The Future of Music-as-Information



The Future of Music-as-Information 

iPod Nanos - The Future of Music-as-Information
The Future of Music-as-Information

Music in the form of information is being set-free by material cybernetic technologies of the music industry. Frith (1998) describes this process; historically music was ‘musicians and their instrument’ where ‘musicians would perform for ‘music in return for payment’ (28). ‘The first revolution in musical storage’ he states, ‘was the combination of notation and printing’ – ‘Music could now be stored, and that score could be reproduced any number of times’ (ibid). The printing press, he continues, was the basis of the music industry with the development of publishers, composers, and a distinction between commercial and non-commercial music types. Following this development, Frith argues that notated music was ‘commercial music’ and non-commercial, or unnotated music was regarded as ‘folk music’ (30). Frith then recalls the ‘second major music industry revolution which ‘followed the technology of recording’ and enabled the ‘commercialisation of folk music’ (31). Finally, the last revolution in musical storage is describe by Frith as ‘the storage of music as information’, which has caused three industrial effects, the questioning of ownership of music, changes the nature of musical composition, and lastly ‘disintermediation’ means that musicians can ‘send their world to their listeners directly’ (32). Now, music-as-information is comparable to liquid or water (see Kusek and Leonhard, 2005; Wikström, 2009). Technological shifts in the production and consumption of music-as-information have led to many industry workers wondering what the future will hold. Therefore, the question this essay will address is: What will the structure of the music industry be in 2020? To achieve this, it will critically examine current transformations and likely developments resulting from recent technological innovations such as the iPod. In response to Bull’s (2005) work on the iPod, will present the thesis that classical sociological studies often neglect the cybernetic forms, which are increasingly more relevant to contemporary sociological debates. To achieve this, the debates will be contextualised the within Hayles’ (1999) posthuman view.

Defining “The Music Industry”

Trying to critically examine transformations in ‘The’ music industry is from the outset a dubious task since its definition is problematic. In light of the music industry’s information-age dilemma, Kusek and Leonhard still argue that ‘the music business is still in very good shape today. The problem is with the record industry and CD sales’ (6). Whereas, Williamson and Cloonan (2007) argue that the ‘notion of a single music industry is an inappropriate model… Instead it is necessary to use the term ‘music industries’ (plural)’. They argue that the term ‘Music Industry’, ‘suggests simplicity where there is complexity and homogeneity where there is diversity’ (305). Alternatively, in an attempt to capture the same sense of diversity, Wikström rejects the Frankfurtian notion of the ‘culture industry’, or ‘cultural industries’, or ‘creative industries’ (Caves, 2000; Hartley, 2005) or ‘experience industries’ (Pine and Gilmore, 1998) and argues that ‘a useful way to categorize the music industry is to consider it as a copyright industry’. By labelling the music industry in this way, he argues that it emphasizes ‘the nature of the product that are created and traded in within that industry’, and furthermore the ‘term also has a clearer definition… which makes it more useful during analyses of the dynamics of these firms and industries’ (2009:17). Kusek and Leonhard (2005) seek to mythologise the ‘vastly outmoded canons of copyright law’ (51) by pointing out how complex the process of copywriting “original” material, and furthermore, how web-technologies enable creative processes and ideas to morph into each other at an increased rate: ‘We will likely need to get used to the fact that copyright is becoming nonlinear, that the paces of exploitable ideas has vastly accelerated, and that most of the content, media, and art is never finished because the process itself is also part of the “art”’ (51). On one side of this apparent dualism stands a conservative, bureaucratic, and homogeneous “Music Industry”, and on the other is a liberal, flexible, fluid dynamic of creative social processes which seems too slippery for a fixed label. For the purposes of this essay, the term ‘music industry’ will be deployed broadly in an attempt to capture both sides of this solid vs. liquid dynamic.

Material Music vs. Music-as-Information

Since music has lost its material body then selling it as a commodity has become problematic. However, Frith (1998) points out that ‘(m) Music is, by its nature, non-material. It can be heard but not held…How to turn this intangible, time-bound aural experience into something that can be bought and sold is the question that has driven popular music history’ (6). Similarly, Kusek and Leonhard (2005) argue that ‘(t) The distorted view of music as a product is a manifestation of the late Industrial age, when companies were able to fix music in time on sound carriers, then control and exploit it to their benefit’ (38). As music commoditised as a material product looses its body, the question for the future is what will be left for the music industry to produce, manufacture, retail and profit from?

