Intonation and Innovation

(from January 2015)


The Digital Age has provided the music industry with unprecedented productivity and countless innovative tools. At first glance, many see the benefits these new inventions and immediate processes provide the individual. However, like with every major advancement, the old way of business either dies out or is reduced to a fringe practice. The music world has been completely turned on its head in the past twenty years, with new procedures being invented at every minute. The internet alone has affected how music sales operate, how people find and share new music, and how knowledge is transferred through education. The inevitable shift will be towards a model where consumers have direct contact to the producers themselves–a peer to peer economy. From this revolution, what has already occurred? What is the future of heralded institutions in this system, especially if they do not adapt?

Record labels have had a monopoly on sales since the inception of recorded music. Traditionally, the amount of advertising, recording costs, management, and people it required to get a record off the ground was enormous. Instead of an artist having the final word regarding their recordings, executives controlled the final artistic product through their investments. Unsurprisingly, many of these executive decisions were a completely subjective decision by the executive. As with all investments, not every record deal was successful.

In this process, the consumer could not exercise their musical preferences until the final record was released, or if the group went on tour (which usually followed the release of a record). This concentration of capital at the top of the industry can be traced back to composers such as J. S. Bach, who worked in the courts of royalty and as a church organist. During his life, Bach was required to compose new works almost every week, and not much time was spent relishing specific compositions. One of his most famous compositions, the Brandenburg Concertos, was never heard by the person it was written for. The top-down nature of church hierarchy left the congregation (consumers) with little say in the final product. Music composed in that time-frame, the music we are left with, does not necessarily reflect the taste of the majority of people, but that of the benefactors.

This concentration of resources at the top of the industry was completely overhauled with the introduction of the Internet. No longer did someone have to tune into MTV to see the latest music video or wait for a new song to come on the radio. Now, consumers could directly search and find music from their favorite artists, as well as research new ones. Whether record labels knew it or not, the iTunes store was the first widely implemented shift in power from company to consumer. Individuals shared, copied, and traded music with or without the internet previously, but once the technology giant Apple entered the market with a flexible, reliable music download database, everything changed. One could search for the artist they want and never have to leave their house to buy the recordings. Within a few years, websites such as MySpace, Purevolume, and Bandcamp all provided ways for the artist to directly bring the music to the consumer. Bandcamp allows someone to stream and download the music directly from the artist, bringing the consumer even closer to the artist than iTunes. The ease of use, and constant shrinking of the middle man not only ensures that each trade is more transparent, but that the consumer’s wants are more efficiently satisfied.

On the artist’s side of technological advancement, home recording studio equipment gets better by the month, whereas before artists (in order to get a semi decent recording) had to book expensive studio time at an already established business. Professional sounding recordings only need a computer, microphone, and some time to come to fruition. Some of the most popular albums of the past few years have been recorded at home. Combining the power of this technology with music sharing sites has endless possibilities.

iTunes and the like haven’t been the only catalyst in the online music world. With websites like Kickstarter, the consumer can directly negotiate interest in a product without the producer ever having to take the risk of initial manufacturing. This was huge for the music world, bands can now directly appeal to fans who can literally vote with their dollars. Today, YouTube is the hub for music videos, if not all music. Fans can leave comments, like or dislike videos: artists have a direct stream of preference from fans at all times. YouTube has not only provided a space for artists developed outside of the Internet, but has also been a home to many artists originating on the website.

Education in the music industry has not seen as much change for a variety of reasons. Technology has and will continue to change the face of traditional education. General music education has been cornered in the market by the public schooling system since the introduction of programs in the 19th century. While good intentions exist, the field is plagued by a “we have always done it this way” mentality. In addition, K-12 music education has had difficulty proving its relevance when compared to math and science. There have been many cuts to music programs across the country (and the world), causing entrepreneurs to step up to fill the gaps. Music itself is much like technology in the sense that is ever growing and an ever changing communication of ideas, presented by artistic risk takers. Market action requires this type of risk, and many different schools and programs have popped up to answer the cuts in public schools. Contained in the higher-ed bubble is the music school bubble. Many college aged musicians are receiving degrees in skill sets that won’t necessarily be in demand by the time they are done their studies. Many students continue going to school and then end up teaching full time at a university. But how is this solving any problems? The music world ends up being teachers teaching teachers, with the occasional success story. A prediction is that with the eventual downturn of higher-ed, there will most definitely be many music school closings. If the music industry itself is slowly becoming decentralized, why wouldn’t the education of music be as well? Not that there is (yet) a substitute for learning music in person, but one can gain a whole wealth of musical knowledge that was not possible even 2 years ago on the internet, with video lessons for free. Online education is a major step towards a P2P economy in the music world, providing high quality material in practically any genre of interest.

Overall, the pattern that is evident in the music industry (and basically all industry) is a move from highly concentrated economic power at the top to a more direct producer-to-consumer based market. No longer does it take years for an entity to change; information travels too quickly today to allow a terrible product. With current computer technology, music travels freely, requiring no shipping costs of physical records, let alone printing those records. How long until most other industries follow suit with inventions such as the 3D printer? In the end, each individual is serving another with both of their desires being met. The lack of money at the top in the music world does not mean people do not want music anymore, they simply want it in another way. Gone are the days of perpetual waiting in line to catch a glimpse of a famous musician, staying up to see the one late-night show performance, or selling out of an in-demand record. Fans can simply use the Internet to catch what they missed, find new material, and interact with their favorite artists, peer to peer.


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