Artists Learn to Leverage Disruptive Technology

It is important to remember that disruptive technology cannot kill art. There is a great deal of doomsday thinking in the music industry when it comes to the effect of tech. While it’s important for musicians and their advocates to remain vigilant against abuse, it’s also worth reflecting on how advancements in technology, on the balance, have created far more opportunity for musicians than detriment. Just as those who have gone before, today’s artists and advocates need to learn to surf on the wave of new technology, rather than swim out against it.

A large disruption was created by the invention of audio recording in 1887. While it was a stunning technological development, classically trained musicians were initially trepidatious. Many opera singers and symphonies felt that recorded music inadequately captured performances, and were concerned their careers would be ruined if these recordings were heard by the public. Additionally, the first recording devices could hold only a few minutes of music. Musicians scrambled to navigate all of the new possibilities and limitations. The first musicians to successfully exploit the new technology were members of the lowest musical caste: common folk entertainers. In a way, they were the original punk rockers, spitting out three minute songs where the message and the melody were more important than the fidelity. The initial disruption to the music industry eventually gave way to empowerment for musicians. Music which would have only been heard by an elite minority was made available to millions, becoming a new revenue stream.

Another invention that initially caused tension for musicians was radio. First used in military and business communications, radio was adapted for commercial purposes enabling consumers to listen to music for free for the first time. Combined with the effects of the Great Depression, record sales plummeted from $75 million in 1929 to $26 million in 1938. However, after initially boycotting radio, musicians and labels became savvy at using it as a marketing tool to boost overall sales. Additionally, ASCAP (with help from legal rulings) became proficient at leveraging the opportunity, collecting royalties and transforming the medium into a source of income for artists. A technology first regarded as a threat to the livelihood of musicians became a powerful tool.

The current tension in the music industry stems from advancements in computing. Once recording was invented, the album became a commodity. This was a wholly new concept. Earlier, all music was consumed in the form of live performance, whether it be in a concert hall, a barroom, or a family home. The only physical form music took was in sheet music. With recording, an entire market was manufactured around captured moments in time. These recordings were copied onto physical objects, so they acted like any other tangible good for sale. However, computer storage, processing power, and networks have become sufficient to practically drop the cost of replication to zero. If your market is based on the supply and demand of physical goods, but the supply of those goods suddenly approaches infinity, it’s not hard to see how that would have disastrous consequences for those heavily invested in the old system. So, once again, musicians are learning how to inhabit this new space and make it work for them. Performing Rights Organizations are learning to adapt. Musicians are utilizing YouTube and Skype to maintain fan attention through online performances. Additionally, releasing music in the form of apps offers the potential for dynamism, updates, interactivity, and a new channel for connecting to fans.

It takes time for artists to fully understand how to harness new technologies to magnify our impact. Perhaps static, recorded music won’t carry much weight in the marketplace going forward. Musicians may need to adapt how they create revenue. Maybe we will return to songwriters thinking more deeply about compositions and unique performances, and putting less emphasis on traditional recording. After all, recording has only been around for a little over 100 years. We might not really understand how to use it, yet. Regardless, technology cannot kill music. Artists will always evolve, bending and twisting technology to serve human expression. As long as babies smack two blocks of wood together to hear the sound, music will flourish.

Challenges for Album 2.0

Album 2.0 is poised to revolutionize the way we consume music. Still, it’s important that we stay sober about the challenges facing its implementation, both from the technological and business perspectives. Being cognizant and respectful of these issues will help developers and musicians create an ecosystem that is more likely to be sustainable.

The primary technological challenges are in dealing with memory, storage, and speed. Audio files are large. We are just now getting to the point where it is reasonable to carry around uncompressed digital music on mobile devices (as opposed to MP3). If you start talking about songs that have multiple takes of solos, different versions of choruses, and so on, you can quickly create an unmanageable group of audio files (even if they are compressed). While storage gets better at a rapid rate, significant problems remain when putting dynamic music in an iPhone app, for example. Apple sets a limit of 2 GB for the binary code that can be delivered to an iOS device. And, you can forget about trying to download that app over the air, since Apple sets that limit at 100 MB. Storage capacities will likely continue to advance quickly, but will we have to wait another several years for a sophisticated Album 2.0 to live entirely on a mobile device? This is an important question, with strategic implications. If Album 2.0 needs to utilize a desktop computer, or computation in the cloud, that means we better get busy figuring out those implementations.

A related issue is that apps must load quickly on a mobile device to avoid being unacceptably sluggish from a user perspective. In the case of iOS, Apple gives an app about 15 seconds to load before it is terminated by the operating system. In practice, an app that exhibits such behavior won’t even get accepted into the iTunes App Store. Even if the storage capacities increase dramatically, effective strategies will need to be in place to manage load times in order for Album 2.0s to exist on mobile devices.

