I don’t claim the right to pontificate but if you indulge me I will. It’s in that spirit that I share my evolving thoughts on the open music scene because I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently. I’ve been led to notice a potentially large shift in open music. This shift seems to be inspired by the You-ification of the Web (see Time Person of the Year for the mainstream media’s interpretation).
Professor Lessig’s talk in Germany last week discusses the dearth (if not death) of the participatory aspect of music forecast by J. P. Sousa (the guy who wrote the theme to Monty Python’s Flying Circus) at the turn of the 20th century and facilitated by the industrialization and commidization of music. The introduction of technology such as the phonograph and radio was a fundamental shift in way humans thought about music — the idea of music had suddenly shifted after tens of thousands of years from participation to mass consumption. Note that we are talking about very recent events. I doubt either the term ‘music business’ or ‘music industry’ were in wide use when my father was born in 1916.
While Professor Lessig is careful not to predict or even express a desire to return to a participatory era I can’t help thinking that sites like Splice Music and Jam Glue, by capitalizing on Flash ™ plus broadband ubiquity, reverberate with echoes of the pre-phonograph era. Instead of sitting around the parlor piano or on the porch with a banjo, jug and washboard, the modern day “musician” is parked in the campus cafeteria with a wireless laptop and headphones using audio samples (made by folks they’ve never met and know nothing about) into their own creative works and by default posting the results back into the community. Of course the result is, in turn, available for reuse both others.
I put the word musician in quotes above because the people participating at these sites do not meet our definition of the term in the post industrial sense. We’ve come to think of musicians as people who take lessons, own an instrument, spent money on (or stole) music software or a DJ mixer and turntable. But I suspect that a lot of the people congregating at Jam Glue and Splice Music do not have any those materials or have invested any money or time in activity we used to call ‘playing music.’ At the very least these sites make this scenario possible and I guarantee these sites pitched their investors on the hopes of attracting people exactly in that category.
At this point it is worth mentioning (and to slide in a plug of my benefactors) Flash and broadband are not the only tools that make these community online remix sites possible. They both heavily rely on Creative Commons licenses to free everybody involved from the nightmare that is ‘fair use’ and other irrelevant legal instruments. (To be honest I just take that for granted at this point because I don’t know of a music site that has started up in the last year or two that doesn’t employ CC. So we are all benefactors from a really wonderful idea.)
On the other side of the open music world, we have Magnatune. The key to their success has been the discretion involved in hand picking a tiny fraction of the the submissions. The result is a far cry from Splice Music and Jam Glue where the emphasis is on the righteous goals of spreading community and commodization of the tools, not necessarily a source of reliably world-class quality music.
Having laid out this landscape I’ll say loudly it is very important that commodity remix sites exists and I’m grateful for CC making them possible. I would love to see a world where everybody tries their hand at music and remixing samples in a Flash web page is a glorious way to get that to happen. But that alone is not what gets me up in the morning and it’s not why I wanted to get involved with CC and the open music movement.
My focus has been and will continue to be to enable folks who have the right combination of talent, passion and discipline to make a living making music, because for some reason we’ve all accepted it is impossible to do so without selling your soul for the chance.
I take it for granted that anybody who wants to make and share music for fun and community (you know, cultcha stuff) will find ways in the next 100 years to readily do so. What I’m waiting for is a community of CC musicians to quit their day jobs because they are each making $40,000 a year in online sales and licensing. (Group health insurance to come in phase two.)
I believe there is a viable argument to make that the participatory You-culture and Magnatune style sharing ecomony are not mutually exclusive. And perhaps ccMixter is the start of the thing that sits in the middle. A hybrid, or more precisely a bridge: A community site where quality is emphasized. Two shining examples of the results are the Lisa remix album and Colin’s PreMixed. Both of these represent what can happen when a community of quality musicians hang out and trade talents.
I could easily imagine the site following the Motown model. In the early 1960′s Barry Gordy conceived of a music label that worked like a movie studio in which a pool of songwriters, producers, studio musicians and performers all used each other’s services producing only winning combinations. In an even more organic way, the ccM community has proven, without a doubt, that by emphasizing a cappellas by talented singers and songwriters, we have attracted some of the best producer talents on the Web, which, in turn, attract great singers, on and on. producing some great, some would say winning combinations. All of which feeds the reputation of the site as being a reliable source of good music.
At ccM we have always emphasized quality over quantity and that, like Magnatune, combined with the openness of a community oriented site will be the key to the success moving forward.