Conference Notes Radio & Music Television

Supernova '05: Chris Anderson on the Long Tail…

Quick apologies – my notes and write up of Supernova have been thrown out of whack by various unforeseeable pressures. I’m going to try and get through them very quickly now. This session was held last Tuesday at 11am.

It’s getting like it wouldn’t be a conference without a long tail somewhere in evidence and Supernova didn’t disappoint. The third main act of the first day of the conference proper finds us watching Chris Anderson working through his thesis in public again. He clearly knows his schtick pretty well by now, and that he knows how to present it. But this shouldn’t really be a shock – it’s been nine months since his first article on the subject appeared in Wired (The Long Tail) and he’s taken his core ideas and extended them across a number of conference appearances since then. I myself have had the pleasure to read the article and see him talk around it at least twice.

Of course, familiarity breeds contempt, and while it’s clear that he’s not standing still and that the thoughts are developing, the conference backchannel was not positive about the whole enterprise. The idea already seems dangerously close to over-exposure in the geek community – perhaps because of the weblog of the same name and the planned book on the subject that’s supposed to emerge from it. Apparently it’s now also become a fairly standard piece of rhetoric for people working their way around venture capitalists. No presentation, it seems, would be complete without it.

None of which is Anderson’s fault of course. For the few of you who aren’t familiar with the idea (and I suppose I have to believe that there are a few of you left) in a nutshell it is that – under certain new democratised and superfluid economic circumstances – there can be as much value (normally financial) in the enormous amount of unpopular, niche products as there is in the big ‘hits’. If you can:

  • Democratise the tools of production
  • Minimise the transaction costs of consumption
  • (and) Connect consumers to amplify word of mouth

… then you can turn a market where it’s only economically viable to sell things you know are going to be popular into one where costs are so low and consumers are so connected that the true revenue comes in the millions of people buying products that almost no one else is interested in. If you’re engaged but still confused at this stage, I suggest you read the article itself. The link again is: The Long Tail.

I’m not going to go into much more detail about the whole talk, but there was one particular area (or set of observations) that he made about TV and radio distribution that I should cover. He observed that television was the industry that was going to be most strongly affected by move to a long-tail philosophy because it was the industry with the highest ratio of produced content versus available content. That is to say – an enormous amount of television programming has been produced over the last sixty years or so, but at any given time an almost trivial percentage of that is available for people to consume. The desire of individuals to open up that back catalogue – he argued – was inevitably going to be completely industry transformative. This all seems perfectly reasonable to me.

In a previous session the day before (which unfortunately I’d missed) he talked in much more detail about the implications for radio along with Dave Goldberg (VP Music at Yahoo!), Jeremy Allaire (CEO of Brightcove) and David Hornik (August Capital). I got a by-the-blows account of the whole thing as it was happening from Nat Torkington which he subsequently wrote up for on the O’Reilly Radar weblog: Supernova 2005: Long Tail Panel. There was a particularly interesting summary of some of David Goldberg’s comments which I’ve quoted below:

Goldberg: They’re closing one rock radio station per week. Audiences for rock couldn’t get what they wanted from rock radio, now getting it from other places. Yahoo has a thesis: music will disappear from terrestrial radio within ten years. Don’t know implications for preferences, but will change way artists get invested in and marketed. Major record labels and movie studios have controlled distribution. When you take away that distribution, they have to be good at either marketing or investing. Right now they’re good at neither. All these things will change at the same time.

I can really recommend that anyone interested in the future of music and programming in general reads the rest of that summary. It’s extraordinarily interesting. But Beyond that, there’s very little for me to explore here in particular depth that my full rough notes won’t articulate more effectively. So I’ll move on…

Radio & Music

iTunes 4.9 is full of podcasts…

So iTunes 4.9 is out and includes all kinds of exciting support for podcasts. And with that support comes another way for you to get your greasy mitts on some of the stuff that the BBC has put out there so far for download – including interviews from Radio 4’s Today programme, Fighting Talk and In Business. At the moment – at least if you’re in the UK – the easiest way to find them is via the top podcasts box as featured in this image in Matt Jones photostream. US people will have to do a search, I’m afraid. But it’s worth it – if only for a regular dose of extraordinarily geek-friendly In Our Time.