There are also related issues on the CPU side. While processing power is growing steadily, there’s a reason you don’t see recording engineers running their entire sessions on tablets in the studio. An incredible amount of math is involved when working with multiple streams of audio, especially when placing any real-time effects (like reverb) on those streams. When you listen to a standard digital track, your CPU processes one static stream of audio. But, if we are talking about Album 2.0, the CPU might be tasked with doing calculations on multiple streams of audio at the same time, while simultaneously handling graphics, keeping the interface responsive for the user, and streaming information from a network. Again, these are issues that are mitigated when you talk about a desktop computer, but critical for the domain of mobile devices.

Given the limitations of smartphones, let’s say we decide to use a strategy that shifts the processing to the cloud, utilizing Amazon EC2 instances. This could make the app much lighter on the client side, but presents problems of its own. If the network is unreachable, what does the Album 2.0 do? Does it have any value without the network? We could implement some default behavior on the mobile client, with a few locally stored audio paths to provide a modicum of dynamism. Still, doing this would move some storage and processing demands back onto the user’s device, and therefore this strategy could quickly become cumbersome.

Now, let’s talk about the issue of moving between platforms. If we only come up with a great design for iOS devices, is Album 2.0 a meaningless concept for Android users? That would seem to be a poor business strategy, especially in the world of music. Hell, even Apple provided a way for PC users to use iTunes. The first few Album 2.0s might only be available on iOS, but this is not sustainable or scalable if there is growing demand. It would kind of suck if a band released an Album 2.0, but only the fans with iPhones could check it out. Therefore, it seems we should develop universally accessible Album 2.0s. Should we bridge this gap by utilizing cross platform game engines, like Unity3D? This is at least a proven strategy for game developers. It would have some advantages right off the bat. For instance, it would make available an existing marketplace of animatable, interactive visual assets which artists wouldn’t have to create themselves. Game engines also do the heavy lifting to make virtual worlds come alive with representations of such real world concepts as gravity, friction, and collisions. While Album 2.0 developers should be well versed in the music domain, game engines could free them from also needing to have degrees in physics. You wouldn’t need to hire a giant team of CG experts in order to produce a fairly engaging experience. If we do that, though, can the model of dynamic music mesh properly with the idioms which are part of gaming audio engines? Obviously game audio has mechanisms for changing when a user encounters a boss, or enters a new realm, but are those systems necessarily musical? Can we talk to the game engine’s audio API in the language of musical expression without pushing it until it breaks? There would be a period of discovery as Album 2.0 producers worked with the people who develop game engines. Releasing for multiple platforms is a common enough practice, and there are a lot of tools to help accomplish this for developers. It is important to be mindful, though, that cross platform implementations could still mean larger development teams and cycles.

Thankfully, most of the technological issues mentioned provide more opportunities for exploration than they do barriers to development. Since Album 2.0 is in its infancy, we are in a position to try different paths until we find what clicks. Remember, at its core, Album 2.0 is simply the idea of a music album released in the form of an app. While there are many choices for the implementation, the technology already exists for an artist to release a basic Album 2.0.

If we address all the technological concerns, is Album 2.0 capable of making the jump across the chasm from novelty to industry? The fact that we can make an Album 2.0 doesn’t make it a business model. You’ll want some indications of demand before you become an investor. There was a lot of positive reaction and intrigue caused by Bjork’s Biophilia and Radiohead’s PolyFauna, which can be considered the first explorations into Album 2.0. While all the press is encouraging, it’s difficult to get an idea of how many sales these respective artists have had for their app albums. Both have hundreds of positive reviews in the iTunes App Store. Do these hundreds of reviews equate to thousands of active users? Hard to tell.

Demand is only one side of the proposition, though. The supply also needs to exist. Put simply, are enough artists willing to put in the extra work and creative energy to produce an Album 2.0? While an emerging marketplace can certainly be spearheaded by maverick artists like Bjork and Radiohead, an ecosystem requires a multitude of players before it can be profitable. If it seems too difficult to make an Album 2.0, then artists who might be capable of genius Albums 2.0s may be dissuaded from making the attempt. That said, great artists are often driven by an insatiable desire to create using cutting edge mediums. While a garage band motivated only by the pursuit of fame may not get around to making an Album 2.0, it seems silly to preclude passionate artists from exploring the possibilities of Album 2.0 if they are given a basic toolbox for their construction.

The need for tools creates a bit of a paradox, though. Enough artists must be interested in producing Album 2.0s in order to create the demand needed to sustain those who will build Album 2.0 tools and infrastructure for them. But, without the tools and infrastructure, it will be hard for Album 2.0 to get off the ground, since artists will need to have somebody on their team that has serious tech savvy and time to devote. And, we all know time is money. Even if some solid tools are developed, it may still be that the more realistic approach is that studios in the future will employ Album 2.0 engineers trained to use those tools, at least at the start. While many artists now use Pro Tools at home, there was a time in the not-too-distant past where such software was only a reasonable investment for full-service, professional studios.

