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1 April 2009

Media in the Age of Digital Media aka The Cloud, The Book, Shirky & Me

Eight years ago (!?!), while freelancing for an unusually open-minded alternative newspaper called LA Weekly, I started on what I imagined as a triumverate of stories about the death of old music media (vinyl, CDs, etc.) and the birth of…something else in the era of the Cloud. I’ll summarize them in more depth below but essentially, the first effort was about Art in the Era of Digital Media, and the second was about Business in the Era of Digital Media. The third article would have to be about Media in the Era of Digital Media, but I have yet to write it.

There are a number of reasons why.

First the positive perspective: I am pretty good with artists and often able to spot progressive musical memes early on; I have a pretty solid business head on my shoulders insofar as I am pragmatic, if not ahead of the curve, about money matters; I am not, however, much of a technology guy. My hope was that someone else more directly involved in high level thought about publishing might write that third article for me.

Now, the bad news: I haven’t found that person or that article quite yet. Rays of light, however, have begun to shine through. As the collapse of old media institutions becomes more and more apparent, more people in the content industries (journalism, academia, publishing) are making credible efforts at writing my theoretical piece — one that roughly explains how media creation and consumption will look in the future. After the jump, I summarize my pieces, then point toward three recent efforts by third parties to sketch out the future!


First to recap my own steez.

My first article, titled “Loving and Leaving the Phonograph,” was published in 2000 and theorized about the death of the superstar in the era kicked off by Napster’s emergence. In its own way, the article focused on what cheap or free access to recorded music meant to the art and career of music making.

The second article, published almost exactly four years later in 2004, was titled “A Small New Future” and struck an even more practical note. It focused on the changes that would occur on the business end of recorded music — essentially noting that organizations focused on recorded music would become smaller and more nimble, and that their A&R decisions would be driven less by clueless corporate decision-making than a dedication to discrete musical communities.

I’m making these articles sound more stern than the actually were. There was plenty of hippie-headed California sunshine threaded through the pieces. i.e.

    It’s easy to blame the degradation of art, or at least the abuse of artists, on the forces of capital. But for the vast majority of the history of the world — from the grunts of cavemen to the dances, jigs and other social musics found on Harry Smith’s Anthology — music has been about community first and commerce second, if at all. The record business has done its best to invert that.

There was also a fair bit of Gimmie Indie Rock cheerleading, e.g.

    …likely we’ll witness the death of the alienated pop star. Musicians will come to better understand the benefits of independent entrepreneurship. They will follow the brave examples of musicians who have already learned to tend their own labels and their own careers. Be it Ani DiFranco and her Righteous Babe label, Fugazi and Dischord, Bad Religion and Epitaph, or Master P and No Limit, there are already successful artists who have proved that fans will go right to the source. A fringe benefit of this is that the musicians can stick to their idiosyncratic sensibilities and keep most of the money for themselves.

Love that hippie-headed shit…which leads me to another reason that third article never came into being. To state it simply, I had a hard time paying the bills with my Nostradamus act. A few years ago I stopped freelancing and began taking a series of jobs that have left me to where I am today — actually attempting to institute some of my ideas about art and commerce in the real world. In one particular case, I have received a comforting degree of public affirmation. Perhaps the new spate of articles I’ve seen indicate to me I should have played fortuneteller a bit longer…


So, here are the three prognostications I’ve come across in the last month. They address three different forms of media, were delivered in three wildly different contexts, and were written by prognosticators belonging to three different generations.

Note that the first two barely address music media in direct fashion. That, however, is what makes them interesting. As the 21st century has rolled along what first seemed an affliction unique to music has revealed itself as one effecting all forms of publishing, from recipes to books to television to the morning paper.

Articles which tangle with the future for any form of media are usually relevant to thinking through what will happen to all other forms of media. Reading these pieces might just help you stop fearing the future.

The Future of Newspapers: Clay Shirky’s “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable
Clay Shirky is a 40something professor at New York University, a writer, and a business consultant who specializes in unpacking the effects of new communication tools — the internet, decentralized social networks, peer-to-peer technology, et. al. i.e. Lots of stuff which sounds way more intimidating than it actually is. Strangely the tools he specializes in are high on utility but very short on clear explication which is, I suspect, how Shirky is able to make a living. His value is in making the workings of these tools more transparent.

In this article self-published on Shirky’s blog, he takes on the newspaper industry, a communication tool that is, conversely, very heavy on explication but seems increasingly low on utility. A sampling of the piece:

    Journalism has always been subsidized. Sometimes it’s been Wal-Mart and the kid with the bike. Sometimes it’s been Richard Mellon Scaife. Increasingly, it’s you and me, donating our time. The list of models that are obviously working today, like Consumer Reports and NPR, like ProPublica and WikiLeaks, can’t be expanded to cover any general case, but then nothing is going to cover the general case.

    Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead…

    For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of revenues. Many of these models will rely on excitable 14 year olds distributing the results. Many of these models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.

