In order to talk about Music Online, it’s probably helpful to actually start from the beginning and consider what those two words mean, both separately, and when put together.
I have no intention of trying to ‘define’ music other than to say that I think I know what it is when I encounter it. You’re probably the same yourself. I could say something about it having melody, harmony and rhythm, but actually, a lot of my favourite music has none of those things. I could say ‘intentional sound’, but then that would deny the musicality of chance acoustic events. I could go into a bit of a riff about perception and the rather interesting truth that the human mind ‘creates’ sound after the fact of its reception by the ears as simply moving columns of air. You don’t ‘hear’ music as much as your brain actually constructs it from the input from your auditory sense. And yeah, that means if a tree falls in a forest, it makes vibrations in the air, but unless there’s an ear and a brain in the vicinity – no sound.
Hell, even a series of dots on a piece of paper can be called ‘music’.
Definitions of music are problematic at best, and need to factor in aesthetic, social, artistic, communicative, anthropological, philosophical and physical understandings of the phenomenon. Precise definitions of music are not the point when we’re trying to deal with the first principles that are important to us here. But we do need to know what it is we’re talking about when we discuss this stuff.
Your music is commercial
I’m going to be entirely culturally reductive here and simply talk about what’s confusingly known as Popular Music. The term Popular Music does not mean ‘music that is popular’ or even ‘pop music’, but instead refers to those types of music that are created, performed or produced in relation to the kinds of cultural exchange that is, in essence, commercial.
I know, I know – the term ‘commercial’ has all sorts of negative connotations. I’m not talking about the ‘commercialisation’ of independent, folk or other musical forms, but about the simple fact that pretty much all music we listen to is inextricably linked with commerce. As Simon Frith points out, without Music Business, no music.
Of course, you’re thinking ‘but what about people who just learn an instrument for fun, and only play for their friends?’ — to which the answer is that the music that they play — its form, structure and derivations — all stems from a kind of music that was designed to be played and performed in a commercial setting. Oddly, I include classical music and jazz in this context. Most folk music too (I say most, because many folk musics are purely cultural and communicative expressions that exist to perform social functions independent of a performer/audience relationship where value is being exchanged).
There’s this widely held idea that music is this pure and natural expression that happens creatively and artistically among human beings, and then commerce comes along and corrupts it all. I say that’s obvious nonsense. Music and Commerce aren’t individual concepts or entities that exist ‘over there’, separate from People. Music and Commerce are both Things That People Do.
Sure, some music is ruined by attempts to reshape it for greater commercial acceptance, but in fact the more fundamental truth is without commerce, no music. If there were not concerts, records, marketing, patronage, equipment sellers, promoters, retailers, managers, professional teachers, venues, publishers and music press, there would pretty much be no music as we know it. At its simplest level, who’s going to form a band if we have no cultural reference for what a band is and what it’s for? Barring those musics that exist purely for tribal and community social function — and these are dwindling as ‘World Music’ is captured and commodified for a willing commercial marketplace — music and commerce are inextricably linked.
So why, if these things are simply part of the same phenomenon, do we have this ongoing tension between the art of music and the commerce of music? Because clearly, there is a tension. The simplest way to explain it away is that people are a problem. Musicians are selfish and precious. Record companies are greedy and corrupt. Audiences are thieves. Promoters are crooks. Publishers are parasites. Retailers are unimaginative. The Music Press either regurgitates PR bollocks or has completely disappeared up its own arse. We often rely on these simplifications and stereotypes to make sense of the fact that being in music (and, therefore, in the music business) is hard. Harder than it probably should be.
Your music is media
Instead of considering musicians as gifted and talented artistes (or self-obsessed primadonnas), and the music business people they have to contend with leeches (or tragically inept but lovable enthusiasts), I prefer to consider music and its business as Media.
We think we understand media. We are completely immersed in it and it inscribes our daily lives. We have a fair idea of how newspapers and magazines work. We get that television operates in a certain way, and that radio is kind of similar. Film we have a pretty good sense of too. These things are clearly media. But we struggle to think of popular music, as I’ve described it above, as being part of that same media family.
Consider a TV Show. Let’s take the Sopranos as a case in point. If we think about it, we can see pretty clearly how a programme like that comes to be. Someone comes up with it. Someone writes it. Some people act in it, and other people direct it. Someone edits it and someone else distributes it. Somebody promotes it to the correct audience. It gets broadcast, and some people consume it by way of an electronic appliance in their home. This is, of course, a complete oversimplification, but in a nutshell, that’s the chain of events.
Even more simply put, I’d break that down into some main stages: there’s a Composition step, a Performance step, a Production step, a Distribution step, a Promotional step and a Consumption step. Map a Coldplay album onto that same chain, and you can begin to see why I think of popular music as media. But you see, the thing with media is that each of those steps is aware of, and takes into consideration the needs and parameters of each of the other steps in the chain. The writer of the Sopranos is no more going to write a 25-minute third act than the director is going to shoot on 70mm IMAX film, or than a publicist is going to target it at pre-teens. The whole Sopranos phenomenon, as a TV show, is made up of the sum of its parts, it fits into generally understood categories and fulfills certain technical and structural criteria so that it works as a media artefact.
This may be a controversial thing to say, but if you have ideas to engage in your bit of the music media chain that resolutely ignores all of the other bits, then you’re going to encounter tensions. These tensions might come when a recording artist wants to make a five-album song cycle as a first release, or when a publicist wants to get a political punk band to pose for a Smash Hits! magazine foldout. In other words, misunderstanding the cultural and commercial parameters of any of the other parts of the chain causes the problems. Thinking of music as the art (or the ‘product’ to be exploited), and commerce as the necessary evil (or the whole point of the exercise) automatically starts things off on the wrong foot.
But when you think of Popular Music Media as a single phenomenon, you can start to arrange the parts in a holistic and intelligent way, in which all of the parts are compatible, and can both understand and deal with all the other pieces of that same thing.
Perhaps most importantly, media tends to factor its audience into the design, all along the chain. Of course, there are television programmes that are made simply to amuse or challenge the writers of the show, and a group of people who happen to think along those same lines may discover and appreciate them, and form its small audience. There are television programmes that are completely constructed to appeal to as many lowest common denominator viewers they can find. And there are television programmes that respect and challenge an intelligent audience, but completely understand the parameters of the media business and consumer relationship they form part of.
I think there are helpful parallels that illuminate the condition of popular music in there. Chances are, what you personally happen to do in all this falls somewhere in the Composition, Performance, Production, Distribution, Promotional and Consumption parts of the media equation. You may even take care of a few or even all of those bits yourself. Personally, I’m down here at the end of the chain, listening to, collecting and loving the music. But although you have to think about us, you also have to think about the whole media ecology you’re part of.
So, when I talk about Music Online, that’s what I mean by the Music bit.