January Futures: Music

This is the first in a series of posts, pointing to some views on the perennial ‘future of’ debates that make up so much of what I read. No intention to be comprehensive or even-handed – these are, borrowing Eoin Purcell’s term, links of interest (at least to me), and I’d be grateful to read other perspectives in the comments.

Anyway, the first is the ‘future of recorded music’, on which I’ve seen three overlapping contributions of late (and have one whimsical remark of my own). By coincidence (or perhaps not), two are by people I have mentioned in past posts (Drummond, Adams) primarily in their capacities as artists rather than analysts, and thus they have been particularly interesting to think about wearing my (slightly more) serious hat.

On Radio 3 last week, Bill Drummond (wiki; latest project, The17) spoke about the end of recorded music (and the continuing life of live music), also answering questions from a studio audience (part of the Free Thinking festival) on a wide range of topics. It was an utterly fascinating talk, well handled by Radio 3, written up reverently in the Guardian, and absolutely a recommended listen. You should be able to listen to it here, including outside the UK, but only until mid-week (if you want to keep it for posterity, you don’t need me to tell you how to do that). I’m not even going to begin to write a summary, as Drummond operates at approximately one new idea per second…

John Adams‘ recent autobiography, Hallelujah Junction : Composing An American Life, includes a useful chapter on technology and music (and reveals that his son introduced him to Aphex Twin – what I wouldn’t give to see that collaboration). Reflecting on the evolution of classical music recordings and also the on-stage use of electronic instruments, Adams highlights the difficulties and opportunities of each new technological wave. He’s critical of some aspects of the use of technology in live performance, but also adamant (sorry) that there are advantages to synthesisers, sound design, amplification, microtonal pitches. (Chapter 10, Machine In The Garden).

The New York Times wrote last month about an intriguing little iPhone / iPod Touch application, Tap Tap Revenge. Essentially Dance Dance Revolution with fingers instead of feet (or Guitar Hero without the guitar), I’ve had it for a few months, and seeing it break through to mainstream attention came as a bit of a surprise, as I hadn’t initially thought about it as a significant development. One thing about it that raises a load of policy issues is how the application is being used as a way to promote new music – as well as the preset songs, new songs (along with various tie-ins and promotions) are made available on a regular basis. I’ve discovered a few bands through it, although the quality is a bit up and down (there’s a new electronica-specific one, Tap Tap Dance, that I’ve yet to try, but is obviously more targeted at a particular audience). One debate I have an interest in is the ‘shelfspace’ one that has been an enduring feature of Canadian broadcasting policy – so for example, Canadian music quotas for pop radio in one era becomes a percentage of available and featured titles in video-on-demand systems. Seeing alternative channels open up like this is an interesting way to revisit those questions. It’s also interesting when you see the difficulties that music retail stores (like poor Zavvi) have encountered.

On a personal note: Apple’s decision to go DRM-free, announced at Macworld (nearly two years after Thoughts On Music), is something I’ve waited for for a while. Despite having used an iPod (and a series of Macs) for a long time, my practice has continued to be purchasing CDs (far too many) and format-shifting, in most cases (which the Gowers Review said should be legal, good news to George W Bush of course). I appreciate I’m not the typical consumer here, having an interest in the legal dimension, but DRM-free iTunes is the kind of thing that will have a real, measurable impact on my own purchasing habits.

Next week: Television

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