When we say ‘the music industry has changed’, what we really mean is that the music industry is changing. And the ways in which that change takes place means that the idea of the music industry, as we understand it, is becoming redundant. I’m not predicting the death of the music industry or anything quite so preposterous as that. I’m just saying that it won’t exist anymore.
The music media industry (composition to consumption) used to be a thing-in-itself, with reasonably identifiable boundaries around it. Sure, some of those boundaries were hazy — I mean, there’s some potential for confusion around the extent to which a pub venue is a music business and the extent to which it’s in the hospitality industry — but essentially, as a medium, you could recognise music industry when you encountered it. A bit, in that regard, like radio and television. There are overlaps and connections all over the place – but you could (as I did) move from the radio industry to the music industry, and everyone would be clear on what had just happened.
In other words, there was Music Industry and Not Music Industry.
In the online environment, where Internet is the medium, and other media relegated to the position of ‘content’ of that medium, the game has changed.
You’re a river. Meet the ocean.
Douglas Adams put it well about a decade ago. He used to get asked by publishers and broadcasters what would happen to their businesses when it came to the internet. He used to say it was a bit like a river asking what would happen to it when it hit the ocean.
It’s not going to be a river anymore. At best, it’s a component of something much bigger, more amorphous and, with some allowances for currents, pretty much undistinguished between one river and another.
There’s no such thing as Internet Radio
I presented a conference paper in Madison, Wisconsin nearly four years ago called ‘There’s no such thing as Internet Radio’ (or some similarly provocative title) and the point that I was making was that there is nothing remaining of radio in the form we understand the word when we put it online. The political economy of radio is turned on its head, the professional practice is altered, the technical method of broadcasting is abandoned (I mean, forget radio waves), the technologically-mandated geographic focus of broadcasting is left behind, patterns of listening are transformed – and actually, the only thing that remains is that there’s sometimes talking — and there’s sometimes music.
The point of this presentation was to challenge academics and broadcasters to think about the internet as something other than simply a bigger, global transmitter. It’s a medium with its own mode of operation, with certain things it allows and encourages, and certain things it tends to make obsolete.
But what I don’t think I really made clear is that what was going on was not that radio was being replaced — rather it was being absorbed. Online, radio is no longer a medium itself, but the content of a newer medium.
According to McLuhan, this is what always seems to happen. We put plays on television and call them programmes, not televised theatre. We put oral tales into books and call them novels (it took hundreds of years before The Odyssey made this transition). We put live performances of music onto disc and call them records. You get the idea. What was once the medium itself is now the content of the new medium.
That doesn’t mean that the older medium goes away. It just readjusts the ratio of things to accommodate the new, big thing that’s just turned up in this particular ecosystem. We still have plays and campfire stories and live concerts. But they are not the dominant form of storytelling or music consumption. Or, at least, they weren’t in what I’m calling the Electric Age. Which is kind of over now. Welcome to the Digital Age.
So… given that the popular music industry is a medium, just as radio is a medium and television is a medium (remember?), and given that these older media become the content of the new medium, rather than remain media-in-themselves, we need to think about what that means for people who are involved in that media production process. That would be you.
Yes, but what should we DO?
Okay, so I know I’m starting to get ‘come on, get to the point’ encouragement from my (probably dwindling) readership – but this kind of IS the point. One of the biggest problems facing the music industries right now is that the people involved are engaged in making something that they don’t even know they’re making — and the thing that they think they’re making doesn’t really exist anymore. At least, not as a thing in itself.
The director of a play that happens to have cameras pointed at it will be a lot more successful if he realises that he’s making a television programme rather than theatre. The teller of a story will think differently about the words chosen and the structure and pace of a story if it’s written down on paper rather than told out loud. The band will take an entirely different approach to recording a record than they will to performing a concert.
Same thing applies here. We need to first acknowledge that the rules of the game have changed – or, at least, are in the process of changing at this level of magnitude. Thinking we make popular music and continuing as if the internet is just another format like records and CDs before it pretty much guarantees we’ll get this wrong.
Stopping to recognise that we’re making TV rather than theatre and recordings rather than gigs — or, in our case, Online Music (for lack of a better term), rather than popular music media — is the one thing that can stop us from making stupid, expensive and ultimately catastrophic errors.
But like the theatre director who has to understand something about the nature of the medium of television (rather than the technical mechanics of it) in order to make a TV programme, so do we have to understand something of the nature of the Internet (rather than the technical mechanics of it) to make online music.
And, of course, we pretty much have to forget about those boundaries. Just as the river of the music business has been swept up into the ocean of the internet, so too have those other media forms: television, radio, print, photography and film. We all have to realise that there’s no longer Television and Not-Television, Music Business and Not-Music-Business, Radio and Not-Radio. We can all just make Internet now.
And we have to learn how to be good at it. Understand its principles, its ways, and the ways of its consumers. We can dig our heels in and demand that things be the way they always were ‘in our day’ or we can face facts, deal with the world as it is, and learn new strategies for the new medium.
So that’s next. What is this internet thing, how does it work, and how does one understand it in such a way that you can successfully make things for it?
I’ll get to the actual techniques. I promise. But you’re going to have to eat your vegetables before you can have any dessert, otherwise you won’t grow up to be big and strong. And that’s exactly what you’re going to need to be. It’s pretty tough out there.