Monday, July 15, 2013

The New Face of Music

I've been doing a lot of songwriting this past week. It's just been me, a couple instruments, a decent USB microphone, and Audacity. Here and there I'll even collaborate with friends of mine online to put together musical parts I can't get on my own. Then I upload the fruits of my work to Soundcloud. Yes, that link will take you to my music. I can't promise you that my music is good, but I like what I write, at least.

My life right now, but cheaper and jankier.

Nonetheless, it's a wonder that I'm able to do any of this in the first place. It used to be a very costly and sluggish process to produce music. Promoting your music was a matter all on its own - there's a booming industry of record labels and producers holding the keys to the gates of fame. Your options for music as a consumer were the radio, live showings, and media like records and tapes.

Things are much different now. Today, we'll be talking about how the Internet has changed the music industry.

I have to admit that the evolution of the music industry in the past 20 years isn't just a story about the Internet. Emergent technologies like the CD and digital media, along with the lowering cost of electronic devices like microphones and cameras, all happened concurrently with the rise of the Internet.

That said, digital media can be digitally transferred, and the Internet was at the right place at the right time. In the early 2000s, services like Kazaa, Limewire, Napster, and torrent software flourished in use, allowing users to get as much music as they'd like for free. They were sort of mystical software at their time - the contents that you'd find when you searched on Limewire were not contents you could find so easily on a typical Internet browser. These files would transfer through a part of the network in ways we don't necessarily expect out of the Internet.

Of course, people in the music industry did not appreciate that their music was being pirated. The RIAA went to court against Napster (with very public participation from Metallica, too!), but all that did was draw people to other file-sharing tools. The RIAA would move to file many more lawsuits, and the music industry would attempt to use software tools like DRM to protect their products. Unfortunately for them, the online collective was too large and too resourceful for these efforts to have much impact.

While the old-world music industry fought hard to make the Internet conform to their business models, new businesses were popping up that conformed to the Internet instead. Radio has found a re-emergence in our culture through Pandora Radio, which allows streaming of music much like traditional radio. Pandora stays afloat from ad revenue and sponsorships - much like traditional radio - and has found plenty of success with this model. And of course, unlike all of those other music services, Pandora was actually legal.

Bruno Mars only included if you want him to be.

Other radio services exist that put a spin on Pandora's business model. Pandora streams music of a particular genre or band that you specify, and generates playlists using some fancy softwareGrooveshark, a website where people can stream music of their choice, operates on ad revenue as well as a "freemium" model, where users can get more features if they opt to pay for a premium account. 8Tracks is a website with a similar financial model where users make public playlists that get streamed as radio.

Although piracy is still alive and well on the Internet, there are now options for free music that don't hurt the music industry. With online radio, the user can listen to as much music as they'd like, the artists make their money, and these businesses stay afloat. And of course, traditional music vendors have popped up online in the form of iTunes, Amazon music, Bandcamp, and others. It's nice to think that there are lots of people who would choose to support the artists over downloading the music for themselves.

But that's just on the music consumption front. The way music gets public exposure nowadays is different as well. Music forums, like any other category of forum, have flourished online. Websites like Pitchfork offer lots of opinions that enthusiasts can peruse (even if some of those opinions are asking to be lampooned). MySpace, despite its lack of cultural presence in our society these days, still offers itself as a platform for bands to promote themselves.

And then there are websites like SoundCloud, where chumps like me can put up their music for everyone to hear. If I were feeling bold, I could send links to my music more aggressively, put up some of my music for sale on iTunes or Bandcamp, and start an amateur music career. If I were feeling extra bold, I could even start going on YouTube and making music videos.

Now if only my workspace were a little less jank.

YouTube's become a very special kind of hotbed for music. Ever since they solidified their ad revenue model, big-name artists have been putting their music up on YouTube through VEVO. The YouTube charts function a lot like music charts nowadays. The fact that it's also a video platform makes YouTube a sort of MTV on demand, back when MTV actually played music.

But smaller-name artists have found success on the medium as well. In 2006, the band OKGo made a music video that managed to go viral on YouTube. The "Here it Goes Again" music video was a simple low-budget choreography piece that gathered millions of hits back in YouTube's early days. This public exposure prompted the band to release a deluxe DVD version of their album.

But that's nothing. Wait until you hear about the YouTube user kidrauhl. He put up a few videos on YouTube back in 2007 and 2008, and got found by a marketing executive completely by accident. He was then flown out to Atlanta, Georgia to record some demos. This ultimately resulted in signing onto a record label and kidrauhl becoming a global superstar. His name? Justin Bieber.

Even if you don't manage to get signed onto a major record label, musicians can still find success online. So many artists move to YouTube to promote their work, just waiting to be discovered by the casual viewer. Some principal investment on recording gear and instruments are necessary, but these electronics are cheaper than ever, and will only continue to be more affordable. You could be a random person just putting up videos of yourself singing acapella versions of video game music, and you could turn a profit from making your performances available as downloads.

All of these developments lead me to wonder what the music industry is going to look like in a few years. What will be the role of the major record label?

To drive the weight behind that question home, let's talk about YouTube some more. I recently got into a conversation about the future of YouTube's role in media with a friend. He brought up some things that I hadn't really thought about in my last blog post on the subject. YouTube may be self-sustaining, but will it eventually disrupt television and film industries?

Your move, Comedy Central.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars get spent by individual YouTubers for their productions, which are drops in the bucket compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars poured into the film industry. Because of the large amounts of money that big budget films command, it's often the case that we see film-makers playing it very safe with their productions - I mean, why else are we already up to an Iron Man 3?

If big-name industries start to stagnate, then this hotbed of creativity that we find on YouTube might start becoming more popular, and generating more revenue. But YouTube is also cheaper than film and television for investment. Eventually, we might start seeing less money go to television and film, and more money going to small, independent groups on YouTube. That could result in fewer movies and shows being made, and completely change where we look for entertainment.

What if the same thing happens with music?

What's the point of a musical album when you can buy individual songs on Amazon? What do music contracts look like when songs can proliferate on their own online? What advantages do big-name record labels offer when high-quality home studios get cheap enough?

The Internet has empowered people to be more informed and more connected, and the individual musician is no exception. It's possible that the major record labels will no longer be the gatekeepers to success. We've already kind of begun to see this with the rise of indie music in the past decade. Will the industry splinter further as the Internet becomes more sophisticated?

The music industry first tried to respond to the Internet by pushing for controls on what can and cannot be done online. This failed. It will likely continue to fail. As the Internet continues to mature, the old music industry will likely be brought to its knees. It will be interesting to see what will rise in its stead.

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