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Is The New Digital Ecology More In Harmony With Music Than The Industrial Model Ever Was? 

In ‘Chaos We Can Stand: Attitudes Toward Technology and Their Impact on the New Digital Ecology’, a recent post on Music Think Tank, Kyle Bylin discusses the collapse of the record industry, with reference to Clay Shirky’s ideas about a new digital ecology and  “cognitive surplus”. 

Fundamentally, this is a transition from a situation of controlled scarcity of creative ‘product’ from a few major players to a flood of creative material as the previous barriers to entry have been demolished. As internet use replaces television watching, and freely available online tools enable learning, creativity, sharing and collaboration, people are shifting from being passive consumers to active participants and creators. 

Suddenly there is a surplus of ideas, an abundance of creative content. One of the overwhelming problems faced by musicians today is the difficulty of ‘standing out’ and being heard above the noise, not drowned out by the herd.

Scene and not herd

Prior to the digital revolution, the established record companies - in conjunction with associated broadcast media - effectively prevented anyone but their own artists from gaining exposure. Now that these ‘gatekeeping’ powers have been eroded by the new digital ecology, some people have mourned the demise of the record companies as ‘filters’ for music. 

Filters are an obvious solution to the problem of an over-abundance of music. The corporate model is that two or three massive companies achieve ‘dominance’ in the market, becoming ‘The’ filters. This business model is all about competition and control.

At grassroots level though, music naturally gets divided into genres or attached to specific locations - different music scenes, each creating and demanding their own filters. Collaboration, fan participation and cooperation between music-related businesses are all key to the creation of a vibrant music scene. 

There have always been music scenes - for example, the ‘classical scene’ of 18th Century Vienna, the trip hop scene of Bristol. the Seattle grunge scene or the genre-based scenes of punk, metal, trance, dubstep, witch-house, etc.

And each of these scenes serves as a filter in its own way, by shining the spotlight onto the best artists of that particular scene. 

The most influential individuals in a music scene tend to be the most passionately involved in  it. Eventually, certain individuals achieve a word-of-mouth reputation through being active participants in the scene’s development. Hence each scene evolves its own tastemakers and leading characters quite naturally, and also generates its own media outlets. There will be several prominent tastemakers in any one scene, and their combined selections eventually become the commonly accepted filter for that scene.

In the offline world, music scenes usually consist of an interlaced ecosystem of artists, writers, film-makers, DJs, independent labels, promoters, local radio stations, magazines and record shops, and locally may include clubs and pubs, fringe theatres, indie cinemas, art schools and colleges, coffee shops, bookshops, head shops, cool clothes shops, happening hairdressers, hip cafes and groovy galleries. Festivals are of major importance, and many of these bring multiple small scenes together.

The ‘longtail’ and ‘mass of niches’ nature of the online world is a natural fit for the complex interconnectedness of multiple music scenes and independent music. However, the corporate music ‘industry’ finds that this new digital ecology has undermined its ability to herd music fans into its channels of mass consumption.

For the record

It has to be recognized, when speaking of independent music, that we are referring to a network of independent music professionals covering many different facets of the music production process, not just music artists. 

A lot goes into making a good record, which requires professionalism in many different areas - each of which is a career in its own right. Sound engineering, for example, mixing, mastering, songwriting, artwork, graphic design, music promotion, web design, photography, filming, video production - all support the creation of a high quality music release. Every music artist needs access to these professional services, whether filling that role for themselves, or sourcing some outside work. 

As Kyle Bylin points out, the artists themselves must also learn to embrace the chaos of the new digital ecology as their own roles are changing. They now have to take on many of the duties previously undertaken by the record companies, and they also have to engage more directly with fans.

Inherent chaos

There does seem to be a mismatch then between the monolithic music ‘industry’ and the innately fragmented and diverse music scenes around the world. Music is not particularly industrial, and does not lend itself readily to a production-line approach. One could say that its tendency to get fragmented into scenes indicates that music is inherently chaotic.

If it is to be considered an ‘industry’ at all it is surely a much better fit for a predominantly ‘cottage industry’ model. With an ecosystem of large numbers of music-related cottage industries widely distributed internationally, and taking modest profits, music artists could find plenty of ‘self-employment opportunities’….. arguably more than they would under the old ‘major label’ system.

This would allow musicians to operate as respected self-employed professionals within society, instead of being expected to have a ‘day job’. 

This is not to say that there would be any ‘entitlement’ to a career as a professional independent musician. As in any freelance profession, income would depend on reputation and recommendation, with recognition dependent on the accumulated successes of multiple individual projects. Also, as in any performance art profession, the success of a project would involve the degree to which it ‘engaged’ or ‘clicked with’ the audience. Artists unable to establish this connection would, quite naturally, be unable to make a living this way.

As Kyle Bylin says; “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.”

He concludes his article by saying: “The record industry is collapsing, and ultimately, this may be a good thing. If it dies, it will make room for a new ecology to rise up in its place.”

Yet maybe this “new ecology” has more in common with the innately diverse and fragmented nature of music than the corporate dominance of ‘Big Music’ ever had. Perhaps the record ‘industry’ needs to embrace the chaos which has always been at the heart of music. Because maybe this new digital ecology is simply enabling music to return to its roots.


About the author: 

Catherine Hol is an Anglo-Dutch singersongwriter, based in Ireland. 

She’s currently working on her debut album.

You can find her on Twitter: @Artistsownmusic

Reader Comments (1)

Good article - that is exactly what is happening now. Only time will tell if this new model positively impacts the quality of music over time. Ten years into this model, I'd say the results are mixed. We are definitely seeing an overall quality hit in music overall... bands who simply aren't any good now can make their own records and become annoying on Myspace, and it's harder and harder for casual music fans (80% of the population are casual music fans) to filter through the crap and find the diamond in the rough. The casual fan is not going to put forth that effort - it's just easier to pull out their old CDs and listen to those again and again. Without some sort of investment mechanism (that record companies used to do) then you're going to continue to see lower and lower quality over time.

April 29 | Unregistered CommenterBen

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