Discovering Music In the Digital Age

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

By Michael Nutleyof

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In the few short years since Napster founder ShawnFanning wrote the code that would earn him the enmity of therecording industry, digital downloading has become the mostpowerful content distribution mechanism ever seen.

But in parallel with the changes that have seen us swaphi-fidelity for portability in our chosen formats for listeningto music, we have made sacrifices for the power of thismechanism. For a start we’ve lost the packaging, itself alreadyshrunk by the advent of the CD.

And in moving towards a culture where the quantum of music isthe track rather than the album, we’ve made it far more complexto navigate the massive amount of back catalogue material thatis becoming available. It was bad enough in the old days when alack of knowledge of the Rolling Stones oeuvre could mean youended up with Goat’s Head Soup rather than Exile On MainStreet.

And before you dismiss these as the ramblings of a nostalgicforty-something with too many records, it’s worth noting theexplanation given by the publisher of music magazine Mojo forits latest jump in sales; that teenagers are listening to TheBeatles while their parents are listening to Radiohead. As faras music is concerned, the generation gap has closed.

Finding & choosing music in the "LongTail" retail space

So to put the question another way, when you can listen toanything, how do you choose what to listen to? This is not atrivial matter, since in order to take advantage of the LongTail effect (that the aggregated value of sales of contentoutside the best-seller lists is greater than that of thebest-sellers), music etailers have to find ways for people tonavigate through enormous quantities of material across anever-widening spectrum of genres.

Some mechanisms already exist, of course. Amazon has pioneeredseveral, most notably its recommendations, its “People whobought this also bought…” and, perhaps most importantly, itsreviews written by users.

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

And then there’s the vision of Michael Bayler, founder of TheRights Marketing Company, who has recently started working withmusic journalism archive site Rock’s BackPages. He sees an opportunity for download sites to offerreviews and interviews as part of the purchase in order to givecontext to the music on offer, thus adding value for theconsumer and giving a point of differentiation for theetailer.

Peer-filtering in the blogging era

Of course, beyond all this the P2P philosophy that led todigital downloading in the first place is being harnessed tocreate an alternative marketing structure. One of the manythings that blogging can do is act as a filter, a way ofnavigating the vast quantity of information than now makes upthe Internet. You find a blogger whose taste in music coincideswith yours, and suddenly you’ve tapped into a recommendationengine fuelled by every other blogger he links to (and withmusic it’s usually a he), every other blogger they link to, andso on.

And of course this doesn’t just apply to established acts. Newbands that wanted to take advantage of digital downloading tobypass the record labels used to be stymied by their inabilityto reach potential listeners; the labels still had the marketingclout required to “break” acts. But now a band simply needs toidentify a few key bloggers who will like what they do and aresufficiently well linked-to for the word to spread.

And music, for reasons of file size, is just the most developedmarket for this model. As broadband penetration grows, the sameeffect will be seen in all areas of digital content. There arealready independent film-makers who are using blogs to markettheir movies, breaking the domination of both the studios andthe distributors. New technology has democratised music-makingby putting the tools of the recording studio into a cheaplaptop. Now the Internet is making sure people can hear theresults.

MichaelNutley isthe editor of NewMedia Age.

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