Radio & Music

On Beethoven at the BBC…

This is really more just an exercise in quoting than anything else. You’ll remember a week or so ago I mentioned that the BBC was putting up every Beethoven symphony to download as an MP3 – well now the BBC has reported on how successful the whole enterprise was: Beethoven downloads receive more than 600,000 requests . Here are some samples from the press release:

“Roger Wright, Controller of Radio 3, said: “The response has been incredible and much bigger that we expected. “The success shows Beethoven’s enduring appeal and we hope this will encourage new audiences to explore online classical music.”

“Simon Nelson, Controller of BBC Radio & Music Interactive, said: “This trial was all about gauging listeners’ appetite for downloads and the results are astonishing. We are hopeful that we have attracted people who wouldn’t previously have explored much classical music, as well as inspiring others to embrace digital technology.”

“Gianandrea Noseda added: “I’m thrilled that our performances have reached such a large, new audience and hope this trial will encourage more people to experience and enjoy orchestral music live in concert.”

There’s more reaction from my boss, Dan Hill over on his personal site:

I can’t tell you the amount of buzz this is generating right across the BBC. Lots of extremely interesting questions continue to be raised by the success of our trials – from distribution to commercial policy, from music strategies to on-demand radio, from marketing to navigation and so on – and we’re feeding a lot of the learning and creative ideas right into the heart of the various bits of strategic and tactical BBC work going on at the moment. It’s profoundly interesting for us, and I hope for some of you. [ Over 600,000 mp3 downloads of BBC Radio 3’s Beethoven programmes ]

The first set of symphonies have now been taken down, but the second half of the whole enterprise goes up in about ten days at the Beethoven download page.

Radio & Music

Every Beethoven Symphony to download…

In a move that genuinely astonishes and stuns me with it’s awesomeness, my department at the BBC has just started a week in which every note of Beethoven’s ouevre will be broadcast on the radio. And as if that wasn’t enough of a shock to the system, over this coming week you can download in unencrypted MP3 form each of Beethoven’s nine symphonies to keep forever. Each symphony is performed by the BBC Philharmonic and prefaced with some introductory comments and contextualising information, and you can get the first and third symphony right now. Stunning. Delightful.

Radio & Music

The chain-letter of musical love continues…

So I could say that I don’t normally do these things – after all that’s what I said last time. I don’t know how many more times I can not normally do these things before it starts to look a bit of a hollow statement. A little longer, I should think. Ho hum.

Anyway, I have been passed the musical baton by Phil (and I think probably also by Leonard a while back, although I didn’t act upon it). This musical baton thing is – in a nutshell – a few questions that you answer and then pass on to some other poor unsuspecting victim. It’s like a happy chain-letter of musical love. They were kind of huge about four years ago in the LiveJournal community and it looks like they’re now starting to do a second pass. Except this time, the questions are a bit less dumb. And with that glowing endorsement, here I go:

Total volume of music on my computer? These figures are going to be a bit deformed by the number of podcasts I’ve been downloading recently either via the BBC or from Odeo. I have 9,684 tracks on my computer at the moment. This takes up 42.49Gb of hard disk space and would take twenty-seven days, thirteen hours and forty minutes to listen to if I started right now.

The last CD I bought? Actually I did a real ‘fifty quid bloke’ thing about two days ago and bought four CDs at the same time. Collective cost: pretty much exactly £50. I’m such a cliché. As usual I’d been carousing around metacritic looking for stuff with really good reviews that I hadn’t heard of. After a little online sampling of various albums, I decided to buy a mix of more and less risky stuff: Martha Wainwright, Lost and Safe by The Books, Frank Black Francis and Funeral by The Arcade Fire.

I kind of knew I’d like Funeral, because I’d listened to a few of its tracks over and over until my ears bled – but I’m surprised by how much I’m liking The Books’ album. It’s perfect to work to. I don’t know how well it’ll sit on my iPod though, all chopped up and disaggregated. The Wainwright album is pretty cool too. The one real anomaly is the Frank Black Francis album – it comprises two CDs, one with some very early acoustic demos of Pixies songs on it, the other with Frank Black and some guys with string instruments doing new versions of classic Pixies tracks. Many of the ‘re-imaginings’ are pretty way-out and I’m not sure are terribly good. Some are interesting. Not sure what I think of it, all things considered.

