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 (fretsonfire.sourceforge.net)—that shows great promise for keeping indie music independent of the majors. CustomHero.net offers a service to convert regular songs into interactive songs, and ScoreHero.com 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. Read on..!

Beautiful songs: Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)

I don't remember precisely when I first heard Frank Wilson's "Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)", but I can narrow it down to a brief two years, during which I lived at 607 Huron St. in Toronto, with my great friend Derek, to whom I owe much gratitude for invading his apartment and life, and often monopolizing his computer. If memory serves, that was May 2000 to May 2002. I'm not sure if that seems like a long time or not. Certainly a lot has happened in that time, and equally certainly eight years feels longer than six. If I could find the original CD onto which I burned the song, I could narrow down the period even further; but I'm sure that I've since copied and thrown away that scratched disc.

Those were my early Soul years and still the early years of mass illicit downloading. The two are connected since, through Napster and its descendants, I discovered a world of music, thousands of songs—of all genres, but particularly Soul and Funk—that added fuel to my flaming passion for music. I made a series of soul compilations—14 at last count—each containing between 20 and 25 songs; and those were only the ones I deemed worthy of repeat listening or spinning. I was a DJ then, too, and few activities gave me greater pleasure than serving some excellent new discovery in the club and watching the crowd eat it up. Discovering new hidden gems (and playing them for people, in clubs or in private) still gives me immense pleasure.

Ironically, though, "Do I Love You" is a song that I rarely played for the crowds. I'm not sure why exactly. It's almost too specific, too perfect, too sweet for the congregation I ministered to. I feel like it stands apart from other soul music, other music generally, so much that I would have had a hard time fitting it in, mixing it with any other song, as if anything else would seem vulgar in comparison, or bland. Or perhaps I was afraid that other songs would vulgarize "Do I Love You" and make it seem too simple.

The song is simple and sweet. It is devoid of the pretensions of rock and the sappy syrupyness of its Motown brethren. But it is lush and driving and powerful. And at two and a half minutes, it is desperately short, though perfectly indicative of its time. It is over before you realize it and practically demands that you listen to it again. I must admit, I never knew the lyrics before researching this story, because the song sends me into a reverie halfway into the first verse and the song changes to a feeling.
From early morning until late at night
You fill my heart with pure delight
Do I love you?
Now whenever I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord your soul to keep
And bring you home safe to me, forever darling
Do I love you?
...
Indeed I do
The vocal performances—both lead and backup—are urgent, approaching breathlessness, as if the words are coming at the moment they are sung, direct from the inspired heart, and occasionally Wilson bursts forth in a sort of raspy yell that suggests he can't contain himself.

Frank Wilson was a songwriter and producer for Motown from the mid-sixties to the late seventies, and he wrote or co-wrote numerous hits during that time. ("Stoned Love" is another great favourite of mine.) But for some reason, when he recorded this song—his own song—the label said no, even after pressing several hundred copies. The label ordered all copies destroyed and Frank Wilson's solo career was over before it began. But a year later, the song was resurrected by female Motown artist Chris Clark in a new vocal recording over either the original music track or a near identical rerecording. The two versions are very similar, but Chris Clark's vocal lacks the energy of the original, and the urgency—really, I think it suffers simply from its lack of originality.

At any rate, the legend says that two copies of the record survived, and in the seventies, one of them found its way into the hands of a Northern Soul DJ. The whole story is repeated in great and variable detail elsewhere, and if you're at all interested in music history, I recommend you take a look for it. Truly, the legend adds to the song's intrigue, but not to its greatness. The simple fact of its existence—its creation—is a miracle, a testament to momentary genius. That we have the original recording to enjoy today is testament to the unsuppressible nature of genius and creativity: art.

I find it interesting that my connection to this song isn't through some collection of important life events that are somehow wrapped up with it. Rather, my connection is somehow instantaneous, imperative. Despite all of the great great Soul music that exists and that I absolutely love—from both before and after "Do I Love You"—this particular song embodies Soul music: it is simple, it evokes God's connection to love, it contains a chorus-like call and answer, all characteristics that come from Gospel music, the essence of Soul.

It's in a space of sheer wonder that I experience "Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)". And in that space I am open to the pure love the song proclaims in its every aspect.
__

Here I am on bended knees
I lay my heart down at your feet
Now do I love you?
All you have to do is ask
I’ll give until there’s nothing left
Do I love you?
As long as there is life in me
Our happiness is guaranteed
I’ll fill your heart with ecstasy, forever darling
Do I love you?
Do I love you?
Do I love you?
Indeed I do
Indeed I do

The very thing that I want most
Is just to have and hold you close
Do I love you?
From early morning until late at night
You fill my heart with pure delight
Do I love you?
Now whenever I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord your soul to keep
And bring you home safe to me, forever darling
Do I love you?
Do I love you?
Do I love you?
Indeed I do, sweet darling,
Indeed I do

Now whenever I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord your soul to keep
And bring you home safe to me
Forever darling
Do I love you?
Do I love you?
Do I love you?
Indeed I do, little darling,
Indeed I do
Read on..!
 
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The New Dilettantes by Adam Gorley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.