Saturday, December 2, 2006

Will Vinyl Die?

Found a great article by James Surowiecki on Signal vs. Noise. In it, Surowiecki basically explains how Nintendo is doing better than either Microsoft or Sony by simply sitting out the market supremacy battle the other two console manufacturers are waging and opting instead for a cheaper, less powerful machine which is more fun to play with.

Found something even better by Clay Shirky about the inevitability of free content. It's very interesting to me because there's a lot of talk about the death of vinyl in the dance music world ever since the death of Intergroove UK. The theory is that free content, in the form of file-sharing, is killing vinyl.

I think vinyl probably will die out, but I don't think this is quite the problem it appears to be. The conventional wisdom is that music is a winner-take-all industry, where a few hitmakers own the world and everybody else gets nowhere. Nintendo's example demonstrates that taking over the world is often less profitable than simply being good at what you do, and Shirky's reasoning suggests that all music will soon be free anyway. So for the people worrying about the death of vinyl, and particularly for record labels selling dance music and worrying about their ability to stay afloat, there are very real reasons for concern.

However, I think these reasons for concern are much more about the format than the industry itself.

I say this because I'm finally reading Chris Anderson's The Long Tail. It's a good book but the original article was actually better in my opinion.

The basic idea: online retailers sell more niche products than hits. For instance, Amazon sells more books outside its top 100,000 sellers than inside that group; the site makes more money selling a large number of books which only sell a few copies apiece than it does selling a few books which each sell in large numbers. This means that the old idea that you had to make a hit to make money at all is absolutely false; when consumers have systems that allow them equal access to all products, they often prefer things which speak more directly to who they are than things that everybody else is buying. (Duh.) So, on the Internet at least, the future is actually very bright for producers of niche content (such as dance music).

Anyway, all of this is kind of percolating in my head, because the big question on my mind is not whether or not vinyl will die -- I think that's almost guaranteed -- but what it'll mean for the world of dance music. Shirky's argument that all content will necessarily trend towards becoming free for economic reasons is a pretty strong argument, and I think he's right. I think the future for all musicians is best summed up by David Bowie:

"The absolute transformation of everything that we ever thought about music will take place within 10 years, and nothing is going to be able to stop it. I see absolutely no point in pretending that it's not going to happen. I'm fully confident that copyright, for instance, will no longer exist in 10 years, and authorship and intellectual property is in for such a bashing."

"Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity," he added. "So it's like, just take advantage of these last few years because none of this is ever going to happen again. You'd better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that's really the only unique situation that's going to be left. It's terribly exciting. But on the other hand it doesn't matter if you think it's exciting or not; it's what's going to happen."

So why isn't this a problem for dance music?

Because Run-DMC first said a DJ could be a band.

Public Enemy proved in 1987 that the music you can make by sampling other music is at least as interesting as the music you can make with normal instruments. The saga of jungle only further underscored this discovery. Obviously, to some extent, the entire nature of a DJ mix is collage. And the thing is, the same technology which is making vinyl no longer economically viable is actually easier to mix with. A laptop full of MP3s is a lot lighter than a record bag, and can support a much larger number of simultaneous tracks playing at the same time, something many prominent DJs are already putting to good use.

But what's really interesting is not MP3 as a replacement for vinyl, but the new things you can do with MP3 that you couldn't do with vinyl. The Qemists are a British "band" which consists of three DJs. They perform on 2 laptops and 2 Technics 1200s. Their sets regularly include mashups, samples, and a stream of "exclusives" that are impossible for any other act to obtain, by definition, because they're created in real time by the Qemists, and can only be exactly replicated if that particular Qemists live appearance is recorded. Obviously, if the way you mix MP3s on a laptop (or group of laptops) allows you to do so many different things that people are going to want recordings of every single live appearance you ever make, you're in a position no vinyl DJ will ever be able to match.

It's pretty easy to imagine, further, that if every live appearance is different, and the economic incentives will drive music to become free, and if, further, David Bowie is right that live appearances will become crucially essential to anyone who actually hopes to make a living as a musician, then the logical thing to do is use this technology to make your live performances as original and compelling as possible -- and then give away the recordings for free, in the knowledge that they should in fact generate demand for further live appearances.

The funny thing is, record companies are in a great position to benefit here. Any record company is going to be working with producers, and anyone who produces is going to be able to take their productions and turn them into a library of loops for laptop "DJing." In fact, since some producers find it impossible to ever call a track "finished," those producers will in fact be happier DJing with the component loops than they would with the unfinished "finished products". Moreover, if something like this ultimately happens, the huge advantages to DJing with the freshest tracks will probably still remain. Although vinyl the physical format is likely to die out, the network of producers and DJs that every successful label has as its primary asset is only going to become more valuable as these changes occur.

I'm kind of getting into futurist territory here, but I remember when a lot of these things that are happening today were just a gleam in some apparently-mad futurist's eye. This future, or one very like it, is at the very least probably on its way. In the case of people like Sasha, the Qemists, and James Zabiela, it's already here.