Music-as-information can be sold as a service. Hayles notes about information that ‘the contrasting factor separating the haves from the have-nots is not so much possession as access’ (1999: 39). A similar line of thought leads Kusek and Leonhard (2005) to their idea of on-tap music. They relate paradigm shifts in the music industry caused by the digitalisation or informationisation of music to the way water is commoditised as sold. Taking the metaphor of information as a water almost literally, they state, ‘music was only sold in “Pellegrino” bottles, but customers are starting to discover the unstoppable “tap water” music that seems to be flowing freely on the ‘Net’ (11). Wikström (2009) strongly objects to, ‘both water and electricity as metaphors of music’, and argues that, ‘(m) Music is an art form – it is not water. Great art which moves people is created by unique individuals which exceptional talents and is defiantly not chargeable by the minute or the megabyte’ (6). He has a point, if you are given some of water from a glass, the glass is half empty and not half full. Hayles points out that ‘If I give you information, you have it and I do too’ (39). Despite the dispute over appropriate metaphor, by asserting that music is no longer sold as a material commodity but more of a service, Wikström meets eye to eye with Hayles, Kusek and Leonhard. Wikström continues: ‘In a world where information is abundant, people may not be willing to pay a premium for basic access to that information, but they are most likely willing to pay for services which help them navigate through the vast amounts of information’ (7). Therefore, servers (Logic, Spotify, YouTube, SoundCloud) and service provision (ISP) are becoming the money earners.

However, since the invention of the instrument, music has also has a material dimension, and thinking of music only as information is as problematic. Auslander, in his definition of the reproducing affects of the CD, argues that, ‘(a) Although digital technologies are based on binary logic, they have had the ironic effect of dismantling cultural binaries, including distinctions between original and copy, producer and consumer, music and nonmusic… human being and machine’ (104). Auslander is close to the posthuman mark in this statement. Hayles’ reminds us that, firstly ‘Information wants to be free’ (2002: 235), and secondly, ‘cybernetic systems are constituted by flows of information’ (1999: 84, italics added). Although the bites of information are relevant, it is the material systems the information flows through is also relevant. In this sense, Auslander is observing just one part of a greater whole; the content devoid of the form. The binary nature of digital information is far less significant as the way in which that information moves; Frith (1988) recognises that what is important is the way music is stored (29). Auslander’s work is slightly restrained by his considerations of ‘digital technologies’, rather than viewing them as information-communication-technologies. It is precisely because of the fact that information can flow within communications systems, that unreleased records, celebrity sex-tapes, or important governmental information, can be ‘leaked’ onto the Internet or become viral. If any one phenomenon can be credited or blamed for dismantling, fragmenting, bypassing, or travelling through, cultural and linguistic binaries, then it is not only digital information but its role within cybernetic systems (such as the iPod) – of which, digital information and technologies are just one small buy-product.

Cybernetics & Posthumanism: The Human and Machine Merger

As communication-technologies such as the iPod, iPhone and iPad evolve a question pops up: how are these technologies reshaping the human users? For Hayles ‘Cyborgs actually exist’. In 1999 she argued that, ‘(a) About 10 of the current U.S. population are estimated to be cyborgs in the technical sense, including people with electronic pacemakers, artificial joints, drug-implant systems, implanted corneal lenses, and artificial skin’, moreover, ‘(a) A much higher percentage participates in occupations that make them into metaphoric cyborgs, including computer keyboarder joined in a cybernetic circuit with the screed, microscopy during an operation, and the adolescent game player in the local video-game arcade’ (115). With the introduction of wireless technologies, advancement of computing technologies and music, communication technologies such as the iPod, iPhone, iPad, it would be naïve to consider that her argument has not but strengthened over the years.

Since 1999, evidence of cybernetic music consumption is everywhere. Kassabian (2002) refers to the Computer Research Group ‘have built a wearable “DJ” that tries to select music based on a feature of the user’s mood’ as in indicated by skin conductivity data collected by the wearable computer’ (Picard, 2000: 176, in Kassabian, 132).

In its technological evolution the iPod itself have become more cybernetic. Bull’s (2005) research into the iPod reveals a ‘desire for solitude’ that is revealed when the iPod is considered as technological remediation of the mechanical personal stereo. Since his article was accepted in 2004 and published in 2005 Bull can be forgiven (slightly) for not anticipating the evolution of the iPod. Bull almost picks up on the inevitable evolution of the iPod by mentioning that, ‘(u) Users now take their whole music collection with them in a machine that is not much larger than a small mobile phone’ (344). However, in 2005, Kusek and Leonhard had the foresight to predict the inevitability of the iPhone: ‘(c) Cross an iPod with a cell phone and you have an networked mobile music player’ (70). With the release of the iPhone in 2007 Apple announced that their new product “iPhone” ‘is a widescreen iPod with touch controls that lets music lovers “touch” their music by easily scrolling through entire lists of songs, artists, albums and playlists with just a flick of a finger’ (Apple 2007). The iPhone itself would communicate more directly with the users (vibrations, interactive displays, fingertip scrolling, sonic notifications) while at the same time allowing them the ability to ‘share’ music with their virtual social networks and wireless transmissions via Bluetooth. Furthermore, the ability to download an App like “SoundCloud” allows users to upload, download, and share independent and commercially produced music with friends the iPhone (and iPad) enables them to network access – at a premium.

