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Discovering Music In the Digital Age

Filed under: All Articles > Industry News
By: NMK Created on: September 12th, 2005
Bookmark this article with: Delicious Digg StumbleUpon

Music as a consumer product is changing radically in the digital age. Packaging and albums are pass. DAB, P2P, the "long tail" and the iPod shuffle are broadening tastes. Can blogs guide us through the maze, wonders Michael Nutley...

Music as a consumer product is changing radically in the digital age. Packaging and albums are pass. DAB, P2P, the "long tail" and the iPod shuffle are broadening tastes. Can blogs guide us through the maze..?

By Michael Nutley of



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In the few short years since Napster founder Shawn Fanning wrote the code that would earn him the enmity of the recording industry, digital downloading has become the most powerful content distribution mechanism ever seen.

But in parallel with the changes that have seen us swap hi-fidelity for portability in our chosen formats for listening to music, we have made sacrifices for the power of this mechanism. For a start weve lost the packaging, itself already shrunk by the advent of the CD.

And in moving towards a culture where the quantum of music is the track rather than the album, weve made it far more complex to navigate the massive amount of back catalogue material that is becoming available. It was bad enough in the old days when a lack of knowledge of the Rolling Stones oeuvre could mean you ended up with Goats Head Soup rather than Exile On Main Street.

And before you dismiss these as the ramblings of a nostalgic forty-something with too many records, its worth noting the explanation given by the publisher of music magazine Mojo for its latest jump in sales; that teenagers are listening to The Beatles while their parents are listening to Radiohead. As far as music is concerned, the generation gap has closed.

Finding & choosing music in the "Long Tail" retail space

So to put the question another way, when you can listen to anything, how do you choose what to listen to? This is not a trivial matter, since in order to take advantage of the Long Tail effect (that the aggregated value of sales of content outside the best-seller lists is greater than that of the best-sellers), music etailers have to find ways for people to navigate through enormous quantities of material across an ever-widening spectrum of genres.

Some mechanisms already exist, of course. Amazon has pioneered several, most notably its recommendations, its People who bought this also bought and, perhaps most importantly, its reviews written by users.

A similar approach is being tried by TuneTribe, the digital download service launched recently by Tom Findlay of dance act Groove Armada. Interviewed last month in NMA, he held up The Observer Music Monthly as the model for the service, citing their recent feature on art-punk, complete with a list of the 10 art-punk albums you must own, as the type of content he wants to wrap around the basic download service.

And then theres the vision of Michael Bayler, founder of The Rights Marketing Company, who has recently started working with music journalism archive site Rocks Back Pages. He sees an opportunity for download sites to offer reviews and interviews as part of the purchase in order to give context to the music on offer, thus adding value for the consumer and giving a point of differentiation for the etailer.

Peer-filtering in the blogging era

Of course, beyond all this the P2P philosophy that led to digital downloading in the first place is being harnessed to create an alternative marketing structure. One of the many things that blogging can do is act as a filter, a way of navigating the vast quantity of information than now makes up the Internet. You find a blogger whose taste in music coincides with yours, and suddenly youve tapped into a recommendation engine fuelled by every other blogger he links to (and with music its usually a he), every other blogger they link to, and so on.

And of course this doesnt just apply to established acts. New bands that wanted to take advantage of digital downloading to bypass the record labels used to be stymied by their inability to reach potential listeners; the labels still had the marketing clout required to break acts. But now a band simply needs to identify a few key bloggers who will like what they do and are sufficiently well linked-to for the word to spread.

And music, for reasons of file size, is just the most developed market for this model. As broadband penetration grows, the same effect will be seen in all areas of digital content. There are already independent film-makers who are using blogs to market their movies, breaking the domination of both the studios and the distributors. New technology has democratised music-making by putting the tools of the recording studio into a cheap laptop. Now the Internet is making sure people can hear the results.

Michael Nutley is the editor of New Media Age.

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