Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Music in the Digital Age

Yesterday afternoon Greg Sandoval put out a commentary piece for his Media Maverick column with the ominous subtitle, “Digital music is ailing.”  While there is much to be gained from reading his analysis, one should not approach it without first accepting the premise that, for Sandoval, “digital music” is a manufactured product that can only be assessed on the basis of return-on-investment.  It is within this context that we must read one of his key analytical observations:

What's killing music services and has depressed the sector is that most consumers just don't want to pay for music. Why should they? For a decade, a generation of music fans have grown up listening to music they obtained free from illegal file-sharing services. On the heels of those services came start-ups that offered more free music if users were willing to put up with a few ads. What nobody has proven yet is whether these free music sites can convince consumers to reach into their pockets to pay for songs or anything else.

I think that this issue of paying for music is significant;  but there is far more historical context than the past decade (which may or may not be relevant to current marketing models but probably should not be ignored).  The concept of free music is far older than that of file-sharing, regardless of any questions of legality.  In a time that is probably unknown to most of Sandoval’s readers, most of us got more free music than we could manage for the price of a cheap radio.  We could get it for just about any genre that interested us;  and for many of us it was an opportunity for remote participation in an actual performance, even if the broadcast was a delayed one.  (As a kid growing up in a Philadelphia suburb, I knew more about our Orchestra through its weekly broadcasts than I did from trips to the Academy of Music;  and through the same radio station I was also learning about the New York Philharmonic at a time when Leonard Bernstein was taking them into all sorts of weird and wonderful domains of new repertoire.)

This leads to another facet of Sandoval’s analysis, which is that he is trying to analyze the earning power of music services in terms of how successfully those services “move product.”  I do not criticize him for taking this stance, because, in our current social setting, it is a perfectly valid one;  but it reflects a corruption of our basic understanding of the nature of services that has been growing in tandem with the deterioration of our manufacturing economy.  We can go all the way back to Daniel Bell’s The Coming of Post-Industrial Society for emerging thoughts about how a “service economy” would displace that manufacturing economy;  but, as an accomplished social scientist, Bell appreciated that providing a service differs in many significant qualitative ways from any of the activities involved with manufacturing and selling a tangible product.  However, as our society has become more and more technocentric, those distinctions have gradually narrowed to a point where major technology companies committed portions of their research budgets to trying to reduce service to a science.

Did they succeed?  One answer lies in a joke I used to tell as a student doing thesis research in computer-composed music.  Back in 1957 one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence research predicted that within ten years people would be listening to original music composed by computer.  1967 happened to be the year I began graduate school, and I would often be asked about that prediction.  The usual question was whether the timing was off or whether the prediction was just plain wrong.  I liked to reply that the prediction would probably eventually be true but not because artificial intelligence would lead to better algorithms.  It would be true because our capacity for listening would deteriorate through exposure to more and more of those computer efforts.

I offer this as an analog to the question of whether service has become a science.  To the extent that service activities take place in the social world, this can never be the case;  and there is a wonderful little talk that Alfred Schutz delivered at a 1953 meeting of the Conference on Methods in Philosophy and the Sciences (included in the first volume of his Collected Papers) that establishes this claim through an elegant set of warrants.  On the other hand technology has now so corrupted our expectations for service that we have come to recognize that any expectations about the social world can only be frustrated.  From this point of view, I would say that service has, indeed, been reduced to a science and that music services, particularly through their tight coupling to “social software” are a perfect example of how our understanding of service itself has been corrupted.

By all rights, the ultimate “service providers” in music are the performers;  but we rarely appreciate this unless we are actually experiencing a performance by attending it, preferably physically but possibly virtually.  I realize that I can say this because I live in a city in which I can experience at least one “live” performance every day (and there are weeks when I do just that);  but the virtual option still stands.  Indeed, as opportunities for broadband access increase, there are likely also to be increased opportunities for concert experience in cyberspace.  Nevertheless, performers never really figure in Sandoval’s analysis.  His service providers run software sites and are driven by the economies of acquiring and distributing content.  Within the framework of Bell’s analysis, they are actually regressing to the manufacturing economy, except that their goods are “soft” enough to be managed at the “cottage industry” level.

From this point of view, my reading of Sandoval’s analysis is at least mildly optimistic.  If digital music really is ailing, then it is the product-based music industry that has succumbed to infection.  The more serious question, however, is whether or not the performance of music (in just about any genre you wish to consider) will survive the disruption of that industry.  Yes, if that industry implodes, then the opportunities for “earning a living” through performance will probably implode along with it;  but, if technology has corrupted our expectations for the nature of work in a service-based economy, then the ideology of globalization has pretty much annihilated the very concept of earning a living through any form of work.  Think about that the next time you pass a busker on the street or in a subway station.  The coins in his/her hat may not be much of a revenue stream, but it may be a more secure revenue stream than that of any skilled worker in manufacturing who may no longer have any viable prospects for employment.

1 comment:

Dermot said...

This reminds me of the joke "Q. will machines become as intelligent as man A. yes. Because we'll meet them halfway"

Not entirely a joke when you look at how we're setting the world up and take a close reading of your piece.