Nodes in The Cloud

Wikström’s refers to the Internet using the classical metaphor of the ‘Cloud’ that is accessed by nodal arrangement of users. He states, ‘(a) A cloud was considered to be a useful and vague enough symbol which could be used to summarize all the resource cables and gadgets which connected the computers at the nodes of the network’ (2009: 3, italic added). When speaking about the future Kassabian (2002) mentions that: ‘The same music will be sold yet a third time, in more flexible packages, precisely because it makes it easier to use the music as an environment technology, conditioning and conditioned by a new kind of subjectivity’ (139). This subjectivity is created by the formation of a new information age network. She explains that, ‘In this extreme model of distributed computing, each home computer is a little lump of node in an enormous array of computing activity. Likewise, we are each nodes in an enormous array of listening’ (139). In a nodal arrangement activities like torrent or P2P file sharing are made possible; as well as the outbreaks of musical viruses.

This concept of nodal or monad like social formations was explained and rigorously discussed at the advent of cybernetics during and after World War II (see Hayles, 1999: 94). Norbert Wiener’s cybernetic vision was one that envisioned men, women, nonhuman animals and technologies as nodes in a communication matrix. Galison (1994) explains that, ‘Black boxes, as Wiener used the term, meant a unit designed to perform a function before one knew how it functioned’ (20). He continues on to explain about Wiener’s monadic philosophy that ‘(w) We are truly, in this view of the world, like black boxes with inputs and outputs and no access to our or anyone else’s inner life’ (256). Thus, ‘I would argue that the associations of cybernetics (and the cyborg) with… the black-box conception of human nature do not so simply melt away’ (260). From this technological deterministic and posthuman viewpoint, Wikström’s allegory of the human ‘node’ in the information ‘cloud’ is very fitting. This concept of nodal distribution of social members, and subsequent isolating affects, are best celebrated in the concept of the “silent disco” where people gather to listen to music with headphones on iPod-like technologies. It also explains the matrix of torrent networks, or P2P networks where music files are dispersed and shared. This paints the picture of the future posthuman paradigm.

Feedback: The Future of Music Production?

In terms of the material technologies, the dialect between the posthuman and the nonhuman is achieved through a feedback loop; much like the biological process of homeostasis. Hayles explains the historic process in which feedback became relevant:

Like animals, machines can maintain homeostasis using feedback loops. Feedback loops had long been exploited to increase the stability of mechanical systems, reaching a high level of development during the mid-to-late nineteenth century with the growing sophistication of steam engines and their accompanying control devices, such as governors. It was not until the 1930s and 1940s however, that the feedback loop was explicitly theorised as a flow of information. Cybernetics was born when nineteenth-century control theory had joined with nascent theory of information.
(1999: 8)

Feedback has always played a role in music production. Théberge (2011) explains that ‘(w) When a microphone or guitar pickup is placed in close proximity to a highly amplified loudspeaker the phenomenon know as ‘feedback’ occurs’ (8). In this example, the relationship between the human and nonhuman is governed by the feedback that the musical equipment produces – referred to by Théberge as the ‘‘proximity effect’ (2011: 5). However, feedback is not such a bad thing and artists such as Jimmy Hendrix have incorporated electronic feedback into their live and recorded performances. Théberge notes that, ‘the sound of amplified guitar distortion has become a key aural sign of the heavy metal and hard rock genres and an important signifier of power and the emotional intensity in the music’ (6). Therefore, feedback can be used in the analogue creative process.

There are many forms of feedback. Artists look to their crowds for feedback as a form of performance evaluation; record companies might also consider ticket and album sales in the same light. Wikström takes note of how recording artist Imogen Heap has used feedback from about 50,000 fans who, ‘regularly followed the blog and commented on what they saw’. He continues to explain that; ‘Heap picked up these comments, entered into a conversation with her fans using different types of digital channels, such as Twitter and Facebook, and allowed the feedback to influence her creative process’ (2009: 176-177). Thus, the feedback that an App like SoundCloud can provide the producer (in an almost real-time feedback-loop) could be taken onboard to shape the sounds produced.

Feedback: The Future Marketplace?

