Thursday, 14 August 2008

A new model for the music industry

In the beginning of Rock’n’Roll music there was the Guitar. It was pretty easy to learn, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley played it, and it probably corrupted your youth. With the increasing complexity of guitar playing, particularly the Solo, came the Air Guitar. It’s an imaginary instrument—occasionally brought to life by a broom or tennis racquet—that anyone can play with the least amount of skill or coordination, and it has become so popular that somebody made a wide-release zany documentary about it. And now, in the age of entertainment, there is the Virtual Guitar, embodied in such video games as Guitar Hero, Rock Band, Gitaroo man, and Frets of Fire. Here everybody from air guitar wannabes to actual guitar players uses a miniature plastic guitar-shaped controller to play along to some classic and current rock tunes. Maybe you begin to see the possibilities already?

The appeal of these virtual guitar-playing games is very broad: you get to play (or feel like you’re playing) guitar along with some great and some awful songs (you might be surprised by what songs or bands you start to like), and without ever having to take a lesson. Inexperienced players should find that the easier levels are not at all difficult to learn and play, without being boring; it becomes challenging quite quickly for experienced players, and actual guitar-playing ability can be of little help; and at no matter what level, you get to listen to music and play a fun game at the same time—it has your undivided attention—you are taking part in creating the music. That may sound odd at first, but I think it’s entirely warranted and I’ll tell you why.

Here are some things to think about: The music industry is in a sort of crisis, unwilling to admit that the old industry model (much simplified: charging high prices for low quality, and trying to control who “owns” the product, be it a physical CD or a virtual MP3) is no longer viable. In part, mass internet usage and reality TV shows such as American Idol, Big Brother and others that promise instant fame (or at least your 15 minutes), have created widespread demand for a New Experience, not fully passive like television, but not quite physical or social. Both of these factors are exacerbated by growing competition in the entertainment arena, which has increased dramatically, particularly in recent years, with video games making up much of that competition. Also, content pirating is easy and rampant, and, worldwide, legislation on the issue is unclear. Music, which used to colour our lives, has become background music—wallpaper. It is boring, to the point that, for many people, it’s simply not worth the price. What has music done for me lately?

Enter Mediated Interactivity. All the entertainment, but with little of that awkward social-personal stuff, and all within precisely programmed, edited and strictly enforced boundaries. But that’s only a part of my point. Often we don’t realize just how broad the spectrum of entertainment media has become. And as a result, we fail to recognize that we are demanding more from those media. We are now so used to getting what we want when we want it that we find the slow pace at which the big guns in the music industry are changing very frustrating. More media—films, TV, video games, music, books (believe it or not), the internet is a big one with news, “social” networking, gambling, role-playing games, &c.—are competing for an expanding leisure market; but most of these things can only be effectively consumed independently of each other. I can’t listen to music properly while I’m watching TV or a movie. I can’t really surf the internet while playing a video game. Certainly, I can try, but I will naturally divide my attention. In some cases attempts have been made to combine entertainment media. Increasingly, for example, current bands are being featured in TV shows and movies—this is hardly new and it remains passive; and online games have become about as common as e-mail. But even when playing games that allow for some multitasking, I may be “on” the internet, but my attention must be either on the game or on some other website, not both. American Idol on the other hand, though not exactly based on a novel premise, has introduced a measure of interactivity to entertainment. You—lucky you!—get to help choose a pop star directly, without all of that silly intervening stuff like hearing about a cool new artist from an eager friend, waiting for them to come to your town, going to see the show with two other people and the bar staff, buying the shirt anyway because you love them right away, requesting their song on the radio, writing to them, and watching them develop into real talent over years. No! Too much work! Instant stars and disposable songs are what people want (of course I’m not so naïve to think that this is entirely a new development), and so far it has proven a powerful lure to capture the public’s attention: you watch the show (two hours a week, maybe more), then you make your phone calls or text messages, and then you buy (and presumably listen to) the music; though the buying variable is the more important part of that particular equation. Still, American Idol is rather more indicative of the malaise afflicting the music industry than a solution to it. All the show does is make explicit the emptiness of pop music and the root of the reasons many people are less willing to pay for it. Simply put, generic music is not worth it when you can pirate it (and better) for free, or when there is just so much of it and there are so many other things to occupy your time.

