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 The Future Of Music Pt. 3

by Ram Samudrala

What Free Music Means

One can argue that sites like or are attractive because you're getting something without paying for it. But what you also get when you download a song is total freedom to do with the song as you please (at least for personal use, or until no one finds out), even though this isn't necessarily what the intended effect might be. Generally people who endorse a paradigm like the Free Music Philosophy understand the distinction between getting music for free and being able to copy music freely, i.e., without intellectual property restrictions.

But what is the fundamental reality? Why are the RIAA and the major distributors afraid of the prolific spread of digital audio? Sure, it threatens their oligopoly, but not just because the Internet has somehow made music more accessible to the masses, but rather because the distribution of music on the Internet follows a non-linear exponential trajectory without control. The fact of the matter is that more and more people are completely apathetic to the intellectual property concerns when downloading or even distributing music online. And they can't afford to be anything but. This scares most people because they cannot control what has happened with their creative output, and it's even more terrifying when the control of creative output is fundamentally linked to economic input. Lack of control on the part of the recording industry means more freedom for the musicians and the listeners. My main thesis here is that it is this freedom that is the key to making the Bazaar model work.

The freedoms I speak of above has the greatest impact on people who create or wish to create music. A few years ago, when I started getting into making recordings, musicians were looking at analog 4-tracks and 8-tracks and saying, hey, we can now produce great sounding albums without spending a lot of money. Today, with digital recording in place, musicians can now produce recordings that sound as good or better than a major label record in their basements. And the digital world has become the great equaliser: musicians can also distribute this music widely, probably better than what a major label would do for the average musician.

This ease of distribution is what makes music free, not how much it costs for the download (it costs someone somewhere something to download an MP3). Music is free because you can let your friend hear it, copy it, play it to their friends, and so on. In a more extreme situation, music is completely free when another musician can use your creation as a starting point for their own creation. This is when Free Music is at its most valuable. And without this freedom, human creativity will not likely be seen at its most awesome potential.

The future: a world of musicians

From a creative perspective, where I see all this going is that music becomes like language. Just as no one owns the English language, no one will own what music will become. The reason no one can own the English language is because of the number of people that have contributed to it, molded it, and made it grow and adapt--it's either owned by everyone or no one at all. It's a continuous and complex dynamic system, evolving in a non-linear manner, and growing from the previous changes created by feedback loops. The same will apply to music in the future: a song you write may involve so many contributions and meta-contributions that to claim exclusive rights to it would be a joke. Like a language, music will be a collage of ideas, notes, chords, and sounds from many many different creative minds. The term "collage music" already exists to describe such a phenomenon, pioneered, in part, by the views of artists like Negativeland and John Oswald and embraced by genres like techno. Music will be the communication that begins where conventional language ends.

There is a large proliferation of hard disk multitrack recorders in the music scene today. Consider a scenario where you can not only make your songs available mixed down in MP3 format, but also each of the tracks in MP3 format such that software and hardware-based MP3 players can handle data track by track. Imagine the possibilities: Don't like a guitar solo in the middle of the track? Edit it out, or record your own solo! Want to change the drum kit in the drum track? Given the sound to MIDI converters, this will be doable in real-time, so you can assign drum patches to a real drummer. Even the smallest tweak in the mix may result in a new song for the person listening it. Of course, most audiences will listen to what they're fed, but I argue a greater number of people (the audiophiles at least; people who don't play instruments but are picky about sound) will start "fine tuning" songs to suit their own tastes, much the way people adjust brightness and contrast and colour on TV sets.

We're only a few steps away from this becoming a reality: multitrack MP3 manipulators are technologically and economically feasible. MIDI already permits this sort of manipulation at the composition level, but unfortunately, there is no format that merges MIDI and sound elegantly. While I believe in compartmentalisation and think the different protocols are suited for the different things they do, it's not inconceivable to imagine a end-user software or hardware machine that takes any combination of MIDI/MP3 (or any arbitrary composition and compression format) and permit track by track manipulation. In fact, even though the process isn't entirely straightforward, many musicians (including myself) have collaborated with others over the Internet by exchanging multitrack soundfiles, tapes and MIDI files, and even interactively, without ever meeting.

The Bazaar model will enable creative endeavours between musicians who have the time and the inclination to pursue a full-time career and those who do not wish to dedicate their life to music exclusively. The latter is generally a requirement for working as part of the Cathedral. Some musicians want to create and then not have to tour, some might not want to promote as actively, and some may just prefer to remain anonymous. All of these musicians will have an excellent opportunity to be heard.

Another method by which I think creative cross-fertilisation will occur is by coupling appreciation of musicians (i.e., payment) with creativity. For example, in one of the FMAs, if the artists get a percentage of advertising revenues based on song downloads, then rather than just having the option of receiving actual cash, they may also receive hard copies of music by other bands. This way, an incestuous relationship between the artists will be developed. Given a large population of musicians, which will grow if the above multitrack models are implemented, this will result in a self-sustaining complex system with unimaginable creative dynamic. We're all musicians as well as listeners. The potential for breeding creativity is even greater if other creative ventures such as software, visual art, and literary art are coupled with music.

Economics in the Bazaar

I have dealt with the questions of "how will musicians make money" and "won't musicians starve", if they cannot control copying of creative works, extensively in the Free Music Philosophy, the primer on the ethics of "intellectual property", and other missives related to Free Music. Simply put, since a vast majority of musicians don't make a living from music anyway, the Bazaar model isn't going to make things worse and may make things better (because of the increased exposure), relative to what can be done with a major label. I quote from the Free Music Philosophy:

Musicians currently make money through a variety of sources: sales of records, merchandise and concert tickets, and royalties from commercial airplay. Freeing music will certainly not be detrimental to the sales of merchandise and concert tickets, nor will it affect compulsory or performance royalties. If anything, it will improve sales since people will continue supporting artists they like by going to their concerts and buying their merchandise. Profits from record sales will also not be affected because people will be encouraged to buy directly from the artist for the added bonuses of liner notes, lyrics sheets, and packaging. Thus Free Music can be used as a marketing tool to ensure that musicians do not starve. An approach where people send the artist a "donation", if they found value in the music they copied, is another way to make money in a direct fashion. This could become an ingrained practice in society, like tipping, where even though there is no enforced requirement to tip for various services, people do anyway.

As the Bazaar model follows its complex trajectory, the economic solutions will automatically arise in a complementary manner. Commerce abhors a vacuum.

The Bazaar is thriving and the Cathedral is dying

Imagine a complex adaptive web, where a musician records a song and distributes it with all the tracks. A listener adds reverb and echo to parts of certain tracks which is further distributed to other musicians and they sample or use parts of the modified track. Perhaps the original musician is fed back these modifications and creates a new variation which is further distributed. And so on. Imagine the richness of music that will result. That is the future. It's already happening.



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