Future of music, continued

October 24, 2008

This is clearly ‘future of music’ week in the zeitgeist. I wrote a bit about it based on a Boston Herald article about how Pretty & Nice met Built to Spill‘s bassist managing a Jiffy Lube in Boise, and I just stumbled on a Village Voice music blog post on much the same theme, this one focusing on licensing versus developing a fanbase:

Which is to say the model now is to completely bypass the consumer—whose thumbs-up/thumbs-down was once the obvious, inarguable standard of success—in favor of the television drama, the movie soundtrack, and the TV commercial….What is curious about this model is that it essentially imagines an industry future without fans. People will consume music the way they consume actors and actresses: as part of a much bigger whole, to be judged as such. Beatles-type fame is a casualty, although I’m sure these dudes have no trouble getting laid; so are about a million tropes, some good, some bad, traditionally designed to appeal to ‘music fans,’ a demographic that may well not exist in ten years.

So, to recapitulate: mobs of screaming fans – out; a modest revenue stream through licensing, direct CD sales, merch, gigs, podcasts, etc, etc, and yet more etc – in. Hmmm. I’ll have to give some more thought to what I think this trade means for both fans and artists. If you have thoughts, feel free to share them in the comments.


  1. I think the Built to Spill anecdote has held true for most pop-rock musicians, except those who break out of indie status and become major phenomena.

    “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 people.”

    It sounds silly, but I think it’s really true. the fragmentation of all media over the last 20 years has made it harder and harder for bands to break through, KISS/aerosmith/radiohead style. People don’t listen to as much radio, they don’t read the papers, and there are zillions of internet sites competing for our attention. And bands are able to promote themselves in the fragmented media more effectively than they could pre-internet, and can more easily become famous for those 15 people

    I don’t think licensing is about bypassing the consumer — it’s about finding ways to reach a mass audience. Those channels have always been beholden to tastemakers, and Advertising is one of the few remaining common media denominators. It’s a marketing thing.

  2. I’d suggest it means more covers. In-program music needs to connect and convey meaning without offering listeners the opportunity to hear the whole song. Which, in turn means that new songs need to be pre-familiarized, and one of the simplest ways to do that is to cover a familiar song.

    And I know I’m your “covers guy,” but that doesn’t mean I think this is a good thing. You need great new songs (e.g. “Such Great Heights” or “Crazy”) to replenish the supply of great covers. Otherwise it’s just another goddamned version of “Yesterday”.

    Alternatively, it means the sound-bitification of music. In this model, a song doesn’t need to be compelling, it just needs to have one riff or one lyric that is instantly understandable. Advertisements often use this approach, sometimes to the amusement of people who recognize that the excerpted lyric doesn’t mean anything like the surface meaning it’s being given in the ad.

  3. Excellent points, both!

    David, if you haven’t yet, I encourage you to go read the whole Village Voice article – the idea of ‘bypassing the consumer’ is that the music builds its fanbase by being licensed first, rather than the other way around. And that its fanbase will consist of the people who then put attention into finding the band amidst all the competing noise. And Scott, it’s entirely plausible that the bands that get a non-local audience are those that write songs that work well in TV shows.

    Cory Doctorow writes about the impact of technology on music in an essay in Content:

    When radio and records were invented, they were pretty bad news for the performers of the day….Radio was clearly good news for musicians — lots more musicians were able to make lots more music, reaching lots more people and making lots more money….But it was terrible news for charismatic [performers]. It put them out on the street, stuck them with flipping burgers and driving taxis.

    We are clearly looking at the transition to the next iteration of technology with music, and it’s interesting to try to figure out what will happen.

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