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« Shift Happens: A Lesson in Coping with Music Industry Change | Main | Musician Email List Etiquette »
Wednesday
Apr062011

Chaos We Can Stand: Attitudes Toward Technology and Their Impact on the New Digital Ecology

Universe-chaos-101004-02 I. Where Salvation Lies

Upon discovering that I had relatively poor vision in the seventh grade—difficulties seeing the whiteboard and anything from afar—it was understood that I would need to get glasses. Not just any glasses though, the specific style that I wanted were those worn by the front man of the rock group Linkin Park, Chester Bennington; they were thick-framed, black glasses, and in my mind, they looked amazing—on him. As it would turn out, the glasses looked less than stellar on me and I got a completely different pair.

Back then, I was an adamant fan of Linkin Park. In desiring to align characteristics of their identity with my own, the thought of looking like Bennington and wearing his glasses seemed like a logical expression of self.

I knew all the lyrics, saw every music video, and owned all of the albums.

Members of Linkin Park were not aware of my existence—camped out on a farm in the backwoods of North Dakota—but I felt a compelling bond towards them and their music. Social scientists characterize this kind of one-sided relationship as “parasocial” in nature. I knew everything about Linkin Park, but they were not privy in the slightest way to the particulars of my life. Much of my relationship with the group slanted more towards the illusion of interaction than of actual social interaction. Mass media outlets served as intermediaries between us.

If I wanted to see their latest music video, I had to send in requests to TRL. If I wanted to read an interview or hear about the next album, I would have to buy a magazine. If I wanted to hear a new song, I would have to call a DJ and request it.

Had I come of age during the rise of MySpace’s dominance, my understanding and connection to music culture might have been quite different. Early on, artists used the networking site to peel back the layers between them and their fans and engaged in actual social interaction, forming closer relationships with their fans. 

This had the effect of evolving the artist to fan dynamic further; it redefined the shared bond between the two, wherein artists addressed their fans directly and answered to their concerns. The new digital ecology is moving away from the illusion of interaction. If a fan so chooses, they can make themselves known to their favorite groups, be engaged, and have a more personalized connection.

From here on out, it will be the artists, executives, and those born digital and their attitudes toward technology that will mold the landscape of music culture.

The key differentiating factor between this new ecology and the one that existed prior to the web is that it has the capacity to allow fans—those who are active participants in their cultural lives—to, for the first time, find each other, interact, voice opinions, and create change without being limited by their geographies.

That change could be anything from using grassroots, crowdfunding applications such as Kickstarter and PledgeMusic—which assist musicians and provide them with alternative means to fund their creative projects—to connecting directly with artists through social media and networks, and using those same social tools to advocate and promote the music they love and desire to reach a wider audience.

Fans may also utilize a digital service such as Eventful which allows them to demand that an artist to play in their area – no matter how disparate.

All of these tools help to reconnect fans to the processes of arts creation and enable them to exchange value directly with artists, rather than having their interactions be mediated solely through a few mass media outlets.

In the book Born Digital, law professors John Palfrey and Urs Gasser write:

“Make no mistake: We are at a crossroads. There are two possible paths before us—one in which we destroy what is great about the Internet and how young people use it, and one in which we make smart choices and head toward a bright future in the digital age.”

For major labels, famous for stonewalling new high-tech innovations and locking up content, their salvation lies in offering music services that are more in step with the emerging social norms of the young and the digital, without hindering the development of the digital ecology of culture that could, one day, be their savior.

II. Music as Commerce

“When a new technology arrives, it has to get integrated into society somehow,” tech-evangelist Clay Shirky writes in his latest book Cognitive Surplus. Between the traditional record industry and the “new” or next music business, there is a certain degree of dichotomy in their attitudes toward new technology and their willingness to integrate it into their industries.

From the perspective of journalist and author of 2009’s Appetite for Self-Destruction Steve Knopper, to correctly characterize this difference in temperament, we would first need to define exactly what “the next music business” is. Knopper poses the question: “Is it what Radiohead did, what Topspin is doing, what Amanda Palmer is doing, what Warner Music Group is doing, online retail sites like iTunes and Amazon, the loose coalition of free music available on MySpace, Google, Spotify, or even file-sharing?”

We do know that the next music business is not album-centric, and that it is a much leaner industry, one that is rife with creative opportunities for artists to pursue new revenue streams. Above all, it is about acquiring fans and the creation of a middle class of artists who are going to have higher margins and smaller profits, but longer, more sustainable careers.

