Music consumption in the context of entertainment media

3 05 2011

Image from tumblr blog: "Salad Fork"

A great deal of speculation still surrounds the Internet in terms of its potential impact on more traditional media such as television and radio as well as music.  Now that the streaming of audio and video has become more and more viable for consumers through the introduction of broadband Internet access, the issue becomes far more important.  While some experts said that streaming would never be a significant factor, others said that it may completely alter the media landscape as it exists.  To some extent this is true, however I believe a parallel movement is taking place.

While some aspects of the traditional music industry’s position within the media industry have changed completely, other aspects have merely been reformed, and many others have remained untouched.  In other words, the consumers’ need for traditional media will has and will remain strong for many years to come.  Now the problems of bandwidth, lack of awareness and difficulty loading media players is solved, consumer usage has accelerated exponentially.  This revolution in usage has not and will not take over in the medium and long term.  The evolution of music on the Internet has occured alongside – rather than instead of – the more established mediums of music propagation.

The first indication that traditional media will not be displaced totally is based on historical evidence.  Communications technologies tend to have repeated patterns.  New media technology does not replace its predecessor because it cannot reproduce the exact experience or benefit.  The photograph did not replace the drawing, radio did not replace the newspaper and television did not replace radio.  New technology will not replace its predecessor because it cannot reproduce the exact experience or benefit.  The music cassette did not replace the vinyl LP, and neither did the CD; the minidisk did not replace the CD, and it is most likely that flash memory or cloud based streaming will not replace any of these physical formats.  Another important factor that goes in favour of the traditional music formats is consumer behaviour.  The changes occurring within the music environment are not merely technological, people use new technology only if it answers real desires and needs.  Not all people have the same needs.

Some consumers may embrace the opportunity to control their media experience, such as selecting only the music that they wish to listen to, watching only pre-selected programming structured around their own timetable.  Consumers creating their own experiences can be described as not following the traditional methods of consuming music and other forms of entertainment.  However, as the availability of music over the Internet has grown, it has become increasingly evident that this new form of consumption does not suit everyone, and has definitely not been for everyone all the time.  Many consumers have and will probably continue to prefer the more comfortable and uncomplicated ways of passive consumption of audio entertainment.  For this reason, there will always be opportunities to provide passively consumed music that even the most demanding consumers will use.  The crucial part is to understand the context of the consumer and the role of audio entertainment music in the lives of consumers.

It is also very probable that the lines between traditional and interactive music on the Internet will continue to grow more nebulous.  The distribution of music to consumers has traditionally relied on mediums of delivery, broadcasting via radio and the direct purchase of recordings.  As technology has advanced, however, these delivery mediums have moved toward a central point between them.  For example, the broadcasting method of delivery over the Internet began with the introduction of audio streaming, made popular by RealAudio.  Now, the evolution of highly specialised music formats and the ability of many services to allow listeners to skip songs, create playlists and share music with others, streaming has incorporated elements of purchasing or extracting what is wanted.  The spread of technology which can aided purchasing or extracting what is wanted was pushed forward by the development of MP3.  This represented the extreme end of user control, as music selection was entirely determined by the consumer’s decision regarding which music to convert from their CDs to MP3 format.

Of course, the use of MP3s exploded with the introduction of peer-to-peer software, most influentially, Napster.  As with streaming, this software eventually moved MP3 technology closer to the centre of the two types of delivery medium, as users searching for music on Napster they were often exposed to similar songs, different mixes of a song, or other songs by a requested artist.  Yet, even with this trend toward a middle ground though iTunes, LastFM, etc., total convergence is unlikely to happen.  Consumers will continue to desire each method for different reasons, and there will be situations where both mediums of delivery will be wanted.

All of these point to the conclusion that traditional media will not disappear.  Rather, all content providers, regardless of the medium, are now beginning to grab the huge opportunity of developing an ideal combination of services that offer both broadcast and content delivery online in a way that covers a broader range of consumer needs and expectations.

by Nino Auricchio


The rise of disposability in popular music

5 04 2011

There is a fundamental issues that has been brought about by the rapid development in technology over the last 15 years.  The one core instigator of the revolution and strife that is currently in the music industry and consumer market is ‘disposability‘.  Disposability is based around the idea that either technology or any type of media can be easily discarded due to the fact it has lost its value and is no longer wanted by the consumer.  The phenomenal progress of technology has not only made music depreciate more quickly, but has also made the technology itself very disposable as it is replaced by new developments on an almost monthly basis.

The roots of disposability in music today can be discovered in two different areas of development.  The first is the Internet and the second is the development of music production technology.  The Internet has facilitated the increase of fast downloading of music to people’s computers and as a consequence, because still the majority of music downloaded is not paid for, it appears to have less value to the consumer.  With this decrease in value, comes the mentality that music can be discarded as easily as yesterday’s newspaper.  The contents of the physical formats of music have changed little, however, while the explosion of content on the Internet has been its driving force.  People have come to expect more from their consumable media, music has consequently lost a lot of its inherent value.