The business model of an organisation competing in the music industry can also incorporate feedback into its systemic design. When Bauman points that in the liquid modern world, ‘Today’s business organization has an element of disorganization deliberately build into it: the less solid and the more fluid it is, the better’ (154), there is a reason. In terms of organisation theory, Hatch (1997) outlines the ‘cybernetic model of control’ that can be adopted by organisation and business alike. By comparing the business model to that of a thermostat she states, ‘organization control processes… are designed to recognise differences between current and desired levels of performance and to trigger adjustments when discrepancies are noticed’ (1999: 328-329). Hatch offers the analogy of student feedback in a classroom dynamic to demonstrate how feedback can change to shape of an organisation. To obtain their goals, corporate organisations need to adjust in accordance with the feedback they receive from customers. Chaos, disorder, or negative feedback and be measured as noise therefore making a business model more flexible, customer focused, interactive and therefore more fluid, and as a result more cybernetic. It the cybernetic model is but one choice from many models a record company could choose from and tweak if required.

Thus, if feedback plays a central to a corporation’s business model, it can therefore be considered more interactive, cybernetic, communicative, and democratic and therefore what Bauman would refer to as “liquid-modern”. However, if a record company is sterner, more authoritative, or tyrannical then we could use the term “solid-modern” to describe it.  The latter solid-modern model was the Colonel Tom Parker (Elvis Presley’s manager) model, which is described by Kusek and Leonhard as  ‘a textbook example of the traditional music-business operating mode’, since, ‘Parker in many ways can be considered the personification of the larger than life manager, and he profited from audaciously exploiting Elvis’ (2005: 7). Exploited or not, how big would Elvis have been without the Colonel?

The dialectic between solid-structure and light-liquidity is apparent in the work of Frith (1998) and Negus (1999) on the music industry. Frith analysis paints a Marx-inspired picture of a “Colonel Parker-style” market controlled by the music industry, whereas Negus paints a more ‘liquid’ picture of record companies struggling to maintain control of the markets they are consequently – to some extent – controlled by. While Frith recognises that the music industry is a business ‘organised around the bureaucratic organisation of chaos’ (33) he also argues that, ‘(m) Mass markets are in the hands of, controlled by, large corporate powers’, and, ‘pop records, commodities, a technological and commercial process under the control of a small number of large companies’ (19). Negus, on the other hand, argues that: ‘Corporate strategy aims to control and order the unpredictable social processes and diversity of human behaviours which are condensed into notions of production and consumption and which riddle the music business with uncertainty’ (31). Divisions of large record companies are established or dissolve in response to shifts in what is essentially a musically inspired buyers-market. While Negus notes that at present the record industry’s marketplace is essentially shared between a handful of major record labels (EMI, BMG, Warner Music Group, Sony Music Group, Universal/PolyGram), who have since the 1980s have shared 80% of the worlds music marketplace (35). He also states that, ‘whole divisions of a company’s structure and either fold and collapse or expand and develop: the delivery of a good album from a major artist can significantly affect a company’s market share’ (46). In Negus’ argument, music or sound plays a role in the industry, whereas in Firth’s argument, music itself, the popular sound, is a product of the industry.

In Negus’s text there is less of a sense of corporate control, manipulation and domination (described as ‘top-down analyses’ by Bennett, 2008: 425) that is more inherent in Frith’s work (although Bennett points out that Frith was aware of the importance for the music industry to maintain ‘an engagement with the aesthetic practices and value judgements of music audiences themselves’ (2008: ibid)). Negus’s text also points out how the industry is vulnerable to the buyers-market, and the stresses the importance of the sonic relationship between composers and audiences. To cite Negus: ‘(a) Although companies continually engage in market research, and seek to persuade and manipulate public behaviours, they find it difficult to predict which new artists are going to succeed and how successful they are likely to be’ (33). This idea of market research, as a posthuman form of communication and control between label and marketplace, can only increase in the information-communication age where companies will have access to greater levels of individual demographic information and continuous (increasingly real-time) customer feedback.


 What will the structure of the music industry be in 2020? In the future, cybernetic technologies will be programmed to adjust themselves in accordance with the feedback their users offer; users will adjust themselves to the feedback their technologies provide. The information these users transmit from their communication technologies will offer feedback for artists and record labels. This feedback will provide real-time demographic profiles for both corporate and independent bedroom producers can use (if they should choose to) to accordingly shape their sounds and marketing strategies in real-time. In a global environment of inter-looping feedback loops producers, consumers, and marketers will have the option of taking onboard feedback (as an open system) or disregarding feedback (as a closed system). Since feedback lies at the heart of cybernetic control; it would be easy to conclude that companies which direct market their products in accordance with marketing feedback will maintain control. However, was Jimmy Hendrix made famous for responding to the feedback of all his fans? Ultimately, if we attend the main stage of Glastonbury musical festival we are subjecting ourselves to a solid-modern form of tyrannical control or benevolent dictation. While the solid world is melted into liquid information this dogmatic approach will still hold a place in the future marketplaces. I would rather loose myself in a sea of Glastonbury fans than find myself in a silent disco of iPod shufflers.


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