Knopper notes that the traditional record industry is “embracing some of this stuff, with a few decent moneymaking ideas like Vevo and playing Amazon and iTunes off each other leading to cheaper online music for consumers.” But, he argues that, overall, “the record business could really use a high-tech visionary, somebody who understands that the old model is over, and breaking hits Jimmy Iovine-style isn’t going to float the business for the next 30 years.”

The paradox is that those in the record industry are committed to solving the problem of financing and distributing recorded music. These company executives have devoted themselves to keeping the barriers to music as high as possible in order to keep their solution viable. New technologies, like file sharing, disrupt the process through which those operations occur, shifting their business model.

Knopper does make a point to say that he does not think that the record industry is hindering new technology as aggressively as it was ten or even fifteen years ago. Originally, as the new digital ecology emerged, the strategy of executives was to litigate rather than innovate, which is to say that the industry basically sued everybody and attempted to stamp DRM on all the CDs and digital tracks.

As legal expert William Patry asserts in his book Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars, litigation is a poor long-term strategy, which, in this case, only served to stall the inevitable failure of the record industry’s business model. At present, the industry is structured around a top-down, highly centralized “push” marketing model—where a few key gatekeepers anticipate the demand for their product in the marketplace and finance the production of music from a small number of artists—based upon what they want to sell to music fans, not on what fans want to buy. The problem that arises here—if fans become unsatisfied not only with the product being distributed, but the means through which it is distributed—is that, in times of change, the highly specified, centralized, and restrictive nature of the record industry and their push systems prevent them from adapting.

“The problem now,” Knopper continues, “is more a lack of innovation or forward-thinking.” Author and industry journalist Fred Goodman agrees. In his latest book Fortunes Fool, he writes, “The sorry fact was that record executives had no personal financial incentive to be forward-thinking.” 

Since financial incentives, specifically bonuses, are based on chart performance and market share, executives became focused on the capitalization of short-term gains—in the form of pursuing blockbuster albums. This approach came at the expense of the record industry’s long-term stability.

What then happens, as a result of this mindset of seeing music as solely commerce, is that music as culture—i.e. music as art—suffers.

As incentives shifted toward the parts of popular music that return an immediate profit, the parts that required nurturing and development, inevitably, got shelved or lost their funding. So too, as Goodman states, the greatest consequence is that thinking of music as commerce led the major labels to not address the fact that “the CD business was being rendered unnecessary and needed to be reinvented.”

This point of view only served to distract those in a position of influence over the record industry further from the real-world ideas and activities through which they might have actually been able realign themselves with not only the technological and societal shifts, but the changes in consumer behavior that had occurred over the course of the last decade. “When institutions fail to distinguish between current practices and the enduring principles of their success, and mistakenly fossilize around their practices,” business consultant Jim Collins writes in his book How the Mighty Fall, “they’ve set themselves up for decline.”

By adopting the ethos of MTV, commercial radio stations, and big-box retail outlets, executives created a speculative, abstract model that supported the creation of blockbuster artists, disabling the mechanisms through which they might address and correct the collapse of the “real” music industry that had once operated outside the walls of these media outlets and multi-national corporations.

In the advent of the digital revolution and the epidemic of file-sharing that ensued, a more genuine, yet chaotic digital ecology of music culture is now starting to re-form itself on the web, but this ecosystem—that took decades or more to develop offline—isn’t just going to reappear overnight.

III. The Digital Dilemma

According to Shirky, there is now a cognitive surplus in our culture, an excess of free time and talents of the developed world.

When considered as a whole, this amounts to in excess of a trillion hours a year; it hadn’t been experienced as a surplus up until now mainly because there was no way to pool it together in aggregate and there was no way to introduce people with disparate, yet complementary skills or interests.

With the rise of the web, what we got was a network that was natively good at supporting social communication and participation. Thus, what matters now is how the record industry positions itself to harness this surplus.

 In his book, Shirky argues that the single greatest predictor of how much value can be derived from this surfeit of free time is how much we “allow and encourage one another to experiment, because the only group that can try everything is everybody.” In other words, the way to explore and cultivate complex ecosystems like the new digital ecology is to have as many groups as possible try as many things as possible, with the general hope that everyone who does fail—will do so in an informative manner.

To Shirky, this is the best method of managing a revolution, a tactic he deems embracing “As Much Chaos As We Can Stand.” From his perspective, in order to get the most out of this process, the record industry needs to stop clinging to old models and let “any would-be revolutionary try anything they like with the new technology, without regard for the existing cultural or social norms or potential damage to current social institutions.” The argument goes that these radicals could not create more change than the record industry can imagine anyway.

