Imminent Flexibility and the Music Industry: An Overture

Tim Anderson's picture

I just finished my first semester teaching a music industry course since 2000 with the experience being simultaneously sobering and dizzying. First and foremost, I am privileged to be teaching in a city like Norfolk and at an institution like Old Dominion. Located as we are in the Hampton Roads region, home of Clipse, Pharrell, birthplace of Missy Elliott and Ella Fitzgerald, the area has no shortage of talent or ambition. A number of my students know producers, have budding music careers and are working with a variety of media sources. Honestly, this was unexpected and it speaks to best aspects of this region, a set of port cities dominated by military presences, nautical histories and a genuine blend of America musical traditions including Jazz, R&B, Country, Rock and Hip-Hop. And like other State schools I have attended and worked with, the students know their music cold. Unlike private schools that offer exclusivity and, as a result, tend to have limited music options, a school like ODU, often considered a “commuter school”, has an almost super-collider atmosphere when it comes to culture, class and ambition. High, low and all over the place, the class kept me challenged in ways that I could have never imagined given where I had taught before.

And while I came to the class already determined to write a book on the changes in the music industry, particularly around issues of labor, technology and mediation (sound familiar?), the experience in this class has simply changed how I think I need to go about this project for four specific reasons. And they are…

Reason number one: Because institutional knowledge is still necessary to understand how and why the music industry is changing, any description of change must start with those institutions and the functionaries that existed and, in some cases, dominated before the rise of P2P nets and the de facto standard of the MP3 became the norm. True, labels are collapsing. Also true, your local Sam Goody has closed. However, PROs , IP law, Consumer Electronic Firms, Music Supervisors, Marketers and Management are, arguably, more important than they were before the rise of Napster, iPods, iTunes, et. al. All of these elements of the music industry existed before and they demand to be highlighted and understood before announcement of “revolution” takes place. For my students this was best highlighted by the fact that discussions about aspects such as record contracts clauses regarding royalty recoupment, the purpose of an organization such as BMI and the basics of copyright duration bore the most stimulating discussions. In other words, what I thought students would find the “dryest” made them even more invested. My research will need to appreciate that facet.

Reason number two:  The metaphor of distribution must change from “gates” and “gatekeepers” to “assemblies” and “community members”. Throughout the 21st century media studies developed a number of ways to talk about power in distribution, with the most prevalent manner of discussing it in terms of gates through which products must pass and a gatekeeper who allows the product to become apparent to the public by passing through the gate. In the music industry the number one gate has been radio airplay and the number one gatekeeper being  the program director. The importance of this is simple: music like all other media are experience goods and, unlike commodities, depend on some sort of “experience” before it is purchased, rented, etc. This can come in the form of hearing a song, hearing someone talk about a song, reading a review, etc. There are a number of variations on this theme, but in every case controlling the access to the “experience channel” provides major labels/media conglomerates with a significant competitive advantage. While the rise of multiple Internet tools has reduced some of these advantages, these still remain. What these tools have brought forth are interest/experience communities with significant reach. In short, what was once contained in local communities (albeit, often coordinated and/or affiliated with a national organization such as a fan club, society, etc.), the multiple in-synch and asynchronous tools that compose “Web 2.0” push these tools into prominence where the term “community” “assembles”. I will talk more about this since this is where we see prominent concerns of distribution begin to congeal for multiple players (in many ways they already have). As our metaphors change so do the stories we tell. And as the stories change so must our analytical focus and research methods.

Reason three: stop studying new technologies and study long-term social behaviors. This seems like a big duh, however we need to relax our focus on what technologies enable and think more about how they allow what has been latent to come to the fore. Social networking is a good place to start as the social network in the music industry has always been crucial to the creative process. However, no involved one ever called these social formations “networks”. They have been known as “scenes” and “genres”, both of which continue to exist as vital formations. In fact, one could argue that the networked computer has only intensified these social orders and activities. Logically this means that the best way to investigate this is to examine how these aspects of music culture have always been integral elements of the creative process, instead of as sources of talent that can simply be signed and mined. This goes back to understanding the elements of the community and how they assemble themselves and demands a rethinking of industrial practices to follow suit. All of sudden the work of musicologists must come to the forefront of our media studies reading lists as they contain an understanding of the many social practices that compose and configure our new media ecosystems.

Honestly there are many more I will pose here. But unlike the last book, I want to research a good portion of this in public. This is fourth and final reason things need to change. Clearly when I was writing my first book Blogs were simply LiveJournal, there were no “Wikis” and GeoCities was in its prime. Yes, a lot has changed, but I think that it isn’t so much a need to collaborate that will drive my need to post blog after blog as I write and research this project (although I look forward to any help and comments). Instead, I simply think that we need to share more, expose ourselves more to critique and commentary and this is the forum. I have blogged before but never with a specific research agenda. I can hardly wait and I hope you, the readers, will allow me to tap your insights, wisdom and questions for all that they are worth. And, as I already know, they are worth a lot.