It can be argued that regardless of the apparent loss of content in music compared to other forms of media, what is music apart from a collection of acoustic vibrations?  Therefore, what else should music provide apart from its constituent elements?  Since, the conception of music many thousands of years ago, people have enjoyed music in its pure live form and in the 20th Century, it could be enjoyed in recorded forms.  Music has had no need to complement itself with other practices apart from other legitimate art forms.  So, it can be argued that music has become disposable not because of the Internet but because of the reduced quality of the music itself, especially mass market contemporary popular music.  The relative merits of which will not be discussed further here.

In many ways, progress can be considered to be a vital part of the natural evolution of music.  Originally music would be recorded onto tape, and all studios were equipped with a similar type of equipment which meant that operation in whatever studio was relatively generic.  The rise of computing power opened up a whole new world in music production and recording.  The huge advances in digital audio and MIDI sequencing capabilities have made professional and amateur music making easier, more flexible and cheaper than ever before.  However, progress in this sector is accelerating at such a pace that music makers are in danger of being caught up in the shock waves caused by it.  Not a week goes by without a new piece of software being released that has yet another new development.  By the time a composer, producer or engineer has mastered one operating system, it is obsolete.  The recording media which is used for sound itself changes at such a rate that it is uncertain that there will be hardware players in a few decade’s time to playback the music of today’s formats.

Technology is not being exploited to its full potential before progressing, so the real needs of musicians can be clearly identified before the technology evolves to its next logical level.  When a piece of technology it being exploited to its full potential the musician is maximising the music potential in it and not just skimming the surface.   The Beatles, for example, were forced to improvise with the studio equipment in Abbey Road, forcing the maximum potential of their technology.  The Beatles’ producer George Martin was known to rewire a Farfisa organ to create new sounds and rewind echo tapes during a recording pass due to there not being enough tape in the echo machine.

There is little chance to consolidate music making.  Everybody is pushing to create something new, as with the Internet and forms of new media.  however, it seems few people want to maintain what is worthwhile.  So, it is no surprise that the music of today is as disposable as the technology it is created on.

By Nino Auricchio

Losing our innocence

22 03 2011

Electronic music is a mere pup when lined up against other forms of western popular music.

For decades it seemed electronic music just wasn’t considered kosher by the general public, often being likened to the sound of a vacuum clearer set to blow.  To many people it still brings on this knee jerk reaction.  Soundtracks for films such as Blade Runner, Forbidden Planet, The Day The Earth Stood Still, and A Clockwork Orange would often slip past them unnoticed however.

Back in the 70s acts like Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schultz, Vangelis, and Tomita were trailblazing the great movement of progressive electronic albums becoming a standard addition to Mr. and Mr. Joe Taxpayer’s front room stereo cabinet.  This movement perhaps represented the greatest period for electronic music as an art form which millions of people accepted and invested in, providing that all important inspiration for those young innocent ears who would become the new age, synth pop performers and producers of the 1980s.  You ask anyone between the ages of 30 and 40 who currently makes electronic music where they got their inspiration, they will respond with something along the lines of, “I used to listen to Man Machine on my dad’s stereo with my headphones on every night.  I knew from the first time I heard it I wanted to make music which sounded like that”.

Electronic music from the mid 80s onwards fragmented beyond the New Romanticism of Ultravox and the Synth Pop of Depeche Mode, into the veritable smorgasbord of derivative genres that became the world of dance music.  The so called death of dance music in the 90s following the cosure of so many clubs, super clubs and even the removal of the best dance act award from the Brit Awards, showed that over commercialization and dumbing down had taken its toll.  The spontaneity and unrestrained nature of electronic music had been lost in the mainstream, replaced by the 4-to-the-floor mindless pumping of a drum machine and Esoniq synths.  A few acts and labels continued to fly the flag such as Orbital, Warp Records and Wall of Sound, however sales of Orbital’s InSides or Boards of Canada’s Music Has the Right to Children failed to shift in sufficient numbers to make their respective artists  household names.

Back in those heady days when Krafterk were being robots and Jean Michel Jarre was flicking his dark Gallic hair, electronic music was approached with the ears of a child.  No preconceptions, no cultural baggage, no conventions on instrumentation or arrangement.  The sound made during this period had an inventive and original approach to the creation of electronic music which, oddly enough perhaps, resulted in albums the public were more than happy to accept, buy and enjoy.  Tangerine Dream’s Phaedra and Vangelis’ China enjoyed commercial success, not only because they presented electronic music in contemporary pop or rock song context, but because they offered something different and exciting.  People often forget that in the 1970s the future was still bright and offered a route out of post war austerity and economic stagnation.  Today we worry more about just how we are going to survive in the future, let alone when we’ll be flying around in glass cars or having robot servants.  This optimism encapsulated by this new form of music has now all but gone.  Our innocence has been lost.

The never ending derivatives from what started out in the late 60s with a few teenagers messing with synthesizers has almost returned with electronic music seemingly returning to an underground form of music.  Synthetic sound has obviously permeated RnB and pop a huge degree and I am not in dispute with this, but stylistically and musically they cannot be classed as forms of electronic music.  They are RnB and pop which use electronic sounds.  Artists like Apparat, Ulrich Schnauss and SBTRKT would have seen far greater commercial success had they been releasing records in the 70s.  The great democratization of music creation with a single laptop with a smattering of cheap or free software tools being all you need has led to so much more electronic music being made by more people, but any significant commercial success in the medium has long since faded.

By Nino Auricchio