I thought that Music would be the easy one. Popular Music = Media. Job done. But there’s been some debate there, and it’s taken a bit of working through. But now for the tough one: Online.

Just to remind you where we’re at, we’re starting at the very beginning. We’re going to be talking about Music Online, so it’s important that we understand what we mean by both of those words separately and together.

When I say ‘online’, I’m not just talking about webpages. I’m talking about The Internet. That is, I’m talking about digital media, networked connectivity and computer-mediated communication. I certainly include the web, but it’s important that we don’t confuse the web for the whole online environment. It’s just one of the flavours.

Now, when we talk about the online environment, it’s important to note the set of conditions it tries to impose upon the ways in which we try to do things. The internet allows for different things to happen, and is a world in which different rules apply. It opens up a set of possibilities and creates certain opportunities that would not otherwise be possible.

This all happens as a result of the characteristics of digital media, which differ from all other media. I’ll go into in some depth about this at a later stage, because an understanding of the transformative properties of digitalisation underpins any attempt to successfully engage with the internet as an industry practitioner. But for now, I’m just going to try and explain what I mean when I say the word ‘online’.

This is where I lay all my cards on the table from an academic perspective and announce that I come at this very much from the perspective of Media Ecology. By ‘media ecology’, I’m not talking about green issues. It’s nothing to do with recycling and global warming.

Media Ecology is the school of thought that finds it useful (actually, essential) to consider media as environments, rather than objects of study. I’m not a card-carrying Media Ecologist, and some of my ideas would probably be disputed (or possibly corrected) by a ‘real’ academic from that reasonably unfashionable end of scholarship — but I find there are some immensely useful and applicable ideas in there that really help explain and navigate the digital media world.

The ideas of Media Ecology help make sense of the changes that are going on for the music industry, and also make it entirely sensible that the people with the most at stake are having difficulty seeing the changes for what they are. There’s a great deal that could be said about all of this, and it’s something I’ll return to.

But let’s start with a really simple idea. It’s one I’ve brought up before, and I think it bears repeating.

The Internet is like electricity
One really helpful way to think about the internet is to consider it as analogous to electricity. It’s this enabling technology into which you can plug all sorts of appliances that do really useful things. You can plug something as simple as a lightbulb into an electric socket, or as complex as a plasma TV. These things are known as ‘appliances’. Consider the humble toaster.

Now there are appliances that can be plugged into the internet too. Web browsers, peer-to-peer clients, email software, instant messaging programmes, download managers, streaming media players, RSS aggregators, FTP software and so on. I don’t believe for a second that we’ve invented all of the appliances we’re ever going to encounter either. And I think there are some people who find themselves trying to achieve tasks using online tools and appliances that were simply not designed for the job.

I mean, while it’s theoretically possible to dry your hair with a toaster, it’s so much easier to use something that was purpose-built to achieve that task. I believe there are a great many musicians, promoters, managers, marketers and publishers trying to get existing internet appliances to fulfill a function for which they are ill-suited. For that reason, I believe one of the most important things that creative businesses can do is work with technologists to help design the online equivalent of the hairdryer (that purpose-built appliance that does the job of pushing the hot air where it’s most needed).

Digital is different
Now, it’s worth pointing out, first and foremost, that digital media is hardly new. In fact, CDs are digital — remember? The key difference to bear in mind is not between digital media and physical media, but between digital media and analogue media. When the record labels ushered in the compact disc format, they thought they were once again bringing in a new music format. In fact, they were introducing a fundamentally different medium for music that liberated it from format altogether.

If you think about the analogue properties of records, there’s this fundamental thing about them that makes it possible to move the turntables back and forth, manipulate the speed and do a bit of scratching. That’s not necessarily about the mechanical nature of the medium, or the fact that it’s circular, plastic or black. It’s about the analogue-ness of the medium. The properties of analogue media allow for that to take place, and we have decided that hip hop DJ-ing (for instance) is a valid response to those characteristics.

The interesting thing about CDs is not (I’m sure you’ll agree) that they are like records only better. CDs are digital storage media, and have more in common with downloads than with analogue formats. Essentially, CDs are mp3s disguised as records.

