6 October 02003

Making and Listening to Music in the Future

Listening to a two-and-a-half-year-old BBC radio programme about the future of music, I was struck by two things. Firstly, how slowly predictions about the future of music are either evolving or being realised — because this programme could have been made anytime in the last five or six years. Secondly, how little is being said about the experience of making and listening music.

In a perverse turnaround, the 'bad old' record labels now have lots of people focusing attention on what they do, and getting hung up about how we obtain and pay for music, when hardly anyone really bothered or cared before. Meanwhile what's happening to music itself is more subtle, but much more interesting.

It would also be refreshing if the occasional genuine insights you get in these programmes did not always come from Brian Eno. Via the useful supplementary resources for the main programme, for example, Eno speculates how the end of existing forms of copyright regulations might trigger the end of a certain kind of art (direct link to this clip). Whether or not you buy his suggestion — that future music 'product' might use generative technologies so you don't just here a reproduction of the same thing each time you play it — at least this shifts the debate onto the aesthetics of music production.

In another clip Eno suggests that people may stop thinking of themselves as just making music albums, as the music element becomes only a smaller proportion of the total package. By this he doesn't seem to mean just your standard 1990s concept of 'multimedia content', like his own (disowned) Headcandy CD-ROM. His example in the interview is more akin to an accompaniment to the music that educates, augments the music and enriches the experience of listening to it: something like a book! In my particular frame of reference, this ties in with other postings I've written about 'companion' pieces for books and visual arts.

Playing music is more often than not a collaborative activity (practising aside). Peter Gabriel is optimistic about possibilities for online musical collaborations in this clip, at least as a means of saving on air fares between face-to-face jamming sessions. But where Gabriel thinks the glass is half full, Brian Eno thinks it's almost completely empty. Eno says that he's heard no good work come out of Internet collaborations, and argues that the aesthetic pay-off from new technologies rarely comes from doing the same thing in a different way (and Gabriel and he agree that musical collaborations are invariably better when done in the same room), but from doing different things that you couldn't do before.

A long, long time ago, I nearly invested a good whack of money with a company that was developing online jamming technologies for musicians. I'd like to claim that I was wise and prescient not to have gone through with the deal, but actually it was the other side that got cold feet.

Eno aside, the lengthy video interview with Michael Nesmith is the most interesting among the other programme resources. Nesmith's account of the rights and wrongs of futurologists' projections is thoughtful if a little rambling in places. It's tinged with Californian ideology, but, possibly as a result, Nesmith is prepared to talk about abstract values and spirituality.

Going back to the boring old music business for a moment, it looks as though the whole 'downloads are killing music' ruckus is just about doing the same things in different ways. As such, it's no surprise that it all comes down to price and convenience. It's actually more convenient to get Middlemarch as a book in the Wordsworth Classic version for £1.50, and even pay extra for delivery, than to download it, bearing in mind you'll probably have to print some or all of it for convenience and portability. (The Amazon e-book version of Middlemarch costs £2.11!) Similarly DVDs of classic films, often available for £5-10, make more sense in that format than clogging up a hard disk. If it were as ergonomically inconvenient to listen to music downloads as it currently is to read books or watch films on a computer screen, then we might have been spared the ruckus in the first place.

Meanwhile it's unsurprising that a quieter change has crept into a different part of the business, as the model pioneered by Fopp has become widely copied in music retailing. Fopp sell many classic albums — everything from Miles Davis' best known works to Pet Sounds and recent Mercury Prize winners — for £5-7. I'd rather have What's Going On in a handy CD-shaped package for a fiver than be bothered downloading it (although, in fact, I have it in an HMV deluxe version, with large booklet, for which I paid a bit more).

Part of me thinks that pre-recorded music is now too convenient and accessible. It becomes disposable. Do you know how many people download mp3 files and then forget or delete them without ever listening to them? No, nor do I; but I bet it's a frightening amount. And having music so ubiquitously accessible so that you choose your own soundtrack to buying groceries affects the quality of your listening. It must do. The relationship I have with the first 50 albums I bought, painstakingly selected over years, was and remains intimate. In 2002 alone, I bought over 150 albums. I'm ashamed to say this, but some of them I know so intimately that I'm in danger of buying them again because I forget that I've already got them at home.

Copyright note: while the text of this article is covered by this site's Creative Commons license, the BBC pages and sound files referenced by the article are covered by BBCi Terms of Use.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Future of Music, Music and Multimedia on 6 October 02003 | TrackBack
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