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Digital Music Becomes (more) Rhizomatic: Evolutionary Traits of The Music Industry

As digital audio files continue to flow freely on the Internet, music itself mimics certain inherent characteristics of the web best understood through Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s (D&G) rhizome metaphor. In A Thousand Plateaus, D&G introduce the concept of a “rhizome” to describe a representative model that extends in all directions and has multiple entryways; since then it has most commonly been used as a metaphor to represent the Internet. Understanding digital music as rhizomatic is important because it interprets the transformations of the digital music culture as a natural progression towards rhizomatic qualities – and provides us with an insight into what might be the future of “the music industry”. A few of the defining characteristics of the rhizome are connectivity, heterogeneity, multiplicity and cartography. Music can be understood as rhizomatic when its characteristics mimic those of the rhizome; thus music becomes more rhizomatic when those characteristics are amplified. According to D&G, any point of a rhizome “can and must be connected to anything other”. So we might think of anything that blocks connectivity as a contributing factor in making something less rhizomatic. Firewalls and 404-errors are just two examples of obstacles that fulfill this role. Digital music is also subject to a large set of infringing obstacles, some of which include DRM, other restrictions due to copyright laws, and pay-only access for downloads. As we see these barriers disappear, we also see digital music becoming more rhizomatic. While highlighting the defining characteristics of the rhizome…

I’ve suggested 5 examples illustrating how music has become more rhizomatic:

1) Music search engines Over the past few years we’ve seen music search engines like seeqpod and skreemr increase our level of connectivity to music. These sites crawl the web for music and provide links to the MP3s they find. Songza is a music search engine that goes as far as to search YouTube and strip out the audio tracks from uploaded videos. Music search engines look for data already present on the network and create new lines of access. If we think of the Internet as a large map, then by uploading music to the web we extend the map; and by using music search engines we create more connectivity. And because on the web music is “unbundled” from the album, we are free to connect directly to the music that interests us the most and ignore everything else.

2) Music Is Becoming Free The price of music continues to approach zero. This theory is supported by Michael Arrington in his post “The Inevitable March of Recorded Music Towards Free”, as well as by Seth Godin, British economist Will Page and myself on musicNeutral (to name a few). As music moves towards free, the pay-to-download price barrier is eroded, fostering greater connectivity between users and musicians.

3) The Persistence of File Sharing The persistence of file sharing spreads more music around the web, thereby extending the territory of the rhizome. According to D&G: “a rhizome may be broken, shattered at a given spot, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines. You can never get rid of ants because they form an animal rhizome that can rebound time and again after most of it has been destroyed.” This trait is defined as “asignifying ruptures”, and it is exemplified in the persistence of music file-sharing sites. When one file-sharing site is shut down, two more turn up to replace it. The RIAA may have helped shut down popular music file sharing sites like Napster and Oink, but ultimately they can’t shut down P2P and BitTorrent technology. The characteristic of cartography is also present in the spread of music files online. We can draw a parallel of music “leaking” on the Internet to D&G’s depiction of the rhizome plant: “Go first to your old plant and watch carefully the watercourse made by the rain. By now the rain must have carried the seeds far away. Watch the crevices made by the runoff, and from them determine the direction of the flow. Then find the plant that is growing at the farthest point from your plant. All the devil’s weed plants that are growing in between are yours.” The most recent example of this phenomena is with the new U2 album No Line On The Horizon: it was mistakenly available for download on the Universal Australia site two weeks before release and since has spread around the Internet (for example, here on the pirate bay).

4) Remix Culture D&G in their description of the rhizome state that “Music has always sent out lines of flight” and it is because of these “ruptures and proliferations “ that the musical form is “comparable to a weed, a rhizome”. The “lines of flight” may refer to the fact that a song can never be re-played exactly the same by a musician (e.g., no matter how minuscule, there will always be some variation in tempo or timbre), but in addition the lines of flight also encompass all of the derivatives. ‘Remix culture’ is closely associated with DJs that cut-up, rearrange and sample music tracks, but it also extends to the many derivative works sung by amateurs on sites like YouTube. Remix culture thus expresses the rhizomatic qualities of heterogeneity as well as multiplicity*.

5) Songbird The open-source music player Songbird allows you to browse the web for MP3s and download music to your local library. The remarkable thing about Songbird is the set of add-ons that instantly connect your music to relevant data called from around the web. Within the Songbird interface you can match upcoming concerts, lyrics, photos and reviews to the tracks you are listening to. Songbird’s add-ons facilitate direct connectivity and re-use of data that—in comparison—frames iTunes as a music prison.

