Technology III: Internet distribution

Nowhere does the pace of change and an impending future hit us so squarely as on the Internet. After years of obscurity, it is now embraced enthusiastically by public & commercial interests alike. In many arenas, there is already no turning back, as traditional distribution channels have been fundamentally eroded by Internet businesses. The idea of digital sound finds its destiny with the Internet, as without the more dynamic distribution possibilities, remaining the preserve of specific physical media would have meant relatively few changes to the fundamentals of the musical economy. The convenience is now such that nearly anyone can distribute digital music, whether their own or someone else's, via a web site. The possibilities challenge our ideas on economics, on ownership, and ultimately on art. Like most challenges, this one brings both opportunity and fear. It has motivated these editorials since the start, but it has been a challenge whose implications I have circumscribed with some trepidation. It is time to confront some of the resulting issues more directly, both for their own sake as well as to place related discussion more firmly into context.

The idea that people can receive their music via direct downloading on the Internet is far beyond speculation at this point. Most of this downloading is illicit, but there are also many artists of both greater & lesser renown intentionally offering their music in computer formats such as MP3, as well as distributors making plans to offer their entire catalogs in this fashion. I intend to return to the issue of theft & copyright, but leaving that aside, the economic implications of such a shift remain significant. Whereas more commercially oriented music, i.e. popular music, can transform itself for this environment, the economic standing of art music may be further reduced in spite of a greater ability to reach an audience. The successful model for Internet distribution to this point has been free access to content paid for by advertising revenue. Although some seem not to realize it now, the major recording industry fits nicely into this model. It has popular products whose audience eagerly consumes other popular products, and in fact desirable advertising targets and mainstream music consumers happily coincide. There are therefore limitless opportunities for cobranding between well-known "alternative rock" bands and companies selling real physical products, not to mention straightforward banner advertising on their Internet music servers. There may be some lingering economic fear, but under this scenario, what incentive do fans have to do their downloading at bootleg sites? Very little. That fans will go to other sites to get their music for free is the fear of the industry at present, but once they shift their own economic model, it will not be an issue.

Unfortunately, this model works rather less well for art music, for a couple of major reasons. Not only are its "fans" rather less numerous, by definition, but their other consumption desires tend to be rather less mainstream and profitable as well. In that sense, the marginalization multiplies itself, and is one reason why a simple majority becomes more powerful than raw numbers might indicate. On top of this issue, relentless advertising can undermine the entire premise of "art" in the first place. Advertising has been creeping into nearly everything in recent years, but it seems even more crass and aggressive on the Internet. While the situation is evidently one of which the majority of "consumers" approve, it can easily clash with art. So, the reality is this: Web distributors for downloading art music cannot charge advertisers more, as they often charge CD purchasers, and even if they could, wrapping their product in advertising might destroy it. The web can certainly be a great thing for vanity publishing, or even people who can manage to sustain themselves economically in other ways, but as a medium for exchanging recorded sound, it cannot become particularly profitable for art music. One can argue that the audience for art music will be more willing to pay directly. Perhaps this can work via subscription, or by continuing to sell physical CDs. However, subscription services immediately open themselves to easy bootlegging, and relying on CD revenue in a world of music which is increasingly non-physical places more economic power into the hands of record collectors. Record collectors can have a peculiar group consciousness and be no more amenable to clashing worldviews than advertising executives. The idea of art music as "collected" makes me vaguely uneasy.

The Internet revolution is another case where there may be "only one opportunity" as offhand & deceptively simple decisions lead to consumer expectations becoming conditioned to certain economic scenarios. All the while, these tough decisions must be played out in the midst of the huge inrush of greed which is the "Internet Gold Rush" — as the pioneer spirit (of which I am more a part) is replaced by what is called "consolidating wealth." I recently read the old articles at Sutter's Fort (center of the real California Gold Rush) and found the parallels chilling. The present article has dwelt primarily on the "business Internet" rather than on its purely artistic potential. Among the more inhuman possibilities, Internet connections provide at least some opportunity for sharing & consequently for ritual which listening to CDs in total isolation cannot. Fundamentally, the possibilities of communication have been expanded, a fact which can only be good as long as it does not come at the expense of real human contact. Beyond that, the Internet confuses the entire idea of collections & catalogs, as there cannot be even a semblance of having a single list of recordings or arrangements which are or have been in print for much longer. As an editor, the prospect is intimidating, but it may mean a new freedom for art. As businesses find art music increasingly unprofitable, it may actually undergo a Renaissance, but one whose potential must be realized quickly. I will return to this central topic after discussing some related preliminaries, as well as some unrelated topics neglected of late.

To TMM Editorial index.

Todd M. McComb