The music industry is in a state of change. For 99% of history, music was experienced WITH visual – you were there, it was live, you could see it happening – then for the last 100 years it could be recorded, so there was a disconnect. Now it seems there is an almost total disconnect – you experience nothing via an ipod, so how do we contextualise our understanding of the music, and does it matter?

It’s been said that the most important, innovative companies in music are now Apple, Yahoo, Microsoft et al. These organisations create significant elements of the contemporary music experience. (Naughton 2005)

For some, this means that they can do without the major labels. “I’m advocating for artists we manage not to sign–or re-sign–with a label unless it’s a pressing-and-distribution deal to work back catalog with new projects. ” Says Terry McBride, CEO of Nettwerk Management’s, whose 42-act roster includes stars Avril Lavigne (Sony BMG) and Dido (Sony BMG), as well as lesser-known acts. (LeBlanc 2006)

Research in the US shows that Internet adoption is slowing, but broadband take up is growing at a great pace. A recent Nielsen/NetRatings report found that the number of active U.S. broadband Internet users increased 28% from February 2005 to February 2006 to 95.5 million. That’s 68% of active Internet users today. With the rise of broadband comes a parallel increase in the amount of time spent on the Web and the amount of content accessed while doing so. Since February 2003, the average time spent online has increased five hours per month to 30.5, according to Nielsen. (Bruno 2006)

Dan Hill, a London based Designer for the BBC Music division has put together some very perceptive, and interesting papers regarding the state of music at the moment on his website “City of Sound” He states that the new Music environment effects music in a variety of ways:

1) Discovery

Where jpurnalists, critics, and radio hosts, dominated music discussion for decades. On radio, DJs like John Peel filtered the hundreds of releases from the music industry and provided an authoritative, critical voice for listeners eager to discover new tunes. These figures became seen almost as ‘benovolent seers’, helping to make and break thousands of musicians for a large, grateful mass audience. Now this journalism is joined by thousands of new entrants, mimicing aspects of their functionality yet proliferating wildly in form, range and quality. Particularly the mp3 blogs phenomenon, in which we see some of the best writing about music online is coming from non-professional journalists

Where once we had A&R people who ‘discovered’ the next big artists, we have discovery through distributed, software-based systems like peer-to-peer filesharing.

“In terms of good old-fashioned acquisition we have, of course, seen an explosion of online retail opportunities around music, many of which have incorporated some of these distributed discovery features to aid recommendations for purchase”

“These patterns include sound samples as a preview, album art, rating of albums, ability to leave comments, as well as the more complex ‘collaborative filtering’-style recommendations – “if you like this, you might also like this” – aggregated from millions of users’ buying patterns.”

“So these broad shifts can, as in so many areas of culture, be crudely characterised as a movement away from ‘top-down’, single voice, broadcasted, edited, authoritarian models towards a more heterogenous, software-based, networked organisation of information, constructed in emergent fashion from a multiplicity of voices. A crude over-simplification but not without merit. Music discovery is now an incredibly rich, complex terrain in which intelligence moves to the edges rather than the centre. This movement could enable a richer, more beneficial model for music discovery, but only if the software and systems driving these discussions is carefully implemented – calibrated with specific knowledge of the subject area – in order to facilitate a richer experience around music.”

2) Experience

“From the late-1930s, recorded phonography was generally experienced within close proximity to something known as the record sleeve. For half a century, listeners had to effectively ‘move through’ the vinyl’s cardboard sleeve, traversing an increasingly rich experience of representational and abstract photography, surrounded expressive liner notes … and what we’d now call metadata.”

Some examples. Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man sleeve, featuring the additional fold-up flap built into the sleeve, apparently merely to accommodate Marvin’s fine flares and shoes.

And designers found ways to create rich experiences around cds

(Images by Dan Hill)

Hill contests that while the future of digital music might be richly evocative, the present implementations are “vapid to say the least”. “Artist website and digital music stores are both unconnected to the music experience (despite the apparently close integration within iTunes). With albums, the listener would hold the sleeve in one hand and place the needle on the record with the other…..the physical experience is shifting quite radically”

Comparatively, with today’s music experience environment, we see a shift away from the music towards devices and services. In iTunes, there are only expressive visuals in the context of a ‘sell’. With the iPod Shuffle, there is no visual at all, no screen to display any contextual information whatsoever. Whilst it’s a fascinating, useful device, in terms of conveying context, knowledge, learning or the most basic information about what one is listening to, it has nothing to offer.

Overall, we can note an increasing separation of context from experience, via either a diminution or complete absence of a physical interaction or visual and textual information around music.

But if we’re seeing a shift away from traditional music experience hardware, and the physical artifacts around music, we’re also seeing a shift towards a new kind of contextual music experience; an experience which is software-based and increasingly social.