Now whether that’s intuitively true or not, it’s a useful way to think about the medium, because it reveals certain things about the nature of the music business that would otherwise be obscured. Like, for instance, the problem of the ‘death of the CD’ rhetoric in the mainstream media. The idea that by superseding the compact disc, digital downloads have ‘ruined’ the music business. There are so many problems with this idea, it’s difficult to know where to start.

But of course, the music business didn’t invent digital technology. The phenomenon wasn’t in any way restricted to just the method of capturing and disseminating recorded music, and nor could the industry have avoided it. But by simply forming part of the shift from the analogue world of continuous waves to the digital world of discrete units of binary information, the record business was taking part in a complete restructuring of the DNA of recorded music itself.

And it’s this difference between the ‘discrete’ digital world of ones and zeros, and the ‘continuous’ analogue world of waves that shapes our thinking about music and media in the online environment.

The online world is constructed through networks of networks. Computers connected to computers, which are connected to other computers connected to computers. On these interconnected networks, digital media is transferred and manipulated. But most importantly, this is a technology of communication. And in that respect, it differs from broadcasting (that most analogue of affairs) in that it is a many to many, distributed medium. It does not lend itself naturally to top-down, one-to-many configurations of communication.

And this fact, more than any other, has proved problematic for traditional media producers.

The Digital Age
I’m convinced that we’re living in a Digital Age, in the same way we were living in an Electric Age, and before that, in a Print Age. We were once in a Scribal Age, and before that — an Oral Age. I believe that this dominant form of communication absolutely shapes the way in which we understand the world around us.

I know that we are not uniformly living in this Digital Age, and that there are economic and social barriers to it. I’m also aware that the benefits of that age are not evenly distributed. However, digital technology — both online and off — are increasingly the dominant modes of communication.

Dominant modes of communication shape the ways in which we think. In a literate society, we read books. We learn to apprehend the world in a linear, logical and sequential fashion. Through the printed alphabetic language, we take in information one word at a time, like beads on a string — rather than in the surrounding all-at-once fashion that oral cultures are immersed in.

The way in which we get information, culture and media completely transforms the way in which we experience the world. Media are, as McLuhan put it, extensions of the senses. The fact that online (digital) media are different from electric (analogue) media doesn’t just change those media artefacts — it changes us.

Because we only experience the world through the information that comes in through our senses, the input to those senses — visual, sonic, etc. — completely inscribe our world. Changing the nature of those inputs changes the nature of our experience, and thereby our selves.

And it’s for that reason that the technological shift encountered by the music industry is significant. Changes to our media environment don’t just change the economic, legal, social and consumption aspects of our lives. They change us.

But as McLuhan pointed out, we have difficulty seeing our current environment for what it is. In fact, we seem to always act as if we’re living in the previous media environment (seeing the world through a ‘rear-view mirror’) — and this causes problems. By acting as if we should conform to the rules of the electric, broadcast, mass-production, analogue media world — even in the face of radical technological and environmental transformation — we fool ourselves into thinking the world should be other than it so plainly is. And this causes tension, lawsuits and confusion.

To me, the digital world IS the online world. It has characteristics that I’ll explore in more depth in forthcoming posts. Some of these processes are clear and obvious, some are obscured and unexpected. But all of them shape the new media environment, and challenge our ability to adapt and evolve.

By understanding these shifts and accepting them for what they are, we are offered new opportunities to specialise and thrive, rather than pretend that the world continues to be, or should act as if it still is the way it was in the previous media environment.

So – when I say ‘Online’, I mean connected, digital, discrete, abstractly mathematical (rather than concretely physical) and environmentally transformative. Where ‘music’ is media, ‘online music’ suggests a profound shift in terms of what music is, how it is composed, performed, produced, distributed, promoted and consumed.

I realise that this seems all very theoretical and abstract, but by following this much of the argument, you can begin to see how and where very practical and pragmatic new strategies can be developed and deployed to take advantage of the characteristics of this new environment. And that’s what we’re working towards here.