Also, there isn’t really a strong definition of what an Album 2.0 is, so that presents a marketing challenge. We say it is music distributed in the form of software, and we know that has awesome potential, but that’s a lot more abstract than selling a bar of soap. Will Apple eventually have a separate section on iTunes devoted to Album 2.0s? Or, will Album 2.0s be so varied that it is unrealistic to have specific channels of distribution and marketing schemes?

Album 2.0 is coming. It is a bit nebulous, sure. And the problems it faces are real. Still, none of these issues are insurmountable. They just require some clever strategy. It’s hard to design a factory if you haven’t built a few prototypes of your product by hand. Eventually, developers will write some great code that will mitigate many challenges, and empower us with tools. We need continued experimentation, thoughtful application of existing mechanisms, and a little faith in the power of creative people to advance art and technology.

 

 

 

 

 

The (Eventual) Return of Hi-Fi

The success of Pono’s Kickstarter campaign has spurred a debate as to whether or not a sufficient market exists for high fidelity music players. As of this writing, the campaign had raised over $5,800,000 with 3 days to go. Neil Young’s passionate promotional speech at SXSW gave Pono a nice lift. It would certainly appear that they’ve had a tremendous launch, considering their stated goal was $800,000. Pono looks poised to carve out a nice niche for itself from those consumers who have always demanded high quality audio. Most of us who are passionate about music would love to see high fidelity make a triumphant return. However, it will take more than Pono to change the market and improve sound quality for the general consumer.

While Pono will be examining its profit to measure its success as a company, Pono’s influence on the standard of audio quality for the masses will be better calculated by measuring the number of units sold. According to Apple press releases, the iPod sold 600,000 units in the first two years, and a total of over 10,000,000 units by the end of the 4th year. The iPod, an absolutely wonderful innovation in terms of storage and access to music, was disastrous for fidelity. Its massive market penetration moved MP3 from a convenient storage format to the common denominator of expected audio quality.

There are a couple of reasons it is unlikely that Pono will be able to find the kind of market share required to raise the standard. As Troy Wolverton points out, one of the key issues is that iPods have been absorbed into iPhones. People rarely carry a separate device for listening to their music now. The idea that the average consumer will return to carrying two pieces of equipment seems highly implausible. Another is that usage patterns have changed, with most casual music fans utilizing streaming audio and cloud storage. The new normal is one client device and a cloud, not multiple hard drives carried on your person.

So, in the face of such audio downers, why is it that the dream of Neil Young and Pono will eventually be realized?

The first reason is that a person can only logically listen to one song at a time. This means that while there is still room for growth in the streaming audio market, sometime quite soon the competition will be far too bloody to survive on access alone. Competitors will be trying to find ways to differentiate themselves. We already see this in the efforts of streaming services such as Beats Music and Songza, which promote curation (basically human DJs instead of algorithms) as their principal value add. If you’ll notice, Beats is also a leader in the headphone arena. This is no accident. This is savviness, recognizing that a return to high quality audio is coming, while also understanding that the usage pattern of listeners has changed dramatically. Just wait. Before you know it, future providers will be marketing themselves as if they invented the kind of audio quality that’s been around for decades.

The next reason audio quality will improve is less obvious. All signs point to a return to patronage in the music industry. For most artists, crowdfunding services, such as Kickstarter, have become the new record labels. While casual music listening will be done through streaming, true fans of a particular artist demand a personally meaningful experience that services like Spotify will never be able to supply. If we accept the premise that listeners are only going to carry one device, the logical encapsulation of that special relationship will be through apps. These “Album 2.0s” will merge the power of musical expression with all the benefits of software, such as dynamism, updates, and interactivity. Whereas record labels are motivated most intensely by profit, artists want you to hear the best version of the art they create. As music apps become a successful source of revenue for companies such as Apple, that community of artists and true fans will push such device makers to improve their digital to analog conversion, and add a framework to nurture that marketplace.

A final, fairly simple reason, is Moore’s Law. Essentially, this is the observation that computing power increases exponentially over time. This means costs per units of both memory and processing speed get dramatically less expensive, and come in much smaller packages. While some say we may hit limits of physics before long, betting against this exponential growth has been a losing proposition for over half a century. This is the part of the equation Pono is counting on, and it’s why Pono is just now becoming a viable, if niche-focused, product. While Pono has probably got it wrong that consumers will carry around an extra device, they are on the right side of history in being optimistic about processing and storage. As soon as it is painless for the average studio to do 192kHz/24-bit recording, as well as cheap to store tons of files at that resolution, and improving networks make it fast to steam and download these files, why wouldn’t everybody use them? It becomes a very easy way to differentiate yourself from the competition. Whether or not the average listener can tell the difference, all it takes is somebody marketing MP3 as the format “your parents listened to”. Sure, 8-bit graphics are nostalgic, but nobody accepts them as a standard anymore. In a sense, Pono’s vulnerability is that Apple will just absorb the technology into the iPhone (or whatever comes after the iPhone).

Take heart, musicians and audiophiles. While Pono may not survive the battle, there are larger forces at play, and higher fidelity rides the wind.