Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source

The Music Business and the Big Flip

First published January 21, 2003 on the 'Networks, Economics, and Culture' mailing list.
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The first and last thirds of the music industry have been reconfigured by digital tools. The functions in the middle have not.

Thanks to software like ProTools and CakeWalk, the production of music is heavily digital. Thanks to Napster and its heirs like Gnutella and Kazaa, the reproduction and distribution of music is also digital. As usual, this digitization has taken an enormous amount of power formerly reserved for professionals and delivered it to amateurs. But the middle part -- deciding what new music should be available -- is still analog and still professionally controlled.

The most important departments at a record label are Artists & Repertoire, and Marketing. A&R's job is to find new talent, and Marketing's job is to publicize it. These are both genuinely hard tasks, and unlike production or distribution, there is no serious competition for those functions outside the labels themselves. Prior to its demise, Napster began publicizing itself as a way to find new music, but this was a fig leaf, since users had to know the name of a song or artist in advance. Napster did little to place new music in an existing context, and the current file-sharing networks don't do much better. In strong contrast to writing and photos, almost all the music available on the internet is there because it was chosen by professionals.

Aggregate Judgments

The curious thing about this state of affairs is that in other domains, we now use amateur input for finding and publicizing. The last 5 years have seen the launch of Google, Blogdex, Kuro5in, Slashdot, and many other collaborative filtering sites that transform the simple judgments of a few participants into aggregate recommendations of remarkably high quality.

This is all part of the Big Flip in publishing generally, where the old notion of "filter, then publish" is giving way to "publish, then filter." There is no need for Slashdot's or Kuro5hin's owners to sort the good posts from the bad in advance, no need for Blogdex or Daypop to pressure people not to post drivel, because lightweight filters applied after the fact work better at large scale than paying editors to enforce minimum quality in advance. A side-effect of the Big Flip is that the division between amateur and professional turns into a spectrum, giving us a world where unpaid writers are discussed side-by-side with New York Times columnists.

The music industry is largely untouched by the Big Flip. The industry harvests the aggregate taste of music lovers and sells it back to us as popularity, without offering anyone the chance to be heard without their approval. The industry's judgment, not ours, still determines the entire domain in which any collaborative filtering will subsequently operate. A working "publish, then filter" system that used our collective judgment to sort new music before it gets played on the radio or sold at the record store would be a revolution.

Core Assumptions

Several attempts at such a thing have been launched, but most are languishing, because they are constructed as extensions of the current way of producing music, not alternatives to it. A working collaborative filter would have to make three assumptions.

First, it would have to support the users' interests. Most new music is bad, and the users know it. Sites that sell themselves as places for bands to find audiences are analogous to paid placement on search engines -- more marketing vehicle than real filter. FarmFreshMusic, for example lists its goals as "1. To help artists get signed with a record label. 2. To help record labels find great artists efficiently. 3. To help music lovers find the best music on the Internet." Note who comes third.

Second, life is too short to listen to stuff you hate. A working system would have to err more on the side of false negatives (not offering you music you might like) rather than false positives (offering you music you might not like). With false negatives as the default, adventurous users could expand their preferences at will, while the mass of listeners would get the Google version -- not a long list of every possible match, but rather a short list of high relevance, no matter what has been left out.

Finally, the system would have to use lightweight rating methods. The surprise in collaborative filtering is how few people need to be consulted, and how simple their judgments need to be. Each Slashdot comment is moderated up or down only a handful of times, by only a tiny fraction of its readers. The Blogdex Top 50 links are sometimes pointed to by as few as half a dozen weblogs, and the measure of interest is entirely implicit in the choice to link. Despite the almost trivial nature of the input, these systems are remarkably effective, given the mass of mediocrity they are sorting through.

A working filter for music would similarly involve a small number of people (SMS voting at clubs, periodic "jury selection" of editors a la Slashdot, HotOrNot-style user uploads), and would pass the highest ranked recommendations on to progressively larger pools of judgment, which would add increasing degrees of refinement about both quality and classification. Such a system won't undo inequalities in popularity, of course, because inequality appears whenever a large group expresses their preferences among many options. Few weblogs have many readers while many have few readers, but there is no professional "weblog industry" manipulating popularity. However, putting the filter for music directly in the hands of listeners could reflect our own aggregate judgments back to us more quickly, iteratively, and with less distortion than the system we have today.

Business Models and Love

Why would musicians voluntarily put new music into such a system?

Money is one answer, of course. Several sorts of businesses profit from music without needing the artificial scarcity of physical media or DRM-protected files. Clubs and concert halls sell music as experience rather than as ownable object, and might welcome a system that identified and marketed artists for free. Webcasting radio stations are currently forced to pay the music industry per listener without extracting fees from the listeners themselves. They might be willing to pay artists for music unencumbered by per-listener fees. Both of these solutions (and other ones, like listener-supported radio) would offer at least some artists some revenues, even if their music were freely available elsewhere.

The more general answer, however, is replacement of greed with love, in Kevin Kelly's felicitous construction. The internet has lowered the threshold of publishing to the point where you no longer need help or permission to distribute your work. What has happened with writing may be possible with music. Like writers, most musicians who work for fame and fortune get neither, but unlike writers, the internet has not offered wide distribution to people making music for the love of the thing. A system that offered musicians a chance at finding an audience outside the professional system would appeal to at least some of them.

Music Is Different

There are obvious differences here, of course, as music is unlike writing in several important ways. Writing tools are free or cheap, while analog and digital instruments can be expensive, and writing can be done solo, while music-making is usually done by a group, making coordination much more complex. Furthermore, bad music is far more painful to listen to than bad writing is to read, so the difference between amateur and professional music may be far more extreme.

But for all those limits, change may yet come. Unlike an article or essay, people will listen to a song they like over and over again, meaning that even a small amount of high-quality music that found its way from artist to public without passing through an A&R department could create a significant change. This would not upend the professional music industry so much as alter its ecosystem, in the same way newspapers now publish in an environment filled with amateur writing.

Indeed, the world's A&R departments would be among the most avid users of any collaborative filter that really worked. The change would not herald the death of A&R, but rather a reconfiguration of the dynamic. A world where the musicians already had an audience when they were approached by professional publishers would be considerably different from the system we have today, where musicians must get the attention of the world's A&R departments to get an audience in the first place.

Digital changes in music have given us amateur production and distribution, but left intact professional control of fame. It used to be hard to record music, but no longer. It used to be hard to reproduce and distribute music, but no longer. It is still hard to find and publicize good new music. We have created a number of tools that make filtering and publicizing both easy and effective in other domains. The application of those tools to new music could change the musical landscape.

First published January 21, 2003 on the 'Networks, Economics, and Culture' mailing list.
Subscribe to the mailing list. Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source