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I’ve covered the basics in this site before – but I still get this question a lot. So here’s an attempt to answer it. It seemed sensible to start here.

Confusion
Not every musician is immediately at home online

Welcome to the Internet. It’s a network of computers, allowing people all over the world to communicate, share text, audio and images as digital files — and connect in ways that had previously been impossible.

You’ll no doubt be familiar with web pages and email, which form the majority of internet use, and you may have heard of peer-to-peer filesharing technologies like BitTorrent and Limewire, which account for the bulk of the data traffic on the internet. Then there are other applications like instant messaging software such as Live Messenger, voice-over-internet programmes like Skype, and internet-capable media players like iTunes, that allow you to not just play music, but also purchase it over the internet.

The internet changes things, because of its massive connectivity and the fact that everything on it is digital. Digital is different. Digital media have different characteristics to analogue media.

First of all, you have to forget the idea that it’s a new format like records, cassettes and CDs were. This is a transition to entirely new system that is as different from the world of CDs and records as that world was from the one in which sheet music was the main thing.

Digital media is made out of ones and zeros. It’s all data. Whether it’s a recipe for soup, an email to your mother, a home movie, a Hollywood blockbuster, a new hit record or your band’s demo – to the internet and to the computers that deal with it, it looks something like this:

1101100011010011011100011010010111001101001000010110
1111011011001011110110110110110011001100110011001111
0000101100011101100100111011001100110011110011011011
0100110010101101100011010011011100011010010111001101
0010000101101111011011001011110110110110110011001100
1100110011110000101100011101100100111011001100110011
1100110110110100110010101011000110100110111000110100
1011100110100100001011011110110110010111101101101101
1001100110011001100111100001011000111011001001110110
0110011001111001101101101001100101011011000110100110
1110001101001011100110100100001011011110110110010111
1011011011011001100110011001100111100001011000111011
00100111011001100110011110011011011010011001010…

…and so on.

This is important for a number of reasons.

First, it means that your music is just mathematics, and so by doing clever mathematical stuff, you can change, edit, remix and process it. Or any other kind of media, for that matter. This is all that programmes like Logic, ProTools, Photoshop, Final Cut, and Word are doing when they manipulate media files — it’s all just (just?) mathematics with a user-friendly front end. So anyone can change any piece of media. Including your recording of your music.

Second, it means that your music – and any other media – is endlessly replicable. If I was making an analogue recording of your music, it would be a degraded copy of the original. If I’m copying the ones and zeroes, then the recording is not a copy – it’s another original. They are identical in every respect.

Third, it means that copying is the easiest thing in the world to do. In fact, you can’t avoid it. Just by reading my website, you make a copy on several computers in different places all over the world. There’s a copy on your own hard drive – and all you were doing was looking.

So – it’s a world of communication, connectedness and copying. That’s just the way that it is.

The other thing to know about the internet is that it’s a medium. But it’s a medium that includes and swallows other media. Radio, television, print and all other media – including music media – become nothing more than ‘content’ on the new online medium. They cease to be things in themselves and become just part of the whole online experience.

The analogy I often find myself using is that it’s like what happens to theatre directors when you point television cameras at their work and put it on TV. They either continue to make theatre productions and plays and hope that it comes across okay on the new platform – or they can adapt to the new medium and start making television programmes.

One is not better nor worse than the other. But the hypothetical theatre director who adapts to the new medium and starts working on its own terms is far more likely to have ongoing success, while the one who resolutely refuses to change is more likely to experience difficulties and will complain bitterly that television is stealing the audience and making it very difficult to survive in the world of drama these days.

Does that mean I think that you should stop making music and start ‘making internet’? Actually, yes it does. That’s exactly what it means.

That’s not to say I think you should stop being a musician or a music industry entrepreneur. Just that the medium of music, as it has existed for around sixty years, is not the ‘natural condition’ of music business. These things are artificial constructs that can and do change over time. This one just happens to be a biggie.

So… the skills you have in making the art that you make will still come into play, just as the adapted theatre director who understands television still makes dramatic productions using those deep understandings of narrative, character, pace and dramatic tension — but equally, there’s a distinctive break in the way in which they operate.

To thrive in the online environment, you need to make a decisive break with the old way of doing things and instead attempt to ‘go native’ in the new online environment. I don’t care whether you’re a solo singer-songwriter or a major record label. This applies.

But just as our theatre director doesn’t need to know how television transmission works — nor even how to operate a camera — you don’t have to worry about ‘not being technical’. You just have to worry about what the parameters and conditions of the new medium are, and what expectations your audience has in this new world.

It’s not about learning new skills. It’s about understanding a different world. Some of us are off to a flying start and others are standing at the brink of it looking at a confusing and slightly scary landscape. Don’t be put off — it’s not the wild west and it’s not riddled with pirates and gangsters, no matter what you might read in the press.

It’s fine, it’s exciting, it’s completely within your grasp and it’s where your best chance of making a living from music lies. And best of all, you can put it together in any way that suits you, your audience and your music.