Song playing right now? It’s called Don’t Let Me Explode by The Hold Steady. My playcount tells me that I’ve listened to it once before ever. It may not be any good at all for all I know. Don’t take this as an endorsement. I have no idea. I don’t even really know why it’s on my computer. It’s kind of growing on me, actually. Hm. I wonder what the rest of the album is like.

Five songs I listen to a lot or that mean a lot to me? Hmm. Bastard question. I wave my fist at thee. I’m doing it right now. Er. Impromptu plan – look at iTunes ‘Most Played’, and scrub off the ones I’ve got bored of. Maybe then add in a couple that have a particular importance to me for some reason? Hm. Or maybe I’ll just cheat and start off by doing songs that have a lot of emotional significance (don’t listen to these, they’re all depressing or cheesy) and then do the good ones in a moment:

  • Somewhere in My Heart by Aztec Camera. I was strawberry-picking one summer school-holiday in a field near Tunstead in Norfolk. I’d wear my Walkman and when I got bored of all the bending over, I’d cash in my strawberries and walk to Roys of Wroxham and brag the latest “Now That’s What I Call Music” collection. Then I’d listen to it over and over again for weeks. This song represents that sticky, bright, strawberry-flavoured summer for me. (Close-run runner up from that summer – The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll by Prefab Sprout)
  • Morning Theft by Jeff Buckley. There was this relationship that I nearly had that pretty much destroyed me and this song somehow expressed really strongly how much I wanted things between us to work out well. Rest of the story in a nutshell: it didn’t. (Close run major relationship soundtrack goes to: Everyloving by Moby which I should frankly be ashamed of)
  • Something So Right by Paul Simon. When I was a kid I could play this on the piano. It’s not a great song. It’s really sappy. But it was either that or Slip Slidin’ Away which I wrote off a car to.
  • Following by The Bangles. This might be the most melancholy and self-deceiving song I’ve ever heard and I adored it when I was a teenager.
  • If It Be Your Will by Leonard Cohen. This is the song I want played at my funeral. I think it’s stunning and beautiful and devastating and I think could easily be rescued from its apparent theism and reinterpreted as a proper humanist hymn. (Close run second and third place Leonard Cohen tracks: Everybody Knows & The Future)

Here are the songs that I listen to because they’re just good. These I would thoroughly recommend that you get you filthy mitts upon:

  • Subbacultcha by Pixies. So I was cruising the clubs one night and I saw a lot of fine ass that I was hoping to get in the sack. I was kind of looking handsome… It’s a whole story really. Anyway, many years later, I heard this song and thought ‘that’s about me’ or something. Best song ever… (Close-run second place Pixies track: Wave of Mutiliation (UK Surf))
  • Combat Baby by Metric. I have heard no other songs by Metric. I have no idea if they’re terrible or not. But this song has been playing over and over on my iPod for the last year or so and is a wonderful paean to being a stroppy bastard.
  • Utopia by Goldfrapp. This has to be the most beautiful song ever constructed that contains the word ‘Fascist’. I listen to it all the time. It generates a weird aesthetic perfectionism in me and is perfect for doing design work.
  • Lonesome Tears by Beck. It’s probably my second favourite song ever and contains this enormous bank of rising chords at the end that just goes on and on and just won’t quit. It’s definitely the most-played song from my iTunes playlist.
  • Heard it Through the Grapevine by The Slits. The only cover that you can’t live without. Best drums, best beats, fun howling ladies – it’s somewhere between disco and new wave and tribal dancing, but with a sense of humour and no top on.
  • Walking in the Dark by Throwing Muses. Weird, bouncy, creepy, spidering, awesome. Listen to it about a dozen times and then try to stop yourself feeling like dancing whenever it comes on the stereo. Proper weird art-guitar-dance with some nutty woman barking over the top. Sorted.

Five people to whom I’m passing the baton: Gawd that’s a tricky one. As usual I’d like to see what Matt Webb would come up with, but I don’t think he’d participate. Also Matt Biddulph’s music taste intrigues me. After hearing stories about her teenage encouters with Michael Hutchence, I really want to know if there’s any INXS in Fiona Romeo’s dark past. Also Cal Henderson is a bit of a music consuming monster. And I think I’ll end up with Alice Taylor who’s kind of intriguing and mysterious…

Radio & Music

The podcasting and download trial commences…

A few weeks ago I talked about the upcoming BBC Download and Podcast trial and everyone got terribly excited even though it hadn’t started yet. But now it has! Actually it started last Monday, but I’ve been pretty distracted with all the other guff going on to really go into any detail about it.

