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 The Future Of Music Pt. 2 (Part 1)

by Ram Samudrala


The Bazaar vs. the Cathedral

mp3.com and free-music.com are two examples of sites that enable distribution of Free Music (Free Music Archives or FMAs). In terms of volume of copies distributed, normalising for the relative obscurity of most artists, these sites are doing phenomenally compared to the distribution achieved via normal channels. I am an artist who distributes music through both these FMAs, without any intellectual property restrictions whatsoever. I receive e-mail from total strangers who've incorporated music or sounds I've created. I also use ideas, notes, chords, and sounds that arise from people I know who use what arise from my mind and so on. It has gotten to a point where I've stopped keeping track of who's doing what, but just go on creating. Cogently, I realise that I am creating by standing on the shoulders of giants who are standing on the shoulders of giants--it's like the mythical idea of an infinite number of tortoises, one below the other, supporting the earth. The bottom line here is that there's a complex web of unconstrained creativity based around our creations which is spreading in an exponential manner as a result of Free Music.

Compare what happens in the major label Cathedral to what happens in a FMA Bazaar. The Cathedral essentially dictates what gets played on the marketplace. Mainstream publicity channels such as MTV and commercial radio are part of the Cathedral. Every creative work that comes out bearing the major label mark has gone through a bureaucratic approval process in the Cathedral, having been deemed to fulfill certain requirements for propriety, profitability, and controllability. It's debatable whether the artistic content of these works are even an issue.

I assert that the Cathedral is dying, and the reasons it will die are as follows: (i) Top-down systems cannot adapt as quickly as bottom-up systems. In the digital world, composition and compression technology changes rapidly. If a new format emerges tomorrow, mp3.com is more suited to become mp4.com before a company like Warner Bros. even realises what's happening. (ii) Niche markets in music will be the norm as opposed to being the exception. A large monolithic major label structure is not flexible enough to afford to exploit the small niche markets, whereas the FMAs can cater to every individual's taste. This isn't just because of the Internet, but because of the worry-free manner music is available on an FMA. (iii) Creativity is exponentially and non-deterministically enriched in the Bazaar. (More on this below.) (iv) Intellectual property controls are in direct conflict with points (i)-(iii). This has been argued cogently, in spirit at least, in John Perry Barlow's The Economy of Ideas and Raymond's The Cathedral and the Bazaar. The salient points are that worrying about intellectual property slows down reaction time as one is questioning how controllable a new technological format is, as the RIAA is currently doing with its actions (i); the potential profit margins in niche markets does not make it worth the worry price, generally what you pay the lawyers (ii); and the Bazaar, which enriches creativity in a radical manner, does so only at a risk of not maximising profit (iii).

The Cathedral will lose in competition to the Bazaar for all the cases in (i)-(iv) and Darwinian selection will see to it that the majors go the way of the dinosaurs. Again, I will stress that the bottom-up work model works only so long as the Bazaar remains a bazaar, i.e., the freedoms I speak of above exist (in practice at least). Also, it's possible that Cathedrals today will also adopt the Bazaar model and find other means of generating revenue besides basing it on the control of the spread of creativity.

Next issue, Part 3 Free Music: What it means




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