Has Technology Changed the Experience of Music?


"No one knows what the future of the music business will look like, but the near future of listening to music looks a lot like 1960," Sasha Frere-Jones writes. "People will listen, for free, to music that comes out of a stationary box that sits indoors."

Downloadable music files, online radio stations, streaming on-demand song libraries, iPods with mixes ... the music industry hasn't undergone a single tsunami. It's faced a Roland Emmerichian onslaught of natural forces that changed the way we listen to music forever. But are these technologies uprooting or upholding the experience of music, itself?

It's easy to argue that technology's force has been disruptive. The music industry's profits have fallen by 60 percent in the last decade. You know why. When music was made of polyvinyl chloride (aka vinyl), it was hard to steal. Once it could be turned into a file, the price for many listeners fell to zero. Downloading and file sharing services from Napster to bittorrent create an ether market where the cost of gaining ownership of music is equal to the cost of an Internet connection.

The impact on the music industry's bottom line is clear enough, but what about the impact on listeners? Half a century ago, the overwhelming choice was to buy and listen to whole albums. Today iTunes, the largest music store in the country, sells individual tracks that listeners can mix and mash in personal audio-collages. (I listen to a lot more mixes than albums, and even when I listen to albums, I find the songs through mixes.) We, the listeners, now exert much more control than original artists over the narrative of our musical experience.

But there is something sweet about the serendipity of catching a song you love without having ordered it to play. So we often choose, as we have for decades, to outsource control over music's narrative to a machine. For decades, that machine was called "the radio." Increasingly, our radios are our computers. The online radio station Pandora boasts 50 million users streaming music for an average of 11 hours a month. Pandora creates radio based on artists and uses an algorithm to find songs that share the characteristics of those artists' music.

Is Pandora the perfect work companion? You bet. But is it revolutionary? Maybe not. In a way, Pandora simply narrows the scope of radio. Top-40 stations already a sometimes mind-numbingly narrow type of music; ditto classic rock and indie stations. Pandora doesn't change the ball game. It makes the ball game better, using personalization to focus the laser beam to play music that belongs together but also surprises.

On the one hand, every bit of technology forwards the relentless personalization of the music experience. On the other hand, we still cherish the choice to be surprised. Yesterday was vinyl and public radio. Today is bites and personal stations. As Frere-Jones puts: "Sometimes we will be the d.j.s, and sometimes the machines will be, and we may be surprised by which we prefer."

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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