First off, you can read all about it at the Download and Podcast trial page on BBC Radio’s site. One of the BBC’s major missions is to get people up to speed with these new technologies as they emerge, so a large number of people have put in a substantial amount of work to try and really explain downloading and podcasting in ways that will even make sense to people who don’t spend all day on the internet. I think they’ve done pretty well, but I’m sure people out there might have comments. There’s a feedback box at the bottom of the page if you want to make any suggestions or have any problems.

The Programmes that you can currently subscribe to include: TX Documentaries from 1Xtra, From Our Own Correspondent, In Business, In Our Time, The Today Programme’s 8.10am interview, Mark Kermode’s Film Reviews and Litir do Luchd-Ionnsachaidh with more to come.

I genuinely can’t recommend In Our Time enough, by the way. I’ve written about it before, but it bears repeating – where else each week can you hear some of the greatest experts on any given subject talking about The Roman Republic or the development of the Alphabet or Cryptography or Modernist Utopias. This is ultimate geek (radio) programming – exposing listeners to people working from an enormous range of perspectives. Absolutely stunning, and I can heartily recommend it for anyone who is stuck with some kind of tedious commute every day. Life-saving. (And if you’re particularly interested there’s a slightly cheesy Greatest Philosopher Smackdown going on as well.)

The other thing I’d like to talk about while I have your attention is some of the design work around the delivery of podcasts. At the moment, the whole experience of podcasting is unfortunately fairly clunky and forbidding for people who aren’t terribly technical. Having spent some considerable time playing with a beta of Odeo, I think I can say that this is going to change dramatically in the near future. But in the meantime, the work that the Radio and Music team have done with the presentation of the podcast URLs is really sweet.

This move towards ‘three ways of listening’ really excited me and I love the fact that the XML button is clickable and you have a form input box where you can select and copy the URL without accidentally clicking on the XML link and getting a page full of mark-up. I’m not totally convinced that this is a use of input boxes that everyone will get, but it’s certainly the most elegant solution I’ve seen so far.

Radio & Music Technology Television

Weinberger on the BBC / Are presentations redundant?

So this is nice – via my boss I’m directed to a brief piece by David Weinberger on some of the work going on around the BBC at the moment and featuring some of the stuff we’ve been doing in BBC Radio and Music Interactive:

“My goodness but the BBC is up to lots of interesting things! I don’t even know where to start. Every episode of every program is getting its own URL and will be intensely metadated. An experiment lets you phone in to bookmark songs you hear on the radio. They’re putting RSS all over the place. They’re handing out video cameras to people who can’t afford them and posting the results. The BBC is showing us what mainstream media might be like if its mandate were simply to make our lives better.”

I’ve written quite a lot around the edges of the work we’ve done on making a page and identifier for every episode of every programme – New Radio 3 Site Launches, Developing a URL structure for broadcast radio sites, In which my mind starts to settle after ETech 2005 and The Age of Point-at-Things are all good places to start if you’re interested in that stuff. My personal opinion is that it’s pretty integral to the future media landscape and that although it doesn’t seem like a terribly interesting project, the stuff that falls out from having it implemented is absolutely enormous.

The project to do with tagging and bookmarking songs you hear on the radio came directly out of the R&D team that Matt Webb and I ran until he ponced off and abandoned me (working with the irrepressible Gavin Bell who I also worked with on the PIPs stuff above). We learned a hell of a lot of interesting things during that piece of work about some of the potential uses for fauxonomic tagging which I fully intend to drag out into the open as quickly as possible. On the subject of tagging, there’s a new weblog on the subject featuring Peter Merholz and David Weinberger which looks like it could be interesting.

