Go to this issue's Table of Contents.
"The Heavenly Jukebox," by Charles C. Mann (September 2000)
Recent coverage of the spread of "contraband" music on the Internet has missed some basic points. Chief among them: the fight against Internet piracy is being led by a peculiar and grasping business -- the recording industry -- that should not be allowed to set the rules.
Discuss this article in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.
WEB-ONLY SIDEBAR | September 2000
An e-mail exchange with Cherry Lane Digital's Jim Griffin
In my article, I talk about the dream of what is sometimes called the Heavenly Jukebox -- instant access anywhere and anytime to the whole body of recorded music. This vision, which you've been talking about for longer than anyone, is immensely attractive. But how will it work out from the listener's point of view? If all goes as you hope, how will I listen to music ten or twenty years from now?
Ubiquitous access to digits will lead to ubiquitous access to music, and this transition will be as much psychological as technological. In other words, the shift occurs when we realize and believe we can rely upon ubiquitous access to data to replace the buffers and caches that today represent "option value" over digits in our daily lives. For example, the shift away from cash and travelers checks is dependent more upon the belief, based upon experience, that credit cards and ATMs will deliver money just-in-time and in a customized way than it is dependent upon the reality. The former trails the latter.
As digital users increasingly believe in the ubiquity of the network, they will come to rely upon it for "option value," or the ability to "pull" the audio (and then video) we want, wherever we are, whenever we want it -- as opposed to "push," or content delivered at the instigation of someone else -- and it'll likely come for one flat fee (or "flat free," if sponsored by advertisers, with infinite gradations of choice between fee and "feels free"). In this world of ubiquitous access and "flat fee/free pull," we'll have little need to carry our digits around in discs, memory sticks, or any analog form, and the price of content in packets will reflect its minimal marginal cost of delivery more than would a package-based transaction.
Because audio is especially for the mobile, it must travel to the car, the beach, the basketball court, the gym. It will need a voice interface to make the grand leap to interactive use in the automobile. Given access to pull, we'll often delegate it, bewildered by a bionomic flood of content, much of it previously unavailable due to the weighty costs of distribution. eBay DJs will evolve to offer playlists that guide us through a blizzard of choices competing for our discretionary time.
In a world of unlimited choice, we'll turn to lighthouses that cut through the fog of the marketplace, likely well-financed tastemakers less comfortable with trucks and warehouses but masters at drawing a crowd and serving as gatekeepers to the virally growing throng. In many cases, they'll represent the names and likenesses of our heroes, whoever they may be, because whether from Greek mythology or pop culture, our heroes represent our choices, our defining values, the very pillars of what we call institutions in a hit-driven culture that respects little beyond drawing a crowd.
And that's just how artists will be compensated. Much as we've done with the advance of broadcast from terrestrial to satellites, we'll create pools to compensate artists for the crowd they draw by taxing its value much as do ASCAP/BMI and others garnering payment for publishing to an audience where the quantity and destiny of the content cannot be controlled.
This world of service over product is the only real solution for the transition from analog to digital, from push to pull, in an economy that itself is changing from one of nouns to one of verbs, as John Perry Barlow says.
I'm particularly intrigued by your remarks about "tastemakers" -- people or companies that help listeners sort through the flood of different types of music that will be available. You mentioned that these folks will be "well-financed," but other than that I'm not sure who they will be. Will they effectively act as gatekeepers, in the way that the big record labels do now? Today, the labels sort through the world's unsigned bands in search of music they can promote to audiences overwhelmed by choice. Naturally, the job of these big companies is simpler, and their profits greater, if they can focus attention on a small number of artists -- something that is widely considered to be a problem for music as a whole. Given the way the Net can concentrate attention on just a few winners -- there are thousands of independent bookstores in the real world but only a few online -- how will these tastemakers be different?