This concept of “embracing chaos” then leads to the question as to whether or not the record industry could actually make itself worse off by doing this. In the opinion of Jared Moya, Chief Editor at ZeroPaid, the only way he could think of the industry being worse off “is if this experimentation leads to a new form of music consumption that it refuses to embrace.”

To Rob MacArthur, CEO of the crowd-funding site IOUmusic, the industry would be “better off” if they allowed this to happen, as they could “outsource the creative destruction of their industry”; be able to “plan for the changes coming”; and “incorporate them into their own plans or at worst benefitting financially after the grace periods.” He says the key way the record industry may come out of this process negatively is mostly due to “the damage it has and continues to do to their relationships with artists.” Though, MacArthur affirms, if the record industry took some control of the situation they could “definitely be better off.”

Yet, if history tells us anything, there will not be chaos anytime soon.

Due to the fact that the record industry owns a lion’s share of the copyrights to the music they have released, they have veto power over new technologies and those that champion them. This authority has allowed the industry to effectively starve off innovation by not allowing these firms the rights to use their massive catalogs of music. Without music from the major labels, most services fail to attain a scalable audience. Even if access is granted, the licensing fees are set at a percentage so high that it often makes their business models unsustainable.

Quite paradoxically, Patry indicates how, in the last decade, it was not uncommon for the record industry to strangle the online music market, only to later point to the strangled state of the market as a reason not to invest in it.

As this behavior illustrates, in stark contrast to embracing chaos, the old-school record industry is founded on a rather different mindset when it comes to managing the digital music revolution; it operates under what Shirky refers to as “Traditionalist Approval.” The executives in the record industry—those responsible for the current way of doing things—are the same people who determine the fate of new technologies.

As we have seen, this system has been nothing short of a small disaster.

While attempting to preserve the older form of value in music via physical media and the album format, the record industry has prevented new value from being created. As a result, rather than incorporating digital technologies into their business, they have either litigated them out of existence or claimed that they foresaw no value in them.

Part of the reason for this, as Shirky suggests, is that “people committed to keeping the current system will tend, as a group, to have trouble seeing any value in anything disruptive.” However, these efforts to prolong technological progress are not always out of self-interest. In fact, many record executives would, out of deep and real conviction, want to defend the tactical nature of physical media and what could be called the “the concerted sonic experience.”

In periods of technological stability, biases in favor of the existing consumption system are good; it’s beneficial to have employees think of their jobs as being valued by society, even if they aren’t. “This sort of commitment is good for morale and leads people to defend useful and valuable institutions,” Shirky says. “However, that intellectual asset turns into a liability in times of revolution precisely because those deeply committed to old solutions cannot see how society would benefit from an approach incompatible with older models.”

Moya adds that the record industry has “a great deal at stake in maintaining the sort of physical distribution model that has always been its mainstay.” For a long time it has been an industry, producing a product that it counts in units sold, “and that’s precisely why it’s in its current predicament.”

Since the days of Napster, many executives like Doug Morris, now CEO of Sony Music Entertainment, have said that they did not see these societal and technological changes coming. Because they are “not technologists”, they were unsure of how to handle the proliferation of digital technologies, the social epidemic of file sharing, and the fracturing of the album format. Interestingly, in his book Appetite for Self-Destruction, Knopper argues that many people at those companies—the Robin Bechtels and Erin Yasgars of the world—saw “the opportunities for working with Napster and marketing music online and were shouting to people like Doug Morris that they should pay attention.” Knopper says he would like to see the major labels shift from the old-school record industry executives who were in charge during the Napster era by hiring visionaries and “giving them enough rope to try new ideas and even fail with new ideas.” Like Shirky, he believes in letting people try as many things as possible.

The digital dilemma that the record industry now faces is two-fold.

On one hand, they must make smart choices and offer music services that are more in step with the emerging social norms of the young and the digital. On the other, artists and music companies alike need to reconnect with fans and align the right means and various tools of participation with the motives of fans, giving them to opportunity to create civic and communal value.

Enabling the young and the digital as innovators to reshape the new digital ecology is what the record industry should care the most about—energizing fans to create public and civic value—not only because society benefits more from them, but also because these types of value are harder to create.

As innovators, what separates the young and the digital from past generations is that, in advent of having a big, ambitious idea, they can implement them on their own—without asking for anyone’s permission. In the short term, like in the case of Napster and BitTorrent, much disruption is caused and jobs may be lost, but as Palfrey and Gasser argue, soon their “creative destruction will begin to look more constructive than it does today.”