Basically, in elegant fashion, Shirky provides a reality check to those who think newspapers equal news. You can quickly apply this to the musical world by realizing that the production of recordings is neither defined by nor exclusive to the world of record companies.

The Future of Book Publishing: Jason Epstein: “Speech given at the 2008 Hong Kong Book Fair [PDF download]
I found this article via a Facebook posting from Ted Weinstein, a literary agent of my acquaintance. The author Jason Epstein, 80, is a considerable dude — co-founder of Anchor Books, the Library of America, and the New York Review of Books, husband of scandalized New York Times reporter Judith Miller. It was delivered at the Hong Kong Book Fair, though the title of the document indicates it was later re-delivered at the Brooklyn Public Library.

Epstein takes the exact opposite tack of Shirky. One, he elevates rather than downplays the importance of the 500 year old industry he has been so closely associated with. i.e.

    With each innovation from mnemonic verse to written language to movable type to digitization the extent of transmission and the range of content have been progressively broadened until now these extensions approach their utmost limits — the limits of earth itself. Gutenberg put the Bible and a few religious texts in the hands of European elite. From the beginning there soon emerged the writers who gave the west its secular, experimental, skeptical, democratic culture, the culture from which our United States was hatched.

Two, he poo-poos the most hyped solution to the publishing industry’s woes, digital readers like Amazon’s Kindle. e.g.

    There is a place in the digital future for handheld electronic readers, comparable perhaps to that for audio devices, but their costs will have to be much reduced and their design simplified before they achieve the economy, durability, portability, and convenience of a printed book, especially for those millions of new readers in tomorrow’s world wide digital marketplace. My guess is that these devices as they evolve will be useful for perishable data and for books not meant to be permanent additions to personal or institutional libraries. The digital world without physical books envisioned by some of our more extreme futurists seems to be me an unlikely and highly undesirable prospect, a misreading of human nature and the nature of books.

Three, he points to a technology he has a direct stake in, print-on-demand publishing, from which he imagines “a world-wide future of widespread literacy in which readers on all continents will one day embrace writers from all cultures as part of a common heritage transcending but not obliterating traditional boundaries and local languages, an unimaginably vast and complex cultural transformation…”

With these three passages Epstein takes quite a different approach from Shirky, who is essentially non-committal about the importance of the past or the shape of the future. Epstein has more vested in the old world, and more skin in the game to come. His point, however, is similar: the desire for and utility of books exists quite apart from the industry which currently creates that utility and slakes that desire. His mode of publication is also simiar to Shirky’s. It can be found on the website of Epstein’s new company OnDemandBooks. There are a number of other speeches and public pronouncements by him there. I haven’t dug in yet but well worth checking out.

The Future of Music: Nicholas Deleon’s “How will The Cloud change the way we think about music ownership?
This third article was written by a reporter/blogger type who is still a college student at NYU. It appeared a week ago on Crunch Gear, a blog in Michael Arrington’s popular TechCrunch Network that focuses on “gadgets, gear and computer hardware.” Yeah so, I’m not really that interested in the source — ooh, what featureset does this week’s latest smartphone have! — but there’s something to be said for a plainly stated article written from the perspective of the young, music media’s target demographic and currently, its most ardent thieves. Deleon is not afraid to come right out and say it:

    It’s like this: we’re right about at the point where most of us have a smartphone or other device that has a reasonably reliable, always-on Internet connection. As such, we’re right about at the point where a service — the aforementioned ones, or perhaps some new one — can came along and say, “Oh hai! You know, instead of taking your iPod with you everywhere you go, why not just connect your phone to our service? We have every song in recorded history in our database (“Cloud”), and they’re all yours, provided you pay us $15 per month. Think about it: every song ever, in the palm of your hands. That sure beats listening to the same MP3s over and over again, right?!”

From Deleon’s perspective the past is nothing to be celebrated. Hell, it’s barely remembered!

    The only thing we have to confront now is the consumer and her listening habits: will they change? Have they already changed? Does Little Stacy, who’s currently in junior high and listens to music via YouTube and Imeem, portend an adult who won’t think of music in terms of CDs and MP3s, but of something that’s “just there,” for lack of a better term? She won’t have a personal music library, in the form of vinyl, CDs, MP3s, FLACs, or whatever; The Cloud will be her library, on which everything ever recorded will reside. The notion of “not having that album” will be totally alien to her; she has everything, always. No, she doesn’t own any of it—it belongs to the record labels, by way of your Rhapsody and Spotify (or whatever) — but it’s always available to her wherever she goes, so why should she care whether or not she “owns” it?

This is typical not only for anything produced by the young, but of anything related to the more pop cultural forms (music, video games) which — statistics be damned — will always be thought of as mediums whose target market is the young.

I’ll leave you with this. For younger people like Deleon — individuals with no memory of the media game as it’s been played in the past — the future is here, right now. If you care to keep up, listen to them.

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

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