They will be different because they can no longer rely upon the size or the might of their distribution network for power. It won't be relationships with record stores, trucks, warehouses, and so forth, that win the day. These cut through the clutter of a friction-based marketplace, but friction-free commerce in art levels not only the playing field but the whole marketplace, as it allows an unlimited radio dial, new entrants into previously restricted video boxes and selectors, an unlimited number of Amazon-like titles, etc. Cutting through the clutter of this marketplace will require more than an incumbent's advantage and more than the incumbents' financial resources. It will require bringing a crowd, and our heroes and well-known artists do that in a way that neither money nor trucks can replace. KROQ rules the Southern California airwaves now, but when the radio dial adds an unlimited number of new stations their advantage begins to disappear, and soon having the name of a powerful artist is more important. In other words, great artists will lead us to great artists.
Do you mean that literally? I'm imagining the way that Kurt Cobain championed the Meat Puppets, or David Byrne promoted the Brazilian avant-gardist Tom Ze, or, for that matter, the way Nietzsche extolled the merits of Wagner (for a while, anyway). Getting the news from the people most likely to know best is an intriguing idea. How would it occur in practice?
In practice, our heroes are our lighthouses. Current heroes introduce us to new ones. Likewise, successful record labels often ride the success of their artists, whose presence makes the label valuable to radio stations and record stores, making it all the easier for the next new artist from that label to achieve the exposure they need to have a chance for success. While I was critical before of the fragility of the brand on an open digital dial, the KROQs of today have an opportunity to transition their audience to the digital domain. The incumbent's window doesn't stay open for long, however.
If you like Peter Gabriel or Fred Durst or Britney Spears, they introduce you to other artists, and the same is true in cosmetics or golf clubs or books or cars or food or the neighborhood we choose.
I find especially intriguing the notion that we make our choices early in life, and that brand switching and taste shifting are less likely as we pass into and beyond our thirties. Attention-grabbing is for the immature, apparently, and it is teenagers and others experiencing life anew who catch the marketing eye. Likewise, developing countries, those yet to make their collective choices, will be the new horizons for media. China, India, Africa -- they will increasingly draw the attention of Procter & Gamble and Palmolive and Gillette, and so they increasingly draw the attention of media-content producers. By the way, these countries are not digging up the streets for interactive data; they are going wireless from the start, with wireless broadband the envy of any survivor of a U.S. DSL or cable-modem installation. In Japan and Finland we're seeing ISDN to the cell-phone handset, with DSL speeds on the short-term deployment schedule.
In an e-mail I just received, the New York Times critic Ann Powers described her hunch that the mainstream music business was evolving "toward a Hong Kong-style approach to stardom, multi-tasking stars who are basically brands themselves selling other brands" -- one thinks of Jackie Chan pulling half a dozen other Hong Kong action stars into the limelight. Meanwhile, she suggested, "all the joyful cacophony" of every other kind of music "will go even broader through [the] alternate means of distribution" that are being created on the Net now. How does that strike you as a summary of where we're going?
It strikes me as the inevitable outcome of the new commons, which will have benefits such as digital ubiquity -- but also downsides, new tragedies of the commons. If everything can find a path to the audience, more things will, with increasing clutter being the result.
Ultimately, however, it is distribution itself that is dying a death at the hands of the just-in-time, hyper-efficient delivery of customized digits that arrive where and when you need them. It is not about new means of distribution, it is about the destruction of distribution, much as digital money is not about carrying it around in different ways but accessing it from wherever you are, whenever you want it.
Distribution represents substitution of judgment, the push not the pull, the product and not the service. This is and should be dying at the hands of empowered end-users, fans, lovers of art. This revolution is for them, and it is in many ways their nuclear power. Will they use it to liberate knowledge and art, growing the crowd as it expands its audience, enriching its gatekeepers and creators in new and more powerful ways?
Or will we use technology to encrypt and condition access to art on one's ability to pay -- or still worse, the ability of a child's parent to pay? Will we work to build still grander, digital libraries, or will we focus on protecting knowledge and predicating access on wealth?
These are our choices, and it's amazing to be alive while we are making them. I thank you for the opportunity to join the discussion, and hope these answers stimulate the debate without seeking to end it.
Return to "The Heavenly Jukebox" (September 2000)
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.