IV. Technology Impacts Ecology

As we see, our attitudes toward technology have a great impact on the new digital ecology. However, even if the record industry has seen the light and now wants to embrace the chaos; it will be difficult. So much of the structure that held together our music culture has disappeared. Our local record shops and radio stations are almost gone, and the audience for recorded music has become fractured to the point where executives cannot simply spend money in hopes that the ecology that corporatism destroyed will re-form from the ground up.

The stakes of our actions our very high. The choices that the record industry is making now will preside over how future generations create meaning, understand, and interact with their cultural objects in the digital age.

In the place of the commercial radio stations and big-box retail outlets that the record industry favored, a “new grass-roots industry is taking shape, though how it will eventually look is anybody’s guess,” music critic Greg Kot states.

This new, more chaotic brand of digital ecology is fueled primarily by an audience that is scattered throughout the web and has gained a deep enthusiasm for music that they did not even know existed.

So too, this ecology has transformed what it means to be a fan; it has empowered them in distinct ways, argues communications scholar Nancy Baym.

The internet enables fans to connect with each other instantly across great distances, significantly diminishes their reliance on traditional music publications and the PR outlets that power them, and provides fans with the means to develop relationships worldwide and become centers of scenes—regardless of their location. The internet also provides an infrastructure, which makes it extremely easy to have group discussions, which can be archived, allowing the conversation to continue for long periods of time. Most significantly, this ecology gives fans all kinds of new ways to engage music, artists, and each other, because it eliminates all the layers of filters that separated fans from performers.

This shift has also changed what it means to be an artist. The traditional record industry has strongly reinforced a belief that artists should just be artists. As creators of cultural content, artists were told they should not have to worry themselves with how they are engaging with their audience—these activities were viewed as disturbances to their creative energy. But as we know, the age of the aloof artist, disconnected from his audience or not even knowing them at all, is long gone. It is not that there cannot be artists who center mainly on the process of creation—but for every artist that is not willing do get more deeply involved with their careers, there are many, many more who are willing to do the hard work.

“There is nothing that prevents artists from just being artists,” writes David Dufresne, CEO of the website management platform Bandzoogle. “However, if an artist wants to make a career out of being an artist, then that typically means that the artist will need to find both an audience that is engaged with the artist’s creative output, and ways to earn revenue from that engagement.”

Thus, it is not only the record industry that needs to stop clinging to old models and embrace “As Much Chaos As We Can Stand” in adopting new technologies.

Artists too, those of the old and new digital sphere, share in the same degree of dichotomy in their attitudes toward new technology and their willingness to integrate it into their careers. Music publicist Ariel Hyatt has argued that part of the reason why artists will not use social media is because it takes too much time, will not put money in their pockets, and has no impact on the real world.

The other reason, Dufresne continues, is that because so much conditioning has occurred in the last thirty years—so much so, that many artists refuse to break from existing cultural and social norms.

However, others like Amanda Palmer, Zoe Keating, Mr. Robotic, I Fight Dragons, and Ellis Paul are getting it right and letting technology reshape the social interactions they have with their fans and redefine their roles as cultural creators, as opposed to grasping onto outdated notions of what it means to be an artist.

To Chris Vinson, founder and CTO of Bandzoogle, the concept of artists needing to embrace “As Much Chaos As We Can Stand” in adopting digital technologies “definitely rings true when you look at the larger picture.” He argues that by embracing chaos, artists are allowed to “re-invent the way they promote and monetize their art.”

“Right now, everything is wide open,” Kevin Breuner, the Marketing Manager at CD Baby, relates. “Artists are able to try anything they want to when it comes to the way they connect with their fans and get their music out.”

What the Internet did as a medium is give artists the opportunity to exchange value directly with their fans, rather than through corporations. It became a platform where genuine bottom-up value creation could occur and where a new digital ecology—one that treats fans as part of the music process and invites them to actively participate inside it—has been able to thrive within chaos.

V. Rebuilding Our Culture

At first, the lesson here seems to be that the new digital ecology has enabled fans to connect with the artists they love. However, that is only half of the story.

The true potential of it lies in empowering fans to unite with each other.

As a teenager, I developed a strong interest in writing poetry and lyrics. Living on a farm, a few miles outside of a sparsely populated community, I had no one to share that newfound passion with. Seeking ways to express my interest and meet others looking for the same outlets, I eventually got involved in Linkin Park’s message board. Though the discussion there mostly pandered to the happenings around the band, there was a thread for fans to post their own poetry and lyrics.

