I have been reading Steven Johnson’s fabulous “The Invention of Air” which has made me aware of many connections I had never previously known existed. In a funny way it also provided a really useful perspective on something I have been thinking about recently: the future of music. Steven writes at length about what spurs “runs” of new ideas in science and identifies advances in technology as one contributor (in the case of Priestly notably the ability to pump air). What happens then is that new observations can be made which in some cases don’t fit with the existing scientific paradigm, ultimately shattering that paradigm and replacing it with a new one. During such periods of transition runs of ideas are likely to occur.
There seems to be a parallel to what is happening in the music industry (and in many other other industries for that matter). First, there is a new technology: Internet distribution. The vast initial activity is in using this technology within the existing business paradigm, in particular selling music (essentially same as selling physical media) or ad-supported (essentially same as radio). Apart from a few successes (notably Apple with iTunes), most online music startups fall in one of two categories: illegal or unprofitable. The reason is that in the existing paradigm a lot of content licensing is controlled by only a few entities (the four majors). There is some movement here: for instance, Imeem is in the process of renegotiating its deals and Last.fm has just announced that they will charge in all but three countries.
Then, however, there are new experiments that may portend a different paradigm. In music, there are at least three services that take quite new approaches. First, there is FreshHotRadio which provides a super simple and streamlined experience for listening to free music sourced from around the web. By free, I mean music with licenses that are sufficiently permissive to let them be included in FreshHotRadio. Then there is the TheSixtyOne, which is based on user submitted music that gives TheSixtyOne the ability to play the music as it sees fit and again without paying a fee. This allows the TheSixtyOne to overlay game dynamics on the listening experience (e.g., you get reputation points for discovering songs). In both of these cases, a fundamental premise of the old paradigm is discarded: that online distribution must be based on a paid license. There is a third experiment that is discarding a different premise: the RjDj app for the iphone. Here the premise that is discarded is that music is a passive listening experience in which a song is the same each time it is played. Instead, when you run the RjDj app you get “scenes” which play differently each time based on your interaction with them via external sounds, touching and moving the phone.
I believe these experiments point to the future of online music which will be a paradigm shift in why music is distributed (and how it is licensed) and how we consume music, in which a lot of music will be free and will be experienced interactively! Freedom from restrictive licenses is likely to spur a lot of innovation if the history of what has happened in licensed versus unlicensed frequency spectrum is any guide (as described in Tom Evslin’s post on the White Space opportunity). Interactivity in turn is likely to dramatically increase listener engagement and blur the lines between what it means to make and to listen to music.
Of course one immediate question about such a new paradigm is how artists will make money. I think it would be a grave mistake to be caught up in that question. For starters, it seems to me that over the course of history very little of what we now think of as great music was produced specifically because the people making it were concerned about making the music a commercial success (I was reminded of that this morning listening to “Breakfast with the Beatles”). Here too is a parallel with “The Invention of Air” — Priestly and many other scientists were and are not motivated by making a lot of money. On top of that we may finally be entering an age of post-materialism (more on that in a blog post later this week).