatively faithfully – but into digital from an analogue input. Fundamentally here, the issue is that there is no way of building in security at this level without self-consciously breaking the technology – you have to fight against the natural flow of development and ‘progress’ in order to build this stuff in. And all you need is one person copying things in an effective manner and one effective means of transmission to make all your work redundant. In essence then, the only way to resolve this situation is to ‘fix’ hardware so that copying becomes fundamentally impossible, which cripples the computer for many legitimate uses. My advice – give it up. Not worth the effort. Take the long term view…
  • Ok. Medium-term, then. Music companies are in trouble. They can’t control copying of music easily or effectively and bandwidth / storage advances will only make the copying of music easier and easier. It seems inevitable that MP3 or an equivalent format is going to come to dominate the playing of music, and I would suggest that this is likely to happen within ten years. Sales of CDs will probably continue at a legitimate and effective rate, but mostly as a music delivery system – nothing more. Devices such as the iPod will quickly come to dominate this market, but the biggest problem will be integration with other music-playing devices. It’s too much at the moment to expect the general public to link up their computers (with all the cables and complexity that that involves) with their stereos either at home or work.
  • Certain technologies allude to how this stuff is likely to work more effectively in the future – increasing broadband, applications like iSync and technologies like wifi and wireless networking really do suggest the possibilities of a large variety of interoperable devices functioning together and separately at the same time.

Conclusions: If music companies can weather the intermediate period between the limited, cable-utilising bandwidth of today and the potential multiple-computer + networked appliance households of the future (indeed if they can help facilitate such a world) then they could still survive and develop brand-new channels which could facilitate a faster and more immersive use of music generally. Increases in bandwidth should mean that there is little or no advantage in storing information locally rather than on some kind of server over the internet – and this should apply equally with music files. Wireless networking and always on internet connectivity could mean that music is streamed to where you are rather than downloaded as well, but until that happens, perhaps some form of ‘syncing’ between client player and online resource could occur. This allows access to your music via any platform wherever you are – and all those geek-pertinent records about what you’re listening to and how.

Functionally if could work a little like this: The record company has a relationship with several different online music providers. The punter registers with any one (or several if they wish) music providers. There is no fee for being a member, no subscription at all. They then input their registration information into their smart stereos, their smart portable players, their phones, their laptops – whatever. Via a computer or via any interface on any of the smart machines, new music can be bought via the music provider for whatever market conditions suggest is an appropriate price (I would suggest in a world where a CD cost around ten units of currency that a download of the complete album should cost around five or six while an individual song from the album (assuming ten tracks) should probably cost one full unit. The song can be ‘sold back’ to the distributor / record company at any given time for half the current sale value (which will clearly drop over time). The provider takes a cut of the money made to reflect their running costs and the quality of their service and the record company takes a cut which it distributes back to the artists concerned. Any machine which has the password and user information of the centralised owner can play their centrally stored songs. The ‘stream’ or ‘sync’ – whatever – only works on one machine at any one time (or you can buy more than one license if you want), but a number of different streams or syncs can be active on any one machine at any one time (ie. if you go to a party and you want to bring some music with you, you just add your logon to the player at the party. Bingo – double the songs available to you. This also means that on your iPod or your home stereo you can have a number of accounts from rival competing distributors of music (say HMV / Amazon / Virgin for example) who compete on price and service. From your perspective, though, you just have one repository of songs…

If you heard a song you liked on the radio or at a friends party too, they would be able to ‘give’ it to you easily by picking it up and sticking it in your files (if they wanted to transfer ownership and stop listening to it themselves), or they could just tell you its name – or you could click on ‘buy this song’ and put in your account and password information wherever you were and it would be added to your account centrally. At the nominal cost per song (according to my working price structure above at current rates, an album would probably cost about ≈Ì7 and a single song around a pound) and the capacity to sell it back / throw it away and recoup up to half of that cost later, there would be little incentive to find a cheaper mechanism – particularly as you’d lose out on the always accessible nature of a centralised distribution.

Songs that you own on CD already or as MP3 could be played on the machines in question but could not easily distributed between the various appliances you own. Effectively, they are stored locally – or if someone wishes to set up a service allowing you to store them centrally and play them as a separate channel (like one of the normal distributors above) then I’m sure you’d have to pay for the service.

I want to make clear that I’m not particularly interested in the moral questions around this particular distribution mechanism. It doesn’t seem to me to even be pertinent whether capitalism is moral any more – particularly not in these circumstances. What I am attempting to outline is a way in which record companies might be able to approach making money by giving people real incentives to buy from them by improving the functionality, accessibility and utility of the music-listening experience rather than by trying to shut down technology that they don’t approve of.

This is clearly a rough piece of straight-out-of-my-head thinking which could clearly do with a tighten up and an edit. I may improve it and edit it over the coming days. Any changes I make will be commented on in the source code