At the moment the best representations on the web of the work that we’ve been doing in both of these areas are the two papers that we delivered at ETech: Reinventing Radio: Supplemented One-to-Many with Many-to-Many and On Programme Information Pages. Which brings me to another thing that’s slowly started to dawn on me – when I do a paper at a conference I expect the industry repercussions and the interest in the work we are doing to escalate enormously. But what I’ve recently begun to notice is that the stuff that captures people’s attention isn’t at the conferences at all – it’s the weblog posts that create linkable pages that people can talk and converse around that get people interested. Without something written in the medium of the industry, the work might as well not have happened at all. With this in mind, expect to see transcribed versions of the various papers appearing online either in a complete form or broken up into more digestible chunks over the next few days/weeks. It’s all in the public domain now anyway so I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t talk about it.

Radio & Music

On iTunes and iPods and the data they don't capture…

The more I think about it, the weirder I find it that iTunes doesn’t keep track of every time you’ve ever listened to a track from your library. It would seem like such an obvious thing to do – why just throw all that data away? I mean, Audioscrobbler now has more data about what I’ve listened to and when than iTunes does. Surely that’s really bizarre? This lack of data means that I’m forever stuck looking at a list of favourite tracks that is almost dictated by when I installed the software. It’s like preferential attachment in small world network theory – the whole structure is set up so that the songs I’ve listened to the most will get listened to more. And while that might be an appropriate way to handle it, surely being able to time-limit the period you’re interested in would make the whole thing more flexible and powerful?

Think of the possibilities – in iTunes alone – (1) the ability to have playlists like “four star songs that I listened to most a year ago”, “top played songs of 2003” or whatever (2) weekly charts like they have on the radio of what you’ve played (again Audioscrobbler already has this (3) the possibility of seeing fun infographics for every song in your library, or by artist or whatever. The list goes on… And what about the other possibilities – the simple elegance of being able to create a playlist of photos in iPhoto and have it choose the most appropriate songs to play alongside it – songs that you were actually listening to at the time the photos were taken. How evocative would that be?!

And in the spirit of looking slightly startled in the direction of Apple (whose iPod Shuffle already doesn’t keep track of tracks played – an extraordinary oversight), one other piece of data I’d really like them to capture for me is the number of times that you’ve skipped past a track before the song has ended. That would seem to be to be an enormously useful piece of information. I’d love to have a smart playlist on my iPod that added in new songs as I received them and then removed them when they’d been (1) rated, (2) played over ten times and (3) skipped more than fifty percent of the time. That would be awesome. These organic playlists that manifest and evolve are so core to the way that I’ve been consuming music over the last few years since I bought my first iPod (Warning – over-excited guff from four years ago), which I feel I should point out was many many years before the rest of you did.

Radio & Music

On movement in my view of the "Future of Music"…

As ever, I should probably remind people that unless explicitly stated, the views on this weblog are my own and not those of my employer, the glorious and all-powerful British Broadcasting Corporation. I salute thee, Oh Auntie!

(Oh, and I’m not going to pretend that the post that follows has been particularly well worked-through either. I’m more than aware of its shortcomings so please don’t view it as a complete shiny essay – it’s more like thinking in public.)

A couple of nights ago I downloaded a show from ITConversations on the Future of Music. It featured an interview with two guys who have written a book called something like The Future of Music. I believe they have a weblog too. It’s called The Future of Music. A good name can get you a long way, I guess.

The show was about what kind of shape a future world of music might take. It concentrated on the old staples – how will DRM work (if it will work), where’s the business model, what about P2P, what are the copyright issues etc. There wasn’t an awful lot of ideas in it that I hadn’t heard before – and there wasn’t anything particularly worth disagreeing with. But what was interesting to me was how one of the models that people were proposing a few years ago suddenly started to make more sense to me. The concept – which I think is one that Jim Griffin was particularly associated with (I heard him speak at the Aula Exposure event a few years back) – was to stop paying for the music per se, and instead levy the distribution channel (your broadband connection). Then some kind of organisation or body or group of companies were charged with collecting and redistributing this money to the artists and rights-holders concerned based on the proportion of bandwidth consumed by exchanges of tracks by any given act.

Now people have been trying to persuade me for years that subscription models for music are the best ones – that an individual should pay some kind of monthly fee for access to all the music in the world. There are a number of different models of subscription, but the most common one means that when you stop paying for the service you stop being able to listen to the tracks. This model is a simple extension of the fact that you don’t really own any songs anyway – you’ve only been given the license to play them.

