am was planning on going down to Worcester today to grab a bite with the DHB cohort, so I thought I'd check up on their blog to see what's shakin'. I see this -- Indy, a "music discovery" tool -- which seems like a cool development. Basically, it's a tool to play you random music, see if you like it, if so play music that other people who liked that track also liked, and if not try something else.
While this is clearly a very early implementation, this is something that could actually work in the long run. Record labels used to do three things. Produce, Distribute and Promote. At it stands, Production and Distribution have already been largely democratized by technology. While their last remaining ace -- Promotion -- is not going to go away anytime soon, the development of "discovery" tools like this, as well as the outgrowth of social tools are going to steadily erode the ability of the majors to put products over on consumers.
Social tools include things like Mp3 blogs (a return to the oridinal DJ concept), socially oriented filesharing tools like SoulSeek (sort of a giant musical swap meet where downloading means conversation first), and the rising trend of individual music consumers seeing themselves on some level as representatives of the artists they enjoy. These cultural practices and methods are going to pick up steam over mass marketing because they're more likely to deliver a higher quality acoutsic product, and they contain a higher potential for social reward -- usually some kind of positive relationship or interaction -- as a result of their practice. On the other hand, mass promotion methods are more likely to be pimping an inferior creation and have seen their greatest social reward -- the unity that comes with being part of a mass -- steadily erode.
There used to be a time when being a part of it meant seeing it premere on MTV, and you could count on sharing those cultural touchstones with yr peers. This is the entire premise behind VH1's retrospective "I love the 60s/70s/80s" programming, remembering moments of cultural unity. However, as we move into the 90s and especially the 21st century, this type of programming is going to become increasingly problematic. As the media environment becomes more democratic, people find there's more good feeling (and good listening) in being a part of an organic community. For many, the tie that binds becomes a record store or venue rather than a hit debut video. This means diminishing returns on "hit" products, but the upshot is that with support for artists distributed more broadly, the number who actualy develop their talent and create great music increases.
This means monolithic entities (e.g. todays media megacorporations) will have to do more work -- or at least produce, distribute and promote more products -- to roll up the same number of sales; something they're poorly positioned to do. On the flip side, this also means that light, agile, independent entities (e.g. indy labels, self-managed artists, amateurs/hobbiests) will be competing on a more level playing field with the majors.
There's a kind of moral rightness (to me anyway) in this vision of media conglomorations suffering a kind of death by a thousand cuts, but the actual cultural impact is going to be pretty enormous. What does the world look like when fewer artists become rockstars, but many many more are able to earn a decent living off their craft? It could be pretty interesting.
Pop and mainstream music will continue to run strong as long as Americans continue to work as much as they do. People who hold down two jobs generally don't have time to be an active participant in a "scene." Some sort of "default culture" will still persist, though it will probably be more democratic and diverse in its own right, with people sort of following groups of quality artists who consistantly release good sounds. These followings will likely retain an association with people's tastes when they were young -- the "scene" grows up and becomes an institution.
A few final thoughts:
- As major's sales move more and more to catalog (old stuff), artists are going to get smarter about their licensing terms.
- As filesharing becomes accepted as a fact of life, the importance of touring, merch and anciliary products will increase. The Ramones fortune is based on t-shirts, not record sales. Expect more of that.
- Artists who want to 'sell out' and make big money will increasingly do it the way atheletes do: shilling for consumer products.