From Mixtape to Playlist

Today, the long tail is all the rage, and for good reason.  If you have not been reading Chris Anderson’s blog, I highly recommend you get caught up (about 70,000 words worth of catching up). 

The implications for the content industries, including music, are
profound.  No longer are people limited to what’s on the shelves
of their local Walmart, nor need they rely heavily on TV and radio to
become exposed to the newest works.  iTunes has practically
infinite capacity and the costs of distribution are slim. 
Consumers have an increasingly diverse array of tools to acquire and
become exposed to music.  Niche artists may be more able to reach
their niche audiences. Distributors may be able to aggregate those
audiences into a sizable revenue stream.  Consumers may be able to
better satisfy their tastes and enjoy a greater diversity of music than
ever before.

As Chris Anderson explains, the falling costs of storage and
distribution along with the wide variety of available music by
themselves are not enough to drive people down the tail.  Rather,
consumers need better systems for separating the signal from the noise.  Myriad recommendation systems are already emerging to do just that.

I’ve become rather excited by and begun to study a subset of these
new recommendation tools.  Through various tools and services –
including playlists, mp3 blogs, podcasts, webcasts, social networking, and small group networksamong others
– consumers are able to publish and share their own tastes with each
other.  In some cases, that means just sharing a themed list of
music; in others it means sharing a link to actual content; sometimes
it involves sharing content itself.  Beyond separating signal from
noise, these tools have other potential cultural upshots that are
worthy of particular attention.

First, these tools encourage consumer creativity. We often talk
about the wonders of remix culture, but plain old mix culture is
creative too.  Sharing tastes can be an act of self-expression. We
have probably all experienced this in the context of making mixtapes from
friends. As Rebecca Tushnet explains,
“Making a mix CD is participatory and requires judgments about value
and meaning, even if they are humble. It may express thoughts and
emotions that the CD maker feels could be fully expressed no other
way.” So too can the creation of a playlist be a creative act. 
Users can also add content of their own, for instance by adding
commentary in a blog entry or becoming the host of their own podcasted
music show.

In this way, the tools may contribute to “semiotic democracy.” 
Rather than just passively receiving music, consumers can actively
engage it, altering and adding meanings and impressions of the musical
works.  When consumers stand beside (or replace) the traditional
tastemakers, they also may diminish the control with which those
traditional tastemakers had on how we engaged music.  Consumers
can shape the prism through which they view these works.

Once they find others who have similar or at least interesting
tastes, consumers might also form niche communities on this basis. Some
users may simply tell others “great playlist!”, or they may be engage
in more involved and complex interactions.  We’re seeing a rise
not only of professional-amateur musicians, but pro-am
music critics, pro-am tastemakers.  As they become more involved
in using these tools, they may develop relationships with other
committed individuals.  To the extent the tools can create bonds
between people, the creation of these communities may have beneficial
spill-over effects into the rest of our social life, building social capital.  

Of course, one cannot ignore the rather large consumer-to-consumer
sharing elephant in the corner: P2P file-sharing.  Many have
boasted of the community-building aspects of P2P and the independent
value of the sharing that goes on there.  But those aspects
shouldn’t be exaggerated – I would be surprised if most of what happens
on P2P is more than simply dumping music into a shared folder and then
searching and downloading what one seeks.  Perhaps I am wrong. In
any case, if I am right, part of the reason P2P never evolved into a
richer experience is because we sterilized it.

My hope is that these burgeoning taste-sharing tools can help
restart a conversation about how technology can unleash a richer
musical culture. We should be celebrating what technology can do for
music.  Who could object to consumers enjoying music more,
enjoying a greater diversity of music, being more creative, engaging
music more deeply, and coming together with each other because of
music?  That’s the positive vision I’d like to explore in relation
to these tools.

Of course, the potential benefits discussed above are rather
abstract and hypothetical.  To start at a very basic level: Who
knows if people are actually interested in using these tools, as
opposed to other types of recommendation systems?  Or whether
they’re interested in interacting with each other through them? 
And many other questions.

I hope to, over time, build out those hypotheses a bit more and, to
the extent I can, gather some data to see what current usage of these
tools is like.  The data won’t be perfect, but it may be
something.  I’m intrigued to know what’s out there.