This is not a model that has ever particularly appealed to me, and I suspect it doesn’t sit well with a large proportion of consumers either. I know that many people feel very uncomfortable with the idea of committing to subscription payments – particularly for untried technologies. In the UK this is precisely the reason that pay-as-you-go phones became so huge. In addition, I still have the sneaking suspicion that people like to think of the media that they buy as somehow belonging to them. They’ve confused the physical object with the material stored on it, and now view any attempt to recast that relationship as an attempted coup to steal rights from them.

On the other hand you have the iTunes Music Store model for selling music digitally. This model – that you should pay for a song and that from that moment on you can sort of use it like you could if you owned the CD – is the most familiar to people as it most closely resembles offline models. As such it seems the easiest to sell to people. But of course until Apple came along, it didn’t seem to be catching on at all. Why? My personal opinion is that (again) people felt like the recast relationship around music was a con, that companies were trying to stop people doing things that they thought were perfectly reasonable. People felt that they no longer ‘owned’ the track. Which of course they didn’t. They never had. But the feeling was still very real. The genuis of the Apple approach is to make it seem as much as possible like you own the track by opening up what you can do with it until it’s just a touch wider than most prosumers would expect.

The problem with this approach is that what makes it so attractive has to also be its fundamental long-term flaw – that it’s based on trying to simulate the economics and business practices of very different environment on the internet. This new digital environment operates with files that are easy to pass around, distribute and copy. The survival of this model depends (some argue) on breaking what makes the internet great, rather than trying to build on what should be apparent and fundamental – if new and challenging – foundations.

Now I’m not sure I buy this rhetoric. I’m not sure I’m convinced that the natural conclusion is an internet where data is free and privacy is absolute – but I don’t think the main threat comes from legislation, I think it comes from people pushing for new mechanisms to navigate through the enormous – huge wealth of content and video and audio and stuff that’s coming increasingly online. If you want to read about why I think that, then the next paragraph spells it out in rough detail. If you’re not terribly interested, then skip ahead past the italics.

The question becomes does: will the ever-permeating, ever-present, pervasive and ubiquitously networked world of tomorrow turn into a place in which it’s easy to enforce existing copyright laws, or does it not? The push we hear from copyfighters is that it’s against the very nature of the environment in which we’re operating that the movement of data should be restricted. But actually creating a relationship between one thing and another thing is a core part of pretty much every single system that runs the internet or powers a computer. Which then brooks the question – will people walk willingly into systems that can limit what they can do with their media, or will they look towards free services and P2P to help them find what they want for free? And the answer is in the question – people will indeed walk willingly into systems that limit what they can do with their media in one space if those same systems also open up greater possibilities elsewhere. I speak as an Audioscrobbler user who lets a centralised system record in detail everything I listen to and then expose it to the rest of the world. I speak as the adopted-owner of a Tivo and as a user of Amazon – both of which are continually recording the things I’m buying or like or express any kind of interest in. I walked straight into these environments because telling them things, allowing them to associate objects / property / media with me, allowing them to track me, provides me with enormously poweful ways of discovering new music, finding good television, buying cool new things. People will, in a nutshell, cheerfully sell their rights down the river for some cool new functionality and most of the functionality that is coming depends on being able to maintain a consistent identity online, and letting other systems respond to your behaviour and to compare it to the behaviour and interests and passions of others. My opinion is that the iTunes model that supports conventional copyright could work in the long term – if the discovery functionality, recommendations functionality, engagement and social functionality that surrounds media only works with ‘official’ versions of media. There’s an immense and ever-growing sea of available media appearing all around us. We should never underestimate how hard it’s going to be to navigate and how many areas we’ll leverage to find our way around it.

I believe that traditional concepts of ownership of music could very easily remain in place, and that the iTunes model may not be a dead-end at all. If that’s a place we don’t want to go (and I want to make it clear that I still think there are possibilities down that road), then we have to look to radically different models. I think we’re at a position where we must start thinking about the direction in which want to move, even though it may be ten years before we get a sense of whether it was the right way to go. The choice we have is between useful and functional models that replicate real world limitations and physicality and ownership (but could still facilitate the building of fascinating and novel things), and radically different models which look for money in completely different places – one of which is the levy form. I am unclear which one is more plausible to work in the long term. Perhaps we should choose on principle and hope for the best.

