So that’s what they mean separately. What do they mean when you say them together?
You’ll remember that when I say ‘music’, I am not only talking about recordings of music. I’m talking about the whole medium of popular music and all of the stages of its production, distribution, promotion and consumption. Likewise, you’ll recall that when I say Online, I’m not just talking about web pages. I’m talking about the whole ecology of the online environment. The electricity into which we can plug so many internet appliances.
So having come up with something of a working definition of what I mean when I say ‘online’ and what I mean when I say ‘music’ it will hopefully be instructive to look at the two of them as a single idea: Music Online – or, to put a slightly different flavour to it, Online Music. Because the order in which you say those words gives a subtle shift to what it can mean, what you can do with that meaning conceptually, and therefore what you do as a result.
‘Music Online’ is music that has been put into an online environment. It’s music, first and foremost, and now it happens to be online. ‘Online Music’ is music that is characterised by its online-ness. What sort of music is it? It’s Online Music.
I’m interested in both.
Now, of course, this is an artificial distinction, and you can call these things what you like. Music on the Internet, Internet Music, Digital Music… these all have particular connotations, but essentially they’re interchangeable names that will suit most ordinary purposes. It’s only people like me who think the semantics are even remotely important — and who like to clarify the language in order to make these distinctions.
But if you’ll bear with me just this once, being pedantic in this way does lead to a broader way of thinking about what we do when we connect music up to the online environment… and what that might be leading us towards.
To most readers, what I call ‘Music Online’ will seem to be the thing to be concerned with. It’s the stuff of our everyday activities. We currently engage in the music world, doing whatever it is we do in order to create, promote, disseminate, enjoy and (hopefully) make money through music. And we live in a world in which the internet is an important component of our media environment.
So this is about taking what you do as a musician or independent music business, and putting it on the internet with the intention of enhancing, expanding or otherwise contributing to the reach and exposure of the music.
Putting music online is usually taken as a step to expand audiences, reach new markets, promote a recording or live performance, or make a sale. The music activity (from whichever part of the media production, distribution or consumption process it comes) exists independently of the internet, but the internet is deployed as a tool and a strategy in order to achieve whatever purpose the music had, more effectively, efficiently or perhaps profitably.
Take Music, add Online and hope for the best.
In other words, Music Online is Music, put online. You have a band – so you build a MySpace page. You’ve made a record, so you make sure it’s available on iTunes. You’ve got a concert coming up, so you use ReverbNation to make sure all of your fans know about it.
Online Music (for lack of a better term), on the other hand, is a different order of things. This is music activity characterised by its online-ness. I think this is the area that most people in the music industries overlook as a possibility, and it’s a conceptual leap that you tend to miss if you don’t think to put those two words together in that order.
Remembering again (and I’m going to keep reminding you) that when I say Music, I’m talking about all of the different stages from the production through to the consumption of musical texts, Online Music happens when the internet is part of the design process of key elements in that chain.
Normally, this will happen when music industries people partner with technologists to design the ‘appliance’ that will achieve the goal they have in mind (ie: to stop drying their hair with a toaster, and instead invent the hairdryer). This is a far less common approach at present, and there are only a handful examples of it around.
You’ll be familiar with Last.fm. Perhaps you’ll have heard of Novatunes. You might know SonicBids. These, and some other organisations and services you may happen to think of are music enterprises ‘built out of internet’. You may find some of them useful as part of your putting-music-online strategy.
But if you were to take a more radical, deliberate and forward-thinking approach to the new digital environment, you might instead wish to emulate their process. Rather than do something, and then squeeze it onto the internet, you could actually take that difficult translation process out of the equation, and simply build the thing you do as a native element of the online world.
This, to me, is the key to New Music Strategies.
Music Online, therefore, is essentially a transitional phase. It’s a way of adapting to a new environment. Where Online Music is about being native to that environment and creating music business ‘organisms’ with what you might like to think of as digital DNA, Music Online is about selecting organisms from the offline world, and transplanting them into the new environment, giving them new roles to fulfill, and making adaptations so that they can survive and thrive.
But even Online Music is not quite right to describe this new, native media category. It still smacks of something in transition, rather than something new. Of course music won’t be replaced or lost within the online environment. It is, rather, ‘made anew’. But if we were really being fussy with our semantics, we’d probably be looking for a whole new word at this point.
In fact, this stuff is still so new, that most commentators see the process of adaptation as the endgame of digital evolution. What we don’t see is that it’s part of the process towards being something else entirely. Think of this idea of Online Music as like being at the ‘horseless carriage’ / ‘wireless telegraphy’ phase of this medium. We understand what it is in terms of an old form (of course: it’s a carriage / it’s telegraphy / it’s music), but we’re also aware that it has some new, exciting – perhaps troubling – distinctive differences that we need to come to terms with (it’s horseless / it’s wireless / it’s online).
And like the phrases ‘horseless carriage’ and ‘wireless telegraphy’, ‘online music’ is a term that hides from us the new and dominant form that is emerging. When we marvel at the horslessness of the carriage and the wirelessness of the telegraphy, we often miss the fact that we should actually be designing and learning to operate cars and radios.
Fortunately, all media go through these transitions whenever there’s a fundamental shift in the technological environment — and so there are precedents and helpful ideas that have existed for quite some time to guide us through the process.
That’s what I’ll talk about next.