However, to become a part of the community, you could not just post your own works and hope to get replies. You had to comment on the pieces from other fans and develop a cache of social currency. Bonds developed and authors became friends, vowing to track and comment on each other’s works as they appeared. Over time, our interest in Linkin Park faded into the background, and our true intention revealed itself: we wanted to establish relationships with each other. The rock group served as a place to start—a common interest point.

Through MSN, an instant messaging client, and the online forum, from various parts of the world, we directed a fan experience that shaped our collective identities both online and offline. The web gave us, as fans, a portal for the exploration, expression, and development of our special interests. Our unique personalities and need for individuality lead us to colonize to a place that we lacked in our everyday lives. Each of us heard Linkin Park on the radio or saw them on MTV, but lacked the means to find other fans in our real lives. Once found, we discovered our love for music was not the only interest we shared.

Baym characterizes this behavior as online fandom. As she defines it, “Online fandom is what happens when people who are passionate about a band use the internet to discuss, interpret, critique, create new materials around, and otherwise share their experience of whatever it is they are fans of together.”

These activities will be a huge part of what happens in the new digital ecology.

Baym also says that it is important to consider that the record industry has only been around for a fraction of the time that music and fans have been around, and if it hopes to be a part of this dynamic, it must accept vast changes. Otherwise, artists and fans will find ways to work around the major labels until the industry, as it now exists, becomes irrelevant. Previously, she has also suggested:

“At a time when the music industry is reeling from changes it barely understands the sorts of activities fans are doing online have the potential to create the culture in which we will all be operating in the future.”

The next step the record industry needs to take is to give fans the capability to do something with their cumulative free time—i.e. Shirky’s cognitive surplus. 

This time around, however, if the record industry’s attitudes toward technology hinder the evolution of this digital ecology, there is no second chance.

This is the only one they have got left.

For the rest of us, artists and fans alike, the opportunity set before us—to recast and remake the real music industry—is enormous. “At a time when so much of the structure that holds together music culture has disappeared,” Eric Harvey at Pitchfork writes, “fans could take the initiative to create a new one.” In the short term, there will be much disparity. Jobs will be lost and artists will be dropped from their labels. Record stores will close. This is unfortunate, but necessary.

Long before the creation of this system, music and fans existed. Moya concurs.

“How the dust settles is anyone’s guess, but one thing is certain: artists and music fans will always be around,” he says. “Recorded music is a relatively recent construct that oftentimes had sinister relationship with both artists and fans, the former falling prey to unscrupulous contracts and record deals, and the latter to unrealistic pricing and overcharging.”

Asked if Vinson thought there would be a recovery for the record industry, he said that he was not sure that there should be one. Why? In effect, he thinks that the record industry needs to stop channeling funds into super-risky, highly leveraged, and speculative areas of the business. Instead, he thinks that we must return to the original vision and purpose of the music market: supporting innovative artists and the growth of the real music industry.

Now that music has exposed itself to be a bad growth industry, we can get back to our core objective. What we do with this opportunity will be determined largely by how well we are able to reward artistic creativity, fan participation, and the rebuilding of our culture. Rather than searching for ways to patch up the past, we must construct an infrastructure for the future and lay the foundation needed to nurture the emerging digital ecology and create a more sustainable and healthier middle class of musicians that the listening public can support.

To some, it may seem like the record industry turned almost overnight from prosperity to chaos. But the crash that occurred, in advent of Napster and the social epidemic of file sharing, the fracturing of the album format and the demise of mass marketing was years, perhaps even decades in the making.

It is easy to point fingers, to scapegoat the fans and the companies and sites who desired to quench their thirst for free music. But there are more subtle, yet sophisticated technological and societal shifts occurring, which are much bigger than fans sharing and downloading music without paying for it.

The record industry is collapsing, and ultimately, this may be good thing. If it dies, it will make room for a new ecology to rise up in its place. This “death” may be painful to watch, but if major labels refuse to embrace the chaos, then it is our calling – as “would-be revolutionaries” – to create the chaos. As cartoonist Hugh MacLeod once said, “This is it. Fight like hell.” Create the chaos. We need you.

image from gapingvoid.com
-Kyle Bylin, Editor of Hypebot and Music Think Tank (@kbylin)

Reader Comments (1)

Great article Kyle!! I'm surprised that no one has commented on it besides myself... perhaps b/c it is a little lengthier than other articles on MTT. I really enjoyed your commentary and the ideas contained within it (as well as the frequent quotes and references to the thoughts of others). Very well put together!

March 18 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Hickman

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