This Article Originally Published July 1999
by Michael Laskow
I had dinner a couple of weeks ago with a gentleman who is considered to be one of the foremost experts on how the Internet will affect the future of the music business. Nice guy. Very smart guy. But smart as he is, he's wrong about one thing.
His vision of the future goes something like this; First, bandwidth (the amount of data that can be shoved through a wire, or a channel on a satellite) will increase rapidly. He's right about that. You don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure that out. It's already happening. Cable companies are starting to give people high speed access to the Internet. A new technology called DSL is making it possible for high speed connections through the phone lines you already have in your home.
His vision also includes some really big, fat wires (the backbone), carrying dizzying amounts of data. As that happens, Moore's law kicks in, and the price of high-speed access will drop dramatically. Agreed.
As the entrees hit the table, my dinner companion continued. He thinks that the increased bandwidth will make it possible for consumers to get music on demand. In other words, any song you want, at any time you want. I think he's right. That could very well result in the de-commoditization of music. At present, music is something you buy to own. But why physically own it if you can just "get" it any time you want it? Sounds believable, even logical.
But here's the part that had me wondering if my dinner companion had a couple too many olives in his martini. He's convinced that as bandwidth becomes cheaper and more available, the supply of music will become almost infinite. Okay, we're seeing evidence of that now. He thinks that as that happens, "the filter on the front end of the pipe will disappear, and be transplanted to the back end."
Let me translate. He's saying that as the music industry exists right now, record companies act as front-end filters, bringing consumers only the music that the labels feel has a high probability of commercial success. That's understandable. They have a finite amount of resources, and can't afford to sign everything under the sun. After all, they're in business to make a profit.
Futureboy thinks that the public will become the so-called filter when any and all music is available to all people. I can hear the cheering now. "No more A&R weasels deciding if the public gets to decide if they like my music!" "No more radio programmers pushing that crap down the throats of the American public!" Understandable feelings.
Reality check. How many hours of television do you watch during a given week? How many of those hours are spent watching the Public Access channel? Not Public Television (Sesame Street, Barney, et al). I'm talking about Public Access, the channel that the FCC mandates for all common cable carriers.
You know the channel I'm talking about. You've probably eliminated it from your TV's channel memory, and long forgotten that it even exists. It's the channel that any nutball can go on to express his or her religious or political views. I've seen really bad singer-songwriters standing in front of a microphone singing really terrible songs. I've seen really terrible modern dancers. I've seen ranters and ravers. But I don't remember ever making it through more than a couple of minutes of "programming." Have you?
Let's take a moment and admit to ourselves that the "unfiltered" world of entertainment may only be entertaining because it's so unbelievably bad. It's a curio that quickly grows tiresome.
There's no doubt that we like choice. But we're picky. We only want to choose from the best. Humans of all shapes, sizes, colors and creeds like quality. While the record companies may over-filter, filters still appear to be necessary.
Which of these would you choose? Getting in your car and having an unlimited number of radio stations to choose from that all have unfiltered music ranging from absolutely terrible to sure-fire hits, or an unlimited number of stations that are aggregated by genre or mixed genres, and play music that ranges from possible hits to sure-fire hits? Unless you're a masochist, the latter seems to be the wise choice.
Who would have the time or patience to listen to thousands of mediocre or terrible songs to find the hidden gems?
Part of what will make the future of music more interesting is that narrowing the focus while giving more choice will only be a good thing for music makers and music buyers. If you love ukulele music, you'll be able to find it at ukulele music.com. If you like bagpipes, you'll be able to quickly find the digital station that features them. If you're frustrated that no record companies will sign, and no radio stations will play your gothic flute music, lament no more. Big, fast digital pipes that foster the growth of tiny little niches are coming our way soon. And I see that as a very good thing for all of us.