3) Impact on the form of music.

Context is beginning to fade away. Many digital “systems rely on accurate metadata, aka contextual information around music, it’s surprising how little flexibility or accuracy or general importance is attributed to metadata itself. This is a particularly acute problem for those genres, often non-mainstream, in which contextual information is most vital and most detailed.”

“On the record inlay alone, we learn the names of all the players in the band and what they played; who composed it; and if the genre is there, what particular sub-genre of jazz it is associated with; which label it’s on; with further implicit information conveyed by the graphic design. On the sleeve, as noted previously, one would learn where it was recorded, who the producer was, as well liner notes and cover art etc. In a music like jazz, or classical, folk, blues, avant-garde – essentially most non-mainstream music – this contextual information provides an architecture of knowledge upon which listeners can discover new music. It’s relevant who the bass player is. It’s relevant who produced it. It’s relevant where it was recorded, when it was recorded, on which label. There are numerous facets around information architecture for music – some noted here. The average mp3 – which is limited in its ID3 fields to artist, track, album name – has none of this information.”

How music is represtented is also being diminished – itunes, for example displays all music with the same bland font. None of the contextual things we latch onto when we look through a CD collection.

In order to make the user experience better, Hill even reccommends the importance of ethnographic user research in order to construct rich models of cultural fields, as part of the product design proces. Despite all the focus on a business model seemingly under threat, there is more to music than the music industry. Hill believes that when we “synthesise the metadata with the data, the experience with the context, in ways which reinforce and enhance both. We can truly enrich “the social ritual of music”. Recent qualitative research commissioned by the BBC finds an increased sense of inquisitiveness and acquisitiveness for music, certainly amongst the UK population. I’d suggest that interest in music has only increased thanks to the extraordinary creativity in these new distributed discovery and listening music experiences. ” and concludes that “We must not lose a deep, personal, visceral, physical and intellectual connection with music and the context around music, for everyday people as well as fans, academics and musicians.”

Colin Buttimer has concerns around the loss of visual representation, or accompaniment perhaps, due the ‘disembodied’ experience of iPods, iTunes etc stating that “ur experience of music and books is synaesthetically mediated by cover design, layout, typeface, etc. iTunes and its equivalents are organisational tools not presentation tools. Did a music lover design iTunes? iTunes standardises the experience of the music it organises, in so doing it sucks out the vitality from the transaction, enforcing a form of clinical vampirism which leaves only a pale and dessicated corpse for the eye to behold”(Buttimer 2006)

One possible avenue is the development of tunebooks – digital liner notes that accompany an album downloaded from the iTunes Music Store. “The TuneBook contains cover art, lyrics, pictures, band notes, posters, and other perks that are currently missing from the digital music scene.” (ipodnews, 2005)

Tom Vanderbilt writes on Design Observer , lamenting the disappearance of the rock logo, and what this means in terms of identification with bands.

“The disappearing logo might just be the canary in the coal mine signifying the dematerialization of music. Sure, there are little JPEGs on iTunes that depict album covers, but the proliferation of digitally acquired music and the rise of “playlist culture” is a threat not only to the idea of an album as a coherent body of work, but the album (in CD or whatever form) as a package. The shift from album to CD represented meant the artist’s canvas was reducing in size to less than a quarter of its original, and now, to essentially nothing. My iPod is filled with songs by artists whose album covers I have never even seen, who I know only by iPod font, so I would not even know if they had a logo, or any visual identity whatsoever. A few months ago, a leading designer, who has done some exemplary record packaging, told me, “the music business at the moment is really not the business you would want to be in, neither as a musician or a designer. The medium is changing so incredibly, and nobody really knows if music packaging is really going to be around in a few years.” When I asked an art director at a record company what the future of album cover design was, his answer was simple: “It’s disappearing. That’s what the future is … And the covers of kids notebooks — what do they hold now? What will they hold tomorrow? Maybe it would be better if they were not drawing logos. My Middle School grades were terrible.” (Vanderbilt 2005)

Bruno A “Web Adoption Slows, Broadband Grows.” Billboard; 4/15/2006, Vol. 118 Issue 15

Buttimer C “Interfacing with Music in the Digital Age” February 30, 2004

Hill D “new Musical Experiences” 30 April 2006

Ipodnews “ releases first full TuneBook” December 1, 2005

LeBlanc L, “Nettwerk Making Each Act A Label” Billboard, 00062510, 4/15/2006, Vol. 118, Issue 15

Naughton J “How Apple saved the music biz” The Observer February 13, 2005

Vanderbilt T “The Rise and Fall of Rock and Roll Graphic Design” February 14, 2005


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