Back to the levy model. You pay for music when you buy a blank tape. You don’t pay as much as you would for a CD, but a certain amount of the cost of each blank tape goes towards the music industry. I believe that they split the revenue according to the proportion of artists who are selling stuff in conventional marketplaces. I imagine it’s managed quite badly. So what if on every broadband subscription (with rates varying on bandwidth) you paid an extra monthly levy. In fact, not just you – everyone would pay the levy. And this money wouldn’t go to subscribe to any specific music service, it would literally just to pay for the right to have complete access to all the music in the world – distributed via the internet, on P2P networks or on promotional websites or given to you by friends or family. And if you don’t pay – if you become nomadic and start between cities – then that doesn’t really matter, all your songs would still work, you’d ‘own’ them as much as you ever did. They wouldn’t vanish. The assumption would be that everyone paid for everyone to have access to as much music as they wanted. Varying the rates on bandwidth would mean that the people who downloaded a lot of heavy media files would pay more for the privelege that people who didn’t.

And what would happen to the money? The aggregated value that everyone contributes towards their access to music would be split among the artists (or their representation) by the proportion of the total bandwidth used to download or distribute their work. The long-tail comes into affect here. Yeah sure, the big artists would still get half or over half of all the revenue. But the long-tail would still get some money, and if tracked correctly you could make it financially profitable to distribute music online even with very limited exposure. Significantly, though, co-existing business models could still function. You can still sell CDs until people see no value in them. You would have to persuade sites like CDDB and Gracenote to accurately identify the tracks that were being distributed in some way, I guess (or you could place digital copies on every CD). And since there’d be no incentive for piracy by individuals, there’s no reason for them to try and break the system. They can play anything anyway.

Other positive aspects of this model – it doesn’t conflict with normal rights stuff. You can still make it so that an advert or TV show or radio has to pay to play your song. You wouldn’t have to centrally host all of the files. It wouldn’t matter who held them in fact, which means that P2P traffic could explode lowering costs for record companies. And because you still get more money the more people download your tracks, there’s still an incentive to pay to develop and artist, there’s still an incentive to market them.

Now I want to make something clear. I’m not necessarily advocating this model, I’m just saying that there has been significant movement in my sense of what’s possible in this area. I’m beginning to realise that there might be ways to take some aspects of the the way the internet operates and actually build new forms of market around non-physical property and digital distribution that are in a completely different direction to markets based on scarcity.

But there are of course, enormous potential problems too – who gets to set the levy (presumably government or some independent, but government affiliated watchdog with a clear process and formula for deciding it), how much to set it at (do you just say that you expect a thousand or ten thousand artists to be able to make a basic living wage from sales alone and then let the curve sort itself out around that?). And then there’s a huge issue of who would collect and redistribute the money. And then there’s the issue of whether it’s against free market principles and doesn’t it all sound a little too communist or something. And that’s before you even get to the technical difficulties – identifiers, tracking file-sizes and bandwidth consumption, how to sample, how to check they’re misassigned, audio fingerprinting etc. etc.

But all of this is kind of irrelevant to me. The core point is that our understanding of the internet, of this weird new world we find ourselves in is slowly reconfiguring our most basic assumptions of what we expect from the world, from the market, from each other. It’s changing how we think about property and about how people relate to things. I would cheerfully burn all of my books and novels and DVDs and photos and CDs right now if I could get good quality digital versions of all of them. And I’d never have said that two years ago. Models that only two years ago seem laughable now only seem impractical. Maybe there’s hope for new models of the future of music after all…

Radio & Music

Some news on the BBC and podcasting…

The other big news today from BBC Radio & Music Interactive (where I work) is that we’re about to open up twenty more programmes – mostly from Radio 4 and Five Live as podcast feeds for people to download. As my semi-ultimate boss said:

“The BBC was the first British broadcaster to podcast when we made In Our Time available last year and this trial will enable us to further explore the editorial, technical and distribution issues involved.”

Some of the programmes that you will be able to subscribe to include (in full or part): The Today Programme, The Reith Lectures, In Our Time, In Business, From Our Own Correspondent, Sportsweek and Fighting Talk plus highlights and documentaries from Radio 1, 1Xtra and the World Service.

For more information see the BBC Press release and the article in Media Guardian. I’m really excited by this stuff, for a whole range of reasons personally. And with sites like Odeo on the horizon, I can’t help but think this whole area’s about to explode.