Future Digital Music Distribution and Production

1st September 2004 @ 10:42 pm
Music, Technology, Ideas, Future and Thoughts
This seems like a good place to park some notes I've made on where I think the music industry should be headed. There's a long article or three hidden in there somewhere, but I'm not ready to write it yet.

General trends. Wherever I get my music, be it from a brick and mortar outlet, an online store, or direct from an artist or label I need the following qualities:

Retailers. They should be fixated by choice, but also by managing choice. Distribution is now easy, even high-street shops should be able to provide anything I want, instantly. I should never have to order, and wait. They could download the data, burn a CD and print the packaging in 5 minutes - so why don't they? Why don't black-market independent shops do this from iTunes or Napster - or do they already? If Amazon have a rich database full of recommendation material, why don't HMV or Virgin? Shouldn't I be able to pick up a CD, and find out what else I might like (maybe put it on a recommendation shelf, based on a barcode scan or something)?

Venues. All of them should be recording and distributing every performance, subject to artist approval of course. I know that instant post-gig CDs are in the works (and patent encumbered I believe) but that will only happen in the worst corporate-sell-out kind of a way, I'm sure. And only at the level where every show sounds the same, says the cynic in me.

Artists. They should be making their work available across the full spectrum - not just album tracks but also live/rehearsal/demo/acoustic/rare. They have the authority and sources of depth I was talking about earlier. Bands like Sigur Rós have already demonstrated online liner notes (onliner notes?) are viable with their untitled album, ( ), even if it was in the pursuit of absolute minimalism (no words, no titles, no stickers on the box...). Artists are aware that a loyal fanbase will pay for new material, especially if they get it first (before the radio, before the magazines and reviewers even).

Studios. Studios should be digital-distribution aware. Sound engineers should be too. It's the norm now for amateur and unsigned bands leave the studio with CDRs and immediately encode it at home to send to friends and promote online. Why don't the studios invest in professional quality encoders and use their mastering and mix-down knowhow to provide a range of good quality digital formats, optimised for the music in question? Ditto the standalone mastering people. Ditto CD pressing plants, who should be able to do mixed-mode CDs with a range pre-encoded tracks for sharing (free promotion).

Pricing. It's occasionally mooted that artists should give away recordings and make money touring. That's a poor excuse if people are willing to pay for recorded music, and we know they are. Artists will suffer from the volume and choice of alternatives, so the cost per track must come down. Actually, the cost per track must come down if iPod buyers are to be able to afford to fill their iPod. Likewise, if people want to pay per play, the cost must be negligable. Of course, steadily lowered prices reach a limit eventually. Unfortunately, that limit isn't 0, download fans. As cost-per-song reduces, it tends to a collective/blanket license. Otherwise there's no money in the system, and artists don't get paid. So, how should a compulsory license be paid? Could it be a digital music player tax? (Wasn't there a licensing levy on blank media?) Or should it be opt-in? (Wasn't there once a license which allowed people to record music from the radio in the UK?)

Fairness. The popularity of artists suffers from a power-law distribution, I'm sure. Should the proceeds from license fees use that distribution exactly, or should we work to flatten the distribution (progressive tax, in effect)? Are Britney Spears, Robbie Williams, Madonna and the Rolling Stones capable of making up the difference using the gravity provided by their own mega-brands? What about Elvis? Is making excuses for weighting towards the little guy the same as saying that artists should give away music and tour to make up the difference?