In conclusion…the interesting thing about these five examples is that they’ve all emerged within only the past decade. Looking forward to the next ten years, musicians should embrace trends that support connectivity, heterogeneity and multiplicities if they want to stay ahead of the evolutionary curve of digital music, which in my opinion means supporting initiatives like Creative Commons and the free culture movement. Evidence has shown that digital music follows the path of least resistance – and ultimately it strives to be more like the rhizome.

*multiplicity includes not only the multiple, but also the variations of the original


Chris Castiglione is a New Media student in the graduate program at the University of Amsterdam. He holds a bachelor degree in Media Arts and Design from James Madison University. For his master’s thesis Castiglione is researching the impact that Creative Commons has on musicians and the music industry. More information and writings can be found on the music blog musicNeutral or on his personal blog

Reader Comments (8)

Fascinating stuff. I'm all for lowering barriers to music, but I'm also all for getting paid. And not being able to play live for health reasons, means I'm going to be dependent on downloads (right!) and licensing fees, but who's going to pay me a decent fee, if what I got can be got for free? Argh, it's a rights thing I know, and I suppose I am protected, but I sure wish our culture were not heading toward a mindset that is PISSED when a music maker wants a penny for his thoughts.


March 15 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Shattuck

all in one search engine

March 16 | Unregistered Commentertrypu

Consumers won't buy milk when they already own a cow. One way to reverse the devaluation of music is to stop producing it for the masses and bring back the classic model - find a King, Pope, or friendly corporation to buy your tunes and let them assume the task of trying to feed them to the consumer, if at all. Does anyone ever wonder why there is not one contemporary composer who could hold a candle to the likes of Liszt, Mozart, Beethoven or Bach? Artists should be in the business of creating masterpieces instead of worrying where their next meal will come from.

March 16 | Unregistered CommenterPat Offender

Great post -- very good analysis. However, I would've liked to have seen you bolster your conclusion. You certainly argue very well that digital music becomes rhizomatic; however, you don't really address WHAT the real implication are of this. E.g. WHY should artists support things such as multiplicity over the next ten years?

March 16 | Unregistered CommenterPete E

@Jeff - What I'm researching and trying to show is this progression towards the free and the multiplicity is inevitable - and like any evolutionary characteristics we can't decide. The same scenario is playing out right now with the newspaper industry - many newspapers around the country are cutting back on delivery, while others are just going out of business (Why Newspapers can't be Saved, but The News Can). So yes, I understand the frustration many musicians are having (I'm a musician myself), but we all know what will happen to the "dinosaurs" that don't evolve. Kevin Kelly has an amazing article on selling what can't be copied - Aside from making money at live shows, there may be other ways that can work for you: licensing, selling t-shirts/merch and of course you can still sell CDs (it's almost become a niche market, but some people prefer to buy a CD). I know it's not an easy answer to accept, but I hope that everyone will keep experimenting and trying new things.

@Pat - I think it's interesting that you said "Artists should be in the business of creating masterpieces instead of worrying where their next meal will come from." Even in the "old" music industry model of the past few decades, most musicians weren't making much money on album sales - I've read that about 85% of label musicians never recouped expenses after the initial allowance. Thinking about the last century, and centuries before that - I would imagine that there has always been a history of musicians making music for the love of music.

@Pete - Similarly to what I was saying above to Jeff, artists should support things like multiplicity because these evolutionary traits are beyond our control - they are inherent in the future of our music culture. Better to adapt and find new ways then to hold onto a model that is outdated and clearly isn't working any more. The real reason to support the rhizome theory is that it will be more beneficial to 1) getting more people to listen to your music and then by increasing your fan base 2) ultimatlely there is a better chance you will make more money (selling what can't be copied) than someone that doesn't share their content while relying solely on download/CD sales.

Sure is fascinating stuff! Agreed that what has happened cannot be undone, and it's the pursuit of different (and multiple) revenue streams that artists should concentrate on if they want to earn a living from music. It is entirely possible, and the internet has helped more people do so than ever before. Music consumption is higher and wider than ever before.

If you are not as concerned with earning a living, then you can at least know that there's a bunch of people of all ages and backgrounds all across the world discovering your music, however they may do so ;)


March 19 | Unregistered CommenterLee Jarvis

I think that, considering your audience and application, maybe Jeff Vail's more concise and digestable riffs on Rhizome theory would make more sense than the original schizophonic, gnarled complexity of D&G.

That said, though, I really enjoyed reading this, good brainfood for an article I'm working on.

March 30 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

Great post Chris. I'm very excited as the new model starts to break through and it becomes a bit more evident how a musician / artist is going to be able to make a living. To paraphrase ...."The 'music industry' can't be saved, but the music can be."

That's really the whole thing right there. MUSIC P2P is here to stay. In retrospect, it seems like it was inevitable. A powerful counter force to loose the iron grip of the majors and put the power to create and disseminate back where it belongs.

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