Current developments in technology are changing the way we experience and make music. Building on the shoulders of the previous generations of music producers and consumers, we will now be confronted with radical changes in the musical landscape that increase the musicalization process of humanity. How far are we? Let’s start with music consumers.
In the West music consumers listen a lot more to recorded music than that they attend live musical performances. Since the beginning of the 1980s we increasingly listen to our selected recorded music by playing physical discs called compact discs on CD-players, next to our home computer. In the 1990s we got to play them inside the computer’s CD-ROM drive and in portable CD-players as well. The Internet superhighway was beginning to unveil rich amounts of text and imagery, yet our computers had little space for audio. Since there was only limited Internet bandwidth available, the exchange of big files and software was generally an offline activity involving transport of a variety of storage media: sending digital music files online was too time-consuming and audio-players online were buffering for ages before they could play the music. The beeping small MIDI-file tunes that auto-played on websites could certainly not satisfy music lovers.
Fortunately music compression technologies by that time had already advanced to a level that digital files from compact discs could be efficiently reduced in file size. The German Fraunhofer Gesellschaft had developed the MP3, which became a big success: one MP3 is enough to make a piece of music available on an infinite amount of locations. The format caught on, despite the fact that the quality of these music recordings is worse. Generally music consumers don’t seem to hear the difference in quality, as they play their music on computer speakers or cheap headphones.
The end of the album
Singles have become increasingly more exchanged than whole music albums. This trend was initiated by music radio stations, but it was recently further reinforced with the advent of the MP3 and the continuing small bandwidth of the Internet. This contributed to an increased realization of the public that a lot of songs can be listened to individually, without the context the album offers. Concept albums and mix albums should be listened to as a whole (and often are distributed as one big file), but there are quite a few albums featuring only a handful of defining tracks – with the remaining tracks (intentionally) functioning as mere fillers. A lot of listeners are therefore rejecting the album experience as intended by the musicians and listen only to the songs on the album that most appeal to them.
The compression of music files and the fragmentation of the album – a decrease in music quality and a destruction of carefully constructed track orders on albums – and increased internet speed plus hard disc space (and faster computers) enabled quicker music distribution among people. All recorded music is increasingly available in MP3-format to download and listen to in MP3 stores (iTunes music store (website), eMusic (website)) on free MP3 websites (notably the MP3-blog aggregators elbo.ws and The Hype Machine (website)) and on peer-to-peer file sharing networks (Soulseek (website)), providing instant sonic gratification to music listeners world wide.
People started to listen to (tens of) thousands of MP3s on their media players. Also portable MP3-players (most notably the white iPod) emerged and became loaded with MP3s.
Exploring musical data
Knowledge about music of music consumers has broadened and deepened due to previously mentioned and more recent technological advances. People first digitized their own CDs they had collected, based on the advice of a circle of friends and family, music reviewers, writers, radio DJs, music television makers, concert organisers and music shop owners. But by exploring music genres online, one can increasingly gather a lot more and elaborate opinions and information, especially about independent music artists without a record deal: music community websites (last.fm (website), MySpace Music (website)) bundle a large amount of music taste data of aficionados worldwide and music databases (All Music Guide (website), Liveplasma) and elaborate review websites (MetaCritic (website), Pitchfork (website)) show interlinkages between the different musicians and their music.
A lot of Internet users are currently in the process of transforming their (portable) computer desktop into a webtop, meaning they will to some degree no longer download music but rather listen to (customized playlists of) songs streamed by online music players. They increasingly entrust website owners to continue to store music files on server farms, available on demand. This means a further decrease in music quality and fragmentation of albums.
This transformation started with an explosion of web radio stations (Live365 (website), Icecast (website)), followed by music podcasts/DJ mixes and music recommendation sites (Pandora (website (United States only)), last.fm). People could listen to music channels featuring their specific taste. But listeners also want to select songs by themselves, as each person has a particular taste in music.
Abovementioned websites (notably MySpace Music and last.fm) feature previews or whole songs you can choose to listen to. The website last.fm even has become an online jukebox, allowing users to select and listen to songs contained in a big database – with or without the aid of algorithms creating playlists of songs you like and might also like. Combined with a user account this means whenever and wherever users are, they can listen to their online stored personal interconnected selection from the recorded musical landscape.
With the expansion of webtop music a new phase has started in the evolution of the business model of the music industry. A lot of record companies now have softened their war on MP3 sharing, as they now finally realize the digital music revolution can not be stopped. Instead they now choose the try our extensive music catalogue online before you buy approach. They know there’s still a considerable demand for high(er) quality music and related merchandising: the webtop jukebox is therefore offering a deliberate inferior musical experience which is missing out the details and the overall sound of the original recordings and has no further extras.
The music industry’s clients are the group of genuine music lovers who can either instantly buy and download the better quality sharable (i.e. without DRM) MP3 file or buy the physical (improved) CDs, music DVDs and records. Despite the current digital era, storage discs are still popular because of their package (box, booklet with cover and further artwork, music videos, videos of live performances et cetera), the ritual of playing a record, the desire to have an artistic product materialized for yourself and others to see and because people like to listen to a near-studio quality piece of music or an album, from A to Z, on their high-end hi-fi set, to fully experience the music as the artist intended.
Quality can wait?
But most of You currently seem still patient as far as demanding higher musical quality is concerned, i.e. spend a lot less on music products than in the past: their audio rendering equipment is relatively inaccurate but still considered sufficient to listen to the great variety of mesmerizing available musical treasures online. They are patient enough to wait for cheaper but improved sound cards, amplifiers and speakers and simply await the future increase of server farms and new compression techniques to allow online streaming of music close to studio quality. The music business won’t be pleased, but this will eventually happen in the very near future. Simplify media already provides webtop streaming of your own and friends MP3 collections, and plenty of other new inventive developments are on its way which will make this goal a reality.
To be continued..