Thus Interactive Music, the early stages of which are characterized by Karaoke and Guitar Hero. Guess which one I consider more important? Karaoke on its own could never challenge the powerful music industry in North America, especially not at the time it initially became popular. Those pre-Napster years were good for Big Music. Karaoke is certainly seminal, at least with respect to what I’m talking about. But it seems to me that it was destined to be little more than a parlour game—in the West at least—in its current unchanged form. True Interactive Music, on the other hand, is characterized by the ability of the listener (a.k.a. the consumer, user, or player) to be the creator at the same time—to “make it” his or her own. In practice, you might argue, this can be said of any form of music, and certainly Karaoke: The listener can sing along, play along, rerecord and remix it, and then, in theory, release it publicly. Of course, this is the case, but none of that is sufficiently mediated.

Now, here’s the point: What I see with virtual guitar games like Guitar Hero and their Mediated Interactivity is a new model for the music industry. In this model, a band can release an album or a single song in an interactive format, playable on a video game console, a computer, or any compatible player (and of course you can copy the tunes to your iPod, too, or just play it the old-fashioned way on your stereo). The player can play along with the songs on levels from easy to difficult, and “unlock” different features as she goes: extra tracks, remixes, videos, &c.—this is the obvious stuff, initial but secondary incentives. The key for the listener is the opportunity to play the songs either as recorded, or to improvise them (or certain parts of them), and to be judged or rated on her performance. As always with the modern consumer, fun is the primary motivator and goal.

There are advantages for the bands and labels, too. This interactive model combines an entrenched medium—music—with an entertainment medium that is growing extremely quickly—video games. And there is plenty of potential to integrate other media, such as virtual social networking and chat. That is, with Interactive Music, users don’t need to choose between competing entertainments, because they have several in one. People can and will still choose to consume other forms of entertainment; but that’s not quite the issue. For labels, dominance in the market is part of the game, but nowadays perhaps a larger part is simple sustenance. Though among the media there is often conglomeration, there is rarely monopoly. In this model, there exists the possibility to further the American Idol ideal of instant stardom and disposable music. Songs can be modified, easily rerecorded and remixed, and they can easily be redistributed via the internet. They could then be voted on and downloaded for a cost or free—it doesn’t really matter; charts could be made based on player ratings and downloads, all at next-to-no cost for the labels. Most importantly, there would be a far greater incentive for consumers and fans to buy—to pay for—music: it would be interesting again.

It’s happening right now, in fact. Though not on an industry-transforming scale just yet, many of the features are basically in place. Users can buy and download new songs regularly from Microsoft’s Xbox Live service, and I hear that Sony’s Playstation 3 has some embedded features for social networking that are currently unused. But better than that, independent individuals are taking the initiative to develop the pieces of the puzzle for indie musicians and labels to take things into their own hands. There is a free, open-source Virtual Guitar game—Frets on Fire (—that shows great promise for keeping indie music independent of the majors. offers a service to convert regular songs into interactive songs, and provides an initial framework for scoring and judging. And with the speed at which technology and ideas are moving these days, the cross-platform spread of these games, and their broad appeal, I imagine a time in the near future when in homes across the world we will find families sitting together in front of the TV like they used to, but instead of staring dumbly at the screen, they will play and interact and give each other high fives. And all will be right with the world.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

curious! I thought about publishing love letter emails between me & mine as a kind of romance novel, but am not yet ready to trawl through them all...seems like cheating somehow. (Slightly related, but I thought you'd be interested). xj

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