Context and the future of music

And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burning coal

Ian Rogers from Yahoo Music, and formerly of Nullsoft, says it straight: check out his blog entry and slides from a talk he gave to “some friends in the music industry.” (Nice use of Flickr for slide presentation.)

Eight years ago he, and anyone else who was thoughtful about the issue, knew that legally selling music by the individual track in an unprotected MP3 format was the future of the music industry. But it’s taken eight years for someone, i.e., Amazon, to actually do it.

Eight years resonates with me, because I remember a small internally-focused conference we had on the future of what was then called e-business in late 1999 or early 2000, almost exactly eight years. One of the ‘tracks’ of the conference was on the future of the music industry and I remember being told by one of the presenters, who was with Sony Music if I recall correctly, that it was a ‘future that has already happened,’ in Peter Drucker’s felicitous phrase. He described more or less exactly what Rogers is saying, eight years later.

People knew.

I remember thinking that it was unclear to me exactly how the future of digital music was going to unfold — remember, there was no such thing as the iPod yet — and particularly if subscription services were going to win out over album or song purchases. But those were details; Rogers is absolutely right that this has been waiting to happen for *eight* years now. Incredible.

I especially like his point about the “context” of the music becoming increasingly important; he says that this is a limitation of iTunes, since it’s a music spreadsheet. Which is mean, but funny. And true.

There’s a rule (I might be making this up, so don’t tell your kids) that says that a financial derivatives market will grow to eventually become ten times the size of the underlying physical market, so that the oil futures market, for example, is bigger than oil contracts market by an order of magnitude.

I think (and I’m definitely making this up; tell your kids) that the same applies for interpretations of a source, so that the Bob Dylan discussion ‘market’ (here for example) should be at least ten times the size of the actual Dylan corpus. This is certainly true for religious texts; the Talmud, the derivatives market, is much larger than the Torah — the physical market, to torture the metaphor — as is the Buddhist commentarial tradition, which is enormous, largely untranslated, and little-read in the West to date.

The problem with the Dylan commentarial tradition, besides being dry and mostly lacking a sense of humor as per the requirements of the genre, is that it’s faced with a moving target; it’s as if they were still writing the New Testament.

But imagine, if you will, if you could embed the source texts along with your commentary, just like the religious authors do. That would put your music into context. And there are always going to be large contexts, communities, or commentarial traditions. So maybe the quote at the top is referring to Baudelaire, or the Bible, or to a 13th century poet. But I could help Bob sell some music if I could link to the source so that my dear readers could listen to the song as they read about it, or the future of music.